#111: Mirjam ‘t Lam (transcriptie)

Dit betreft de transcriptie van het interview met Mirjam ‘t Lam.

Transcriptie: LiF Mirjam t Lam

This is Leaders in Finance, a podcast where we find out more about the people behind their successful career. We speak with the leaders of today and tomorrow to discuss their motivations, their organizations and their personal lives. Why? Because the financial sector could use a little more honest conversation. We’d like to thank our partners for their support. They are: Kayak, EY, Odgers Berndtson executive search and Roland Berger.

Our guest studied international business in Maastricht, so after getting her degree, the next step was obvious. “After my studies, I became a ski teacher. I went Austria for 5-6 months to think about what to do next.” Finding out what drives you can be hard. Does our guest have any advice? “I think there is not one recipe to find it out; I think indeed you need to take your time and always listen to your stomach and not so much to your mind. Your feelings will give you guidance on what you like and what you don’t like.” And how does someone who works so hard keep her mind healthy? “Make sure that if you are at home, you really turn off for at least a day a week and don’t think about work. That really helps, I think, to also stay mentally fit.” Our guest this episode is the Managing Director at Oikocredit, Mirjam ‘t Lam. Your host is Jeroen Broekema.

Jeroen: Welcome to a new episode of Leaders in Finance. We speak with the Managing Director of Oikocredit International, Mirjam ‘t Lam. Welcome!

Mirjam: Thank you. Welcome, Jeroen, for the invite, a pleasure to be here!

Jeroen: Great, likewise! I will first introduce you. Mirjam ‘t Lam is the Managing Director for Oikocredit International since 1 December 2021. Before, she was the Director of Finance & Risk of Oikocredit International. The largest part of her career she worked with Rabobank (linked to Boardmember Janine Vos at Robobank), including in countries like Rwanda and India. Her last job at Rabobank was Chief Financial Risk Officer at Rabo Development. Mirjam studied International Business at the University of Maastricht. She’s 44 years old and lives with her partner in Heerde. A little bit about Oikocredit, I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more about it later, but just from my side, Oikocredit is one of the largest social impact investors in microcredit, agriculture and renewable energy in the world since 1975. With a network of more than 500 partners, they impact the lives of 32 million people in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Oikocredit has approximately 60,000 investments and more than 1 billion euros in total funds to deploy. That gives us an introduction about you, as well as a little bit about Oikocredit. And, as I said, I love to learn a lot more about it and I’d also love to structure that with running through the different stakeholders of Oikocredit. And I could ask you, which stakeholder would you like to start with to talk about?

Mirjam: Yes, good question. I think we should start with the people and organizations that founded us, our members. We have quite a unique structure as an impact investor. We are a cooperative with a little bit over 500 members. These are members that are church-based organizations in churches, because we were found by the World Council of Churches in 1975 to deploy funds for making sure that we improve livelihood of people.

Jeroen: Right. Where are these organizations, in which countries?

Mirjam: All over the world. We have members ranging from The Philippines to Europe, to India, to Africa, Latin-America, Bolivia, Peru, everywhere We have church-based organizations that are members of the World Council and also a member of us.

Jeroen: Is there a large difference between those organizations? Are some really big or very small? Are they approximately the same?

Mirjam: They’re very different and if you look today, next to our churches – and I think that’s very important to mention – we also have support associations and they are at the moment the largest and most active members. The support associations actually organize our investors. We have about 60,000 people and other organizations are enabled via our support associations to actually invest with us. Because next to the churches, we discovered about 20-30 years ago that also individuals would like to make sure that they could invest in a responsible matter and to improve livelihood of people. And we made that possible to our support associations.

Jeroen: Right. Those funders, are they individuals in organizations? Are the organizations companies, governments, international organizations, other NGO’s? What kinds of founders?

Mirjam: Mainly we have private investors, so really families and people. But also related organizations and they can be family offices. Some international founders, but mainly our target market is really also from an investing perspective. Making sure that people like you and I can actually improve the livelihood of people in developing countries.

Jeroen: Yes, because as I mentioned, you are impacting 32 million people. How do you get to that number?

Mirjam: I’m actually really proud of it. In fifty years of time we were able to build up such a network with trustworthy partners in more than 30 countries. And in the end, we reached 30 million people. And we select our partners very carefully, that are microfinancing institutions in local countries, but also credit cooperatives or production cooperatives in agriculture or energy cooperatives. And through them, we reached those 30 million people.

Jeroen: Yes, an absolutely amazing number, that’s great! And in terms of people that work with you, how many people for example work with you here in the international headquarters and how many people work locally?

Mirjam: At Oikocredit International, we have about 220 to 240 people in total. It’s a bit flexible, of course. About 120 people work in Amersfoort, in our main office, I would not call it headquarters. And the rest is distributed over 14 offices in developing countries. And we also have a few offices in Europe to really support our support associations with the work they do in raising the capital.

Jeroen: We have then covered the organizations you work with, the people that work with you. It’s a cooperative, as you said, so who is owning what of this organization? I think it’s quite complex; I went a little bit through the annual report. It’s not that easy. Is that right?

Mirjam: That’s correct. A cooperative is really a stakeholder organization, so the members are all around the world. From church-based organizations to support associations, which are associations run by individuals that help us out with the raising of capital. And that means a lot of stakeholder management and interaction, because they are really the guardian angel of our purpose and mission. That means that we need to listen really carefully to our members and also our investors what they would like us to do and where they would like us to invest or promote at capacity building or other programs. I travel a lot, not only to the countries where we try to reach people, but also where we have our members and investors. And that’s mainly in Europe.

Jeroen: Right. And then the stakeholder society at large, obviously you’re helping a lot of people. But can you tell me more about the mission of the organization and what you really want to achieve?

Mirjam: Our setup is to do two things as Oikocredit. One is promoting true responsible investing. We try to improve the livelihood of people and that means we try to give people a chance to start a company, give people a chance to make sure that they can increase their income, to buy health insurance, for example, in developing countries. But on the other hand, we also have a responsible investing dual role. It’s not only how we invest the money, but also making the society here in Europe or the northern hemisphere aware of social injustice in the world. So we also have a dual role to play; it’s not only that we deploy the money entrusted with us in a good way on a do no harm basis and promote livelihood of people, but also to make sure that we have advocacy role in the places where you and I live.

Jeroen: Right, makes sense. Microfinance, when the organization started in 1975, I guess that was something pretty new, right? And pretty innovative?

Mirjam: Yes. It was really a pioneer organization. What was happening was that at the World Council of Churches Assembly the churches said that we actually need to collaborate more together with the money we had – every church back then had a lot of money – to make sure that we actually used it in a responsible way. And that’s not only making grants, but making sure that we put money to work for productive use and improve the quality of life of people. And they started the organization Oikocredit with that mandate. It was pioneering; we were the first ones and we didn’t actually know how to do it. So we actually developed everything ourselves from the start. What is responsible investing? Then we said, “We not only have to look at risk return, but also at what we would like to achieve.” We became one of the first that looked at what we would nowadays call ESG: Environmental, Social and Governance standards. We’re already deployed from the start as one of the anchor points on judging, “What is a responsible investment and how can we also translate that back in sharing with our members and investors what we have done with their money and how it was put to work, and in what kind of environment?” When social responsibility or corporate social responsibility became popular in the 2000’s, we were already 25 years on our way.

Jeroen: Right. And microfinance had this super positive connotation for a very long time and in the last five or ten years, there was also a lot of negative press around it. Is that something that was hard for you? Do you recognize it at all?

Mirjam: Of course, we do see with the popularity from investing for a good cause, it’s logical that people also become more critical and see if you really are investing for a good cause and maybe not for financial gains. And we are very proud and also take comfort that because of almost fifty years of history, we can make the right choices and we can really prove from the start to this environmental, social and governance due diligence, that we already do for years and years, we can really make sure that the partners we work with are reliable, that they also make sure that if they lend five, ten or a hundred euro’s to the end clients, it is done in a responsible manner, that they provide training to those people, to make sure that they are also financial literate enough to actually handle a loan. So we take comfort, but we do recognize when things become more popular for different reasons, there’s also a spotlight on you. We as Oikocredit are comfortable that we can live up to the standards we have done for the past fifty years.

Jeroen: It’s going to be a fifty-year anniversary in a few years’ time. I wanted to ask you as well to give a couple of very practical examples of where the money is deployed, even if it’s a super small amount. But where does it go? Can you give a couple of very tangible ideas?

Mirjam: Let’s start in India. For example, we support an organization, I’m not sure if I can mention the name, but it’s Ecozen, one of our partners, it’s on our website anyway. Ecozen makes solar water pumps. So with solar energy you can pump water up out of the soil and then use it to irrigate lands to make sure that you can irrigate and also for agricultural purposes, to grow crops in a sustainable manner. Because you use solar energy, you only pump when it’s needed and also the production and the productivity of farmers in India will increase due to these things. These are very affordable and the good thing is also that they are mobile. So they only need one water pump to have a large outreach compared to a fixtured water pump. That’s one of the partners we support to make sure they can also support the farmers and the agricultural community. In Ghana, for example, we support five microfinance institutions with the development of financial literacy training. That means either through video or a classroom type of education, we learn what it is to have income, savings, what you can do with it and we target it and we film and make movies with a targeted group of people like women, mainly. But also to make sure that we do it together with the local population. We have a local consultant deployed there that helps us with the financial literacy training. And in Latin-America, for example, we support a coffee cooperative for famers that farm coffee co-ops. As you know, coffee is very popular in Europe, in North-America, mostly all coffee comes from Latin-America but also Asia and Africa. The prices are very volatile. If you are a small coffee farmer in Peru, the chance that you can influence the price is very limited. On the other hand, it is good for the farmer to be aware of how such a price is actually established. And make sure that together with the co-op, they can manage that price better or even look forward on what the price I get would be when I have my harvest in September and October. So we call that the price risk management program. Next to providing a loan for the harvest, we also provide the education to make sure that they have a sustainable income.

Jeroen: Great examples from across the world, that’s amazing! That’s really good! Given this is Leaders in Finance, I was looking in the annual report and obviously, I also ran through the financials. I also saw you made a loss and then, in a very long time, you didn’t make a loss and then you did through covid and then you’re making ‘profit’ again. Obviously, it’s not real profit in a business sense. But could you explain why you had that year with a loss?

Mirjam: At Oikocredit, we extend loans to our partners or we do an investment in equity or we provide capacity building. So indeed, when also the pandemic hit, Oikocredit but foremost also our partners, they also needed to look in the interest also for our end clients on how to restructure even those hundred or two hundred small loans to make sure that our end clients could survive. That would mean that we needed to restructure all the loans in the same sense that a lot of financial institutions here in the Netherlands and across Europe did. That’s what our partners did as well. And we needed to do that as well for the loans to our partners and from an accounting principle, it just made additional provisioning which then led to a loss which we happily also released the year after; last year. We had approximately 180 partners out of the 500 that had a payment holiday, so where we said, “You don’t need to pay us back. Just make sure that you and the end beneficiary come through the crisis and then you can start paying again when the pandemic levels out”, in 2021. At the moment, we have none of them in payment holiday anymore, so everybody reasoned to normal.

Jeroen: That’s great. It’s a real financial bank reason you just had, payment holidays and stuff.

Mirjam: Yeah, but there was also a social reason, because we didn’t want to force our partners to pay. 

Jeroen: That makes total sense. In terms of funding, was it harder or easier to raise funds?

Mirjam: We also paused in terms of funding, because when the pandemic came, especially in March 2020, we said, “What’s best to do?” To make sure that we can support our partners, also to make sure that if investors indeed need their money, we would be able to redeem their shares. So we took caution on both sides of the balance sheet to make sure that we preserve liquidity. And what I think is very much cooperative-like, our investors were also very prepared to say, “We know you will probably make a loss, it doesn’t matter as long as you support the partners.” So that really shows what types of investors and members we have; they really put impact and improving livelihood before what’s over. And if there’s nothing left, no dividend, if there’s something left, it’s also good.

Jeroen: It’s good that you are in the situation again that they are all paying again. Ultimately, it’s also the sustainability of the organization that you keep running.

Mirjam: Absolutely! We also need to pay our salaries!

Jeroen: Exactly! I read in an interview with you that you said, “It’s an enormous privilege for me to work for this organization.” Tell me, why is it such a privilege?

Mirjam: It’s a privilege. I first encountered Oikocredit in 2017, when I worked at Rabobank. And then I looked at the organization and I thought, “They have a really good cause; a mission I would like to contribute to.” I always wanted to be of good use to society. I put myself and my own qualities to a good work. And that was what I saw: I can combine my skills here, being a prudent financial professional, with actually making sure that I can deploy those skills for a good cause with people that really deserve an opportunity.

Jeroen: It sounds like the best job you could ever get.

Mirjam: Absolutely! I was really thrilled already when I started at Oikocredit as Director of Finance and Risk. I said, “This is kind of a homecoming.” I’m certainly a believer that a cooperative model is a good model to contribute to society. That’s also why I worked for Rabo. But then also making sure that I can deploy my skills in Oikocredit to hopefully make a difference for people that really deserve it. That’s like a homecoming.

Jeroen: As you said, you started as the Director of Finance and Risk. Relatively quickly, you became the CEO MD. Was that planned already before?

Mirjam: Not that quickly. Of course, the question was asked in my interview for the position, but not with the intention that after four months’ time, that became a reality.

Jeroen: Right. But you did have that idea, “Maybe at some point I’d like to do that”?

Mirjam: Yeah.

This is Leaders in Finance with Jeroen Broekema.

Jeroen: And before you were at Rabobank, what I’m curious about, you are so extraordinarily happy with this position and working for this organization. But you started to work for one of the major Dutch banks, why was that?

Mirjam: I’m the daughter of two bankers, so maybe I was destined to work in the financial sector. But nevertheless, when you study, you don’t want to be a financial professional, at least I was going against my parents. But then, I’m really a curious person and then I was like, “In the financial sector, you’ll actually have exposure to all kinds of elements of society sectors if you want to.” That’s why I actually started to say, “After my studies, maybe the financial sector is the place to be for me.” How I came at Rabo, sometimes you get advice. My parents didn’t work at Rabo, but they said, “That’s probably the better organization for you to work with.” So that’s why I applied, because they also already knew as a child that I wanted to be of good cause. And Rabobank, although it’s a financial institution, is a cooperative and if you really look at their DNA, they really want to also make sure that they contribute to society. And that’s how I ended up at Rabo.

Jeroen: I see! But you did end up in Rabobank also more on this side already, at Rabo development, for example.

Mirjam: Yeah. And even earlier on, because I started at the renewable energy department in 2004. Back then, sustainability and also climate change was really not at the forefront. But again, I wanted to say, “This is a good cause for the future. I’d like to spend my time here on new innovative things.” So that’s why I started in Rabo at what they then called the Renewable Energy and Infrastructure area.

Jeroen: Right. Your parents, at what kinds of banks or institutions did they work?

Mirjam: They both worked at ABN bank.

Jeroen: That’s where they got to know each other?

Mirjam: Yeah, a really classical story!

Jeroen: That’s interesting! Would you like to share more about how you grew up?

Mirjam: Sure. I moved around quite a lot. My parents were bankers and every three to four years, my dad got a new position at the Director position at one of the local banks in a new city. I was born in Schoonrewoerd, a very difficult pronunciation, it’s just south of Utrecht. And then I lived in Hilversum in Harderwijk, in Holtum. So that’s all around the Veluwe. And then I started to study in Maastricht. I had two primary schools and two secondary schools.

Jeroen: Did that impact you a lot, that you moved around all the time, in terms of meeting new kids and then meeting new kids again and so forth?

Mirjam: Yeah, absolutely. I think it really formed me, to a certain extent. Because at an early age, you need to adapt to make sure that you find new friends in a new environment, get accepted into a new class. Because you come in as one and there are 25 or 30 kids already around you. So I think that really helped me to also establish connections later on pretty quickly. But also to accept that you need to be accepted in a group, in another culture. Although it’s all the Netherlands, everything has its own specialties. So it also really helped me to perform my current role, but also other roles.

Jeroen: In what kind of family did you grow up? Did you have brothers and sisters? What was the atmosphere at your home? What was it like?

Mirjam: I grew up as an only child, but I was not the only child of my parents. That is kind of a distinction, because my parents were very careful with me, because my older brother died before I was born. On the other hand, they were protective but they also knew they shouldn’t be too protective. So they said, “You need to make your own choices and give you all the freedom to make those choices and also make those mistakes.” And on the other hand, they also said, “We are really proud of you and precious, so make sure to make us proud.” And certainly today, I think they are both very proud.

Jeroen: I’m sure they are! The fact that you are so driven to contribute to society, is that something your parents taught you or did that come from yourself? They worked at the bank, which is a different environment, especially ABN AMRO at that time was quite a different bank from Rabobank and definitely different from what ABN AMRO is today.

Mirjam: I think it’s also a part of our DNA. For example, if you look at my grandmother, she was very active at the Red Cross. There’s always been a kind of notion in my family, of course it’s good to have family, but it’s also good to take care of others around you. I think it’s part of my DNA and I think ABN AMRO today and in the nineties, when it became ABN AMRO, it was really a different bank. People who know ABN AMRO (linked here to ABN AMRO CEo Robert Swaak), my parents are ABN and the ABN bank back then as a general Dutch bank was really a bank for the mid-class people.

Jeroen: Right. And you chose to go to Maastricht, which was at the other end of the country. Why did you go there?

Mirjam: It may sound very stupid, but because I wanted to do international business and I also wanted to learn languages. I’m a beta person, so I like numbers, and I wasn’t so good at languages. Then I thought, “Maybe that’s not a good thing to do, so maybe I should also really challenge myself to learn a second language.” Then I came to Maastricht because International Business was fully taught in English. And on the other hand, they were one of the first ones to have a group-based learning system, which I really enjoy. Because it’s very interactive, intuitive and not really classroom-based.

Jeroen: What are your best memories of your time in Maastricht?

Mirjam: My bad memories?

Jeroen: Your best.

Mirjam: I was going to say, student time, bad memories? No, I only have very positive times. It might be a cliche, you make friends for life, but I do think that is still the case. If you look at the people I still love to go out with, they’re mostly from my student times. So that is my best memory and of course, Maastricht is a beautiful city with lots of nice bars and restaurants which I enjoyed very much during my studies.

Jeroen: That’s great! So there are still a lot of people you are in touch with, that you call friends, that are from that time. More than from the time before?

Mirjam: Yeah. I have one or two classmates from high school and primary school, which I’m also very proud of, given the fact that I changed so much, that I still have contact with them. But my main group of friends is indeed from Maastricht. They’re not living in Maastricht anymore, of course.

Jeroen: Right. I guess they’re everywhere now. Later on, you became very international, we’ll talk about that later. But was that already there during your student time? Did you travel a lot already?

Mirjam: Maastricht is of course a very international university, so next to teaching everything in English at that point in time already, about 40% of the students were international students. Mainly German, but also other nationalities. You were obliged to study abroad, so I spent almost a year in the US during my studies. So there I already got a bit of the international flavour. Maastricht is close to Belgium, Luxembourg, close to the rest of Europe. Not so close, especially back then, to the rest of the Netherlands.

Jeroen: Probably closer to Belgium and Germany, in a way. Where did you study in the US?

Mirjam: I studied in Colorado, in a very small business school called Fort Lewis in Durango. Probably nobody knows it; it’s a town of 2000 people, I think, and 4000 students.

Jeroen: Did you learn a lot there, being there for a whole year?

Mirjam: I learned a lot, but not only academically. I’m also an outdoors person, I deliberately chose this school because there were very good mountaineering and skiing options. So that’s what I learned a lot, I really became a good hiker, trekker and skier. And on the other hand, I also learned a lot about the US learning system and I never worked as hard as I did before.

Jeroen: That’s what I hear a lot, that makes sense. After your studies, what did you first do? I think you did an internship as well?

Mirjam: After my studies, I became a ski teacher. I went to Austria for 5-6 months to think about what to do next. And when I came back, I had a part-time job as a financial controller at a local company. I thought, “Maybe I’ll do it another year”, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Still struggling with, “Should I be a banker or not?” So I combined it again with another season as a ski teacher and thereafter I made the choice to go for Rabobank and I started as a trainee.

Jeroen: Maybe I’m mistaken, but you also were at GIZ?

Mirjam: Yes, but that was during my period at Rabobank. When I worked at the Renewable Energy department in Rabo, Rabo Development approached me. Back then, Rabo Development was already there and said, “Are you interested in becoming a consultant for the Dutch Development Organization GIZ? Because they need somebody in Rwanda to evaluate all kinds of sustainability projects.” And that’s how I ended up in Rwanda for six months, to travel through the country and look at all kinds of solar and bio glass projects.

Jeroen: I see. I’m really curious about that moment that you’re a ski teacher. You’re not sure you want to work in the financial sector, but your parents are doing it, “Why would I do the same thing?” How did you ultimately take the decision to do it?

Mirjam: I think you come across certain people along the way in your life and one of the hierarchical leaders of the ski teacher team, an Australian guy – he was more like the parent of all the young teachers – said, “Mirjam, next time around, I don’t want to see you here again. You’re one of the best teachers, but I think you have far more talent to deploy. Maybe it’s time to go for another job.” Then I was like, “Now I really have to make a choice.” I thought long and hard and then I said, “I will just apply for an internship and go for the financial sector.” Because I’m so curious, broadly oriented to society, and then the financial sector is the place to be. Because if you want to be in health, you can be an account manager in health. If you want to do something for SMEs in the Netherlands, you go to one of the offices back then, whether it’s ABN or ING or Rabo. And I was interested in renewable energy and infrastructure and that’s where I ended up after the internship.

Jeroen: So ultimately, a head ski teacher was extremely important to start your career.

Mirjam: Yes.

Jeroen: Are you still in touch with him or her?

Mirjam: No, not anymore, unfortunately.

Jeroen: I’m not sure if he or she knows how much impact that had by saying, “I don’t want to see you again next year.”

Mirjam: I was there the year after, but only for two weeks, to help out in the high season.

Jeroen: Fair enough. He was okay with that, I guess.

Mirjam: Yeah.

Jeroen: What do you remember of your first years at the bank? What did you have to learn or what were the things you look back at now and say, “That’s really something I had to learn”?

Mirjam: What I had to learn were not so much the technicalities, and that’s something my dad always said, “You can be right, but also make sure that you take others along the way and convince them of your ideas.” And that is really something I had to learn. And also in my younger years or early-stage career, feedback. They said, “Mirjam, this is brilliant, well done. But you actually forgot to inform XYZ and that’s why it’s not really feasible.” So I think that’s also something that really helped me to be a better leader, to make sure that I also take my team along the way.

Jeroen: Your time in India and Rwanda, how was that culturally? Now you work all the time with people from across the globe, but the first time you started to work with international people and different cultures, was that also something you really had to learn how to deal with that?

Mirjam: No, not at all. That came quite naturally and I think that’s because I was already at the age of three used to making new friends and new connections, because of moving around. I studied in Maastricht with so many nationalities, so that was also contributing to that. When you go abroad for work, you’re quite adept. Because I think it’s all about adaptation and also respect for local cultures and then see how you can make it work together.

Jeroen: I see. So that came naturally. Is it really important for you to be in person in those countries you work with often? Or can you easily do this job from here?

Mirjam: It’s a combination. We are very fortunate at Oikocredit that we have so many local offices and people that are in touch on a daily basis with our partners. On the other hand, to make sure that you stay connected with the partners but also with the end beneficiation, you need to be in those countries once in a while. But we’ve also seen during the pandemic that video and the adaptation to video-based conferences with our partners really improved dramatically in the positive sense. But nevertheless, I think you need to strike the right balance. We are also an organization that next to improving the livelihood of people, we are also conscious of environment. We are also conscious of flying, so we try to strike a right balance. Four times a year, every continent one time a year, is good enough to make sure that we stay connected there. And then of course with our investors we need to do the same. But again, also from an environmental perspective. It’s better to take the train than the car, so that’s also what we do.

Jeroen: Climate change is impacting the lives of everyone on the globe, probably, but definitely the lives of the poor people. Is this something you worry a lot about all the time? Is it one of the most important topics for you?

Mirjam: It is one of the most important topics. Prior to covid, it would probably be very high, maybe the number one now. But on the other hand, we should not forget that the covid pandemic also increased poverty levels dramatically. Not only in the global south, but also here in Europe. People can only think about climate change if they have enough food and if they’re healthy. Unfortunately, that’s the basic thing, we try to combine it together. First and foremost, whatever we do, it should improve the livelihood of people, whether it’s access to education or better sanitation, health, making sure they have a loan to expand their local business. But we also always see more and more that it should really not harm the environment. And on the other hand, we also see – and that’s what we evaluate especially for example with our farmers – what climate change will do to their business sustainability going forward. Coffee farmers, a very small example, they harvest their coffee in mountain areas and due to rising temperatures, they actually go higher up in the mountain to make sure that they still produce the coffee quality we would like to drink. Is that sustainable? There is an end to climbing up the mountain and they cut trees to make sure that they can farm the coffee. So we really look with them to see what they can do in planting other crops, for example, in the spaces that are lower and can resist higher temperatures. So that is a direction where we’re heading to. Because we want to improve the livelihood, but it should be sustainable. And sustainable means nowadays that we need to take into consideration climate.

Jeroen: Right. And are you personally optimistic that we will manage this somehow as a human race?

Mirjam: I’m optimistic. I’m naturally a positive person and think in solutions and opportunities. If you see society adapting, whether it’s in the war in the Ukraine, we were able to adapt to accommodate the refugees. I’m also sure when it becomes very hot, that we will be able to adapt. It’s very unfortunate that we always do it in a crisis mode, while we see it coming.

Jeroen: That’s the hard thing with covid, obviously it was there. But here it’s slowly getting us into trouble. But you’re naturally optimistic, that’s nice to hear. I often ask this question and get different answers. A lot of people say, “I’m actually not that optimistic, but I have to be optimistic to add value and see where I can help.”

You’re listening to Leaders in Finance with Jeroen Broekema.

Jeroen: We always have a teaser and a pleaser with Leaders in Finance, the pleaser is always the same. We’ll come to that. As a teaser, we have written down: It’s becoming harder and harder for organizations like yours to keep raising funds and raising more funds because of competition between NGOs, but also because there are so many topics. You mentioned Ukraine and covid, but there are so many other topics that are screaming for attention and also screaming for money, to say it in a very practical way. Do you agree with that teaser?

Mirjam: First of all, we are not an NGO. We are a social impact investor, so we’re slightly more on the spectrum in the middle between an NGO and a full profit investor. Sure, there is competition and we talked about it before. We have seen people and parties entering in this space as an investor or as a peer. We would call them peers a lot in the past ten to fifteen years, but we have a very distinct profile, and that’s what we are really proud of. We are a cooperative, we’re one of the oldest investors. We have a tremendous outreach, relatively to the funds we deploy. And I think with that distinction, we should really be able to make sure that we fulfil our mission. We don’t have the ambition to be the largest or the biggest. We want to make sure that what we do is impactful and sets the right example.

Jeroen: So not difficult for you. And in general, do you see a lot of organizations that are a little bit like you, that are struggling with raising funds?

Mirjam: No. I think raising funds is not the biggest challenge. There are a lot of people and organizations that would like to support us or like-minded organizations like Lend a Hand or Triple Jump that are active here in the Netherlands. It’s about making sure that we put that money to work in a sustainable way that really improves livelihood of people, but also promotes entrepreneurships. It’s actually the lack of good quality projects that really make a difference. That is the hardest part at this point in time.

Jeroen: On the pleasing side it’s always the same. Do you like to read, first of all? I’d like to know that, are you a reader or not really?

Mirjam: When I was a child, in Dutch you would say I was a ‘boekenverslinder’. I’m not sure what the English word is, but I read a lot. My parents went crazy because I wanted new books every day. I read a lot for my job, so the only time I now read is at the airport. Then I read books. Unfortunately, in the past few years, I did not read a lot. I did a lot of gardening because of the pandemic, so I started reading again since the travel bans were lifted. So I read about ten or twenty books a year.

Jeroen: Are there particular books that have changed your life or that you like to give to other people, that stand out in another way?

Mirjam: One of the books I always recommend to other people who would like to know more about the world we work in is a book called Dead Aid from Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian lady. Because that gives a good insight into what we would call development financing and development world and also the positives and the negatives.

Jeroen: Is it a study book or what is it like?

Mirjam: It’s not really a study book, it’s really easy to read and it’s very recognizable and it gives a good historical perspective. I think it’s twenty years old already, so you’ll still find it in the book store if you want to.

Jeroen: So it’s a good guide into this world. And are there any other books that have inspired you? Maybe more literature books?

Mirjam: I like to read different types of books. Then I look in the airport if there’s an interesting title and take it along with me. One of the last books I read was from Rutger Bregman, Humankind. And I bought it because I felt like, “This is maybe how I look at people as well.”

Jeroen: That’s good. That is one of the books that is mentioned the most, books by CEOs in this podcast. I made a list of most mentioned books, and Rutger Bregman’s book is really, really popular. That’s interesting to hear. And I wanted to ask you, you live close to the forest, you told me before this conversation. You loved the outdoors when you were in Colorado, so you still do this a lot. Are you spending a lot of time in nature?

Mirjam: I spend as much as I can in nature, but unfortunately only hiking because I have an injury. So I cannot ski or play tennis or go mountaineering.

Jeroen: That’s a shame. But the hiking still works.

Mirjam: Yeah, that works. A few hours a day and cycling is of course also not a problem.

Jeroen: Right, I see. This is obviously an intense job with a lot of traveling. How do you stay fit, both mentally and physically? Physically by hiking, but probably other things as well. What do you do to stay fit?

Mirjam: I think the first and foremost thing you need to do is being disciplined. So I run two times a week every week, 30 to 40 minutes, to stay fit, wherever I am. Or I go to a gym of a hotel, just to make sure that you get physically fit. You need to watch your food, your diet. And to get mentally fit, you need to make sure that if you are at home, you need to turn off for at least a day a week and then not think about work. That also really helps to stay mentally fit.

Jeroen: Is it possible for you to really switch off and not think about Oikocredit at all?

Mirjam: It is possible, but that also comes with learning over the years. In my earlier career, even on Saturday, in the supermarket, I would say, “That’s what I need to do.” Now, I’m really trained and disciplined enough to say, “Tomorrow or the other day I’ll think about it.”

Jeroen: That’s great. I’d love to learn how to do that. Do you work a lot?

Mirjam: I have quite intense jobs, I’ve always had. Now I became the Managing Director on the first of December, but we also needed to hire and finance a Risk Director, so I had a dual role for quite some time. So that makes it more intense. On the other hand, I don’t mind to work hard, as long as I have one day a week off, I’m fine.

Jeroen: I’ve asked about 110 guests we have had here always the same question, which is: Do you have tips for people that start their career now? Whether it’s in the space you’re in or more in financial services in general?

Mirjam: You need to do something you are interested in. What gives you energy? Because if you do a job that gives you energy or which you do out of interest, you will succeed because you want to do it well.

Jeroen: So that’s the number one tip you give. And how do you find out when you’re really young what drives you? Because it also took you some time to figure it out what it was going to be. How do you do that?

Mirjam: I think there is not one recipe to find it out. I think indeed you need to take your time and always listen to your stomach and not so much to your mind. Your feelings will give you guidance on what you like and what you don’t like.

Jeroen: That’s a good one. So you really go to your gut feeling. Because I interviewed Janine Vos, who was at the board at Rabobank a long time ago. I don’t recall the exact number, so don’t quote me on it, but it was something like 10% of the global workforce really like their jobs. It was a really low number. Maybe it was 7 or 10%, something around that number. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, you need to earn money. But given we are here in the Netherlands, you have a lot of opportunities, there is a lot to decide as well. So apparently, not many people are able to do that?

Mirjam: I agree and I think I’m also grateful that I got opportunities that actually always aligned with my interests. In that sense, I’m also very grateful for the people that gave me the opportunities at Rabo to do what I did, but also today at Oikocredit.

Jeroen: That’s great. We’re getting closer to the end of this interview, but I’m really interested to go back to Oikocredit for a moment. In the beginning, you said it was founded by the churches. How important are churches still and what is the religious component in all of this?

Mirjam: I think the ecumenical factor, being open to different cultures and different religions, is still very much important in Oikocredit. That’s what you see through the workforce with more than forty nationalities we employ, you see it in the partners we have. The church in itself is not the main driver anymore, it’s mainly our support associations and a few churches that are really cognizant of their role that really are what I would call the interactive stakeholders. So it’s a combination, but it’s not only the churches anymore but the values that came from the churches that made sure that you respond to people in need, respect one another as a culture and as a religion, that is still there.

Jeroen: Right, that makes sense. Going forward, let’s separate the going forward topic between you and the organization. Let’s start with the organization. As we mentioned in the beginning of this conversation, you’re running towards fifty years of being there as an organization. What are your main goals for the organization for the next few years or maybe longer?

Mirjam: My main goal is actually to make sure that we create resilience. And I would say throughout the value chain of the money we deploy. Because if you start with our end beneficiaries, we will see that indeed whether it’s the impact of climate change or increase in poverty levels, if you want to make sure that they have a sustainable life not only for one year or two years, but for their whole livelihood, it means that we need to look at resilience. What is resilience? It’s making sure that they have a surrounding that enables them to earn an income, to go to school, to make sure that they can go to the doctor, that they have clean water, that they can improve their health. So we really need to make sure that we look not only with our partners currently at extending a loan or extending a training program, but also really look at what is improving the livelihood of people and their communities. Because that will make a difference in making sustainable long-lasting impact. And that means also for ourselves as Oikocredit, that we also need to really look at what we’re doing. Currently, we do three things, offering what we would call capacity building, training programs, support people, we now offer investments and loans. But we really need to tie that more together in partnerships to create that community resilience. On the other hand, we also see with our investors – not only the churches or support associations, but you and I that can buy a share or a participation in Oikocredit – that they belong in this community and that they get that connection: I see that farmer Dave is indeed deploying this to actually not only farm coffee, but also start farming sugar cane. So really make sure that we make throughout the chain visible what it actually means to contribute also to climate change, but also to community resilience.

Jeroen: So you want to become even better in all these things you’re mentioning.

Mirjam: Yeah.

Jeroen: And then the other part, which is Mirjam herself. I’m sure you’re at the right place, given what we discussed for the next few years, but you’re only 44, so in the long run are there particular things you would love to do? Have you ever thought about it?

Mirjam: One of the things is, and we talked about it before, I was a ski teacher, but I would say teaching and actually deploying my knowledge also in another way. Currently, I’m sometimes a guest lecturer at the university. So probably, that’s something I would like to continue doing or maybe expand on in the next phase of my career. I have been on supervisory boards in different organizations, so probably I see that as a second life after Oikocredit. But still, I’m very much committed the coming years to Oikocredit.

Jeroen: You haven’t done a PhD yet, maybe you should do a PhD and if the university is listening, you can become a endowment professor somewhere. That would be interesting.

Mirjam: Yes, absolutely. I think many of my professors would actually love having me back in the university.

Jeroen: That would be interesting. There are quite a lot of guests that are doing this next to their jobs. It’s intense, but it’s really interesting to give back. Is there something you would love to share that I haven’t asked? I’ve had the opportunity to ask a lot of questions about you personally, but also about the organization you represent. But is there something you would love to share I haven’t asked?

Mirjam: A good question. We touched upon a lot of things. I think what Oikocredit does as an organization, I’m proud to lead it, is hopefully also setting the examples for other organizations, but also for investors and people to do good with their money for a fair return or reward. So I love to take that forward. But I think it’s also good that we are conscious about doing that in developing countries. But if you and I look around us, and we are probably very fortunate that we have a job and live in a nice place in the Netherlands, but there are also people in the Netherlands that actually come into the same situations as the people we serve in our developing countries. And that notion is something that I would like to express, we need to be cognizant of that.

Jeroen: Great, thanks for adding that. I would love to thank you. I’m very impressed by all the things you’re doing and the organization is doing. It’s really interesting and amazing how you contribute to society, with such large numbers. You have a lot of impact. So thank you so much for taking the time. We did touch upon coffee a couple of times, we have Bocca Coffee, which is a B-corp certified organization.

Mirjam: Yes, we know them!

Jeroen: You know them, that’s great! They give you a little present for taking the time. Again, Mirjam, thanks a lot for sharing all of this with us.

Mirjam: Thank you, Jeroen, as well for giving us the opportunity to actually share what we do as Oikocredit and also give the opportunity to people to get to know me a bit better.

Jeroen: Wonderful, thanks so much!

Mirjam: Thank you!

You’ve been listening to Leaders in Finance, we hope you’ve enjoyed the episode and we’d love to hear from you. What’s on your mind, who would you like to hear next? Tell us in an Apple or Google review, via e-mail or our social media channels. We’d greatly appreciate it! Finally, we’d like to thank our partners for their ongoing support. They are: Kayak, EY, Odgers Berndtson executive search and Roland Berger. Thank you for listening!

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