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Women in leadership: Antje von Dewitz, CEO Vaude

By Barbara Russ


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Image: Antje von Dewitz, CEO of Vaude

To be in the black with green ideas, this motto could perhaps sum up Antje von Dewitz's vision for Vaude, the mountain sports company her father founded in 1974 and which she is leading into the future. Antje von Dewitz is one of the few leading women in the outdoor industry.

In this interview, Antje Dewitz reveals the opposition she faced in transforming the company towards sustainability before it was 'en vogue' and what makes female leaders different.

Ms von Dewitz, please could you describe your career so far in your own words?

Although I was an entrepreneur's daughter, I was initially suspicious of studying economics, and the one-sided pursuit of economic success. So I decided on a very broad course of study: language and cultural studies in Passau (a German city on the Austrian border). I used my study time to do some internships, in the field of environmental and women's organizations, in the cultural field, and in media at the Süddeutsche newspaper and the public broadcasting service NDR, as well as at the Goethe-Institut in Abidjan. Then, last but not least, I interned at Vaude. That was a key experience for me, because I realized: This is where I belong.

I was looking for a place where I could contribute to a world worth living in. At first, I thought of NGOs or the media. But I realized, shaping things as an entrepreneur is what feels good to me and what excites me. I had different jobs and tasks in the company before I took over the management from my father.

What did you change when you took over the company from your father and how did the fact that you are a woman influence that?

We consistently transformed the company towards holistic responsibility, systematically implemented sustainability in all areas, and built up a culture of trust.

I think as a woman one stands a bit outside the traditional system. The path to taking over the business was not automatically mapped out for me, as it might have been for a businessman's son. Moreover, I have a very socially critical mother who, as a housewife, stood outside the economic system and who questioned this mantra of growth, for growth's sake, should lead.

So I gained a little more critical distance from the economic system early on, I would say, and I faced the pressure of expectations a little less. Also, when I started at Vaude, I was already pregnant. So I have never worked without children, which of course also makes a difference - in that I always want and wanted to create a future worth living for my children.

You recently published a book 'Courage suits us! Sustainable, humane, fair - to success with values'. What is it about?

In it, I describe the development of Vaude and my personal journey. A look back at how my father founded the company - starting from the warehouse in the hop kiln and the first office in my parents' bedroom. The beginnings of the company are very exciting.

The real story then begins with the transformation towards a more sustainable company, the shift towards a culture of trust. It's about how, for example, we converted our global supply chains step by step to high social and environmental standards and what this entailed in terms of costs, effort resistance, stumbling blocks, and crises. It is a journey through the last ten years, an exciting time of change, told from different perspectives.

Image: Outdoor clothing by Vaude on the Wertacher Hörnle / Christoph Laue

Do you have a favourite anecdote from the book?

The transformation of the company affected all areas - there was, of course, skepticism from some departments internally at the beginning. Our maintenance manager, who had been with Vaude for 30 years, always kept a very low profile and dismissed it all as an 'ideology'. After two years he came into the office - for the first time since I've known him - with a briefcase. He opened it and showed me plans on how he was going to convert the whole company to energy-saving LEDs. He had done the maths and within three years, he said, it would pay for itself. That's when I knew, now I have everyone on board.

Were your customers willing to pay for it?

We were known for our good value for money and customers, at that time, were not willing to pay higher prices for something they had not asked for. So we had to absorb margins that had been reduced by our CSR commitment elsewhere. If you want to be sustainable, you have to be able to economize well, that's what I learned.

You campaigned for the Supply Chain Act in Germany, now it's here. What's next?

At the moment, it's harder and more expensive for businesses to take responsibility. It's more costly and risky than not doing it. This, I think, is absolutely absurd and dangerous when you look at global challenges like climate change or water pollution. It means that companies that voluntarily take on responsibility are at a financial disadvantage compared to purely profit-oriented companies. So we need legal requirements to create a 'level playing field', at least for the minimum standards.

Therefore, the Supply Chain Act is a step in the right direction and a big milestone - even if it currently only applies to the very big companies and is based on compromises. I am convinced that it will be further improved. Our economic system is too one-sidedly focused on financial figures and too little on the impact on people and nature. This must change if we want to preserve our living space on this planet.

That is why we are working on the global climate neutrality of all our products. We have already been climate neutral here at the site since 2012. We have developed our own label called 'Green Shape', based on the highest independent environmental and social standards. These strict criteria are already met by over 95 percent of our clothing collection. Now we are going one step further and gradually ensuring that the majority of Vaude products are made predominantly from recycled or bio-based materials, because this will significantly reduce emissions. At the same time, we are committed to ensuring that our suppliers switch to renewable energies.

Image: Urbanwear by Vaude / Chris Lauer

How do you promote female employees?

Our employees are all allowed to be completely human here - it is important to us that we offer good framework conditions so that each individual can develop well and reconcile their private and professional needs - regardless of whether they are men or women. If you think about this in a consistent way, it naturally creates better conditions for women, who still take on the majority of child-rearing and household work.

Do you exchange ideas with other women in similar positions?

Unfortunately, not much. Especially in the outdoor and sports industry, there are few women apart from me. I would say there are about three of us and 150 men.

What tips would you give to current female graduates or your younger self?

Be critical when choosing a partner, this applies in private life, but also at work: does the employer suit me, my values, what I want? If you want to stay true to yourself and your values, this is important, because - especially as a young person - you run the risk of adapting to a corporate culture and neglecting your own values. It's like, "This is the way things are done here, so I have to do it this way too." But in doing so, you miss out on opportunities that could benefit everyone.

In August, FashionUnited focuses on the theme of work in fashion. Find all Work in Fashion articles here.

This article was previously published on FashionUnited.de

Antje von Dewitz
Women in Leadership