Cilian Jansen Verplanke: ‘In private equity, it’s still rare to find gender diversity in management’

Ebbinge talks to the leaders of today and tomorrow and asks the questions that really matter. This time: Cilian Jansen Verplanke, Co-founding Partner at Karmijn Kapitaal.


What was your first job?
Milking cows, when I was twelve, at a farm near where I grew up in Ridderkerk. I earned a few guilders to buy sweets. But my first real job was when I was at uni in Leiden. I worked at a clothing store downstairs from our dormitory. It wasn’t exactly high fashion, but you could get three pairs of jeans for 100 guilders.

How would you explain your job in language that a child can understand?
My own kids are 13 and 15, and I have a ‘bonus’ son who’s 30. They all understand what I do. At Karmijn Kapitaal, we look for companies that have both men and women on the executive board. And we do that to help those companies grow and to make their founders’ dreams come true. After a certain amount of time, we sell the companies on to someone else. In the meantime, we try to ensure diversity and inclusion, and that the company is doing business sustainably. Our latest investment is in a company run by a married couple: BPI Services. They specialise in identification software and smart sensoring solutions. Really a gem.

How did you get started?
We are three women with a background in private equity: Hadewych Cels, Désirée van Boxtel and I. And together we stepped into an untapped market. In 2009, we discovered that only about twenty percent of the management teams in the SME sector were ‘mixed’; meaning they consist of both men and women. Today, the number has risen to about thirty percent. And in portfolio companies of private equity funds, it turned out to be only one percent at the time! So, there was a gap that needed to be filled. And that’s how we became the first private equity fund in Europe with an investment strategy focusing on diversity.

‘Half the world’s population is female. So, why don’t we get that half involved in the business world too?’

What do you want to change about the status quo?
For me, it’s not so much about women in business as it is about gender equality. Half the world’s population is female. So, why don’t we get that half involved in the business world too? It’s really about the mix. That’s how society works. We’ve seen for ourselves what happens when you enter a conference room as a woman. You bring an entirely different world of experience to the table. Women ask more about the facts and are less likely to chase after things. Diversity in leadership leads to better business results, not just financially, but also in terms of risk management and employee satisfaction. Some people might think that Karmijn Kapitaal is for women, by women, but from the very start it’s never been like that. When we finally started generating income, after three years, we immediately hired two men. They were appointed partners this year.

If you could make a new law, what would it be?
Are you talking about the quota for hiring women? As a company, we don’t get involved in that, but personally I think something ought to be done. It’s not enough just to talk and be wishful about it. The Scandinavian countries are much further ahead.

What’s the best leadership advice you ever received?
My great mentor was Hans ten Cate. A banker through and through. I worked with him in the early 1990s. He started at ABN AMRO and later sat on the Board at Rabobank. He taught me to try to turn every ‘no’ into a ‘yes’. Don’t just take ‘no’ for an answer. Try to find a way to make it happen. This has been a big help to me at Karmijn. You don’t even want to know how many rejections we had to deal with. But today, we’ve already started our third investment fund. So, my message to entrepreneurs, especially female entrepreneurs, is: Even if your courage is running out, don’t give up!

‘As nerve-racking as it has been, I still think it’s been one of the most interesting years for our business’

What was the career step you never took?
Becoming a police commissioner. My father was a mayor. He was the mayor of Ridderkerk and other towns too. We used to spend New Year’s Eve at the police station. We would go with him to the police station and see what was going on. On the one hand, I wanted to become active in helping people on the fringes of society, but I remember also being shocked at how few women there were in the higher ranks of the police. And I was later turned down in the final round of applying to join the police academy. I really didn’t see that coming! But at least it put me on the path towards studying law, which was perfect for me.

What keeps you up at night?
Since the start of the pandemic, I lay awake thinking about the companies we have and the people working for them. We had no idea what would happen when everything went into lockdown. How do we keep these companies afloat? Now we’re seeing a V-shaped recovery, mainly because the government is stimulating the economy. It’s phenomenal that we’ve been able to create so much prosperity together. As nerve-racking as it has been, I still think it’s been one of the most interesting years for our business.

What are you proud of?
I’m proud of our entrepreneurs who have kept their businesses going, despite all the worries and uncertainties we’ve been dealing with lately. None of our companies have failed. They all became even more innovative and creative than they were already. One of our companies specialises in building stands for the events industry, for example. And they’ve achieved success lately by focusing on their interior design business instead. Other companies have started to sell more online. Jopen Bier took a big hit when the catering industry disappeared, but they bounced back by developing a special holiday season box with 24 beers.

What do you do to blow off steam?
Ever since I was a child, I have been playing tennis and the piano. I started taking lessons again a few years ago. I always come back to pieces by Chopin. I also like to go to the mountains, to Austria. In nature, with fewer distractions, I can really relax. ‘Sich erholen’, as they say so beautifully in Austria.

What price did you pay for your success?
I had my first child when I was forty and a second one well into my forties. Because I was always working, I became a ‘drop-in mother’. Still, I love being an older mother, just like my mother. Had it been any different, I would have missed out on something really important. And no career is worth that much.

If we made a film about your life, what is one scene that absolutely must be included?
The time I gave the mayor of Taipei a lift to the Kurhaus Hotel. I was in my old Golf with broken shock absorbers, and there were two security guards in the back seat. He had come to the Netherlands for a conference. I was in my mid-20s. It was really a special meeting. He spoke fantastic English. Even though he was the mayor of a major city, I was so impressed that he still showed such a natural interest in others.

Photography: Pieter Bas Bouwman