Carolien de Bruin, Alumnus of the Year
After four unsuccessful lottery attempts to gain admission to study medicine, Carolien de Bruin decided to study Business and Finance instead. She became a consultant, but resigned after ten years at Deloitte in New York and started her own consultancy C-Change in 2015. Her dream is to work with investors and business to achieve the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
It was a reality check when Carolien de Bruin (40) returned to the Netherlands after ten years in New York. She left her job as associate partner at Deloitte, the consultancy giant with a staff of 240,000. One of her clients was the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of government leaders and CEOs in the Swiss spa town of Davos. She left that world behind when she decided to start her own tech start-up and consultancy in 2015. ‘There are times when I ask myself: why was it a good idea to walk away from that pay slip?’ she confesses. ‘Everyone used to want to talk to me on the phone because I was calling for Deloitte or the World Economic Forum. If you haven’t got that brand stuck on your forehead, you have to phone or send mails that bit more often.’
De Bruin has been elected UG Alumnus of the Year. This is for her start-up C-Change, which she began in September 2015 in Amsterdam. With this small consultancy, with its staff of five, she wants to draw organizations, investors and business into the dream that the UN has projected on the year 2030. By that year the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) must have been achieved. These include: no hunger, no poverty, good education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, green energy, economic growth, less inequality and less global warming.
Some 20 years there was little to suggest that De Bruin would eventually set herself up as an idealistic consultant, and that terms such as impact investment, environment friendly and support machine would trip off her tongue. (‘This is a hugely specialized field,’ she explains. ‘I should use less terminology.’)
She arrived in Groningen in 1996, where she studied Business and specialized later in Finance. But that wasn’t the plan to start off with. She wanted to be a paediatrician. ‘As a child I always wanted to be a nurse because that was what my grandma was,’ she explains, ‘and then I realized that I could also be a doctor.’ But in the end, I failed to win a place to study medicine four times. I couldn’t follow that path so I had to find another. In the span of a week I went and looked at all the programmes in Dutch cities that I thought I might like. On Monday I still thought I was going to study law in Maastricht, but on Tuesday I decided to study Business in Groningen. It was a bit random, but friends were going to Groningen.’
Old childhood dream
She does feel that with C-Change she has returned, via a long detour, to that childhood dream. ‘With our start-up I’ve moved to the side of impact, the side where you want to mean something for those around you. You don’t need much imagination to see the connection really. We now regularly talk to Philips: they realize that they can’t reach the bottom of the pyramid with their healthcare products, not the people who have less than a few dollars to spend per day. As part of the sustainable markets that they want to work towards – in effect, the underprivileged – they now run clinics in South Africa where their medical products and those of others are available.’
An example of such a medical product is a wind-up heartrate monitor for foetuses. De Bruin: ‘My expertise is to explain how Philips can do this in a financially sustainable manner and how they can attract capital from large foundations and government. I’m not in official partnership with them, but it’s work that illustrates what we do at C-Change.’
But first back to the past: after graduating in 2000 she rolled into the world of consultancy. She found a job at strategic consultancy Monitor Group, first in Amsterdam and later in New York. ‘Those were the popular jobs: either you became an investment banker or a strategic consultant. One minute I was still a student and the next I was at the airport all the time, in hotels with room service and I had a lovely apartment in Paris. At the time I worked for cosmetics companies, pharmaceutical companies and breweries.’
She left for New York at the end of 2005. It was around that time that the term ‘impact investment’ emerged: investing in projects that aim to do good for people, the environment and society. There is more than 200 trillion dollars in the capital markets, which could all be used for this. The only condition is that businesses want a return on investment without too much risk. And that is where the expertise of people like Carolien de Bruin lies.
Two years after Monitor Group was taken over by Deloitte, De Bruin decided to return to the Netherlands. To be closer to her family but also to achieve more. ‘You hear more and more CEOs talking about sustainability, but I think the mantra is recited too often without the message being taken seriously internally. It is really difficult to internalize sustainability. If you see what a department store chain has to do to be sure that there aren’t any pesticides in their products or that the chocolate they sell has been produced without slave workers... I thought: we can continue to write a huge number of strategies, but other solutions are needed for real change. I felt that I could do that better outside a big company like Deloitte, which in the end is focused on profit. Better for me to be the pilot that guides the big ship into the port than to be on that big ship, where you are less agile.’
C-Change wants to champion technology so it provides community portals to networks and organizations. One example is www.sdggateway.nl . Here over 150 Dutch companies, investors, knowledge institutions, government and NGOs have joined forces around the SDG. C-Change is working with the UN to roll out comparable portals in other countries too.
But De Bruin remains an old-fashioned consultant and that means a lot of market research and bringing parties together. At the end of 2016 the Dutch financial sector signed its own SDG investment agenda and presented this to De Nederlandsche Bank and the Dutch Cabinet. C-Change was an important facilitator in forging this partnership between companies such as ABN AMRO, Achmea, ING, Delta Lloyd and pension fund PGGM. Or, as De Bruin puts it: ‘The main thing we want to be is an enabler.’
She ends with an appeal to anyone reading this: ‘We all bear a responsibility to the next generations. We must all think: what does this mean for me, in my professional setting, as an investor but also as a father, mother or consumer? What are my savings and pension money being used for? Think about your own footprint. Savers must say to their banks and pension funds: I don’t want you to invest in tobacco or weapons but in renewable energy instead. Because in the end the change must take place in those who buy the products. We must all say: “I’ll pay a few cents more to choose organic milk from the supermarket shelf.”’
Text: Jurgen Tiekstra
Photography: Merlijn Doomernik
Source: Broerstraat 5
|13 September 2021 07.53 a.m.