Prioritising impact and maintaining balance: interview with Gwen van Berne
Gwen van Berne, Oikocredit's Director of Finance and Risk
Gwen van Berne joined Oikocredit as Director of Finance & Risk in May 2022. In this interview, she shares a bit about herself, her new role and the cooperative’s latest quarterly financial report.
You’ve been at Oikocredit for about five months now. What are your first impressions?
I’m really enjoying my job and the people and teams that I work with. It’s a beautiful combination of being surrounded by diverse people and serving an important purpose. So I’m happy and grateful to be here. The many different backgrounds make our culture very rich and bring different experiences to the table. I’ve also recognised that Oikocredit has many different governance layers, which can make it difficult for everyone to align and be connected, but when we do align, our bridges are strong and powerful.
What motivated you to work for Oikocredit in the first place?
Helping people through financial services is very important to me. I’ve been working in financial services for a long time but I really wanted to create more value and impact. So this work is the perfect mix of purpose, passion and my expertise. I think it’s crucial that we all take responsibility for trying to make the world a better place and Oikocredit is in a good position to do that. I’ve also worked with members before and really like the dedication and conviction they bring.
What have you learned so far? Has anything encouraged or inspired you?
I love that I’m learning more about Africa. I’ve worked in many different regions, but Africa is new for me and it’s such a diverse and important region. Not only is it relevant for our line of work but Africa is home to a wide variety of resources and the region will continue to grow in importance.
Something that has encouraged me: I really value diversity in all forms and am passionate about stimulating new leadership and empowering women. This is really something that Oikocredit embodies and does very well. It’s important to encourage women in leadership roles because the world is not yet gender equal and I’m thankful that Oikocredit has a balanced mix of leaders. In fact, this is the first time in my entire career that I’ve had a woman Managing Director and I find this very inspirational.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced at Oikocredit so far?
As I said before, Oikocredit is a diverse, global cooperative with many layers, which is a great asset. At the same time, it can be a challenge for complex organisations to have a united understanding of how they do things and to look at the bigger picture together. We seem to have an abundance of policies but we sometimes lack clear norms across the cooperative. People at Oikocredit are hardworking and engaged. They know the impact and importance of their work, but they don’t always allow themselves enough time to step outside of their role or department, so that we can connect and select our joint priorities together. At the moment I see a lot of good initiatives to harmonise this and I am certain that we will see more change in this area.
Another positive challenge is that working for a social impact investor is a very precise job. We can’t lose money because we need it to carry out our mission, support our partners, and create a fair return for our investors, but our work is about social impact, not profit making. Every deal has to create an impact but the margin has to be healthy or it will impact the sustainability of what we do. So it’s very important to maintain the right balance in every area and I find that a really good challenge and aspect of the organisation.
Oikocredit just published its facts and figures for the third quarter of 2022. Can you share anything about this?
Unfortunately the current environment is still very volatile. High inflation, rising interest rates, the Ukraine conflict, and Covid-19 spikes and lockdowns in Asia have been main contributors to this. Despite the environment, our operations are still doing pretty well and we are able to see improved results. We initially had a net financial loss of € 9.1 million after we sold the term investments portfolio but we were able to compensate for this over the past couple months. That loss is now at € 5.2 million and we have a positive outlook for the remainder of the year. The underlying loan portfolio is stable and performing well. Our development financing portfolio grew, improved in quality and generated a net income increase.
What do our results mean for the cooperative?
It means that our work continues to be more and more relevant and so we need to continue to make sure we are doing our best to take care of our partners. We need to put our money and resources in places that make a large impact and where we can innovate, but we also need to stay in a healthy position to be able to continue our work. This is that balance I was talking about and I’m confident that we can continue to manage it, like we have done for almost 50 years. We will also continue to prioritise building up resiliency – for Oikocredit and for our partners.
Where do you see Oikocredit going?
If we continue in the direction we are going, then I see us becoming even more resilient, impactful and innovative. I’m excited about our new strategy and the areas we can improve and grow in. I see a future where our work will grow in relevance and where our processes will be modernised and where we can attract a wider group of investors. I’m positive about where we are going and I’m thankful that I can play a role in helping us get there.
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