Talking equality and female empowerment with JUMP’s Isabella Lenarduzzi
ttitudes towards women in the workplace have changed for the better since the nineties, but there’s still gender discrimination “at the top level,” says the founder and managing director of JUMP.
Isabella Lenarduzzi was an entrepreneur from the start. At the age of 21, she founded her first company while studying for her bachelor's degree – but she didn’t stop there. By the time she graduated with a master's in economics from Université Catholique de Louvain in 1987, Isabella was running multiple firms.
After decades in business, Isabella was aware that the corporate world was dominated by men and wasn’t always inclusive of women’s views, opinions or skills. That’s why she founded JUMP, a social enterprise dedicated to closing the gender gap and helping women reach their full potential.
The Belgian-native says she always knew she wanted to transform society. She takes inspiration from her father, Domenico Lenarduzzi, the son of a migrant coal mine worker who, in 1987, created the Erasmus program, which helps millions of students live and study across the EU.
We chatted to Isabella to hear her experiences of being a woman in a traditionally male line of work, her thoughts on how the workplace has changed for women, and her path to social entrepreneurship.
Why did you found JUMP? What inspired you to create your social enterprise?
One of the inspirations behind founding JUMP was the equality gap I experienced while working in business. Having worked with many companies, I realized that the corporate world was still very masculine and encouraged women and men to adopt specific behaviors, values, and manners that are not inclusive.
Having run my own business for over fifteen years, I understand the pressures that come with being a woman in business and how lonely you can feel. I believe that women, with the help of conscious men, can change the world. But to make these changes, women need to share control of the economy.
We changed our slogan from being “JUMP for Active Women” to “Promoting Gender Equality Advancing the Economy.” Our goal here was to make companies act and behave more inclusively towards women and minorities. Only by rewriting traditional rules can we change the workplace once and for all.
Before founding JUMP, you worked for many years as an entrepreneur and managing director in Belgium. Were you ever treated differently as a woman in the boardroom?
Growing up in Belgium, I didn’t believe that women were subject to discrimination in the workplace or society as a whole. It was only when I entered the business world that I realized integrating into a male-dominated world wasn’t going to be easy, despite me having a supportive family and going to a fantastic school.
I realized I was working in a society that has different expectations for women. For example, when I founded my first company with my male cofounders in the early 1990s, we were bought out by a male-dominated firm. They were around twenty years older than me, and I was not treated with the same respect as my partners, even though I was a cofounder like them.
They were looking at me and talking to me differently. At times, I felt they were treating me like an executive assistant.
I felt agitated, as I found it challenging to handle this type of behavior, and that was a critical moment for me. Initially, that experience affected me, and I tried to adapt to how I thought a managing director should behave. I began to adopt traditional masculine behaviors and suppressed my authenticity.
Back in the 1990s, you had to appear hard and resolute, otherwise men would perceive you as weak and judge you negatively. It’s only recently that I’ve learned to celebrate my feminine qualities and support women empowerment through my work with JUMP.
I believe that women, with the help of conscious men, can change the world
Do you think that things have changed in the workplace for women since the early 1990s?
Yes, to a certain extent. I certainly think it’s no longer politically correct for men to discriminate and make sexist remarks in big companies. However, we haven’t fundamentally changed the configuration between men and women when it comes to promotions, so I’m unconvinced we’ve made much progress.
This is especially the case in smaller firms, where women are still subject to discrimination. While there’s been social and political progress since the nineties, there’s still gender discrimination at the top level. Women only make up fifteen percent of executive committees, which is shocking if you consider that almost sixty percent of graduates in Europe are women.
Can you tell us how JUMP has made tangible changes in the workplace that have benefited women and men?
JUMP works with hundreds of companies on this issue. Let me give you two examples: We have trained more than three hundred managers at Orange France (formerly France Télécom S.A.) on how to prevent discrimination in the recruitment process, and we have helped them become thought leaders in corporate diversity.
Recently, we’ve worked in partnership with Pierre Wunsch, the Governor of the National Bank of Belgium, on making the bank more diverse and inclusive. We even recorded a video with him on this subject, to help the bank reach their target of forty percent of female-led promotions and recruitment in senior areas.
These are just a few examples of the difference we’re making with regards to diversity and changing corporate culture to make companies become more inclusive.
You founded JUMP in 2006. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
When young entrepreneurs today have a business idea, they go to the VC market and receive financial support. I’ve always preferred to keep full control over my companies and to be financially independent, so nobody influences my decisions.
In retrospect, I sometimes question whether this was the right decision for JUMP. Perhaps we could have grown quicker if we had received funding at the beginning.
I think this hesitancy is typical for women and for my generation, as you sometimes don’t feel comfortable asking for money because of “imposter syndrome.” You start questioning yourself and feel you’re not worthy of funding, which is deeply unhelpful, and this attitude has held women back for decades.
Imposter syndrome has had an enormous impact on my life. The more I think about it, the more I understand how it has impacted my career. If I had acknowledged this feeling when I was younger, I would have rejected it and done things differently.
Sometimes women don't feel comfortable asking for money because of "imposter syndrome."
What has been the best decision you’ve made and why?
As an entrepreneur, I have a mission in life to achieve my goals and dreams. Founding JUMP was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I don’t have much time to sleep or do sports, which affects my health, but honestly, I’m so happy because I feel that I am fulfilling my life’s mission.
I’ve not made much money, and, unfortunately, I don’t think I ever will, but I’m so pleased that I’m achieving what I set out to do. I think I make a difference to the world on a small scale, and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done with JUMP.
[Read also: Can businesses combine profit with purpose? This impact entrepreneur thinks so]
What professional advice would you give to people in the early stages of founding a startup?
You need to find pleasure in what you’re doing. If you’re running a startup, you’re going to work incredibly long hours, so if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then it won’t be worthwhile.
Another key aspect for me is generosity, especially if I reflect on what I’ve achieved in my businesses. I’ve done great things because I’m surrounded by warm and kind-hearted people who are willing to give back to me what I give to them.
As when it comes to networking, it’s much more than just meeting people in the transactional sense. It’s finding people who want to do something for you. You have to give so much to make that human connection and be true to yourself and others. To get something in return, people need to feel you care about them. It’s more than give and take. To be successful, you need to discover pleasure and generosity, in my opinion.
What’s it like running JUMP in Brussels? What does the city offer startups?
I founded JUMP in 2006 in Brussels, and, more recently, we opened activities in both Paris and Lyon.
Brussels now has much more to offer startups than when I first started in the nineties, although I do feel some hesitancy within Belgian society. Some people still think that you become an entrepreneur just to earn lots of money and that you achieve that by exploiting people.
Thankfully, attitudes are changing, and it’s much easier to disseminate information and make positive connections in Brussels than it was before.
[Read also: Meet the startups in Brussels spearheading social change]