Talks that Matter - meet Arjanna van der Plas, Leadership Coach & Co-Founder WOMEN’S HUB Zurich

What is your background in Social Impact/Sustainability/Communications?

I am Arjanna van der Plas, I am a Leadership Coach & Co-founder of WOMEN’S HUB Zurich. I studied Industrial Design Engineering in Delft (NL) with a focus on sustainability and did a second master’s program in Science Communication, because I found there was a lack of communication between scientists amongst themselves as well as science and society.

I worked as a science journalist and impact researcher for a while and became the Communications Director of Circle Economy in 2013, before I moved to San Francisco where I joined the OpenIDEO team and was a teacher at UC Berkeley.


In terms of social impact, I would like to highlight my work with Stories Behind The Fog, a project to rehumanize homelessness in San Francisco, one personal story at a time. Here’s a link to my TED talk about it if you’d like to learn more.

Currently, I am the co-founder of the WOMEN’S HUB, an initiative to support women to become the boldest, truest version of themselves, and I support individual women on their journey as a leadership coach.



What are your social impact goals?

When I moved from San Francisco to Zurich, it felt almost like I was traveling back in time in terms of gender equality.

For example, when we started looking for daycare, two of the daycares told us that they didn’t want to take our kids because we had just moved overseas and the kids needed their mother (and not their father, apparently ;)).

I also noticed in informal conversations that many women here in Zurich didn’t feel like they could be their best selves at work because the work culture is still quite patriarchal.


That is why I brought the WOMEN’S HUB to Zurich together with my business partner Nele Clüver. Our mission statement is ‘create a better world, together’. We strongly believe that when women support each other in becoming the boldest, truest version of themselves, we will all benefit.

We give women a stage to share their mission during our WOMEN’S HUB DAYS, of which the first international one is taking place on October 31 in Zurich. We organize online sessions for women to connect and support each other in their missions. Furthermore, we offer a WOMEN’S HUB @ WORK program to support companies in becoming more inclusive and open.

After all, research shows that companies where women thrive have higher employee engagement and retention and increased innovation power, talent attraction, and overall profitability.


What do you think does an organization need if it wants to start introducing CSR/Social Impact/Sustainability practices?

What’s interesting about this question is that the subject is “an organization”, whereas it’s always an individual, or a group of individuals, who introduces something new to the organization. To bring change to an organization requires tremendous courage and persistence. And often, it can be a lonely quest at first.


For example, we recently had Ursula Keller, the first female physics professor of ETH, as a speaker at a WOMEN’S HUB event. She shared that what keeps her going in her quest to make ETH more female-friendly is feeling supported by three female colleagues. She encounters a lot of resistance, but the fact that she has these three women by her side helps her keep her eyes on the ball and keeps her motivated.


Of course, there are all these other things, like making sure there is top-level commitment and so on, but I see time and time again that people fighting for sustainability and social impact burn themselves out while making the world a better place, and that in itself is unsustainable for the individual and therefore also for the organization.

Do you see a change in behavior in your clients?

In general, I see a readiness for a more feminine business culture, and especially for women to lead in a more authentic way, but also a huge uncertainty around how to implement that.

Will people still see me as a strong leader when I show my vulnerabilities?

Can my company still make money if I make our business processes more human-centered?

What if I stop competing with other women, and instead we rise together by lifting each other up?

What if I stop hiding my vision because I am not 100% sure if it’s correct and instead get on stage and share it, so that others can help me shape and realize it?


These are big questions without cookie-cutter answers, but I can see that when our clients experience the WOMEN’S HUB culture, it often deeply touches them and they want more of it in their daily work and life.

How do new technologies and this digital age influence your work? Do you use them?

The magic of the WOMEN’S HUB was always in our physical events, so when COVID-19 hit, we were thrown off-balance for a second.

However, we did realize that especially in times of lock-down, people crave connection, so we came up with a digital event format designed especially to connect people in a meaningful way.


Each week, we open a virtual space for women to share their vision and experience around a personal or professional topic. On October 14 for example, we will have a conversation led by Jungian psychoanalyst Karin Jironet, who will share her unique vision on feminine leadership from the perspective of sin and virtue.


Although we probably all spend too much time in Zoom meetings these days, it’s incredible to see how energized and inspired the participants leave our virtual event space every week.


In your view, what’s the biggest challenge when it comes to marketing CSR/Social Impact/Sustainability efforts to the world in a more active way than merely through your sustainability report?

It’s interesting to see what happens to ‘marketing’ around COVID-19. When the pandemic started, we all wanted to read everything there was to read about it.

And now, only a few months later, we are already tired of COVID-19 news, because it is overwhelming, and we feel powerless as individuals.

The same happens with sustainability and the likes. We know it’s important, we want to care, but it’s just overwhelming to read about everything that needs to change.


So, I believe an important marketing challenge is how to relate it to people’s daily lives, their interests, and even their energy levels when they read or see your sustainability updates.

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