Lisette van Niekerk is an independent strategy professional, focused on ESG and sustainability. After a career at Spring Associates (now MJ Hudson), Lisette took to the freelance consultant life to determine her own projects while exploring her passions for nature and traveling.
Tell us something about yourself and your background
I was born and raised in The Hague as the youngest of three. I made a solo trip around the world at 17, before pursuing Industrial Design at the Technical University in Delft. Being the only girl in kindergarten playing with blocks, I thought a study involving technical and creative problem solving would suit me. Although it did, I soon realized that, inspired by the pollution and climate change risks I experienced during my travels, I wanted to promote less rather than more consumption. So I chose the Master Industrial Ecology, which takes a systemic approach to sustainability problems, integrating engineering, environmental and social science perspectives. I wrote my thesis about Planetary Boundaries and science-based targets - relatively unknown concepts back then - at Spring Associates, a strategy boutique with a focus on sustainability and ESG. I liked it so I stayed.
Why did you decide to quit your job?
It's actually quite remarkable that I stayed so long! I can still vividly recall feeling confined when I received my initial contract stating my number of holidays; the days I would be “free”. The reverse model as a strategy freelancer is a much better fit for me: having a set number of workdays while being “free” as a fundamental precept.
I stayed at Spring for so long due to the impactful projects and my brilliant and fun colleagues. My passion lies in driving impact through innovation and knowledge, rather than in repetitive planning and delivery. I spearheaded the design of several ESG products and the firm’s knowledge system. Once these were well-established, I felt my work was done.
How is working on projects as a freelance consultant or interim consultant different from a consultancy?
As a freelancer, it's often just you. You act as both the partner, securing projects and communicating deliverables in a C-suite environment, and the analyst, constructing the Excel models. I now choose my own projects and determine when, where, and how to approach them. This autonomy serves as a motivating factor, pushing me to give that extra 10%.
What is the biggest misconception people have about being a strategy freelancer / M&A freelancer?
That only daredevils choose this lifestyle. The truth is: anyone can do it. All you need to do is quit your job, obtain a KVK license and give it a try. Certainly, I consider myself fortunate due to the current high demand for sustainability freelancers / ESG experts. But the option to explore freelancing is available to everyone in the management consulting industry.
What was the coolest project you ever worked on as a freelancer?
I've been involved in several interesting projects, but what I find most exciting about freelancing is the freedom to combine what I love. Recently, I finished a two-month course in South Africa and Botswana to become a safari guide, where I picked up photography again. Before that, I got to live in Kenya during a project for a leading cleantech VC. The client was happy with me working from a distance. I believe most of us are fortunate enough to have so many exciting opportunities in life. I don't want to spend too much time behind Excel and PowerPoint.
What is your endgame career wise?
I draw inspiration from individuals like David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, who have the remarkable ability to educate and motivate influential individuals to take action. My current vision involves establishing a sustainability / ESG course in a natural setting like the African bush safari, designed for decision-makers. With this, I aim to inspire them to take concrete actions in their businesses. This initiative would combine my academic and career experience in sustainability and ESG and my love for nature and Africa. Ensuring a net positive impact and flying with sustainable aviation fuel are priorities of course.
What would be your advice for people considering a future as freelance consultant?
If it aligns with your aspirations, give freelancing a shot! It may not be as intimidating or daunting as it seems. Save up a bit to give yourself some financial cushion while you search for projects. If freelancing doesn't suit you, you can always revert to a traditional job.