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‘If people can be their best selves at work, they’ll take care of business’

Jan Van Mossevelde, Vice President/GM of icebreaker EMEA, a brand owned by VF Corporation, talks to Louise Sinnertom from myGwork about being true to who we are.

By Will Stroude

In partnership with myGwork.

Jan is a Belgian native and grew up in a small community with a church at the heart of it. “You could call it ‘village living’, my whole family lived within a radius of 3km.” He remembers his time at a Jesuit school as a pivotal point in how he learned about sexuality. “When I was 13 years old, I had a religious teacher who was very progressive. One week he announced that the following Tuesday we would talk about homosexuality.”

Jan willed that week to fly by and just couldn’t wait for the teacher to talk about it. “So the day came and the teacher said to us all I know that there are boys in this class who will have feelings for some of the other boys. I was sitting in the back of the class and wanted to raise my hand and say me me me! He said you know what that’s totally normal, it was such a relief to hear that. Then he continued… it will go away, he said. I was so happy.”

This moment that Jan can recall so clearly was in 1989, before the internet and the ability to have scores of role models and information at our fingertips. All Jan knew about homosexuality was what his teacher told him and the limited representation of gay Pride that the news portrayed. “I thought to myself, how can I be who I am when I don’t recognise myself in the representation I’m being shown?”

Jan Van Mossevelde is Vice President/GM of icebreaker EMEA

Jan grew up never questioning his homosexuality, just waiting for that moment when it would go away, as his teacher had told him. When he left high school he was still waiting. “It was a natural feeling so why would I question it.” What Jan describes as his big “aha” moment came when one of his friends came out to him. “I remember exactly where I was sitting, and what day it was, and I said to my friend if you’re gay then I think I’m gay as well. My friend was a representation I actually related to and his coming out helped me to see a different side to things”.

That is some of what drives Jan to be so passionate about diversity, along with his family and looking at things from his husband’s point of view. “I don’t believe I ever really faced discrimination, and I never expected to meet an African American husband, but that’s exactly what happened. When you fall in love you see things from the other person’s perspective and I started to experience how he was facing discrimination for his skin colour, rather than his sexuality, and diversity really started being on my mind more and more.”

Jan started thinking about the reason he had been hired was for his mind and his beliefs, and reflecting; why wouldn’t that be the same for everyone? He started to push to hire the most diverse team possible and lead the way for VF Corporation. “I really believe that my team can lead by example and with each new vacancy we’re looking for diverse candidates in gender, language, sexual orientation, religion, etc .”

Jan always starts with his fashion brand, icebreaker, and takes his lead from its values. “It’s based on the simple belief that nature has the better answer. So we’re all about things being natural and I want diversity to come naturally to everyone.”

Unfortunately he has come across some built-in stumbling blocks when trying to push the diversity boundaries and found that headhunters and recruiters had little or no diverse talent like transgender or disabled people they could put forward. “I know that the talent is out there, yet it isn’t easy to find, I think the problem is around unearthing that talent so we’re pushing all the time for them to broaden their talent pool”.

Recently, he became the co-chair of EIN, the European Inclusion Network at VF Corporation and is hoping to work with all the volunteers to push the Diversity and Inclusion agenda. “My philosophy around leadership and diversity is to enable people to become their best self. If you take care of them, then they take care of the business.”

Having children also opened Jan’s eyes to issues he had not seen before, which he will take into his work with the network. “Until I had my own children there was maybe awareness without understanding about the struggle that working mothers can go through. Somehow society still thinks that it is the female role to pick up and care for children. For me as a gay dad I’ve actually grown closer to that sensitivity and have grown my mindset as a result. I can relate to those challenges and the stigma that is still there now”.

While Jan would not describe himself as an activist or a freedom fighter, he has realised that he has become a role model just by being himself and leading by example. “A beautiful memory was during my time at Procter & Gamble for 15 years, and I really remember these three young associates coming up to me – all individually – to tell me that I had inspired them”. Jan was at the end of year party with his husband and this simple thing sparked a reaction in them.

“They were still not out but seeing someone from the leadership team with their husband, that was inspirational to them.”

You can hear Jan Van Mossevelde speak on Thursday 26 November at Grow Your LGBTQ+ Career, an online conversation about how to develop your career.