EP17: Karla Basselier, The power of the young people, sustainability, and female leadership.

For this first podcast episode of the year, we welcome the new leading lady for the Belgian textile industry in the studio. After more than 30 years as the head of Fedustria, Fa Quix, who was our guest for the previous episode, is passing on the torch to Karla Basselier. With a pack of experience in politics and the diamond industry, Karla brings not only a fresh perspective but also a clear vision on how we can support our local businesses to play a continued key role in this beautiful industry.  

Listen to the podcast here:

Key Takeaways

  • When you question things, you can change things.
  • There are so many great stories in our industries that should be told more often.
  • Young people are the future and in order to attract them both employer and industry branding are key.
  • Our companies stand out because of their drive towards sustainability and circularity and focus on quality rather than quantity.
  • Even in challenging times, do not lose your long-term focus, be cautious, if possible, and continue to take steps forward.
  • Sharing experiences, and learnings with peers is crucial to be able to take steps forward.
  • Look for partnerships inside and outside the industry.

Karla, an optimist that goes the extra mile  

Karla started her professional career in government, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she worked around natural resource management. The first focus was on the setting up of a due diligence scheme to combat child labor in Africa for the cocoa business in order to make chocolate more sustainable. Karla’s other focus was on Diamonds, where she worked on the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, a certification mechanism to combat conflict diamonds.

One of Karla’s lessons learned from this experience is that, as a government, if you want to develop legislation, it is not something you do alone, you must do it in collaboration with industry, or the NGOs themselves. All stakeholders need to be included. This to get standards in place that are implementable and realistic.

Karla’s career path continues in the diamond industry, with more than 10 years of experience at the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, the umbrella organization representing 1700 diamond companies in Antwerp. One of the initiatives Karla’s is most proud of from this chapter is the creation of a ‘mine to finger’ jewelry collection, My Fair Diamond. A collection focused on transparency, full traceability, and respect for human rights and environmental standards.

“I believe in products that make a difference. I see within the textile, woodworking & furniture industry that people take pride in the products that are produced, and like the diamond industry, the sector faces similar challenges such as sustainability and circularity, yet you see that great focus on quality stands out. This is exactly what drives me as a person, not sticking to what is the reality today, but always going that extra mile.’

Finally, Karla also cites the importance of optimism. She described herself as an optimist, not only in her private life but also in her professional life. “Optimism should be one’s moral duty.”

Question to change

When Fedustria called Karla to offer her the position of CEO she immediately felt a natural fit. Not only did Karla already have experience working for an umbrella organization, where interaction with an industry is central, in addition, Fedustria is also a very relevant federation, representing 3 sectors with more than 1,600 companies. Textiles, woodworking & furniture, three different sectors, yet very intertwined.

The search for a new CEO has been very long, and the timing is, considering the current market situation, challenging. And even though we’re in the middle of a storm, Karla feels it is Fedustria’s role to be an entrepreneur defending the industry, with an important role to play.

‘What I believe is my value add as new CEO of Fedustria, is that I really try to question things, when you question things, you can change things!’

The importance of being proud of our sector

What’s really made an impression on Karla in her first months in this new position is that she sees many beautiful companies where the owners and employees fight every day to produce the best products possible. Karla observes many inspiring, often unexpected stories. As an example, she talks about her visit to Maes Mattress Ticking (you can listen to the podcast episode with Aurélie Maes here), a family company that delivers mattress ticking to the Kings and Queens, royal families. “These are stories that should be told more often.”

Moreover, almost all the companies she visited are focused on futureproofing and believe that going down the path of sustainability or circularity is the right path. It is about more than setting a standard, it is really a vision that lives within the DNA of the companies. For Karla, this is essential for the future, if companies or entrepreneurs don’t focus enough on questioning things and on innovation, they’ll be out of business.

Our companies live for their business, and this is really something to be proud of. We should be proud of this beautiful sector we represent. Let’s show this more often”.

Three different sectors with many similarities

The three sectors covered by Fedustria have many similarities, not only in the products but also in the way the companies work and operate. Today, all these industries are now facing the same challenges: they must deal with higher costs, energy, and raw material crisis as well as the fact that consumer behavior is changing, not only are they more cautious about their spending, but they also care much more about brand & moral values.

In response, most companies in the textile, furniture, and woodworking sector are now driven by sustainability and circularity (with an emphasis on recycling and reuse) and focus on (niche) quality rather than quantity. While Fedustria can already help companies on these topics with the organization of workshops and seminars, Karla believes that setting up practical learning platforms would further improve the way people learn and get inspired by others.

Finally, when talking about being future-proof, it is also worth mentioning the financial opportunities circularity offers. She also believes that the impact on Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) will get more importance, especially on the bankability of companies. Hence it is the task of Fedustria to also help its companies to become ESG-proof.

Young people are the future

Next to focusing on product quality and putting your customer needs central, Karla stresses that we cannot underestimate the importance of investing in your people. We need to introduce them to our industry and make them love our companies and our brands, in order to attract them as new employees.  And to do this, developing employer branding is crucial.

Fedustria can help with this, but companies need to be very aware of how they want to present and position themselves in the first place because the new generation is looking for a company whose values match theirs. Karla has seen several examples of how companies with a strong sustainability vision attract many young people, exactly because the visions are aligned, and these young people are looking for ways to make an impact.

Next to employer branding, there is also industry branding, something Fedustria will actively focus on in 2023. In addition to being able to help, support, consult, and give advice to the textile companies it represents, Fedustria will act as a megaphone to communicate about the initiatives taken by companies. Next to that, they want to be a catalyzer between teachers, schools, education, and companies creating one ecosystem. The creation of partnerships outside the industry is something Karla strongly believes in.

Finally, Karla has noticed that there are many great stories to tell about entrepreneurship, about young entrepreneurship, and about female young entrepreneurship in the sector. In the future, she would like to create an ambassadorship, and share testimonials of young people that are working in the sector; it might be an old business but not an old-fashioned one. If you want to inspire youngsters, you need to tell these positive stories.

A crisis shouldn’t stop companies on their way to sustainability

When asked about the future, Karla replied that there is still a lot of uncertainty. Even though there is a small stabilization in terms of the effects of the energy crisis, we see in Belgium that consumers are upholding their spending. Still, Karla prefers to be positive but realistic; “most likely the first quarter in 2023 will remain challenging after that we hope for a stabilization followed by an upturn. Despite the difficult times, it does remain important that companies do not abandon their long-term vision and goals and remain committed to innovation and sustainability. So instead of freezing all investments, be cautious and if there is a possibility, continue your way forward. “

Karla also has a message she would like to share with the government.

“During these challenging times, we see that several countries in Europe are making their own decisions to support their own industries. We must be careful that we will not be out of the market due to legislation and aggressive support in other countries. Our government has a very important responsibility to guarantee competitiveness, whilst European solidarity in the Internal Market is respected.” In Karla’s view, the best way to support business, with the upcoming tax reform in mind, is to create an incentive for continued investments in Belgium and not to increase costs or uncertainty for companies.

The power of female entrepreneurship

As a female leader herself, Karla strongly believes in female entrepreneurship and female leadership. Based on research and her own experiences, Karla sees that the management teams or companies where female leaders are operating are stronger at social commitments and represent a more participative leadership. Next to that, Karla also believes that female leaders are less afraid of showing their vulnerability which is very important to be a strong leader. In Dutch there is the saying Leading by Kracht, leading by Macht. It is about the ability to move things. Karla sees herself as someone who likes to work from ‘Kracht’.

For Karla, a strong female leader is someone who:

  • Is honest
  • Is transparent
  • Listens to everyone
  • Gets everyone on board
  • Focusses on participative leadership  
  • Takes decisions in an inclusive manner

Esther Perel, an inspiring woman for Karla

Karla is easily fascinated by the way people talk and the way they can make things happen. For her, a person that can inspire her is a good leader.

When asked if there is one person who inspires her a lot, Karla mentions Esther Perel, a Belgian American Canadian psychotherapist known for her work on relationships and how the quality of relationships determines the quality of life. She is probably not the first corporate leader people would refer to, but for Karla, she is an inspiring female leader by the way she speaks and by her inspiring books.

One last message

For Karla, there are two different ways to look at a situation: a positive and pessimist one, and she likes to refer to this quote from Churchill, used on the Fedustria New Year’s card: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity and an optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty.”

In every situation, you get the choice of how you want to look at it. So, as it is a new year, let’s all remind ourselves, that even when we go through tough times, to look to the future, and stay optimistic!

If this episode has inspired you to continue investing in sustainability and new collaboration, know that you can count on the support and experience of the Ellie.Connect network and the Ellie team along the way!