From Film Major to International Government Grant Expert

Lydia Gitsels is from Amsterdam, where she runs her own business as a government grant expert. Through her company, Nova Connect, Lydia researches and matches local, national, and European government grant programs with small and medium businesses seeking support.

When you were 17, what did you want to be?

When I was a teenager…wow, that’s a hard question because when I was a teenager I just didn’t know anything really. When I was younger, I wanted to be an F-16 pilot, but I think I wouldn’t have made the medical test. But it’s never too late; I can still do it. [laughs]. And then in high school I just didn’t know, but we were forced to make a decision and you were forced to think about it and you had to pick a study basically.

How did you decide on your major in college?

In Holland, you do three years of high school and then you make a decision about whether you want to do the hard sciences, or if you want to do the language side of it, or economics. So you already have to make a decision when you’re 13, 14 years old, and then the last three years you have to focus on what you want to do next.

I picked economics and languages basically because I didn’t like my science teachers. I did like my geography and economics teacher, so it made sense to pick that program. It was still pretty open as to what careers were available, but I had no clue. Some kids knew — they were pretty determined about doing business or medicine or whatever, but I didn’t know. It was just surviving high school for me.

I was 16 when I had to make a decision about what to do for a bachelor’s degree. In Holland, we have a wide range of programs, the most insane combinations of programs. So I ended up choosing Theater, Movie, and Television Science. For this program I had to watch movies and I was like, “Sure, I’ll watch movies, I’ll go to the theater, sounds good!” But we did not learn about how to make a movie, or how to set up a theater play. We just learned about history and theory and ethics, no skills for actual jobs.

How did you get from college to where you are now?

Usually in Holland, you do a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and that’s four years total, but I decided to do a different kind of master’s degree. I liked the Theater, Movie, and Television Science program; it was fun, it taught me how to study, but it didn’t teach me anything that I could use for a real job. So I decided to do international relations for a master’s degree.

I think a big part of it was that, at that time, I was dating a Turkish guy so I was flying in and out of Turkey a lot. I think mainly I wanted to have a job where I could travel. Just focusing on Holland would not be enough for me. While doing the program, I liked the economic courses, but I also really enjoyed the ethics courses, focusing on war and peace, and the ethics of war. Funnily enough, my mom did her Ph.D. in theology and ethics was a big part of her study. But ethics is not a topic you can choose, it’s not a program really.

Then I wanted to do a trainingship at the Ministry of Defense, but there was a big economic crisis and all the trainingships got cancelled. So I was looking for a job and I was still talking to people at the company where I’d worked during my graduate studies. I let them know I was looking for a job, and two weeks later I got an email saying, “You have a job.”

What was your job there?

This company took care of government grants for small and medium enterprises, so the job that I got offered was as a business consultant, helping those companies to get the grants. It was just by accident that I started working for this for-profit company, focusing on business, when I did not study economics or anything like that.

I thought the job was perfect for someone who had just graduated. It required you to analyze possible matches between investments and projects on the one side and government grant programs on the other side. I would also get to connect with companies and the government. So whichever direction I wanted to go after this job, either towards government or commercial business, it would come in handy.

I was with them for four years; during that time, I started out at the call center, I worked in the financial administration, I did sales, and I ended up in management. This company had a lot of potential, but I thought that things had to be done differently. I was working really hard, so hard that I got burned-out. It was a male dominated culture, so I was undermined at every turn. This company actually almost went bankrupt, and then a bigger company bought them, and said, “Ok, we have to let you go.” I was kind of relieved that I didn’t have to go back to that company because the environment was pretty hard. And then I thought about what I wanted to do professionally.

I realized that I really, really liked the job. And having worked at the call center and the financial department and in sales and as a business consultant and in management, I thought, “I could do this on my own.” So I started my own company. I wasn’t allowed to contact my old clients, so I had to get a new set of clients, which worked out pretty well, and everything is going great. That’s one and a half years ago that I founded my own company, and now I’m traveling the world.

Looking back, what seems clear to you now?

I could have never imagined that this is where I would end up. Thinking back, I was always anxious because everyone had a five or ten-year plan and I never had that, because I couldn’t see that far into the future. If there is one thing I would say to myself, it’s “Don’t be anxious, because you’re smart enough to get somewhere.” I’ve always grabbed the opportunities that came my way. But society tells you to have a plan, to know what you want to do. But do you really? It’s okay not to know.

I think you’re never done learning, and college for me was learning how to study and to learn and to explore and to analyze. And that’s the most valuable thing I got out of it, not necessarily the topic itself. But that skill set helps you explore anything and everything. Professionally, I work with so many different companies, agriculture companies, IT companies, high tech systems and materials, and these aren’t topics that I know anything about. But I can research it and have an idea of what it’s about, and I know how to ask the right questions. Apart from that, in life, I just want to be open to new experiences and explore and be amazed and always ask questions.