How Anne Miltenburg creates space by branding the change

Happyplaces Stories (video)

One of the things that triggered me in all the interviews that you do, is this question about ‘how do you create space?’ Because creating space is such an important theme in life and your work. So I thought a lot about that term, that question of ‘how have I created space?’ or ‘how have I seen other people create space?’ In ways that I admire. The most important one for me has been to move 7,000 kilometres away from where I was born and brought up.

Be the minority

In 1999, I was in the US and Australia during my studies to become a designer here in The Hague. I went to Mali for a while. I did a lot of projects across Europe, in France, in the UK and then worked in Korea. Three years ago I decided to move to Kenya. There is something incredible about working abroad. People always say that you should travel and see the world. But I don’t think you see the world when you travel. You see the world when you live and work somewhere that’s not your own culture. Apparently, all the cliches are true, that you can learn a lot from other cultures and that it is enriching. But the biggest thing that it does for me is that it challenges a lot of the assumptions that you have about things. You realise what a product of your culture you are, your parents’ values, even of your country’s nationalism, the history classes that you have been taught. I would recommend that to anyone, to work abroad for a bit. Not the US or Australia, or some other white country, but to have the balls to go somewhere to be a minority. See how that feels, and how you deal with that. It is a unique experience. If you go to another country and you experience what it is like to be a minority. You can tell the nature of a country by how it treats its minorities. That’s an eyeopener if you come from an affluent western country.

Tiny fish

There are cultural dimensions that you have defined yourself as a person. So you think: ‘This is who I am, I’m unique. I don’t feel Dutch; I don’t feel European.’ Well, wait until you move to Saudi Arabia, and you will find out that you are very Dutch. You are very white. You are very leftwing. And that there are a lot of things that you have in common with the other people that you usually associate with, potentially. If you like that kind of thing, it is great for your personal development because you run into an immense amount of challenges to your way of thinking or your way of making decisions. That is a great sport. So I have always done as much as I can in my adult life at least, to create that kind of difficult situations for myself. If you want to be a really big fish in a small pond, then you should stay at home. But if you don’t mind to be a tiny fish in a really big pond, then it is great to decide to move. To say: ‘I’m respected in my community, and I have built a kind of career. But I go to a country where I know two people. I’m going to start a business.’ That is the best challenge you can give yourself. It will shatter your ego. You have to prove to yourself and others what you’re worth in a way that is liberating. It gives you space to discover what you can do well and what you’re not so great at. It allows you to build your confidence in a new way. That looking at the world through what is needed in that culture, what the norms are is really interesting.

Different truths

Working in Korea, one of the funniest things was that we had a team meeting on Monday morning. You realise as a Dutch person, hearing the term team meeting, you immediately know what that is. We all get together, we talk about what’s to come, we discuss who is doing what. There is a lot of discussion and compromise. You can tell the boss you don’t agree. In Korea on Monday morning, the boss would get up — I was the only foreign person on that team — the boss would get up and for two hours talk. In Korean. About what we’re going to do that week. Everybody was taking notes. And that was the team meeting. To me, that wasn’t a team meeting, but it was so good to discover that different cultures work in such different ways. That, you as a Dutch person, are so conditioned. Even if you’re 25, you’re allowed to speak up to the boss. You’re allowed to say that you don’t agree. You have some right to complain. You have a right to bring a different course into a company, potentially. I learned that what was interesting, that if you have a good leader and everyone follows that leader and just goes, you can do amazing things. It is sometimes so tiring in Holland, that everyone needs to be consulted and that everyone should be allowed to bring their opinion in. But of course, the downside of having a leader and following that leader is, when he makes bad decisions then off the cliff you go with all your other lemmings. This are things that I really appreciate. They show you how else things can be done.

Another thing that I liked in Korea was is that people became friends at work. They would say: ‘What’s the point in working with someone if you’re not friends? We’re going to spend 16 hours a day together.’ For someone who likes their individual space, which is a signifier of Dutch and western culture, that was a bit tough. I thought: ‘I’m not here to make friends.’ I don’t mind making friends. I don’t mind making friends in the process, but that wasn’t my goal. We should all have these experiences, that challenge you, that delight you. That you know when you are 80, and you think back about your life, you know this is going to be the things where I’m going to look back on, if I make it that far, hopefully.

I was in Saudi Arabia for a project; I was training a group of participants at a women’s university. And we dropped off; we were all covered. You go into the building, and all the windows are shaded so you can’t look in. Inside the building, it is only women. From your Dutch perspective, that feels like apartheid in gender relations. But interestingly enough, it is the only university where I have ever been to that has a female president, a female board, a female faculty, female security. So when I was setting up my laptop, hooking up to the sound system, a female technician is helping me out. I never had, at any place where I have spoken taught, I never had a woman helping me with tech setups. That’s such a funny thing: that you have to go to Saudi Arabia to experience that. For this woman, it was entirely normal to have that job. These are good things to have happened to you in your life.

It is not what you think it is

Three years ago I moved to Nairobi. Which, when I’m back in Holland I always get questions about. Like: ‘Are you a doctor? Do you work in development work?’ Then I say: ‘No, I’m a brand strategist.’ Then you always get a quizzical look and you have to explain a bit. Nairobi is this amazing hub for technology and social innovation. I realise that a lot of the people I work with, a lot of clients are based there, and people that I train through the workshops that we develop. So it is the perfect place to be, because the ecology there is so rich and exactly what I needed for my business. Contrary to what people think, I’m not there to help. I’m here to benefit from what the Kenyans have built. Of course, in the process of benefitting from it, I hope to contribute to it. But colonialism and development aid have successfully occupied the minds of people in the west for so many decades that it is just so hard to get that message through. That’s a shame. In the next decade or so, people will discover that. But, the beauty of it is that it doesn’t need to be discovered to be amazing. We don’t need anyone in Europe to discover how amazing things are developing in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya because it is developing entirely on its own merit. At its own speed. For its own people. It will be our loss in Europe and the rest of the western world if we don’t catch up to that. Which is a really nice thought. It’s something that every now and then, if I meet other visiting Europeans in Kenya, they ask me: ‘What are you doing here? And what’s going on?’ Then I say: ‘Come and visit, you can experience it, you can be a part of it. Just please don’t come with any good intentions.’ Wherever I worked in the world, I have noticed that people’s good intentions are lethal.

The business of helping

I lived in Australia for a while; they have these feral cats there. When the British came, and occupied, colonised or conquered or whatever name you want to use, depending on you pre-indoctrination, they brought these cats. Cats escaped, went wild and started killing the native wildlife because they were not evolved to beat these predators. A lot of westerners are like these feral cats. They go abroad, attracted by exotic problems and feel like they are equipped to help. That is one of the most dangerous things to start with. So I thought it was really important to start my journey with a really good question about what we can do to provide access to quality and knowledge around branding. At a price point and through means that would work for people and the knowledge that they needed, and started a training company that delivers that really, really well for a local market. The fact that you look at it from a business point of view is important. It eradicates some of that outdated and those highly annoying elements of ‘Let’s go and help in Africa’ syndrome that people still have, that makes my blood boil. I have been really lucky to meet an incredible amount of talented people there. To work with them, to collaborate with them and to have them offer me opportunities to grow the business. It has been an amazing amount of fun along the way.

Focus

On a personal level, a way to create space is having that focus. Let’s focus on that one creative question: ‘What can I do to create a world where a family starting a Fairtrade lemonade factory in Sierra Leone has access to as much branding as a company like Coca-Cola? So, what does that take? How can we help create that?’ Having that focus makes it very easy when you look at your week: ‘Am I going to take that call? Am I going to have that conversation?’ For people looking to create more space in their life, I can recommend that focus, because it made such a difference, to be able to prioritise your life. Not according to emotional things, email coming into the inbox. Requests coming in. Focus on what your mission is, and you are going to get there. The only way how you can get there is to make time to do that. So every hour, every day that is occupied by other things is not going to get you there. So it is much easier to say no to requests to write, to teach or to show up for something. Because you can say: ‘Well, is it going to help me to accomplish that goal?’ ‘No.’ ‘Okay, then I’ll do it when there is time left.’ Funny enough, there is never time left if you have something big that you want to achieve. I had to lave Holland in order to do that. because there were too many things here that I was interested in and that I was distrracted by.

Letting go

Another aspect of creating space is, letting go of the things that you love. I was so in love with Dutch design. I was writing about it; I was teaching at the Design Academy, I was on the board of the Dutch Designers Association (BNO), I was as a freelance creative director, I had my own clients. At some point, I weighed about 52 kilos. I had a dinner with my best friend. I was late, of course, because work had taken me too many hours. I decided to lay done on the floor because I couldn’t stand up anymore. So I lay down in my jacket as soon as I came in and I knew: ‘Oh, this isn’t good. I need to get some focus.’ So I went to school to help me find that focus. That was powerful for me. I also let go of some things that I wanted to achieve that simply weren’t getting any traction. One of the things I was passionate about was getting more entrepreneurship into design education. That proved to be a very tough battle. Branding is not necessarily the most respected field of design in the Netherlands. It already makes you a bit of the ‘commercial whore’ on the faculty. Or on the board, or… Because your natural association is with entrepreneurs. People who are building something. That’s the people where you add value, that are the people you work with. I saw a new generation of students that really wanted to learn about entrepreneurship and how they could build a professional practice. How they could avoid the pitfalls that you would see graduate after graduate fall into. That was though. It was tough in schools, it was tough even through the BNO.

The last event that I remember was a meeting where there were all these people from the art education world were, deciding on where art education which unfortunately — according to me, unfortunately — includes design education, was going to be like for the next ten years. I felt that that was the moment that we needed to get entrepeneurship in that plan. I got into quite a few tough discussions. Because they didn’t want to say ‘entrepreneurship’, they would say ‘people could be ‘enterprising’ or ‘pro-active’. I thought: ‘This is such a disservice to young people who are graduating into a world where there are fewer jobs, where they are going to have to make the difference themselves. Where there are no subsidies for design and art anymore.’ The people who are deciding for them that they don’t need to learn about any of that, are people who have been in art education for 40 years. Who have a kind of art practice on the side. Who have benefitted from all the things that the Netherlands offered in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. They have absolutely no idea what these graduates are going to end up with. So I had some words with the head of the committee. Afterwards he came up to me, stood very close, he whispered in my ear: ‘You better be careful young lady because you’re pissing in your own nest.’ I was surprised; it is not every day you get threatened by an old painter with a beret. But I also thought: ‘Well, no one wants this. If no one wants it, then I’m going to let it go. If I’m right and this is what students want, then they’ll come. I’m just going to focus on what I want to do.’ That was a really smart decision. Because I was really able to focus on what I wanted to do with my life and what I thought my profession could benefit the world. The guy who made that comment, he retired the next year. I’m very curious if any of the students who are now in art and design school, if they are benefitting from not learning about entrepeneurship, but being taught how to be entrepeneurial. Or to be enteprising. Or pro-active.

Leaving the whole biosphere of Dutch design was very good. Loving it so much, also means that you are completely aren’t aware of the fact that you live in this world that is, as we would say in Dutch: ‘wij van WC-eend, adviseren WC-eend’. Of course, we think design is great, of course, we think designers should be at the boardroom table because we are designers. The national guild of cheesemakers would advise you to eat some cheese. That all cheesemakers should have a boardroom seat. Once you step out of that little bubble, and you go into the world where people don’t know about design or Dutch design. No one in Korea knows what Dutch design is. Maybe a few people. No one in Kenya knows what Dutch design is. That’s great! Because now you have to make that argument again, potentially in new and better ways and you have to prove. You didn’t have a generation of people who proved to the government that design works to make people better informed like we have here. By leaving, and going 7,000 kilometres, you drop this baggage that you have been carrying. That’s tough. Because you are also dropping things that apparently are very beneficial on the journey, but it is really liberating. That has been very good for me.

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