Big Interview

A day in the life of Eva Gouwens, CEO, Fairphone

Eva Gouwens Fairphone.jpg

Eva Gouwens tells Melanie Mingas what it takes to run the social enterprise that is working to make smartphones sustainable

End-to-end sustainability demands the entire ecosystem — and all its supply chains — operate with minimal environmental impact.

In TMT, sustainability has focused on networks, energy use and business operations and, with their complex and opaque supply chains, mobile devices rarely featured in the industry’s early sustainability efforts.

But elsewhere, a consumer awareness campaign to create mobile phones without conflict minerals was gaining pace. The campaign quickly became a social enterprise and in 2013 Fairphone debuted with a mission to make the electronics industry fairer.

Founded by Bas van Abel, the idea was simple: to open the supply chain across design, manufacture and lifecycle. Made from Fairtrade gold, recycled plastics and conflict-free minerals, the Fairphone came with human rights assurances — such as a living wage for workers — and a modular build to make repairs and recycling easier.

The enterprise grew rapidly and today employs 89 people; incidentally boasting a near 50/50 gender split and a female-heavy management board. At the helm is Eva Gouwens, who joined as managing director in 2017.

She says: “I joined support Bas van Abel, our founder, with my experience in running and scaling a social enterprise.”

Gained over 13 years with some of Europe’s top FMCG brands, Gouwens’ experience also saw her lead Belgian Fairtrade chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely, where she became known as “the first lady of Fairtrade chocolate”, and increased turnover 50% year-on-year.

With a business philosophy to build “commercially successful companies as a sustainable source for good in the world”, her experience complemented Abel’s design background and the following year he transitioned to the supervisory board, while Gouwens took on the role of CEO.

The move laid the foundation for the company’s next phase of growth — Fairphone raised US$40.7 million over nine rounds to December 2018 — and Gouwens now heads all operations from Fairphone’s Amsterdam HQ.

Normally starting the day with a one-hour commute, Gouwens’ mornings see her catching up with the news as she travels, followed by an audiobook or podcast.

While that part of the routine has changed of late due to lockdown restrictions, one part of Gouwens’ morning remains in place; what she calls the “morning pages”.

“Once at the office I write three. Just writing down everything that pops up to clear my head for a new day,” she explains.

“I replaced the commute by having a longer breakfast with my family and reading the newspaper. Writing the morning pages has remained,” she adds.

The hack clearly works. Despite life being largely home-bound during Covid-19, Fairphone has had a busy 2020.

The Fairphone 3+ model hit the market and the company publicly launched the Fair Cobalt Alliance to tackle issues around the artisanal cobalt mining sector — from child labour to hazardous working conditions — in collaboration with government and other partners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“What I like about my job at Fairphone is the diversity of the work. When scaling a social enterprise, you need to be able to switch and think quickly: from strategy and external contacts to hands-on helping to set priorities in the day-to-day business,” Gouwens says.

Spending an average 50 hours a week bringing the strategy to life, Gouwens’ day-to-day priorities cover three pillars.

“My priorities are to provide clear guidance to the team; from which direction we choose to what our scaling and impact strategy is. I also set priorities based on that and make sure the teams are aligned on those. Furthermore, I lead the management team and spend quite some time representing Fairphone externally,” she explains, but when it comes to the most important aspect of her role, it all boils down to one thing. “Providing and representing an inspiring vision for Fairphone,” Gouwens says.