I sat in the Chamber of Commerce office, waiting for my number to appear on the monitors hanging overhead. I held that number ticket a little too tightly, scrunched up in the same hand that held a tiny plastic cup of tea, as inappropriately hot as it was small. With an occasional timid sip, I would glance at the business plan that I had tucked in my notebook, alongside several forms, IDs and copies of more forms.
Surrounded by Dutch words and official-looking Dutch people, I was a little nervous. Well, I’m usually a little nervous. So in this case, I was even more nervous than usual.
I was there to register a legitimate business in the Netherlands. Yet on prior occasions and with similar objectives, I had been in offices like this one. And I always seemed to get something wrong – a form missing or a requirement misunderstood. With most important explanations written in Dutch, and countless loopholes that seem to exist only in the minds of Dutch officials, I wasn’t sure if my small stack of papers would ever be enough to get me and my new business into that local business registry.
When my number finally appeared (likely after less than five minutes waiting), I put on my most well-adjusted and business-appropriate face. I would convince this tall Dutch man walking toward me that I would not only start a business in his country, but I would make money doing it. And most importantly, I knew what all those official Dutch words meant in that small stack of papers that were now sticking out of my notebook. That’s right – I was ready to pretend to understand all of it. I balanced my notebook and the tiny, hot tea in one hand as I shook the official’s hand with the other.
“Goedemiddag, mevrouw. Ik ben…”
And this is where I stopped him. Because while I can handle the greetings and basic details in Dutch, I didn’t want this conversation to get out of hand, which is obviously where this was going.
“Sorry, mijn Nederlands is niet zo goed. Mag ik…” [translation: “Sorry, my Dutch isn’t so good. May I trail off into speaking English now?”]
“Yes. Yes, of course,” he said warmly, as he led the way to his desk.
Once settled, I sorted through my papers and explained my intentions. After having completed my master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam, I would be using my research and genealogy experience to introduce new audiences to family history research – namely young people within communities of color in the Netherlands.
Too specific? Maybe. Ambitious? Definitely. Essential? In my opinion, absolutely.
Thankfully, official guy at the desk didn’t disagree. In fact, quite agreeably, he walked me through the registration process, answered all of my questions, and even allowed me to correct the errors I had inevitably made on my application.
About 20 minutes and 50 euros later, I was the sole proprietor of a business based in the Netherlands. Having psyched myself out about the registration process, I was relieved by the ease of it. But it turns out what happens after the registration is the hard part – the actual launch and running of the business.
So in fact, it is possible for a Black American woman to move to the Netherlands on her own and start a business. And in fact, that business can have a social mission that’s geared toward benefiting marginalized communities. But it’s an uphill battle that requires navigation of cultural differences, language barriers and lots of personal growth.
I’ve been registered as a business owner and navigating this rocky road in the Netherlands for about a year now. With both losses and gains, frustrations and excitement, it’s been a terrifyingly rewarding experience – an experience I once thought would be impossible. And that’s just even more of a reason to stick with it.
If translating Dutch mail, learning local tax laws, constantly asking for help and attending an occasional awkward meeting with someone official are part of the process, then I’ll gladly do it. Because beyond the registration that I got on paper that day, it’s the stubborn commitment that truly makes me an international entrepreneur.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
(Photo: Courtesy of Dana Saxon)