‘My health problems gave me the strength to take risks’

When Véronique Goy Veenhuys started a family, she didn’t want to choose between working and looking after her children – so she started her first business as well. A quarter of a century later, this atypical entrepreneur is now a grandmother, but she continues to work for pay equality between men and women.

This content was published on September 29, 2013 minutes
Sonia Fenazzi in Vuibroye,

With blond hair in a sporty cut and sea-blue eyes, wearing a sleeveless red blouse and blue jeans with fancy embroidery and flat sandals, the 58-year-old who meets me with a warm smile and a firm handshake at Palézieux railway station certainly does not match the stereotype of the successful businesswoman.

Yet the attitude of the entrepreneur – used to making decisions, organising and managing without losing sight of goals – soon reveals itself in the sureness of her gestures, her strong personality and the way she talks.

It is also apparent in the focused way she drives us to her house, in the neighbouring village of Vuibroye in rural canton Vaud.

She shows me her office and introduces her husband, David, also self-employed, who has his own communications agency. He is inseparable from her career.

“My husband and I have always been equals. He has always been at my side, always supported me and vice versa.”

Her harmonious marriage reflects, in a way, that of her parents. “I inherited my rational, rigorous, solid side from my father, a Swiss watchmaker, whose family has lived since around 1380 in the Joux Valley, where I was born and grew up,” she says.

“My mother, an Italian from Emilia Romagna, gave me the levity, the sense of enjoyment, the taste for good food. I’ve always had these two worlds and I still need them both today.”

Today Goy Veenhuys’s second home is Spain, where she owns a house. She goes there whenever she can. The family lived there full-time in 1996-97. “It was a wonderful year: our children went to school there, and I did an intensive course to get a basic diploma in Spanish.”

Mixing business with childcare

At that point she was already running her own business. Having taken a degree in economics, she started off working for a headhunter. “I wasn’t completely satisfied; I had the feeling I was selling hot air.”

So when she became pregnant, she left the job. “I decided to put myself in a position where I could manage work and family in parallel the way I wanted to. We live in a world in which we mostly have our heads ruling our hearts. I decided my head would not just rule my heart.”

During her pregnancy she got the idea of creating a line of bedclothes for small children. “The company was born together with my daughter Charlotte,” she says. That was 1987. Today, Goy Veenhuys’s products are sold in exclusive boutiques in Switzerland and abroad.

Business and family both grew: two years after Charlotte, she had Arthur. Her husband supported her on both fronts. “He came with me to the big trade fairs where I presented my products. We manned the booth together.”

In 1997, Goy Veenhuys sold her brand and became her husband’s business partner. Together they developed a new service providing company presentations.

World first

She recalls having “a lot of customers”, but after a few years she started looking for something “more intellectually stimulating”.

In 2003, she started a two-year postgraduate training programme in management, organisation and communication.

From her thesis in 2005 emerged “equal-salary”, an independent verification procedure that enables companies to certify that they pay equal salaries for equal work to men and women. The certification, the first of its kind in the world, is now recognised by the European Union.

“I was looking for new challenges. Doing something for equality gave me the opportunity to get women out of the victim role – to create a positive professional environment in which men and women could feel valued to the same extent.”

Her refusal to play the victim goes back to her childhood. “When I was little, I was often ill. I spent a lot of time in hospital, alone, far from home. Paradoxically, my health problems made me strong – strong enough to take risks, to tackle difficult situations. Every time I got out of hospital, I just wanted to forget those down-times, pick myself up and start again in life.”

It has been an intense life, in which Goy Veenhuys says she has four priority values: authenticity, nature, human exchange and creativity. These values also guide her travels, for example her visits to Morocco. In particular the three in which she followed the annual odyssey of a nomadic Berber tribe from the desert to pastures on the Atlas mountains.

She talks about this with enthusiasm and passion. There are souvenirs of the adventure in her house, like the hand-made nut wood bowls which she uses in her modern kitchen.

New challenges, new ideas

A glance at the clock brings her back to present Swiss reality. She takes me to the station because she has to leave for a business meeting. As head of her equal-salary foundation she is grappling with a new problem.

“We need to increase the number of companies we certify so we can break even on our investment,” she says.

Goy Veenhuys’s brain and heart set to work to figure out the solution. At the same time, she will not be giving up the pleasure of looking after her 13-month-old grandson – on average one day a week.

Certification of equality

In Switzerland, the principle that both sexes should be paid equally for work of equal value is laid down in the Federal Constitution of 1981. Yet women earn 20% less than men on average. It is estimated that 40% of this discrepancy is due to discrimination.

In 2005, to do something about this situation, Véronique Goy Veenhuys devised a kind of certification which allows companies to have it verified objectively that they are following an equal pay policy and to have it publicly acknowledged.

The process takes four to six months and includes an analysis of salaries and an audit. The initial analysis is done by the Observatoire Universitaire de l’Emploi research centre at the University of Geneva, and the audit by SGS, the world leader in certification. If discrepancies are found in the pay due to particular employees on the basis of the criteria governing the pay system of the company itself, the company will need to fix them.

Once an appropriate pay policy has been put in place, the company receives the “equal-salary” label which it can use in its marketing. The certification is valid for three years.

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