I have always needed to feel that I can make a difference. Especially when it comes to people and their environment.

Isabel Van Obergen, Belgium
Institution:Vlerick Business School
Program:Doctorate in Business Administration
Degree:Kick-off year: 2020

Isabel Van Obergen's career reads like a personal story. Not your average path, but one in which the puzzle pieces fall into place logically. She is currently a manager in the nonprofit sector, but began in the financial sector. And what is her dream? For these two paths to meet and reinforce each other. That is the focal point of her research.

From profit to nonprofit

Isabel Van Obergen graduated in the late 90s with a master in commercial and financial sciences. “It allows you to do virtually anything.” A philosophy that suits her well. She began her career at KPMG. In her work as a consultant she came into contact with a variety of businesses and industries. And she returned to consulting after a ten year detour in banking. But that return was short-lived, as she felt that her heart was no longer in the financial sector. “I learnt a lot in that period and got promoted to management positions. But I had lost my fascination with the sector. I wanted to explore new paths again. I moved to Ghent University, where I was an advisor for start-ups. Eventually, I became the CEO of one of those start-ups.

After 5 years another new opportunity came my way. I spent several years as a non-executive director for vzw De Poel, a nonprofit organisation that provides care for adults with special needs. It's something that lies close to my heart, as I have two brothers with special needs. At one point the NPO was looking for a new executive director and I put myself forward as a candidate. And that's where I am at present.”

Drawing inspiration from crisis

Isabel is on the DBA programme while in her current position. Partly to quench her eternal thirst for knowledge. She has done an MBA before, also at Vlerick. The current pandemic gave her the push she needed to enrol. Isabel explains: “On the one hand, I was reading reports about the terrible conditions in which a lot of disadvantaged young people were forced to study. In poor accommodation, without a computer or internet access. On the other hand, large business premises were lying empty all over the place. It occurred to me that if I were the CEO, I would invite the youngsters to come and study in my empty offices. Under strict conditions, of course, but I would hand most of the responsibility over to them, as a means of empowerment. It would be a best practice example of how two sectors, profit and nonprofit, can join forces. That gave me my research subject and I applied to the DBA programme last September.” (laughs)

Cross-sectoral cooperation

“I want my research to provide the basis for a model that makes cooperation between the two sectors more sustainable. These days you’ll see an insurance company, for example, sponsoring a nonproft, but it's too open-ended. There has to be a shared goal behind the cooperation. In my view it would be highly advantageous for profit companies to share resources, as well as economic knowledge, with non-profit companies and vice-versa.”

In other words, her research is on the subject of cross-sectoral cooperation. A subject that lies close to her heart. In fact, it is a precondition, she tells us. “You don't do a doctorate on the fly. I’ve found that it takes up all of my time. It is constantly simmering. I might suddenly have a brainwave while I’m running in the woods. And, of course, it is a constant interference in my professional life. But that's a good thing, I love a bit of excitement, a challenge.”

Feedback taken seriously

When we interviewed Isabel she had been working on her research for about six months. What are her thoughts on the programme up to now? “It's a real task to keep the plates spinning. Especially as I have two sons and a daughter, who are all students, and I run an NPO with a hundred or so employees. But if the subject is close to your heart, you will spare no effort and the pieces of the puzzle will fall nicely into place.

I’ve been in courses for a few weeks now and the different perspectives they give you are extremely useful. It's not just the teachers who give you input, but your fellow students too. And do you know what is so special about this programme? You get the feeling that the professors take your feedback seriously and do something with it. It's almost a partnership. We, as students, are recognised as part of a research community.

Return on investment for the company

What's Isabel's view of the future? Does she have any specific plans for her doctorate? “My interest goes beyond my immediate work sphere. Obviously, I would like it to make a difference to my NPO. But the aim is to have a broader impact and to give something back to society. I want everyone in the profit and nonprofit sectors to reap the benefits of this.”

More Information

University Profile:Vlerick Business School
DBA-Profile::Doctorate in Business Administration

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