In this edition of "Frontrunners & Frontier Explorers" from Trailblazers, we sit down with Sandra Ballij, founder of Ctalents, Ctaste, CtheCity and Sign Language Coffee Bar. Her mission is to reduce unemployment among people with sensory challenges from 71% to 20%. In addition, she is co-author of the book Seen and Heard and makes her voice heard internationally on the topic of inclusivity.. 


We are in a wonderfully beautiful place, in a church tower. 

Yes, we thought when this one became vacant: where else but from a church tower are you going to spread the new belief of inclusive thinking? From the church!

Good idea. And not only in the Netherlands, I understand. You are also making your voice heard internationally?

"Internationally, we are planting seeds by telling our story. Our big ambition is to actually be active in at least three different countries before 2030. There is still plenty to do in the Netherlands and it starts with some sowing first. And that is sowing the belief: it is possible. We share those wonderful examples where we use people, their talents and their strengths and thereby strengthen organizations. I get to do that in very beautiful places."



How is the Netherlands doing on this front when compared to other countries? 

When you talk about disability en inclusion a few things are very well regulated in the Netherlands. Especially if you look at the possibilities for reimbursement of facilities, for example what we do for people who are blind, visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing. They just need aids and then they can work just fine. Then you can think about: speech software, a braille reader or an interpreter or captioning software. All of that exists. Of course it costs money, but in the Netherlands we have a provision that covers full reimbursement. So that can never be a hurdle to actually hire someone. You see that less or not at all abroad, so that makes it extra difficult. An extra hurdle."


You're talking about Germany and Belgium, then?

Definitely. Belgium is certainly a few steps behind in that. There is still something to do there politically, especially to make a choice. So first the subject has to come alive.


Are you making your voice heard there from this steeple?

"Yes definitely, I also wrote the book together with, among others, someone who is from Belgium and who is a former parliamentarian there. So yes, influence goes beyond your own borders. On the other hand, if you look a bit critically, if you compare the Netherlands, I look for example at the UK or America, they are a lot more developed in terms of disability en inclusion. In America, of course, they have a lot of veterans and the disability act was passed much earlier disability act , so accessibility is required in many places. Just physical accessibility, but so also digital accessibility. But also organizations are asked to be a good reflection of society. That means: all tastes and also disabilty. America is actually not known for it, as a social country. But they did introduce certain laws and regulations a lot earlier, so there is also slightly better accessibility for our target group in the labor market. And the UK is a lot more developed, if you look at social impact bonds, cooperation of social entrepreneurs with governments and large organizations. I think that's why they are already a few steps further along than in the Netherlands.

Interesting. I am always reminded of Spain, Madrid, where I was surprised that you see a lot more people walking in the streets with guide dogs. Furthermore, for a long time there, you have had what is popularly called 'los ciegos,' which means 'the blind,' referring to lottery sales, which takes place in booths on the street there. 

Yes, I think that's a bit harsh. It's literally putting everyone with the same disability in 1 pigeonhole, that's not inclusion in my eyes.


I'm curious about that. You're talking now about the influence of politics and government. How does the Netherlands compare more in terms of social entrepreneurship with other countries on this aspect?

"First of all, what is your definition of social entrepreneurship? Because the lottery in Spain, that's more of a social workplace-type activity. That means that for anyone who is blind, that's the career path. And that's where it stops. And I think that's not being fully seen, heard and appreciated. Because if you're blind, you can have all kinds of backgrounds and education. We, at Ctalents, particularly focus on HBO and WO level, also some MBO-4. And people also have regular careers in that. Now there's nothing wrong with selling lottery tickets, but I actually see it a bit like a side job, an entry-level job, or a job if you don't have an education. It's also often unpaid. It's a with benefits variant and then you suddenly look at it with very different eyes. Which is good for visibility; these people are there. In the Netherlands we have very often hidden people away: separate institutions, care institutions, homes. And people think: yes, I don't know anyone at all, so the problem doesn't exist. Well, it's there, but it's tucked away in the woods. And now we're moving more and more toward actually participating in everything. Social entrepreneurship, it's also becoming more and more hip, we have more and more of it, and I think that's a good development. But I do think it's important to look at that with healthy principles, like normal market forces.



Let's talk about the healthy principles and keep it more with us. How do you see the role of your organizations in society?

"I always say: what I do is advanced entrepreneurship. It's not much different than entrepreneurship, it's just a lot trickier because you still have to develop supply and demand. We had just established: it's hip now, so that's fun. There's suddenly more demand, so we don't have to stalk people anymore. People just call or email us with the need. That's great. But what role does it have? I think a very connecting role: showing that it can be done, how it can be done and actually doing it. There have been a lot of organizations in "wanting to do good" or "lobbying," so talking about it, but actually doing it and connecting it with mainstream organizations, that's where we are unique. There are of course some very nice peers who do that as well, but there are still too few. I think that is our role: to connect the worlds, and actually do it and show: it can be done. 90% of our people are just still working after a few years. So it is successful; it is no longer a question of whether it can be done, but only at what speed.


You talked about "entrepreneurship for the advanced. I think that's an interesting one when you think about that. What are the skills you need as an entrepreneur to do that?

Then I'm going to mention a few things you might not expect. But on one I would say financial and analytical acumen. Because that's still missed a lot in this market. That's also why a lot of initiatives don't make it in this market. A lot of people start doing things from the heart, but you also just have to have the business skills. 

You have to have enormous, enórm perseverance. You're really not going to hear 'no' ten times, you're going to hear 'no' maybe a thousand times. And at 1001 it might become 'yes,' but maybe not until 2002. So you have to be able to withstand that and get back to improving with fresh energy the day after with the learnings from the day before. A slap in the face and being able to get up again. This is only possible if you are enormously driven, if you have a vision, if you know where you want to go. And also the willingness to work really hard for it. 

I get a lot of people who apply to you who say, "I want to make an impact. Making impact is really hard work. That's because the supply and demand sides are not developed. That's the part in theory books that says: don't do that, that's too hard. So you can only solve that with a lot of passion. And also gathering around you the right people who want to do that too. It often happens that people think: it's fun and it's doable, I'll do that nicely between ten and three, four days a week, then you won't make it. You have to realize that very well.



How did you develop these skills yourself or gather the people around you??

"I have fortunately gathered a lot of people around me in the meantime. I can also advise everyone: if you are going to do something in this corner for yourself, organize a good advisory board or a good coach who also dares to address you. But also who keeps an eye on you, because the big pitfall is, that people go into it with their heart, soul and soul so much, that people also fall over. So it's good if there are people who are involved, but also a bit outside of it, who can keep you on your toes and dare to ask the right question. And can occasionally make you aware of the plate in front of your head.


I find it interesting what you said about business and financial skills. In our previous interview, we interviewed Peter Hobbelen of Confed, a social enterprise in the technology field. He also emphasized the right balance between "doing good" and doing business at the same time. Among other things, he also wrote the book Stop Social Entrepreneurship, because he thinks that's the wrong term. According to him, that should be the norm. Stop met sociaal ondernemen, omdat hij dat een verkeerde term vindt. Dat zou volgens hem de norm moeten zijn.

"Yes, totally agree. And you can't have one without the other. People who say 'it's not about making a profit' don't understand anything. After all, profit is investing in your future, in innovation. And what are we doing? Changing the world. Yes, if money is needed for anything, it is for innovations. You can only do that if you make a profit.


About creating a market, when you think about people with sensory challenges and the talents behind them. There are of course telling examples, like Andrea Bocelli or Stevie Wonder, who are extra focused on their hearing from their blindness. Peter Hobbelen also said in the previous interview: your disability is sometimes the greatest talent. That, of course, is also what you do with CTalents. How does that work? How do you approach that?

"Yes, it's also just proven, isn't it? Dick Swaab also wrote in Wij zijn ons brein that if you take someone who is blind under a brain scan, you will see that the brain is developed differently. Not dumber, different. And there are other skills in there and that translates into work. Some very nice examples: we have work for the police as audio specialists. Top work, in other words. Because our people can listen to the audio much faster of suspects or an investigation that is going on. They can listen to the audio at a higher rate, sped up, but they can also hear much more in the background. How many people are there? Do I hear a streetcar, a bus? They get a lot more information out of it. But we also have blind and visually impaired people working as mediators. They can hear very well what is not said but is meant. They hear breathing that accelerates. Of: someone is saying this, but I feel they are sending a different signal. In deaf and hard of hearing people, you see an enormously developed eye for detail. How that works out depends on your studies and other competencies. We also have people who work as accountants or financial administrators, as well as forensic investigators. An eye for detail is really the differentiator. If you are deaf, you experience the world in a different way. And that's your strength.


About you: you started out as a banker and you made a career switch. How did that work out for you? That you did choose a different path than you might have initially taken? Or was it a strategic first move??

No, it wasn't a strategic first move move. But I can definitely recommend it, because I learned a tremendous amount from it and laid a foundation that I'm sure contributes to my success today. I don't look back on that with any regrets at all. Most successful social entrepreneurs often started first at a corporate or large organization in a traineeship program. 

For me, it was at one point that I thought, if I drop dead tomorrow, what have I contributed to this world? I did not find that answer satisfactory at that time. I then came across the concept of Dining in the Dark abroad, because I was working there in Paris. And it actually started as a joke at the bar: let me put this down too. That joke developed and a year later me and my partner had set it up. At first I thought I could do this next to my job. That was very naive. So I had to make choices, and it was obviously the right choice to continue with this. I am very involved with the topic of being seen, heard and appreciated. I got Besnier Boeck's disease when I was 18, when I collapsed from one day to the next and ended up in a wheelchair. I had to go back to my parents for a while, people were no longer going to ask a question to me, but to the person behind me, I had to put my studies on pause for a while. But there was nothing wrong with my head, was there? It was mainly how society dealt with it, where I myself had a very anxious feeling: I don't see any future at all. I'm eighteen and it stops. And that fear, I decided myself, I never want to feel it again. It's a disease that went away again, or came to rest with me, so I've been very lucky with that. But it's a disease that can always come back up, I have no influence on that. But I do influence how you deal with it. I had told myself: no one should experience this. That you're just not seen, heard or appreciated for what you can do. That is also my criticism of such a lottery. And I did it myself, didn't I? I started a restaurant, I thought: cool huh? Very nice job for people who are blind. Yes, then people came in who had just studied law and marketing. And of course there's absolutely nothing wrong with waitership and hospitality, that's a fantastically fun job, but if you've done law school, there's a lot more you can do.



What tip or advice would you like to give to other entrepreneurs or professionals who want to take the first steps toward an inclusive work environment?

I think it starts with your own motivation. And one golden tip that's applicable to everyone, that's tricky. That's kind of a contradiction with inclusion. Inclusion is about the fact that we are all different people, with different desires, different needs, and you have to start from there. So the first step is really your own motivation. You know what makes your heart beat faster, what injustices you see in the world and what makes you angry. I really made it very clear to myself: this is the mark I want to make in the world. From there I set up all kinds of organizations. Some people think: there is no common thread. For me there is a very strong thread. That is the stamp I want to make. So feel that stamp for yourself and check: in what part do I want to make the big difference? And express that especially in your environment. Then people will automatically come your way who can reinforce that and you can make it more and more concrete. Like a real business plan or project plan. It starts with something very small. Just start. If it's going to take you 25 years to make the plan, it's not going to happen either."


What should be the norm in 2030?

In 2030, the norm should be that we are able to look at competencies and skills of people, regardless of origin and age. That organizations also have the skills to really be able to look at what people can contribute and thus also let go of the tubes we have invented of jobs and vacancies. 

And so also accessibility, that's where we have a big step to take. Facilities in spaces, but also in software. Now you still have a lot on websites, if you go there with speech software and it's not coded properly, you only hear "input field, input field. Yeah, then you still can't enter that independently. So I think allowing people to be independent and self-sufficient is also related to an accessible society."

The new norm for 2030, according to Sandra, must be:
"That we are able to look at competencies and skills of people, regardless of origin and age."