Netherlands | Social entrepreneurship

‘A good social enterprise has a strong heart for business’

10 December 2021 9:00

What’s the most important thing for every social entrepreneur? “That I actually combine those two words together”, says Toos Heemskerk, founder of Dignita. Because too many people who set up a company based on their social heart underestimate the business side of things. She took Rabo Foundation’s advice to look for financial assistance.

Toos Heemsker and Jorrit Looijenga from Dignita

The year is 2011, and Toos Heemskerk has been a social worker in Amsterdam’s Red Light District for several years now. “Part of my work involved helping victims of human trafficking. I noticed that once people came to our shelter, they didn’t have anything else to do. They’d never learned a trade, but some day they’d have to leave the shelter, and what other options did they have after all those negative experiences and suffering? That’s when I came up with the idea for Dignita . The organization Not For Sale gave me the opportunity to set it up as a social enterprise.”

“Empower people and guide them step-by-step to the job market”

Offering education

Dignita offers work training to people who’ve escaped from an exploitative situation or are at risk of falling back into that situation. Heemskerk: “Our goal is to empower people and to guide them step-by-step to the job market by offering them education. Right now we offer job training positions in the hospitality and beauty sectors, but we’re also developing a course on administration.”

In a safe environment

Heemskerk explains that 40 million people around the world are shackled into some form of modern-day slavery. “The people who are rescued from those situations have been exploited and hurt. They’ve lost their self-esteem and self-confidence. We want to restore that by learning a trade, building their self-esteem and dealing with their problems, being part of a community of colleagues, and eventually to have a chance at a better life, either with us or in a different job. We offer them a safe environment where they can grow in a profession and in their personality.”

Attention for growth

By 2021, Dignita has opened three restaurants in Amsterdam that offer employment to people who have completed the job training course. The restaurants’ profits flow back to the foundation, which uses the money to finance the job training courses. Heemskerk: “I deliberately chose to set up a social enterprise. A normal company focuses on profits and entrepreneurship. That makes it more complicated to pay enough attention to people with emotional baggage. But our social enterprise exists precisely to make time for that. Earning a profit isn’t our first priority. And the concept works! Now we’re working on opening a location in The Hague. We’ve received a social loan from Rabo Foundation to do that, just like the other three locations we’ve set up thanks to Rabo Foundation.”

Contributing something extra

Since its founding, Dignita has trained 417 victims of human trafficking and made them more resilient. Of them, 176 have had follow-up training in cooking or serving at the Dignita Academy, and 109 have found other jobs. “Our restaurants employ 12 people from our training program, together with their non-participant colleagues. We’ve noticed that our social impact contributes to our colleagues’ motivation to work with us instead of a standard hospitality business. We teach them how to work together with our target group, because people with post-traumatic stress disorder need special guidance when working in the kitchen.”

“It’s essential to combine the words ‘social’ and ‘entrepreneur’”

Learned a lot

“I’d never thought that I would become a social entrepreneur”, says Heemskerk. “But I love it! I’ve also learned a lot over the past few years. For example that it’s essential for you to combine the words ‘social’ and ‘entrepreneur’. I have 25 years of experience working with this target group, and I’ve set up a lot of new initiatives in that time. That’s a form of entrepreneurship, of course. But the actual business aspects; that’s not my cup of tea. So when I started Dignita, I immediately went looking for someone with financial experience and skills. We want to make Dignita profitable and approach it from a financial perspective, in order to have an actual impact on society. That was also the advice I got from a training course by Rabo Foundation. As General Director, I make sure that our enterprise stays a safe place for our target group. The Commercial Director keeps an eye on the finances and sales.”

Offering better opportunities

Dignita has big plans for the future. “After The Hague, we also want to open locations in Rotterdam, Utrecht and Antwerp”, says Heemskerk. “But not everyone wants to work in the hospitality industry. A lot of Eastern European women would rather work in the beauty sector, for example. That offers them better opportunities in their home countries. So we also aim to open a beauty salon with job training positions. And finally, we’d like to invest part of our profits in Eastern Europe as well. We want to set up prevention programs there to keep people from being exploited. And we’d like to help the people returning after our job training program to start their own businesses. It’s an ambitious plan, but it definitely has a chance of success.”

Why Rabo Foundation supports Dignita

Dignita shows that you can put positive impact first as an entrepreneur, while still having a profitable earning model. That enables Dignita to scale up and help even more people. So Rabo Foundation is eager to support the organization in achieving that ambition.

Eat well, do good. Visit Dignita for a delicious lunch or a cup of coffee. By doing so you also support a vulnerable target group of individuals, assisting them in developing greater resilience as they seek to become reintegrated into the workplace and society.