Interview With an International: Minu Mathew

| Leiden International Centre

Originally from India, Minu came to The Netherlands and settled in Leiden about two years ago. She moved here with her husband whose startup was selected for the Dutch startup visa program.  

Her passion for fashion and knack for style has been with her for as long as she can remember. This led her to study fashion technology for her undergrad, followed by a post-grad in fashion merchandising, and finally a diploma in entrepreneurship and new venture creation. 

"It wasn't just a hobby for me; it was something I was trained to do. Turning this passion into a career felt like a natural progression, allowing me to channel my creativity and expertise into something I love." With this sentiment in mind, it's no surprise that Minu would later become an entrepreneur, making her vision a reality. 

She is the Founder of a Jewellery and Accessories business based in India, ART-ery, whose products fuse traditional Indian art forms with modern fashion trends. Minu founded her company nine years ago and has now expanded her business to The Netherlands. She now shuttles between The Netherlands and India, according to business seasons to manufacture, source, and curate her products. You can find her at her stand in the Leiden Saturday market in front of Dille & Camille selling her unique pieces.  

In addition to this, she is the Founder and Moderator of Girl Boss Going Places, a community of 1,500 women small business owners in India. Together they discuss all aspects of business management, provide peer support, and mentor each other. 

What drew you to Leiden?

During the pandemic, I made the move with my husband. He was chosen for the Dutch startup visa program, and he was invited to come set up his company in The Netherlands.  

When we were considering places to live, we were still living in India. We lived in Mumbai, which is very crowded and busy, so we wanted to live in a place closer to nature. A place where we could live a more moderately paced lifestyle compared to our earlier rushed one.  

Before we moved, my husband travelled to Amsterdam often for work and he met a client in Leiden once and loved it. This inspired us when we looked up nearby cities near Amsterdam for the move. During our search, we saw the market and all the other cute places in the city and thought how beautiful it was, then made our way over months later. 

What were some changes you encountered moving to Leiden and how did you navigate/overcome them?  

As many would agree – the weather! The winter is so extreme and wet, that I got my first pair of boots when I moved here because I had to. I come from a place where people wear flip-flops all the time, and here there are different types of jackets people wear depending on the season. While it is still tough, I learned to find ways to live with it and make the most of my day instead of letting it take over me.   

There was also a lack of confidence that came from the move. Back in India, I was working full-time and I was doing well, and then I came here for my husband's business opportunity. It was hard to face reality after I arrived. I thought "I am doing nothing now?" I then thought I could look for a new job but there were very few options for English speakers. 

I decided to go to Dutch classes, and I was completely in my head about it. I came in not knowing a word and there was only so much I could improve in a short time, which was hard for me, but I realised over time that what I needed was community more than anything from the start. 

At the time, I didn’t have the resources or confidence to set up my business. I probably wouldn’t have done well either since I didn’t have a network. Luckily, there are groups such as Leiden Expats that are very active. They have a lot of events for coffee meetups, brunch, and museum walks. I met lots of women in similar situations. Listening to their stories helped a lot and we continue helping each other.  

One thing I did right, was reaching out to local businesses. Whenever I did, they were always open to meet for coffee and give me advice on how to start up my business and the process. It encouraged me to keep going.  

What things do you enjoy most about Leiden?

I love the weekly market. I’ve been going there as a customer since I first arrived, and I have slowly made my way to building a community with the vendors. I now have regular people I go to for my meat, flowers, produce, and more.  

Suddenly to go from that to becoming one of the vendors was absolutely delightful! Now those same vendors call me their colleague. I know that many internationals wonder if they will be accepted, especially not being familiar with the way things work here but everyone at the market was so welcoming. Entrepreneurs to entrepreneurs, they’re always helping me. For instance, if there’s a very windy day, they’re coming to help with reinforcements so that my stand doesn’t fall apart.   

Being a vendor in a 900-year-old market in a historic city like Leiden, where they used to trade textiles, and to be selling jewellery here now is a profound feeling. I never would’ve imagined it. 

Have you picked up anything from Dutch culture?  

I appreciate how people respect your time here. Being on time is a huge thing, and you can plan for your day and not have to wait around for anybody. When I was in India, I would still be on time but now I’m always early. I’m 15 minutes early to do everything because that gives me time to walk into a room and prepare myself before the meeting or event starts. The concept of punctuality is a little more relaxed in India. While we respect each other’s time, people are a little more flexible, spontaneous, and forgiving of delays. 

Another is being direct in my speech. I was also this way in India due to my busy schedule, but it translated to being rude at times and I was sometimes misunderstood. Here we can go to someone's house and they’re free to tell us when to leave or that they have something else to do. I don’t have to second guess what someone else is thinking.  

Last is my awareness of the weather. Now when I pick up my phone when I wake up, instead of going to social media, I check the weather forecast. 

Is there a specific moment or experience that contributed to your personal growth overall?

I can name two. You've probably noticed those charming little free libraries scattered around. Since arriving here, I've found myself reading a lot more. It's inspiring to see everyone on the train immersed in a book.

Also transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle has been a significant shift for me, especially coming from a more consumption-driven environment. But now, I consciously consume less and generate less waste than before.

Embracing change and being open to new experiences have been key to my journey. Overall, these adjustments have immensely improved my life. 

Any exciting plans you have for your future?

I hope to do more markets and maybe put up a concept store. There are so many cute ones here that inspire me. Seeing more people wear my jewellery is my biggest dream.

I also want to be more confident in cycling and exploring nearby regions. Another goal would be to learn the language and enjoy the process of it. Last being is as I did with Girl Boss Going Places in India, I would love to create a community for small business owners here, with locals, as well as expats.