Act. Don’t bother about other people’s opinions. The world is full of people that will have something to say about you and your work, but don’t let that stop your growth.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Gonzalez (van der Leeuw), a social work professional and the founder of Volunteers in Colombia, a social impact foundation that helps international volunteers find a placement in Colombian NGOs. Through the organization, Andrea is also in charge of developing additional activities, including food deliveries and women empowerment through boxing and self-development classes.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Thank you for having me! I was born in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, but I was adopted to the Netherlands when I was only six months old. It was quite strange growing up in a small Dutch village as the only colored kid, but I have many great memories of my childhood.
It was a safe environment, but as I was becoming older, I realized it was simply too small for me. I couldn’t connect to people anymore — I was hungry to explore more, travel to new countries, and meet people from different cultures. When I was 17, I was studying social pedagogy, but I wasn’t particularly happy with what the education was giving me. I had the option to either quit or do an internship abroad. Luckily, my dad worked for an NGO with operations in India, so I ended up volunteering in a local women’s shelter for six months.
Honestly, that experience was an absolute eye-opener for me. It was also the first time I learned that the role of women could be fundamentally different across the world, with society dictating everything from women’s clothes to occupation. After I came back, I finished my degree and traveled to Mexico, the US, and Colombia, where I reconnected with my birth family. Eventually, I did another degree at the Groningen University, which included a 6-month minor at the University of Curacao.
In Curacao, I met my boyfriend, with whom I eventually moved to Medellín, the second-largest city of Colombia. During the pandemic, I then started my organization, Volunteers in Colombia, and since then, my life has been centered around that. Currently, we are working on some exciting projects to empower communities in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of the city called La Honda.
I feel a strong, special connection to Colombia, though my mind is entirely European. This creates a unique combination: In the Netherlands, I was different. Here, I am also different. People can never get it: “Who is this girl?” But I love it; it’s like you don’t fit anywhere but also fit everywhere!
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
We are helping international volunteers find opportunities in Colombia. Apart from that, we are actively working on advancing gender equality and reducing hunger, the second and fifth goals of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the UN.
However, perhaps our biggest focus right now is to create a sustainable women empowerment project. When I first visited La Honda, I noticed there was a boxing school, but it was mostly male. As I learned more about the community, I figured it would be great to give opportunities to women as well — in boxing and beyond. Today, we help these women find their voices, identify what their dreams are, and work to give them the tools to pursue them.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My biological mum had me when she was in an abusive relationship. While I was still a baby, she made the brave decision to leave the man, but she didn’t have the resources to give me the upbringing she wanted for me. Therefore, I feel that this subject personally affects me — it’s the very reason I got adopted. I will always feel connected to women’s rights issues.
When I came to Colombia, I saw a stark difference in women’s role in society and was tired of it. The women I know are creating, working, providing, and fighting — only for there to be such a huge gender gap? This doesn’t fit our modern times, and I will keep working to make a change.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
When it comes to developing our own impact activities, it was definitely the pandemic and the strict lockdown imposed in Colombia. At that time, I was still placing volunteers into smaller NGOs, and on a daily basis, the NGOs told me that people in poorer areas of the city were really struggling.
They would ask me: “Andrea, people are starving, is there anything you can do to help?” That was when I reached out to my network to work on preparing food packages and haven’t stopped since. More projects only snowballed from there.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
It sounds so cliché, but you just need to do it. You can prepare big business plans, read all the books ever written, and become a pro by listening to podcasts all day, but in the end, you simply need to go and do it.
For me, the most important thing was to listen to people. With my NGO, it was fundamental to research what the community really needed, not what I wanted. Listening makes us more perceptive, guiding us towards the role we can play to serve others — be it in business or social impact. Then, you simply need to work with the resources that you have and not be afraid to ask for help.
In Europe, everybody chases success blindly. However, I believe that it’s more about the community you build along the way. You have this idea, pitch it, and then create a route to good people who can help you make it happen.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I love sitting down and talking to women we work with. Many of them were displaced due to the Colombian armed conflict, so their stories are extremely powerful. Still, many people tend to judge them, thinking that they live in poor conditions simply because they are lazy. However, once you hear those stories and how, despite everything, they are still capable of being positive, giving love, and enjoying life, it’s admirable. Sometimes, these women are still going through something bad when they join our projects, which is then even more impactful.
As a European, I always wonder how life is just so different here. If you want to get to La Honda, you need to take a bus — it’s often overcrowded, and you might see everything from chicken to furniture on board. The streets are so narrow, and the bus is going uphill. You almost think it can never work out… But it does! Everyone has a big smile on their face, the bus driver is blasting loud music, and everybody is singing — even if they don’t sing well at all! My experiences with the NGO have put many things in my life into perspective.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I think the funniest mistakes that happen to me are language errors. Once, we were having a conversation about the things that scare us. With a sudden burst of confidence, I started talking about my biggest fear — though I didn’t realize I confused the word “orange” for “spider” in Spanish. It was a moment until we figured out it was a miscommunication, but I must say it was a very bonding moment. Humor can really break down barriers between people.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Definitely my parents in the Netherlands! When stuck in the work mindset, you are always looking forward, but they always remind me how far I have already come. When we opened a school, for example, I was already thinking about all the next steps, but they made me realize that it’s important to celebrate too.
My dad has also taught me a lot about the financial side of things. I am also grateful to my boyfriend, who often helps me see things from a different perspective. Sometimes, I need to navigate so many aspects of our operations, and talking to him helps me take a step back and restrategize.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When we started working in the community, I noticed one girl that was struggling. She was just getting into her adolescence and felt confused about many things. In the beginning, she was quite angry, often shouting and swearing.
Getting through to her was a challenge because there’s only so much I can understand about her struggles — I have never lived her experience. Every girl in the project deals with trauma, and there are so many things going through their heads.
Now, I am happy to say that this girl is much more open about her emotions and communicates them in a better way. She is also getting better at boxing and could do a sparring tournament in the future! It’s very rewarding to see the impact of our projects even after a few months.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
First, we need to talk about the issue: We need to acknowledge that gender inequality is a problem. As I learn more about the topic, I see that the gender gap exists in the Netherlands, too, though it’s much more covert. Still, people there often expect women to act in a certain way. So, whether in the Netherlands or Colombia, we need to sit down and talk about it.
Second, we need to set plans of action that are sensitive to these issues. In Medellín, 50% of women in the productive age currently don’t have a job — and various actors can help. For example, if you are a small business owner, learn more about how you contribute to tackling these issues.
Third, we need to be consistent and hold each other accountable. It’s not just enough to be vocal about things in the short term. Don’t get me wrong, I love pride month, but social issues shouldn’t be a trending topic — we need to work on them consistently. Women empowerment isn’t only a women’s issue: Men that understand its benefits are likely to support it, so it’s a human rights issue.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Everything comes with time. Maybe you’d like to go from 1 to 100, but that’s not how life works, so take things step by step.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. In the beginning, I wanted to do everything by myself, but I have learned that it’s the recipe for burnout.
- Enjoy the struggle. Life will not happen when you reach that next milestone; it’s already here.
- Don’t be stuck on the little things. Zoom out; one thing that is not there yet doesn’t mean that you are not progressing. Don’t dwell on that one thing that isn’t working out.
- Act. Don’t bother about other people’s opinions. The world is full of people that will have something to say about you and your work, but don’t let that stop your growth.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
You can never expect someone else to do the work — change starts with you. If you want to make an impact, you need to start somewhere, no matter how small. There are always opportunities out there if you keep your eyes open. And activities like volunteering are a great start!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet up with someone I could learn from and share experiences with! A powerful woman that comes to mind is Lucy Kurien, the founder of the Indian NGO Maher, an extremely inspiring organization that provides support to disadvantaged women and children in the country. She is my inspiration.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!