‘Discover what fires you up and get noticed for it’

November 28, 2022

“You don't decide whether to become a role model, you are a role model." These three topflight alumnae are keen to function as role models for female TU/e students.

Aukje Doornbos, Ellis ten Dam and Sandra Heuts. Photos: Loraine Bodewes

Aukje Doornbos, Ellis ten Dam, Sandra Heuts. These three topflight alumnae have more than earned their stripes and in their capacity as female role models are keen to pass on the lessons they've learned to the upcoming generation of women in engineering. A three-way conversation about hurdles, humor, and the importance of sponsors who help you move ahead in your career.

TU/e International Women's Day

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Pushing the limits for a livable world". How can we bring about a future without climate change, ecological breakdown, pandemics, scarcity, war, discrimination and other threats to a humane and equal living society? 

Join us for an inspiring event this Wednesday March 8, with talks and interviews with female TU/e students, staff and alumnae who are working towards a better world. 

“You don't decide whether to become a role model, you are a role model. Once you realize that and start thinking about how you can help and what you can pass on, you can actively inhabit the role,” says Sandra Heuts, managing partner of Risk Advisory at Deloitte.

She is often approached by women to speak off the record on themes related to career development. “I was the first woman to join the management team, so I didn't have many female role models. Luckily, I had a fantastic boss who believed in me and let me do things my own way - an experience that boosted my self-confidence no end.”

This emphasis on the importance of female role models is endorsed by Aukje Doornbos, managing director of Covestro Netherlands. “I joined DSM in 2004 and women in higher positions there became my role models. These women were happy to have the younger generation come to them for advice. About things like how to combine having a career with children. Practical matters that men never have to consider but that as women we do. When this question is put to them, a great many women refuse to answer. ‘It's not a question you'd ask a man, is it?’ Me, on the other hand, I'm all in favor of talking about it because then other women get an idea of how it can be done.”

Aukje Doornbos. Photo: Loraine Bodewes

How they combine their career with children is a question some women refuse to discuss, but me, I'm all in favor of talking about it.

Aukje Doornbos, managing director of Covestro Nederland

“It feels good and it's inspiring, especially during your first ten years, a period of perpetual uncertainty about everything you're encountering, to be able to learn from other women who've already cleared these hurdles.” My role models were really valuable, says Doornbos. “But the people responsible for my being where I am now were often men - my sponsors. They let me show what I'm capable of when I do things my way.”

A sponsor is someone in a key position who actively helps you move ahead in your career. Doornbos herself sponsors talented young people. “Sponsoring involves a deeper connection, a connection that makes you want to go that extra mile for someone. I've got a list of women in OneNote and whenever a role falls vacant or we're discussing talented young people, I run down that list looking for potentials,” says Doornbos.


Ellis ten Dam, commercial director of Buildings at Royal HaskoningDHV, adds: “A sponsor can also be someone from outside your own organization.” For her, an important sponsor was the director who brought her into Royal HaskoningDHV. “At the time I was the first woman, but he had the courage to hire me. His words were: ‘You're exactly who I want because you aren't the same.’” Ten Dam stresses that you don't need to limit yourself to just one sponsor. “See what you need, and go shopping.”

To nudge them in the right direction, Heuts regularly calls up her protégés. “I see it as an informal network of women helping each other move ahead. As a sponsor I can bring something to that network. I can give advice, or put two parties in touch with one another, perhaps to pave the way for them to talk. There’s more to this network than just climbing the career ladder. It's all about connecting, discovering where your passion lies,” says Heuts. “There’s no need to brag either; good sponsors can spot your ability,” adds Doornbos.

Aukje Doornbos is managing director of Covestro Netherlands, a German chemical company with its roots in Bayer. The company produces high-tech plastics for use in insulation materials, electric cars, cell phones and TVs, and it produces coatings for, among other things, solar panels. From 1998 through 2004 Doornbos studied Chemistry & Chemical Engineering at TU/e.

Sponsors in all phases

Role models and sponsors can be useful at various times, including at university. “As a graduating student, I was given a position on the KiVi board (Royal Netherlands Society of Engineers) that I later handed on to another female student,” says Ten Dam. Heuts was a student assistant and was asked a lot of questions about the position by other students. “So I was already a role model when I was still studying.”

Doornbos emphasizes that role models don't necessarily need to be ten steps ahead of you. “Keep looking just one step ahead, the women there still have clear memories of what the previous phase was like. That makes it easier to approach them.”

Ellis ten Dam. Photo: Loraine Bodewes

If you are passionate about something, you'll be able to shine and get noticed.

Ellis ten Dam, commercial director of Buildings at Royal HaskoningDHV

But sponsors don't just fall into your lap, as Doornbos knows. “You have to put yourself out there, be proactive.” Ten Dam advises seeking a sponsor connected with whatever it is that fires you up. “If you're passionate about something, you'll be able to shine, and that gets noticed. Be bold, approach people who may be able to help you move forward.” Heuts adds: “There are plenty of people who want to sponsor a talented young person. Make use of that!”

Women in a man's world

All three are working women in a man's world, but they are all unfazed. They know from experience that it pays to be well armed with humor, a healthy sense of perspective, and good preparation.

“This men versus women stance sometimes gets my goat,” says Ten Dam. “I grew up in a family of boys and when I joined the company I was the only woman, but that's never really bothered me. We're all on the same side, after all. Having people come at things from different perspectives only makes an organization better. It's enriching. And gender balance isn't the sum total of diversity either,” she argues.

“I completely agree,” says Doornbos. “But that's not to say that as the only woman or, say, Indian, you might not feel a little uncertain. Rest assured, there are things you can do to boost your confidence and shine. Ensure that you aren't underdressed. Dress in a way that makes you feel powerful and sure of yourself. ”

Heuts adds that you need to know yourself well. “Suppose you know that you aren't assertive enough to raise your hand before anyone else in a meeting when what's at stake is, say, volunteering to lead a team. Then you need to find some helping strategies, a good way to work around the hurdle. That might be by suggesting a new procedure: the opportunity after the meeting for people to express their interest. And that's also a way of demonstrating personal leadership.”

If someone says to me ‘I'd like a black coffee’, I say ‘Me too. Will you get it?’ By using humor you can make a point without laboring it.

Aukje Doornbos, managing director Covestro Nederland

Doornbos has encountered unconscious prejudice regularly throughout her career. But she approaches these situations with humor. “One day I was sitting in my office - I had just become business manager at DSM - when a man walked in and asked me if I could check when the business manager would have time to see him. ‘I’ll have a look in a minute,’ I replied. I was angry and amazed, but I also realized that he hadn't walked into my office with the aim of upsetting me. He fitted what he saw into his worldview and acted accordingly.”

Even now it's not unknown for someone to say ‘I'd like a black coffee’ to Doornbos. “Dammit, I'm the managing director, I think. But I know it's not done deliberately, and I make my point with humor by saying, ‘Me too. Will you get it?’”

Cultural lens

The story Doornbos tells elicits a smile from Heuts. “Yes, I've experienced it too in my work, but I've never thought there was any nastiness intended. It's to do with the lens through which a person looks at the world, not only at women but at other cultures too. One time we received a Japanese delegation. Where you sit is very important on an occasion like that. At the table I simply took the seat befitting my position, but it did cause some raised eyebrows. I see these cultural differences as enriching the world in which I work. That way it feels less personal.”

Sandra Heuts is managing partner of Risk Advisory at Deloitte, one of the largest providers of professional services in consultancy and accountancy, and advisory services related to tax, risk and finance. She studied Mechanical Engineering at TU/e from 1986 through 1992.

Ten Dam says that she too is very aware of her positioning in situations, a business deal for example. “I don't want them walking all over me so I come well prepared. I distribute the roles and tasks in advance. That keeps me on my toes. I'm always playing the positioning game. Mastering it gives me the opportunity to build on the things I think are important.”

Claim your place

Sometimes the positioning game is a matter of where you're seated at the table, how close to the center of power you are. Doornbos was working at DSM when it was acquired by Covestro. “I was among those who moved across. Not only was I the only woman, I was ten to fifteen years younger than most of the men. I asked my coach what I could do to claim my ground. ‘Arrive at a meeting an hour earlier than everyone else and use your jacket and bag to claim your place. Then, when the boss arrives, you can reassess the best place to sit.’”


All three manage their staff intuitively, and each brings her own personal touch to the task. Doornbos: “I like to be true to myself, to combine rationality and feelings, and be bold enough to trust both. I'm not afraid to admit when I make a mistake, or to say that I don't know something. I make difficult decisions because they're necessary for the company, but I always bear in mind the people involved.”

Ten Dam sees herself as a connective leader. “I aim to bring the various perspectives to the table and connect them, both the people and the content. I look at what's happening beyond the company, and at what we need to be responsive to when we act, informed by the broader objective in the back of my mind. As soon as I have a good team that's up and running, I can let go.”

Sandra Heuts. Photo: Loraine Bodewes

I'm not the command and control type, but I certainly make decisions, even when I know they'll cause turbulence.

Sandra Heuts, managing partner of Risk Advisory at Deloitte

Heuts describes herself as a connector with vision. “I work with my head and my heart. People see me as someone who knows how to get a team running smoothly, all its members working together towards a common goal. With my enthusiasm I can get people on board with my ideas. Keeping the dialogue going, that's something I really value. I'm not the command and control type, but I certainly make decisions, even when I know they'll cause turbulence. Because I'm a good listener, I know where the noise will come from.”

The managing partner of Risk Advisory at Deloitte is the only one of the three whose work no longer directly involves engineering, but she says that she still reaps incredible benefit from the analytical and conceptual thinking that she learned while studying Mechanical Engineering. “In my work I see how powerful it is to be able to put a vision across to a broad audience, a vision with a clear picture, underpinned by a strong rationale.”

Ellis ten Dam is commercial director of Buildings at Royal HaskoningDHV, an engineering consultancy and project management specialist. Royal Haskoning has offices in more than thirty countries and more than 6,000 employees. Ten Dam studied Real Estate Management at TU/e from 1984 through 1990.

How do you set up a business? How do you become successful? These are things I can help students with.

Sandra Heuts, managing partner of Risk Advisory at Deloitte

After a conversation with TU/e Executive Board President Robert-Jan Smits during a gathering of alumni at the university, all three women decided that they wanted to strengthen their ties with their alma mater; and wanted to act for female students as the role models they already are. Heuts: “I have a lot of experience of connecting knowledge with trade and industry. Now that the valorization of research projects is on the increase at the university, I can play a useful role. How do you set up a business? How do you become successful? These are things I can help students with.”

What is needed is an active community in which the three can offer their services. “As a role model, or sparring partner,” says Heuts. “For instance, my work includes cyber security and sustainability. Women may not think that sounds very exciting, but I can talk about it very enthusiastically. That can help students to see what the field really involves, as well to recognize its relevance, to see how they could use it later on. After all, engineering is hugely relevant in a world that's becoming ever more technical.”

Doornbos and Ten Dam are also making themselves available to bat ideas around with female students. Ten Dam is curious to know what needs the students have. “Sparring can be one-on-one, but it can also happen on a platform where demand and supply come together.”

Platform for dialogue

Heuts is convinced that the power of active alumni lies not in one-on-one conversations but in upscaling. “This needs to become a group in which people help each other, otherwise it'll stay small. On a platform you get dialogue and you can ensure continuity. You can get to know each other here, feel familiar with one another. You aren't going to talk about your problems to someone you just met, are you? If you want depth, you need to give it time to grow.” Doornbos concludes: “We've got the experience and we want to help. Make use of that, because we're here for you guys!”

You can get in touch with Sandra Heuts, Aukje Doornbos and Ellis ten Dam via alumni@tue.nl and the alumniplatform.

From our strategy: alumni

TU/e attaches great value to maintaining its contact with - and the involvement of - former students. After all, alumni are the university's ambassadors and the champions of its good name. They take their knowledge and experience into society, helping to move forward societal issues, helping with their development and resolution. The university is proud of this contribution made by its alumni. It's important to us to strengthen the bond with our alumni community - to keep them abreast of university affairs. We also value their involvement in our research, education and talent development. This may take various forms, such as coaching, valuable contacts, and funding for our research and student teams.

Read more about our Strategy 2030.

Media contact

Brigit Span
(Corporate Storyteller)

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