What Iris Van der Veken Has Learned in a Career of Creating Change


Impactful leadership: The executive director and secretary-general of the Watch & Jewellery Initiative 2030 discusses mentoring, gender equality, and tackling global problems.

Congratulations on winning the 2023 Pure Earth Impact Award. How did it feel?

Receiving the award in New York City was a beautiful and emotional experience. The team had prepared a surprise — a series of video testimonials from my family, colleagues past and present, UN colleagues, even my human-rights professor from my university days in Antwerp. It was an incredibly touching moment for me.

How has your approach to influencing potential change-makers evolved over your two decades as an ethics and sustainability advocate?

The biggest lesson I have learned has to do with the power of strategic partnerships and collaboration, by which I mean real and honest multi-stakeholder collaboration. When I chaired the UN Global Compact for Belgium, I experienced firsthand how multi-stakeholder collaboration can lead to impactful work on the ground.

Today, leading the Watch & Jewellery Initiative (WJI) 2030, I see again how CEOs can create transformational impact. If we can get the right set of partners across the table from each other, listen to their needs and priorities, and be able to offer practical solutions and drive measurable actions on the ground, then I have done my job well.

How do you keep a cool head when contemplating global-scale problems?

Active listening goes a very long way. I have learned to stay calm and humble, [and to] reflect and reach out to people I trust with expertise to mentor me inside and outside the industry. I also find sports a wonderful mechanism to help me keep my focus. I love running, long walks, and swimming.

Campaigning for gender equality has long been a passion of yours. How has being a woman in leadership roles impacted your professional journey?

I’ve had my share of roadblocks and experiences that have come from a place of bias. There will always be people who are prejudiced, who will view a woman in a leadership role differently, who wouldn’t think you’re there to lead the conversation, and [will] then be surprised when you do.

Also, it wasn’t always easy to balance my personal and professional lives while raising my son as a single mother. However, I had the good fortune to meet people who are supportive, and to have had mentors, both women and men, from whom I have learned a lot. It’s so important to have that safe space and that support structure.

And what does the future look like for you?

Mentoring youth and sharing my experience is definitely something I would love to continue to do. More than ever, we need leaders who embrace humanity and dignity for all. If I can make a small contribution to the leaders of tomorrow, I am a happy woman.

Source Rapaport

Main image: Iris van der Veken. (Iris van der Veken)