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Q&A with Esther Huijsmans

Esther Huijsmans
Rotterdam,  Netherlands

Current role and Company: I coach women working in the sports industry to get more confidence, courage, clarity and commitment in my S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Programme. 

In this programme, I use my 20 years of experience in international large-scale sports and entertainment projects/events such as FIFA World Cups, the Olympic Games, the UEFA EUROs (Men & Women’s) and Tomorrowland Winter.  Since this season, I also work as a Venue Director for the UEFA Women’s Champions League. 

In addition, I am the initiator of KICK-ES, an inspiration platform and community for women in sports (currently only in Dutch). This platform is part of my mission to empower women and get more women into leadership positions in the sports industry.

Tell us about your background:During my study of business economics, I already was a huge sports fan, in particular a football fan and I loved organising events.

That was one of the reasons I applied to volunteer at UEFA EURO 2000. At that time, I already had the goal of working in the sports industry and when volunteering, I “discovered” that there were people who organised sports events for a living (there was no social media yet😉) and from that moment on I was determined to pursue a similar career in sports.

In 2002, the KNVB (Royal Netherlands Football Association) was awarded the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2005. As soon as I saw that they had been awarded this tournament, I sent an open application to express my interest. And a couple of months later, I started as the first employee of the Local Organising Committee for this FIFA U-20 World Cup.

From that moment, the “ball kept rolling”. I managed to work on all large-scale sports events I wanted to and lived, amongst others, in Azerbaijan, Brazil, Russia and Switzerland.

What have been the highlights so far:

There are so many highlights, but some special ones are the UEFA U-21 European Championship in 2007, the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and, more recently, the UEFA Women’s Champions League, for various reasons.

At the UEFA U-21 European Championship in 2007 I had a lot of responsibilities; the preparations were pretty challenging, but the tournament went great and the Dutch team won the tournament. The day of the final was a very intense one, since protocol and ceremonies were part of my responsibilities. 

After the final,  when “our” team won, Armin van Buuren was still playing in the stadium (he created our tournament song) and the players were doing belly slides in front of his stage. I literally had goosebumps.

Working for FIFA at the FIFA World Cup and for UEFA at the UEFA Women’s Champions League are both highlights since they were on my wish list for a while. And when it then happens, it’s just great😊🙌 

All the hard work paid off….

And another highlight for me is the start of KICK-ES and being able to see women get out of their comfort zone and grow.

2021 was the year that…

I started with my new S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Programme with which I want to inspire so many more women in sports.


And the year that I got to work as a UEFA Venue Director. 

What do you find are the down sides to the job (travel/long hours / missing family events/etc)? I loved working on the projects abroad, and in the past the long hours have been tough indeed. 

Eventually, I realised that I didn’t want to spend months abroad anymore, but I still loved these events. Therefore I am so grateful for the opportunities I got, working for FIFA and UEFA. In this way I can work on these events/matches and just be abroad for a couple of days or weeks in a row and I can perfectly combine it with my other work. 

That was my goal and I am so happy that I managed to create it like this.

What advice would you give women wanting to do what you do?  I would give three pieces of advice:

First of all: go for it and do not give up until you manage to get there; and be open for opportunities.

You might get rejected, you might get disappointed, but if you really want it, you will manage. I am sometimes surprised that I speak to people who also want to do what I do, but at the first rejection, they already give up, or they feel too good to go for a certain role. If that is how you act, then you apparently don’t want it badly enough, so you don’t deserve it. 

For my first job in football, I was actually overqualified. At that time I was even willing to take out the garbage if that was asked (luckily they didn’t know that). And what my experience is, is that you can always create your own job; for me the first job was the best learning experience just because I was the assistant of the board of directors and I was involved in almost everything. I grabbed my chance and look where it brought me….

Secondly, share your ambitions, say it out loud, show yourself and see who can help you reaching them. I often speak to women who don’t dare to share their ambitions, since they are afraid of failure, being mocked, or afraid of rejection. 

But if people don’t know what you want, how can they help you?And last but not least: work on your network! 

Your network is so important in general, and especially in the sports world. Almost all of my assignments came via my network. A recent study in the Netherlands showed that women have less network awareness. They either find it difficult to network (or at least that is what they think) or don’t know how to strategically use it. 

Personally, until a couple of years ago I didn’t realise that networking was a skill or that it was something I was good at; I just knew a lot of people and have good relationships with, for example, former colleagues. Then, quite a few people told me in a short period of time that I was good at that; one person even suggested that I should make a training about this topic. That was why I created the online training “Connecting with Confidence” (currently only in Dutch) in which I share my best recommendations about how to get a valuable and a powerful network while enjoying doing that.

It’s about introducing, investing, interaction, interest, informing, inviting, inspiring, impact and impression. So how do you stay “top of mind” after getting to know people? How do they know that you are interested in having a certain role? Make sure your network is informed and also think about “what’s in it for them” when you connect with someone.

What advice would you like to give the 25-year-old you?  All the advices above and more importantly: start with personal development…NOW!Because since I started investing in myself, I realised that I am my own biggest obstacle. And that I can achieve so much more than I previously thought. Mindset is so important; and in combination with dedication and focus, you can achieve anything you want! You just have to believe in it yourself. 

I really wished I already knew that at 25, so that is one of the reasons I share my story and hope to inspire other women to invest in themselves. Because that is the best investment one can make. 

What hopes do you have for the women working in the sport business industry in the future? One of the main reasons I started my platform and community KICK-ES and what I wanted to do is to show more female role models. And see what we, women, can do ourselves, instead of complaining that we don’t get opportunities. Yes, I think, being a woman, that it can be more challenging to get to certain positions in football, but if you want a change, start with yourself.

There are so many women who underestimate what they are capable of; they suffer from the imposter syndrome; they don’t see their own full potential; they don’t think it’s interesting or special what they are doing or they are too modest and don’t want to “show off” because they don’t want to be considered arrogant. And that is such a shame and a waste of talent.

What I hope is that women start seeing more and more how they are belittling themselves, because awareness is the first step. And that they take action…because I know that it works: I am the living proof. 

I hope that we support, help and inspire each other, even more in the future. That we cheer for other women. 

One of the ways to facilitate change is to show more female role models. That is what you do (thank you for that). That is what I do. Last but not least, a message to all women working in the sports business industry; your playing small doesn’t serve the world. 

Be willing to get out of your comfort zone; if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for the future generation. For your daughter, niece, neighbour. 

Go out there, show the world what you’re capable of. We need you! 

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