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For Sabien Windels, the green fingered-CEO of urban farming business, ROOF FOOD, the most defining element of being an entrepreneur is not your gender, but the causes you believe in. “I’m female but I don’t see myself as a female ambassador,” she said. “I have the same competencies as men.” For Sabien, the real issue lies elsewhere; “I feel more closely linked to being a social entrepreneur. We’re going to have to look at economics in a different way if we want to stay here.”
And it is exactly this sentiment that lies at the heart of Sabien’s business. Established in 2015 in Ghent, Belgium, ROOF FOOD aims to teach people of nature’s intelligence. Sabien and her team have a plot on the roof of De Punt commercial centre, which forms the beating heart of their operations. From here they grow a vast range of fruit and vegetables in order to provide sustainable catering for businesses. They also run their own pop-up restaurants, and use the produce as fuel to inspire corporate teambuilding activities on the roof itself.
The path to establishing ROOF FOOD began shortly after Sabien completed her studies in commercial engineering. Working as a researcher at a university in Ghent, she became fascinated by what the cities of the future might look like; in terms of energy, food and space. These ideas sparked a train of thought that transformed Sabien’s view of urban design.
“I began looking at the city in a different way. We have a canopy of rooftops that we’re not using and this is a waste. In our cities, there is low space and there’s a lot of competition – people are fighting for it.” Sabien believes that if we begin using all of the space available to us, we can create a more pleasant environment for everyone. “It’s the way that our cities should evolve,” she added.
Working in a small team predominantly comprised of women, it’s clear that being a female entrepreneur has its merits for Sabien. “As a woman, I didn’t face any specific challenges,” she said. “In fact, sometimes it was the reverse. Women often have the tendency to do business in a different and more sensitive way. It’s not only about making money, but finding meaning. A human-centred organisation is the perfect place to nurture this tendency.”
She also feels that many of the perceived challenges facing women in business could provide more benefits than obstructions. “Working too hard can cause burnouts,” she said. “If you have a family, you may be constrained for time – but this is a good thing. You have the motivation to become even more time efficient, allowing you to focus on things other than work."
When it comes to the issue of earning respect and admiration, Sabien is very clear that diligence is key. “Sceptics soon realised that I have a technical background and a solid financial plan. After one year of thorough preparation, I won lots of credibility.” On top of this, flexibility is essential to be able to develop an idea into a commercially viable business. “Your idea will change over the first year. I spent a year speaking to a thousand people and after this, I could answer any question asked of me.”
What do the next 5 years look like for ROOF FOOD? Sabien and her team are focusing on developing even more specialised, in-depth knowledge within their field. She is looking to write a book on growing and preparing sustainable food to cement these practices within wider common knowledge. There are also partnerships with other businesses, urban farming projects and schools on the horizon too.
Ultimately, not only is nature at the epicentre of the service that Sabien offers, but it also inspires the way that she runs ROOF FOOD. She said: “We grow our business organically, with good, solid roots. The companies that try to grow too fast often fail.”
“It’s like Charles Darwin said; it’s the survival of the fittest. We began our business with lots of different ideas and activities, now we’re focusing them down. Like in nature, only the strongest survive.”