How do experts view entrepreneurship in times of transition? Trailblazers talks to frontrunners and groundbreakers to find out. This time we spoke with Peter Hobbelen, CEO of high-tech company Confed. In his career, he saw how the interests of shareholders got the upper hand and consideration for fellow human beings came into question. He decided to do things differently and now leads an inclusive company where everyone counts. How does he do it? And what would he like to pass on to other entrepreneurs?


What do you do at Confed? 

"Confed is a high-tech company where we produce electronics. What's special about Confed is that more than 50% of the production staff are people with a distance to the labor market. Here in Amersfoort that is 50/50 and in Dordrecht it is even 80/20. That means that we are a very inclusive company in which everyone counts.

We make electronics in the broadest sense of the word. For example, circuit boards with components, wiring harnesses to connect the circuit boards, and assembly of electronics. We also build enclosures in which the circuit boards, wiring and connecting cables are placed, and these have different functions. This can range from a traffic control system to a Quooker faucet or wiring for ASML. 

In the service sector you do see inclusive companies, such as cleaning, landscaping and catering. But in this industry, in the manufacturing industry, you actually see these kinds of companies on this scale far too few. While the need for people is so great. That is exactly where Confed wants to be an example, to show that it can be done."


Where does your motivation come from?

"Yes, where do you start with that story, right? Because that story goes way back to my childhood, where I learned early on that if you are privileged, you have to mean something to those who are less privileged. That has always been at the back of my mind, that somewhere that is a mission you have. And my parents were a great example of that. I grew up in a Catholic family in Brabant, where those values were very much present in my youth. In a certain sense I resisted them, thinking: the way my parents did it, I certainly didn't want to do it that way. Only years later did I realize that that pattern of values and norms from my youth did form a good basis for me and how it shaped me. Which I ended up interpreting in my own way.

I initially entered the rock-hard business world. I worked at a company like Daimler-Benz abroad and as I gained experience there, I also found out more and more: hey, this isn't about people at all. This is not about that you have to take care of people. This is much more about that the interest of shareholders is more important. At some point I came back to the Netherlands, worked in Germany and America and became director of a social employment agency.

That's where a world opened up for me. Because there I saw what it meant if you are really not privileged, in which working at a sheltered workshop is a kind of last straw for having and keeping a job. There I also saw immediately: what happens here within a sheltered employment facility, people are treated with such amateurism. I thought: is there no other or better way to let people with a distance to the labor market participate fully in our society? Then slowly but surely the idea came to me to bring together the best of both worlds, the "real" business world and the organizations that are able to reintegrate people. I've been trying that for about twelve years now and I'm well on my way to showing that it can be done." 



How do you create an inclusive work environment at Confed? 

"What I see is that a lot of companies stick to traditional recruitment and selection policies. And that's where it often goes wrong. Because everyone is calling for people, there is a huge shortage in the labor market, but that is also because we do not want to look beyond our traditional recruitment and selection criteria. Namely: education, experience and job profiles. I look at my company and there it's all about tasks. An assemblage of a quantity of tasks that at the bottom of the line produces a product. And if you look at people and work that way, you come to a whole new interpretation of it. Then you suddenly see people you might not have thought of at first. 

For example, our Anneloes: she is our communications assistant and she is blind. Many people who talk to Anneloes on the phone have no idea that they are talking to someone who is blind. If she is interviewing me for something that happened in my company and I am not getting my words out very well, she hears between the lines what I am saying and what I mean. She has super sensitive hearing. So she hears things I don't say but want to communicate. I sometimes say: limitation is sometimes the greatest talent. And when we look at people that way, a world opens up. So then at once there is a potential of more than 1 million people in the Netherlands who might be eligible to fill that vacancy you have. Or a position that you can cut up into a number of tasks that you can have two people fill."

How do you succeed in getting everyone at Confed on board with your inclusive mission?

"What I do: I convince all employees that everyone counts. And if you adhere to that principle and don't just talk about it, but act on it, you show that it can be done. And people can of course be skeptical at first, like, 'yeah, you know, a disabled person in my company, that's not going to work, because they need attention and then you have to repeat things all the time.' But then it's often the situation: unknown makes unloved. People already fill it in themselves. They think that people with disabilities are difficult or often sick, for example. There is such a stigma attached to that, which I think: yes, we have apparently created that in our society. That image of the disabled person or people with a distance to the labor market, that there are only problems with that. What I show in my business is: that is not a problem. Because very often it is a certain superficiality. 

It's also about: to what extent are you aware of your surroundings? And we live in a rather individualistic world, in which looking out for each other and for the other has somewhat taken a back seat. I come across many people with all kinds of mental disabilities: many people succumb to the pressure of society, of that rat race in which everyone has to participate. And yes, not everyone can keep up with that pace, and in many cases we have overlooked that. That everyone has to take care of themselves, and we take too little care of each other. 

I work a lot with young people, like students, and I do see a struggle when it comes to wanting to give meaning. I have people working in my company who have a double major and could easily get a very good job at the Zuidas. But they consciously choose to work here. And then you often hear: 'Yes, this is where the best of both worlds come together, namely a piece in which I can put my qualities with knowledge and skills that I studied for, but also the meaning of working for an inclusive company, for social employment.' That makes the atmosphere in this company very special. And that's where things come together that people are obviously looking for, therefore."



What is your vision for the future with regard to diversity and inclusion in business?

"My ideal vision is still that network of social enterprises. In the Netherlands we have now set up two of those and another one is in the making. What I want to do is that those social enterprises can reinforce each other. That, for example, one has specialized in circuit boards and the other in assembly. That the sum of the individual companies is more than the individual companies an sich. That is the future. There is still a lot of growth and potential there. Also internationally: we have a branch in Slovakia. The first people with labor disabilities are now working there. 

I also look at the aging population, the de-greening population and the tightness of the labor market. We are more or less forced to look at what other alternatives there are. We cannot indefinitely bring people from Central Europe here to the Netherlands. I also see that VNO-NCW, MKB-Nederland and all kinds of trade organizations are very creative in this, to make it clear that more is possible than entrepreneurs currently estimate. I regularly receive entrepreneurs to show how we do that at Confed. I said before: unknown makes unloved. People have so many prejudices. There is so much perception surrounding people with disabilities, people with a distance to the labor market. Here in practice, they see that it's not just sticking bags and folding boxes, but at a high-tech company. They see how we have done that with cutting up functions into tasks and that at the bottom of the line a complex product emerges. 

I think that's the best evidence to show it in practice. But I also try to make it clear to entrepreneurs that they shouldn't go to social services now tomorrow and say they need people. No, you have to take the time to work on an inclusive business. That doesn't happen overnight. It really takes a lot of time. And often it is the case that you have to supervise your own employees even more than the people you bring in, who have that sticker of "labor disability" or people with "a distance to the labor market. It goes slowly, but perhaps it is also necessary that it goes slowly. Maybe then it will also be more sustainable, that it will stick."

What skills and qualities do you think are most important in (impact) leadership?

"First of all: integrity. That you shouldn't pretend to be anything other than what you are. And that has been quite a learning process for me, because I always thought I had to pretend to be much better than I am. Stay who you are and act from genuine values and standards. Because when I say I would like to be an inclusive entrepreneur, that really has to come from within. In addition, you also have to be a role model. As a leader of a company where 500 people work, where people see what we do, then you must also always be aware of your example behavior. So with that comes: genuine interest in people. You don't see that very often anymore. If you're genuinely interested in people, then the real stories come out. Only then do you find out what people want, can do or what kind of wishes or dreams they have. 

What I also experience in addition - I'm an entrepreneur and I've experienced a lot of highs and lows. And mindfulness has given me so much deeper meaning, in getting back to yourself and regaining balance. At first I thought: that's really something for wimps. But I've been doing it for several years now and it really brings me back to the core."



What tip would you give to other entrepreneurs or professionals striving for inclusion?

"One important tip I want to give is: don't get bogged down in it. Because I come across a lot of entrepreneurs who want to make an impact, sacrifice everything for it and no longer have any regard for the business aspect of making an impact. And, of course, I admire that. But that also means you have to constantly chase money or find funding for your initiative or your impact. Then I'm not sure that's such a sustainable endeavor. If you want to make sustainable impact, your business model, your revenue model, must also be right. I experience plenty of social entrepreneurs who say, 'yes, but we do nice things, don't we?' Then I say, 'yes, you are doing very nice things, only you are constantly short of money. You can't pay your people. How sustainable is that?' Many people don't know anything about money either. And of course this is about money, whichever way you look at it. So my tip is: think especially carefully about the business impact you want to make, in addition to the social impact you want to realize. Social Enterprise NL says: social entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs who are all about 'impact first'. Yes, impact first, but in two directions, namely also financial impact, because if you don't keep an eye on that, you are constantly asking for money."

According to Peter, the new standard for 2030 should be: 

"Everyone counts and participates! And cooperates!"