Irstel Jansen, Passionate Social Entrepreneur

Irstel Jansen is a human rights consultant and works for equitable rights for women and girls within Sri Lanka's tourism sector. Together with her husband, she was instrumental in the creation of SriLankaInStyle, a luxury travel brand back which is still successful today. At present, Irstel is a Partner at Sustainable Sri Lanka, a boutique consultancy aimed at advancing sustainability standards in the travel industry. Irstel joined our HERA Project X event in November 2023 and has subsequently initiated a project called Women 4Change and Sisters of The Pekoe Trail. She is a much valued member of our community.

Read on to find out how this Dutch Social Entrepreneur landed in Sri Lanka and is using her experience and skills to join others in building a bright future for the island and beyond.

Please share a bit about your career path?

Honestly, my professional journey hasn't followed a traditional career path; it's been more of an adventurous ride full of spontaneity!

After graduating in Amsterdam, I worked in Madrid and was in charge of managing international development projects in collaboration with the EU and other international organizations. After several years in the rat race, my husband and I took a leap of faith, gave up our jobs, house and embarked on an overland journey from Madrid to Nepal, eventually settling in Singapore. There, I joined a consultancy company and worked on conflict management projects in the region which eventually brought me to SL.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t continue the work due to the civil war and against all odds I joined my husband in setting up SriLankaInStyle, a luxury travel company. During those years, inspired by our three boys, I also created a children's clothing line and collaborated with a group of talented female tailors with disabilities which I enjoyed very much.

During the peak of the war we worked a few years in Thailand and it was there were I was witnessing firsthand the profound impact tourism can have on communities, particularly on children. These experiences, a few years later, led me to the decision to return to studying and specialize in children's and women’s rights.

What do you do now on a day to day basis?

I am a mum of 3 boys and they are my priority. So I guess like so many other mothers trying each day to find the right balance between work and family life :)

Professionally, I consult on human rights in Sri Lanka's tourism sector, advising on child protection policies, training and advocating for women’s rights and gender equality in travel. I am also a director at Sustainable Sri Lanka, assisting companies and the tourism sector in sustainability practices.

What is it about what you do that inspires you so much?

What inspires me most is the opportunity that exists here in Sri Lanka to make a difference, to push for change. Especially in the lives of young girls and women. This might sound cliché but as long as I remember, I was always drawn to activism and stand up for human rights.During my student years, I was an activist for Amnesty International and studied International Law & Human Rights. My idealistic drive pushed me -even still today- to continually learn, grow, and not to give up.

Why did you settle in Sri Lanka?

It was my job that brought me to Sri Lanka during the civil war. I was working in conflict management and for the first time in my life I could practice what I had learned and been preaching…making a small contribution to a bigger cause...peace. While engaged in this work, I felt an immediate connection to the country, its people—a sense of energy and a feeling of “deja vu”.What initially began as a spontaneous feeling of "I can live here!” became our family home. Till today, I feel very grateful for the privilege of raising our boys here and for the opportunities Sri Lanka has given us which have enriched our lives in so many ways.

Tell us about your career highlight to date?

I have experienced a lot of beautiful and meaningful moments in my work. Difficult to pick one. One memory that remains vivid in my mind is from one of my initial trips to Sri Lanka. During our time in Manar, we conducted a conflict management workshop in a local community surrounded by landmines. Witnessing the immediate positive change it made in the lives of these people devastated by warfare and the expressions of gratitude on their faces I will always remember.

Another cherished moment which made a big positive change in our own lives was the sale of SriLankaInStyle after almost 15 years of hard work. It allowed us to move down south from Colombo and offer our kids a life in a healthier, greener environment, a slower pace of life. We took time off and embarked on a three month trip with them through South America. The connection we felt as a family was magic. It was one of the most beautiful moments in my life.

But similarly, I find highlights also in my current work and the voluntary projects I am involved in at community level. Just recently, our local girls football team secured 4th place in the national championship, filling me with such hope and happiness!

Any funny or silly moments you have experienced during your time?

Just very recently we had a laugh when our eldest son shared an Instagram post from the Sri Lankan Football Federation on our family WhatsApp group. The post featured me in conversation with the president about child protection in sport—which I was unaware of. He sarcastically captioned it, "Hey guys, check this out! Mama is more famous than any of us in the Sri Lankan football world!" Being a mom to three football-loving boys, it was quite the joke (ha! ha!)

What is your passion within your field and what motivates you?

Knowing that my work can potentially make a difference in people's lives is incredibly motivating. Standing up for women in the tourism sector and making children/ women aware about their rights, encourage them to speak up. Every day as a woman myself, I am reminded of the barriers that exists in women’s lives and that keeps me motivated to keep pushing for change.

How can we create change and see more DEI in the hospitality industry and in SL?

By promoting gender equality in tourism we need not to forget that it is important in my view that we collaborate with men. Educate and train them about the disparities that exists in the sector. It is not about replacing them but by creating a dialogue. It is about making sure women have the same opportunities and the same rights as men.

Ensure that at government level women are part of the decision making process and those who are in leadership positions are committed to implementing DEI initiatives at all levels in the tourism sector. Seeing it reflected in the promotion of local art, cuisine, music, traditions and taking into consideration the rights of local and LGBT communities in tourism development projects.

What advice would you give to others who want to get involved?

“Don’t try to be a mountain but be the valley of the universe”.

I read this quote recently and I thought it was so wise and beautiful. We often get lost in the bigger picture but every little contribution no matter how small counts. Believing in what you do and stay true. Align yourself with people who share the same values and very important support each other. Never stop learning, be determined and share, share, share!

What inequalities do you see in your work?

Many I am afraid! In my work I am focusing on women empowerment in the tourism industry and children's well-being. There are many inequalities that persistently challenge our efforts.

One significant disparity lies in the unequal access to economic opportunities for women because of societal norms and traditional gender roles perceptions that limit their participation in the workforce. Less than 10% of women are employed in the formal tourism sector versus 54% globally!

There is also a big gap in the representation of women in leadership positions. When it comes to children’s well-being, inadequate child protection mechanisms, child labour, child trafficking perpetuate cycles of inequality so it is vital that we are raising awareness among stakeholders in the industry.

We need collaborative efforts between the private and public sectors to develop policies in tourism that prioritize the well-being and interests of women and children at their core.

How do you want to use your voice to create change?

I strongly believe in supporting and collaborating with others to amplify our voices and make a collective impact. By keeping the conversation about the need for change going. Whether it is at grassroots level through chatting with local women in the community, girlfriends or my commitment to planting seeds at government level by advocating for policies that prioritize the well-being and interests of women and children. Through public speaking engagements, I try to inspire others to join the cause, encouraging them to use their voices.

At the moment we are working on a new initiative, Women 4Change in Travel & Tourism. Inspired by the International Women’s Day theme of this year; “ Invest in women, accelerate progress”, our aim is to establish a supportive network for women aspiring to pursue careers in the travel industry. This initiative will offer a platform for workshops, training, online and offline conferences on women empowerment, mentorship opportunities within the industry, and serve as an advocacy group for increased female representation in the sector.

An websites or accounts to share?

  1. I love to share our Women 4Change :
  2. @sistersofthepekoetrail is another project we have just launched on Instagram. A project to inspire other women to hike the Pekoe Trail and empower local women in the tea estates along the way. An experience of connection, healing, love and laughter as we hike together.
  3. Link to

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