Saskia Bruysten

Saskia Bruysten co-founded ​Yunus Social Business (YSB) together with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus.

YSB channels philanthropic donations into investments in social businesses that provide employment, education, healthcare, clean water and clean energy to over 9 million people worldwide. She is based in Berlin.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m Saskia Bruysten and I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of Yunus Social Business. I co-founded Yunus Social Business together with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus coming up to nine years ago now! There are two main aspects of the business. Our funds finance and grow social businesses focused on ending poverty and protecting the environment in developing countries. But we also work with large companies as a Social Innovator to transform them with the power of social business. We are currently running the F-LANE accelerator program alongside Vodafone, the programme aims to support and grow social businesses that benefit women and girls with technology and innovative social business solutions. I am so inspired by being surrounded by so many female-led businesses – it’s a lovely bubble to be a part of. But our aim is to burst that bubble! Currently, only 2.8% of venture capital goes to female-led start-ups. It’s ridiculous and it’s something that needs to change now.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

When I started out, I didn’t plan anything but simply followed the classic business school route. By the second half of my twenties, I was working in New York as a consultant. On paper it was great – but there was something missing for me. I wouldn’t call it career planning, but I did make a deliberate effort to discover what I actually wanted to do. This was the first time I really started thinking and created (in typical consultant style) my “Saskia future file”. I looked at all the options, not only in the social sector but also more broadly in business, politics, and NGOs. It wasn’t until I went back to university at LSE, met Prof. Muhammad Yunus and started working with him and his concept of social business that I really found my calling. Going through the process of creating the Saskia future file made me more open to finding the opportunity. And ever since it has been a complete whirlwind. I certainly did not imagine we would be where we are today.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I face challenges every day. As a social entrepreneur, you never stop learning and growing and it’s important to roll with the punches. Take COVID, this year we faced the threat of our entire social business portfolio going under. Everything we built was at risk. But we also saw it as an opportunity to pivot our model during the crisis. In the countries we work in, in Africa, Latin America and India, there are no support programmes for businesses. So we provided the social businesses in our portfolio with short-term furlough payments (known as Kurzarbeit in Germany) to ensure they would stay afloat and continue their impact. Being agile enough to adjust the plan is incredibly important. As we have all learned this year – we all have no idea what is coming up next!

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

As an organisation, we have been growing year on year and our social businesses portfolio now reaches 13 million poor people in developing countries with their essential products or services. I’m very proud of this. Our most recent work with the World Economic Forum’s Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs included co-initiating the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs, where we brought together over 80 organisations to support social entrepreneurs through this crisis. I was so proud of how the entire team at Yunus Social Business were able to mobilise so quickly to support the social business entrepreneurs we work with to protect and support them through one of the most challenging periods any of us have ever faced!

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I would say, leaning on others is crucial. We have an extremely capable, dedicated team at Yunus Social Business that I trust and rely on immensely. Even outside of the core business we rely on a network of individuals, funders, pro bono partners and companies who support us every day. I feel powerful because I have this support behind me and it is key to every success story. You cannot go it alone.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

As I said, don’t go it alone. It’s your career, but it’s not a competition. Reach out when you are finding things difficult and learn from the experiences of others. Speak to your colleagues, your friends, your boss, even your LinkedIn connections!

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Generally, we are seeing women in their ‘20s doing better than ever, in terms of the gender pay gap etc. But the crucial time I have witnessed is in a woman’s  ’30s when couples typically have children, that women tend to veer off the career path. This is of course partly through the choices women make, but also the unconscious bias still prevalent in society, that a woman’s role is more crucial to the family unit. Further strengthening childcare facilities, policy and educating ourselves in these biases is essential to making a change – everyone can contribute. Personally, I also support the initiative MyCollective that helps women stay on their career paths at the critical juncture when they become mothers.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

It’s all about culture and expectations. In many companies, there is sadly still a culture that maternity leave is ‘time-off’. If that culture is engrained, then of course we will see men progress through the ranks in the years where women are taking maternity leave or working part-time to care for children. Why do you think we see fewer women on boards if companies are holding onto these ingrained attitudes? We are inheriting a culture where more people called Dave and Steve lead FTSE 100 companies than women and ethnic minorities. Clearly, it’s time to rip up the rule book and imbed a new culture.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

A lot of work has been done in the last ten years to destigmatize women working in science and technology fields. I think we will start to see this filter through even more in the coming years. But something as basic as the way we speak to our children about their dreams and ambitions is incredibly important. We all have a lot of work to do to unlearn the centuries of stereotyping we have been subjected to, to think about career paths without such outdated gender bias.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Well, as I say, ‘social is the new digital’! Tech is the great enabler to solve real social problems in the world, so I would recommend ‘Impact’ by Sir Ronald Cohen, or of course my co-founder Prof. Yunus’ book ‘A World of Three Zeros’. I also love the economist Kate Raworth’s ideas in ‘Doughnut Economics’ about building a new economy with people and planet first. Some food for thought!


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