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Episode 2: Sümeyye Soydemir on entrepreneurship as a female founder with migration background

"In Belgium there are 1538 residential care centres and they are exclusive in my view. Because suppose you arrive there as a person with a migration background, suppose you don't speak Dutch, you don't speak French, you don't speak English. Or you learned those languages but you're demented so the second or third language that falls away anyway.... You can't even say 'I don't like it'... or 'I need help with this now'..."

"My grandmother was hospitalised at the time, and my grandmother never learned Dutch - never had the need to. And when they asked her 'are you nauseous?' she couldn't answer because she didn't know what 'nauseous' meant."

[general intro]

>>> You are listening to Let's Talk, a podcast where the talking points consist out of impactful initiatives, strong support offerings, and participation as a catalyst for innovation. Your host is Bart Wuyts, CEO of the group Blenders and WEB, the incubator of inclusive workplaces and innovative strategies concerning entrepreneurship, sustainability and job placement, among others.

[intro speaker]

>>> As a guest in our second episode, we welcome Sümeyye Soydemir. Sümeyye is a serial entrepreneur with Turkish roots who has made significant contributions to various social causes. Her motivation is to create social impact and this already manifested itself during her commercial engineering studies where she mentored young university students. After starting her professional career, she continued her social work as coordinator of Inspiration vzw where she focuses on empowering women with a migration background and building bridges between different communities.

Sümeyye is co-founder of Candela vzw, a non-profit organisation that assists underprivileged primary and secondary children with their studies and helps with homework assistance.

She opened the very first residential care centre with culturally sensitive care for the Muslim community in Belgium. She has been an entrepreneur since 2016 and female founder of Euronet Care, her personal protection equipment company ---- as well as working in the construction and furniture sector.

The perfect guest to have a conversation with that meanders from thresholds to opportunities to perseverance, strength, impact and entrepreneurship.

Sitting with me is Sümeyye Soydemir. Tell us: who is Sümeyye?

Thanks in advance for the invitation. I am Sümeyye, I was born and raised in Mol. My grandfather came to Belgium in the 1970s, to work in the mine in Beringen. And then he had his family come over via family reunification. I did my bachelor's in Hasselt at UHasselt and for my master's I went to Antwerp to get my master's in commercial engineering. I am an entrepreneur. I am someone who likes to have a social impact, and who works every day to make the world a little bit nicer.

Fantastic, we are sitting here with a gift from heaven at the table. Growing up in Mol, you are third generation if I understood correctly - yes - that went all smoothly then for you in your younger years? Or did that bother you, restrict you, the fact that you have migrant roots?

Growing up with migration roots is always a bit of a search for your identity; because I grew up here, I was born here as a Belgian but I also have roots in Turkey. It's always a bit of a balancing act between being Belgian and being Turkish. A classic example is always: if Belgium plays against Turkey, who do I support?

Yes, so? Who do you support?

I support the winning team.

Good answer.

But over the years I have realised that you can be both. You don't have to be one or the other, it's actually an enrichment.

You went to school also in Mol I suppose? Yes. Then university. Was that a logical course for you?

Not directly, because in secondary school I was told in sixth grade that university was definitely not for me, that it would be best for me to go to college. I was very shocked by that because I was doing one of the best directions in one of the best schools. And then when I asked my classmate next to me "what did they recommend to you?" they did recommend university to him. I came to realise that it was because I have migration roots, have a different surname. Because I also went to the assistant tutor after that to ask about it, and her answer was 'we are careful'. So while my class average was higher than that of my classmate, I was advised not to even try to go to university.

But then that did become a drive for you, did it push you to ‘prove who Sümeyye is'?

Yes indeed. I worked hard then. So I started doing commercial engineering. That did make me work harder. Eventually, I graduated with distinction.

And at that moment, at that tipping point between your secondary and higher studies, that probably also affected your self-confidence? Maybe not only on that moment, maybe it had been going on for a while that you weren't really encouraged?

That definitely made me insecure because the people around you are the people who should help and support you but who can also bring you down at the same time.

Sümeyye you graduated with distinction as a commercial engineer, and then there comes another such crucial moment: entering the job market. Did you experience any barriers there? What did you start doing?

I went straight into the corporate world where I had received a proposal for my first job, and my father - he is an entrepreneur, has had a furniture business, Comfortmeubel in Antwerp, since '97, and since 2016 a construction company, Schoofs, in Hoepertingen - he immediately said to me 'that salary is way too low, you have to ask for a higher salary'. My mother on the other hand - she came to Belgium when she was 17 and she has a different lifestyle than my father - my mother said 'you are someone from a migration background, such a big company has made you an offer, you just have to accept it.' So I accepted that job - you listened to mother - I listened to my mother and accepted the job. After 4 months in the job I already had the annual report and my manager said 'I can actually give Sümeyye much more difficult tasks than for someone who has only been employed for 4 months' and after 6 months I was getting bored in my job. So that I then asked several times to be able to advance right away. And then, after one and a half years, I decided to quit and go into business with my father.

To quit because you felt that the company was actually not growing with your ambitions?

Yes I was bored.

And so then you got into your father's business with him and so started doing business by yourself?

Yes so I first worked with my father for 2 years. To then set up Euronet Care in 2020: my wholesale business in personal protective equipment. The reason was also, because of the corona crisis, we needed mouth masks for our construction company. And that was nowhere to be found, and my father then went with two other entrepreneurs to bring over mouth masks through our trading company. To which he then said to me 'Sümeyye you just sit here at home baking brownies and doing yoga and walking, wouldn't you like to sell those mouth masks?' I actually started that with the idea that selling doesn't really suit me - because in my mind about selling, I was always like 'this is my product, pleasebuy that'. But then I realised that if you have a good product, people will want to buy it, you don't have to put so much effort into it. Euronet Care then grew into a very large wholesaler where we also sold gloves to the largest hospitals in Belgium, then we moved on to surgical gowns, isolation gowns, we added the construction sector, overshoes for the construction sector, then we servised the hotel and catering industry and sold gloves to the hotel and catering industry. So I did learn a lot with Euronet Care. I had already learned how to deal with customers from my father and I am grateful to him for that. And that's how I started my business. And Euronet Care, the first two or three weeks: I started at 7 a.m. and I was busy until 11 a.m. and I noticed that I couldn't cope on my own. I called a friend of mine and hired her. And then I hired three other people to supply the whole of Belgium during corona.

You basically just became the saviour of the corona crisis?

Well... I can say that I always kept my prices low back then because I didn't want to take advantage of the situation.

You didn't want to enrich yourself on the hood of the healthcare sector.

Yes indeed. There have been people like that. But I also always wanted to keep it honest, and if something didn't go right back then - it was possible - I was always honest about that too. That also helped me develop Saphir: honesty is key.

So if you look in your network, at people, friends you know, who also have a migration background: what do you see as important thresholds that they do or do not experience in order to be active in the job market in Flanders?

One of the biggest thresholds is the headscarf debate. I know a lot of people who are very qualified, but who cannot go to work because of the headscarf issue. Teachers, for example. One of my best friends who also worked at Euronet Care is an English teacher, a super lady. But when she goes on job applications, she is told 'you are very qualified but you have a headscarf so we cannot employ you.' I find that very unfortunate. Because then you can't look past that. There are also people with tattoos, people with a cross for example.

A second barrier is often the language. Dutch is not an easy language to learn as a second or third language. Especially now, a lot of people have come from Ukraine, also from Turkey and Syria. They have to learn the language first, but I also have my questions about how that language is learned. Because I personally think the best way to learn a language is to learn it from someone who also speaks your mother tongue. It's much easier if you can say 'I'm explaining a verb' - in your mother tongue, you tell that person because otherwise they spend half an hour wondering what the other person is saying. Language is a very big problem.

And maybe another problem is that if you want to attract people from a migration background, you forget to think like a person from a migration background. I'm going to give an example of that from at Saphir - my last project that we haven't talked about yet: Saphir is the very first culture-sensitive residential care centre in Belgium [we're definitely going to talk more about that in a moment because that intrigues us], which is also suitable for the Muslim community. We spent months on end looking for a director with a migrant background. Of course, he also had to be qualified, we were not just going to hire someone with a migration background. We looked for a very long time, because we were also mainly looking for someone who had experience in a residential care centre, as a director. We weren't able to find that. Then we shifted our focus to 'either look for a director without a migration background who already has experience as a director in a residential care centre', 'or look for someone with a migration background who has been a director in a similar situation'. For example, a hospital or a very large NGO. We found 2 people in the first group, i.e. people with a migration background without direct experience as a director in an assisted living centre.

So how is the procedure of recruitment: first there is an interview with the operations director, a second interview is an interview with the COO, and then you have an assessment. So you actually have to pass the two interviews before you can go to the assessment.

With person 1, we had an interview with the operations director, and I thought 'wow, this is it.' I was really happy because after months of searching. It was someone who had really worked with people with a migration background for more than 10 years with budgets of more than 10 million euros, in Brussels, who could also speak French and Dutch (another problem in Brussels is of course the French language). And the second interview with the COO, she also said 'this is it'. We were very happy.


I'm going to say the plot later.

The second person was someone internally who we knew might not be directly for the management position - in the sense of: you also have to be able to do finance and so on. But who we knew as a person that would bring the project alive and we knew that with additional training, skills can be gained.

But. The first person failed the assessment. We were in shock! The second person also failed at the assessment.

And only much later, in retrospect, when I was talking to a friend about this, it was he who said to me 'but was the assessment geared to someone from a migration background'? That I then thought: maybe that's where it went wrong. Because we were not looking for a director for a classic residential care home. We were looking for someone who could carry that project with heart and soul, who could also radiate that project to the outside world. I think that's where the pinch was. And even now - we are a year on - I still think about that.

So you didn't hire the person either?


Did you do anything with that insight, share it with the institution that carried out that assessment? Because that's worth a call!

No I didn't, but since I still think about it a year later so I guess I really need to share my feedback.

Because those are of course one of those hidden... we were talking about it earlier: also the way vacancies are drafted.... In all sorts of ways, we naturally reason on the basis of our dominant paradigm. And if that deviates a bit, you might indeed see these kinds of effects.

Anyway. So it comes down to you saying 'I've actually consciously or unconsciously avoided all those thresholds that are out there everywhere, I've actually avoided them by just going into entrepreneurship myself. And then I don't have to comply with everything an employer expects from me. Then I'm just doing my own entrepreneurship.' And so that last example we wanted to touch on that: Saphir.

You've already talked about furniture and construction, and personal protective equipment, and now suddenly it's about a residential care centre. How does Sümeyye end up with an assisted living centre? Which you then start up yourself? Or was it an existing residential care centre that you reform? Or how should I see it?

I personally was looking very hard into being able to make social impact. Euronet Care was created because the care sector needed quality personal protective equipment at the right price. So my approach there was 'I want to help healthcare'. That business grew but after 2 years I saw that I was not getting satisfaction from that. I did get orders and everyone did say I was doing a good job, but intrinsically I didn't feel happy. Then I started looking for 'what can I do'. So I really started looking for how I can contribute to society. And because of my visits to residential care homes because I also went there sometimes with my products, I realised that all residential care homes were the same. I go in and out of there - and I am also a very emotional person - and every time I had to wipe away a few tears in the car.

And the reality back then was also that corona crisis had its impact, my grandmother was hospitalised, and my grandmother never learned Dutch - never had the need to. And when they asked her "are you nauseous?" she couldn't answer because she didn't know what "nauseous" meant.

And surely that was also a point that impacted me personally, so I started thinking 'what's going to happen when older people of the first generation or the second, don't have children, or the children are busy...'. The social norm has also changed enormously: in the past it was mainly women who stayed at home to take care of mum or dad, this is also the case with people without a migration background, it is mainly women who are carers. Nowadays, both men and women go to work. People used to all live in the same house, so if you went to the bakery and you had a mother with dementia, your sister could stay at home for a while.... All those aspects have actually fallen away.

I first started searching for 'are there residential care centres suitable for the Muslim community' that was my approach because I am a Muslim myself. And I hadn't found any at that time. So that was in me, that idea originated in me, and it was quietly building up until I thought 'I'm going to do something with this'. Then I went to Korian's procurement manager because I knew him, and I said to him 'I would like to open a residential care centre for Muslims, can you put me in touch with people?' to which he said 'the Brussels team has such an idea, they want to work with that, maybe you can do it with us'.

So in an existing residential care home?

It was a new building, so it was really a new residential care centre. I said 'yes ok why not'. He said he would contact me. I come home, I call Ferhan - my good friend - and she said 'when are they going to contact you'? - and then I realised that I hadn't actually discussed that so I resolved: if I don't hear anything in 2 weeks I will make a call. And less than an hour later, the operations director called me and she told me 'Sümeyye you are a godsend'. We immediately made arrangements, agreed immediately. During that conversation, my father was also with me at the time, he suggested to change the name and that's where Saphir's slogan was born: Salam le Monde - salam everyone.

And it was a new building - I remember: the very first time I visited Saphir, I had tears in my eyes because it is such a big building. It's seven floors, there are 199 beds.... I was overwhelmed by the building but also because it went so fast. I immediately got to work and worked on the whole project. Interviewed a lot of people, visited other residential care centres, and so drew up a framework and the first six months were spent behind the scenes working really hard to provide a quiet room, a washroom in the quiet room, to find a halal butcher and supplier, a cook with a migration background, a director with a migration background. So there was a very big preparation that preceded it.

You helped develop the whole of that project actually. Do you have an operational role in it today as well? Or a management role perhaps?

No, not anymore.

So you helped develop it because you thought it was important to have it, but then others are doing it now.

Yes right. Soon it will be Ramadan so I do visit soon to do the iftar together.

Since when has it been operational?

Since June last year (2022). So since January to June, we really spent 6 months developing it - I had a project team as well - all together. And then it was launched, and during the launch we also developed it further because of course on paper is different from reality anyway.

And is it then exclusively meant for people with a migration background or for people with a Muslim background?

No. The vision is positive care for people from migrant backgrounds, but it is open to everyone. In Saphir, there are also people without a migration background as well as people with a migration background so it really is completely open to everyone.

What I do think is very important is that when people are like 'but the meals are halal..' But what people without a migration background forget: in Belgium there are 1538 residential care centres and they are exclusive in my view. Because suppose you arrive there as a person with a migration background, suppose you don't speak Dutch, you don't speak French, you don't speak English. Or you learned those languages but you're demented so the second or third language that falls away anyway.... You can't even say 'I don't like it'... or 'I need help with this now'.... You can't express yourself, communication,...

Is the example already being followed?

At the same time, another group has actually opened a residential care centre in Brussels for people with a migrant background, but they never dared to express themselves, they never dared to profile themselves in that way.

Just now you said that that social impact, that that's what drives you. A great example with Saphir - congrats on that by the way, great. What's next?

I have several projects in the pipeline but I haven't decided yet. I can maybe say here that - next month Euronet Care turns three, and I'm going to finish that. So I have decided to stop that. And there are several things... I'm a woman entrepreneur, with migrant roots, and I see that the needs there are just different from women entrepreneurs without migrant roots. So I have since started a small group, we meet monthly. Another thing that's high on my mind is how I was discriminated against in high school and that this still does not sit well with me 12 years later - that's also still in me. That could also become something but really very concrete I don't know yet.

Ok, nice.

Yes work in progress.

Artemis what would you still like to know?

This recording is recorded on the eve before the start of Ramadan, and it might be good... Many companies try to be facilitative towards people who pray, people who fast,.... You have a lot of employees: how do you deal with that?

At our furniture shop but also in the construction company: the workers normally start at 7 am. We allow them to start an hour later. Ramadan is actually the fasting month for Muslims, and very often it is a month of reflection in which there is much more prayer and in which there is also much more prayer in the evening. So from sunrise to sunset, Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink. And then during sunset, people eat and then very often go to the mosque to pray or do extra prayers. After that, people come home to sleep and then they get up again at 3 or 4 o'clock for sahur or suhur, which is a light breakfast before the sun rises. So people's time schedule is actually changed a bit for a month. And a tip in this for companies is to ask your employees 'do you want to start an hour later or start earlier' - for example, some people don't want to go back to sleep after the light breakfast, then they can start a lot earlier. Some people then want to sleep more,.

I also had that at my first job: I found that very thoughtful of my manager, she also asked me then 'Sümeyye it's Ramadan now, do you want to start a bit later?' That still stuck with me 10 years later.

So engaging with the workers, with your staff, with your employees about how that can help them experience Ramadan better. Also in the afternoon, then it's lunch time but yes we don't have lunch then – as an employer you could think about providing a space where they can take a rest, a seat or a comfortable chair. Everything in conversation actually with your employees, your workers. And then at the end of Ramadan there is the the Eid festivities, a lot of people want to take time off. You can also take that into account a bit: who takes that day off effectively - to also spread the workload a bit over the days before or after. And to facilitate that, what I also find very nice - in my case - is when an e-mail would arrive saying 'Sümeyye good luck with Ramadan', or when the Eid Festival came 'Happy Eid’. That's a very small gesture but it really means a lot to people because it also makes people feel heard and accepted.

Right. So it doesn't have to be big efforts often to still give that a place and indeed respect. Thank you for these great tips. Thank you for the conversation.

Thank you.

And I wish you tremendous success in all those entrepreneurial adventures ahead of you.


>>> You listened to Let's Talk, the podcast where we feed the dialogue around inclusion in the labour market, highlight impactful initiatives and let lesser heard voices have their say. Were you captivated, did this conversation make you think, would you like to be one of our next guests yourself? Let us know, follow us on social media and be sure to subscribe to this podcast series!