My name is Erica van Engel (45) and I’m a single mom and social entrepreneur from the Netherlands. I teach women to make a difference by doing business so they can be the change they want to see in this world. My transformational story started in 1998.
I was a young single women who loved to go out, dancing, having fun and enjoying life. But then suddenly I felt less energetic and like something was wrong with my health but my general practitioner told me it was nothing special. I was just getting older and had to do more exercises. I know that wasn’t the problem. And that one day in early 1999 I passed out without any reason and woke up on the ground of my corridor, I knew there had to be more going on in my body. I insisted to see a medical doctor and they started medical researchers in the hospital. After a few months they stopped the researches as I became pregnant. I had a wonderful pregnancy. Never felt sick and I wasn’t gaining a lot of weight. On the other hand, while the baby was growing healthy inside me I was losing weight. A few day before the delivery I only weigh 125 lbs. On the 10th of January, after a very difficult delivery of 30 hours I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. I lost a lot of blood and got maternity fever. But after a few days in the delivery center I went home.
Six weeks afterwards we started we resumed with the medical researchers. I will never forget that day. Because when I came home from the hospital there was a voicemail that said I had to get back to the hospital immediately. I called and said I wasn’t coming in because I have to take care of my baby. We ended up in a discussion and that stopped immediately when they said I was going to die if I wasn’t coming. You can imagine how fast my bag was packed. As I entered the hospital they couldn’t tell me what they found, only that it looked very bad. In the four weeks afterwards I was drained, had a small surgery in my lungs and things went very bad. I was losing weight very quickly and was only 97 lbs. I could hardly get out of bed and my family was afraid of losing me. But I wasn’t going to die. I had faith in my doctor because he had faith in me. He said I don’t know what you have that’s why I’m not giving you any medication, because the wrong medication could kill you. But he was wasn’t going to let me go and I believed him. I prayed and argued with God. I told Him that is was no option for me to die. I gave birth to my daughter and I planned on raising her myself. And I also had the strong feeling I wasn’t finished yet. I had to do something in this world, do something meaningful. He could not take that opportunity from me!
I remember there was a nurse, Ruth. She said to me: “Baby, you can fight with the Lord, but he brought you into this world, so He also has the right to take you back”. Her words made me more fierce. But one day in the fourth week I did die for a moment. I remember leaving my body and floating above it, looking at my body in the hospital bed. A nurse came in and she talked to me. As I wasn’t answering, she called my name a few times. Then she went out of the room to call another nurse. At that moment I descended into my body again. The rest of the day I cannot remember.
But what I do remember is that after a few days my aunt came to visit me and she told someone told her we should ask the doctors if I they looked for a disease called Sarcoidosis. They did a few extra tests and they made the diagnosis. I got Prednison as a medicine and regained my strength very easy. At the end of the fifth week I was strong enough to go back home so I could be with my baby girl.
It was this experience that made me realize that I had two purposes in life. The first reason was to raise my daughter and the second was to achieve a purpose in some way, yet not knowing what that purpose should be. At that time I was working as an Office Manager in a welfare organization. After 6 months I returned to my work, but wasn’t feeling fulfilled anymore. So I made a switch to become a HRM officer for a major daycare center organization and after a year I switched to working for an interest group, but that also didn’t feel right so I decided to take a sabbatical in 2003.
As I’m a workaholic a got bored very soon and came up with a plan to do something for my country of origin Surinam. I started an internship agency that matches Dutch students with Surinamese organizations. This initiative arose from the conviction that knowledge contributes more to the development of developing countries than giving money. Besides my agency, a few other people and locals started to match students and businesses. Our advocacy for internships in Surinam led to more than 1.000 students choosing for Surinam. This not only resulted in the transfer of knowledge and workforce but also in € 5.000.000 per year in income for the local entrepreneurs, tourism sector and local citizens who rented their house to the students. A small initiative had a major impact.
It also had an impact on my careerd. As I was asked to do lectures and speeches on why and how I started the internship agency over and over, and was paid to do so, I started a consulting agency in corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship in 2006. I finally found my other purpose: making a difference by doing business and be the change I want to see in this world. I believe that this is the best way to handle the challenges we are facing in today’s world. “This world” can be: your office, your industry, a community in your area, or one at the other side of the globe.
Like Jane Goodall says:
“What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
PS: I had to take medicines until 2009 and I still have a medical checkup twice a year. But all goes well. My baby is now a very smart and healthy 16 year old girl.
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