As Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Carola Schouten (1977) works day in day out on behalf of Dutch farmers, horticulturalists and fishermen. Who she is today, she says, was shaped years ago as a business administration student at Erasmus University. “It was the best time of my life.”
TEXT: Karin Koolen
PHOTOGRAPHY: Mark Horn
Carola Schouten's parents ran a farm in Giessen. But her father died early, so she and her siblings began helping their mother wherever they could. Schouten: “What held my interest wasn’t so much the farm itself as its managerial underpinnings: what processes were involved in its running, what must you pay attention to, how were decisions made ... My mum and I would often discuss these issues, and I knew before long that I wanted to know more about things like these.” Thus in 1995, at the age of seventeen, Schouten left the farm to study business administration. A Brabant native to the core, she’d deliberated for a while between Groningen and Rotterdam, but in the end chose the ‘down-to-earth’ port city with its promise of international allure.
Back then, though ...
(laughs) “True, Rotterdam wasn't nearly as heady as it is now, but it was on its way. I found lodgings in the western part of the city, in a neighbourhood that was just starting to rid itself of drug dealers. I’d arrived as the city was starting to come into its own, and I loved it. Things were happening! I’d grown up in a small, quiet village and was dying to experience the big wide world. That said, it was also sometimes a bit scary; we never cycled alone at night.”
What do you recall of your first impressions and experiences on campus?
“Well, in my view, going to university meant going out into the world, so I was buzzing with eager anticipation. The business administration course was already well established by then, with over a thousand first-year students. That said, we were somewhat on the periphery of the main campus, so you had to guard against becoming invisible. I did this by promptly joining the VGSR, a Christian student association. Walking around the campus today brings back nothing but good memories. It’s almost like returning home. I had the best time of my life here.”
You mentioned how eager you were to drink it all in; what did that mean in practice?
“I’d been pretty studious in secondary school and had always pushed myself to get the highest grades. But I relaxed a bit in my first year at university. I still wanted to pass every exam, but felt I didn’t necessarily have to come top of the class in every subject. My studies were important, but so was my personal development. So I studied hard and immersed myself in VGSR life. Public debates, long discussions into the night, ... . Not just casual conversations in the pub, but serious discussions with friends about how the world worked. Nothing escaped our attention, from theological and philosophical issues to what was happening in China, and the chats could develop in any direction. It was through all of this that I began to discover myself.”
“Your education includes what you learn from those you meet along the way who show faith in you and help you along.“
And what did you discover about yourself?
“That I was deeply interested in society. Meanwhile I’d entered university with the idea of joining the corporate world and perhaps working for a multinational company somewhere abroad. But I remember scoring top marks in something called “introduction to the business administration of public bodies”. I’d been completely hooked by its content. How do businesses operate in relation to society? They don’t function in a vacuum, after all, but in relation to people, the government, society. What’s a company’s reason for being? What’s its goal and motivation? What role can companies play in addressing social issues? Everything suddenly fell into place once I saw the connection between business and society, and I promptly signed up to major in business-society management. I also began taking additional minors, in things like social history and reformational philosophy. The business-society management group was pretty small at the time, so we had to do a lot on our own. And we did it all as a team, and went out together on field trips. It was hugely inspiring, and I became increasingly aware of what drove me. It's a wonderful feeling when all your interests and impulses start to gel, and you finally have the clarity to follow your true path and deepen your knowledge in an area that resonates with you.”
What from those days remains with you in your role as a minister?
“It’s nothing subject-specific. I've never worked in business; it’s always been in government and politics. You know, I entered university thinking that since I was very business-like by nature, I was probably meant to be a tough businesswoman. But in the end, it’s about what truly resonates with you. And for me it wasn’t marketing or strategic management. I used to occasionally wonder if I’d picked the right course. But I finally decided that I had, because I do have a business-like side to my character — a way of approaching things in a clear-sighted and professional manner while also trusting my own convictions. It’s how I work now: first I want the facts, and then I use my political and personal beliefs to inform the options and trade-offs. You need to be prepared to challenge your beliefs and each other. And to follow your intuition.”
Are you still in touch with people at the university?
“I’m still in touch with people in the business-society management department. I was invited not long ago to speak at the department’s 20th anniversary celebrations, which I did with pleasure! I’ll be forever grateful to the people in that department. I fell pregnant during my studies, following an exchange period at a university in Tel Aviv. I was yet to write my thesis, but had to postpone it. I needed a job, a house... The department staff supported me all the way, and kept reassuring me that they would get me through it. I can never thank people like Lucas Meijs and Rob van Tulder enough for what they did for me. They saw me through to my graduation and for that will always mean a lot to me. Your education includes what you learn from those you meet along the way who show faith in you and help you along. Being here taught me that.”
Your son is about to follow in your footsteps as a business administration freshman. Coincidence?
“His decision had absolutely nothing to do with me! (laughs) But of course I’m not unhappy about it. I have to resist spoiling the surprise of what lies ahead; that’s for him to discover. Besides, things have changed quite a bit since my time. If I had just one thing to tell him and, in fact, all freshers, it’d be this: these are the best years of your life. At no other time will you have as much freedom to develop as an individual. So use the time to find out where your heart, passion and talents lie, and blossom!”