Danny den Hartog On Taking The Road Less Traveled
Have you built your life and career based on what you were "supposed" to do? Do you look around and think, "Is this all there is?" Is the color draining out of your life and you seek more joy, more fun, more fulfillment? Today's guest walked away from a lucrative and prestigious career shaping business models across international markets to follow his heart, live according to his values, and dedicate himself to living a life of service and impact.
In this episode, serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, coach, social business consultant, and impact strategist Danny den Hartog chats with Ellie Shefi about the moment he knew he had to take the road less traveled, and the lessons he's learned along the way. Danny shares powerful tools you can use to be fully present in each moment and make decisions that align with your values, your mission, and your purpose. If you're looking to embrace life's adventures and take your own road less traveled, don't miss this conversation!
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Danny den Hartog On Taking The Road Less Traveled
Our guest is an impact strategist with an impressive track record of shaping business models across international markets. Having worked in fourteen countries across the Asia Pacific, he is a serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, coach and social business consultant. He is on a mission to redefine social entrepreneurship and equalize access to entrepreneurial education, training, resources and opportunities.
Having won the Doing Business in Africa Award, he is the Cofounder of Coach Africa, an organization that offers high-quality consulting, mentoring and coaching for organizations, coaches and entrepreneurs across the African continent. There, he has facilitated access to clean energy for over 170,000 people, provided business training to over 500 entrepreneurs, facilitated housing for over 160 refugees, and cultivated a successful network of coaches to help African entrepreneurs start and scale their businesses. Welcome, Danny den Hartog.
Ellie, I'm super stoked to be here. Thanks for having me.
Thank you for being here. You have had an extremely successful corporate career based in Hong Kong, serving all of Asia Pacific. How did you go from that life to living in the Netherlands, founding Coach Africa and focusing on serving Afropreneurs? Take us through that journey. What was the pivotal moment that led to that transition?
Living life in Hong Kong is not the worst life that you can live, especially financially. I was the Area Sales Manager for a major Dutch homeware brand. I was responsible for the whole Asia Pacific region and traveling half of my time. Everything on paper was quite impressive. I was enjoying my time. Being in your mid-twenties, getting sent to Hong Kong, and traveling the whole Asia Pacific region is not a bad thing to start.
However, five years into the role and selling premium homewares, I was walking around one evening in a poor district in Manila. Suddenly, a little child about 4 or 5 years old grabbed my arm as I was walking. I had seen a lot of poverty being around Asia for quite a bit at that time. I think back to that single encounter with that girl and seeing that look on her face as her mother was walking behind her. They were asking for food and these sorts of things. I broke down and something inside me said, "Dan, what are you doing with your life? Is this everything? Are you giving back anything to the countries you do business in?" It was a very hard realization. The answer was a plain no. I was doing well financially but what kind of impact am I making in people's lives?
What I did is one of the worst things I could have done. I treated the child and a number of her friends to a bucket of fast food, and I cried later on. It took a little bit of time for me to pull the plug and say, "I want to relocate with my wife back to the Netherlands." That was one of the pivotal moments when you have a calling like, "Are you made for this? Is there more in store for you?" That led to the decision to move back to the Netherlands and then start another chapter.
You're Dutch. Why did you focus your business on Africa? Having spent so much time in the Asia Pacific and then having this awakening and epiphany in the Philippines, how did you get from Asia to Africa? Is there a bigger purpose there?
To everybody that is an entrepreneur or entrepreneur in nature, I'm sure you all recognize that sometimes when you have done a certain thing, it's tempting to look at something very different. For me, that has always been international travel and connecting with different cultures. After having been in Asia for about seven years, taking a global position as a sales director, looking at the Americas, and doing a bit of business in the Middle East, I was unexposed to the African continent. That was a major attractor to me. You only hear bad stories, at least in the Netherlands, of war, poverty and all these things about Africa.
In one of my interim positions, I had the privilege of traveling to Uganda. I had seen the life-changing impact that our work had in terms of helping families access solar energy so their kids could study at night for the first time using safe and reliable energy. That visit to Uganda shattered completely the stereotypes that I had of Africa. I realized that I didn't know anything about the continent. That visit also planted a seed inside of my brain that if I ever start a bigger thing, it has to be something with Africa. I didn't have an idea at that time about what kind of business that would be or how it would play out.
Coming back from a major Tony Robbins event in Florida, I was on a plane on the way back and I was journaling. An idea came to me which I’ve expanded and it became Coach Africa. It's a very special story. Now, Coach Africa is a business that has a great team on the ground in Africa. It was a business existing for many years. We came together under one big brand. It's incredible to increase access to coaching and do amazing things every day with the people on that continent.
You are bridging a gap by working to equalize the disparate access to entrepreneurial education, training, mentorship, resources and opportunities. That is quite an undertaking. What are some of the challenges that you have faced? How did you navigate them?
What has frustrated me a lot is if you enroll in entrepreneurial training, especially if it's around business development, a lot of gurus teach you how to find your right client, for example. I've been in one course where people said, "Ignore this and this profile," for the very reason that these Black people were from Africa. They said, "Don't accept these invitations or target these people because they probably don't have any money to buy your programs." That is just plain wrong.
With our programs, we're proving that as in the US or the Netherlands, we all want to grow, contribute and develop global businesses. One of the main things that motivated me to help is to shine a different light on what Africa is about, not by me talking about it but by enabling other powerful voices on the continent to shine their light and tell their stories. That way, we don't get one-way traffic of seeing only White people from the developed markets that we're in, but we’re also seeing different colors and voices around the world.
You have had to overcome the stereotypes and the misconceptions. What other challenges have you faced in terms of bridging the gap to access these materials, programs and opportunities in the global markets?
We all want to find our own way, which is good, but sometimes it's great to follow a process and a proven track.
As an entrepreneur, sometimes we have to be courageous and we have to push through. Ironically speaking, it was the color of my skin and the fact that I'm Dutch that made me very insecure. The voice in my head was saying, "Who are you to develop a business that has a positive impact on the continent? Why is that your role?" That voice was so persistent. For a full year, I wasn't able to find my place. I had the position of being a tech guy, facilitating things behind the scene. That didn't fulfill me because I've always been used to being at the forefront and engaging with people. I crafted a role for myself in my business that I didn't like.
How did you navigate and silence the inner critic? How did you navigate those limiting beliefs, the ego, the fear and the doubt? Take us through that journey over the year that you didn't step fully into the forefront. What was that journey like?
One of the things I've done is educated myself around topics like White supremacy or unearned White privilege. What I've come to understand is if we say things and these sort of statements that we generally mean in a good way like, "We don't see color. We are not racist. We are inclusive," we deny a critical part of somebody's identity. Because I didn't know all these things, I didn't know how to deal with the overall business. By educating myself about some of the sensitivities related to my role as a White founder, it made me a bit more certain and it helped me to find my place. Ultimately, the traditional model of being an authority and everybody needs to listen to you is not going to change how people view Africa. That is not my role to talk about it.
Through educating yourself and becoming aware of the sensitivities of the issues of varying perspectives, you were able to feel more confident in your place and role. You were able to craft a position for yourself within your company that aligned with all of that. That confidence led to courage, bravery and boldness, and to the willingness to step out of the shadows of the tech side, and back out into the leadership role to be able to shine a light and provide a platform for the entrepreneurs that you serve to grow, scale and get to market.
What I'm thinking about now, and this is maybe an important point, is I've wasted so much time on prototyping, conceptualizing, and being in my head thinking what people would think in terms of launching that business. When I started talking about what I wanted to achieve, what my intentions were, and the bigger picture and mission, I was finding that the color of my skin disappeared in that sense. That is one of the most heartwarming and touching elements.
When I was in Uganda, I had the privilege of spending the night over at my business partner's residence with his family. The way I was being treated as a real family made me realize that if we start doing, engaging and speaking from our heart instead of from our head, things will happen. You don't have to worry too much about how things will play out. That would be the main message of just starting to do it and you will find your way.
Take the first step and then the next. Get out of your head and get into action, especially when you're so aligned in your mission, purpose and vision. I love that when you got out of your head and started sharing the bigger message, mission and purpose, the fact that you’re a White Dutchman became irrelevant. It became brothers on the cause. It became aligned spirits, missions, purposes and values. People were able to come together, create change and opportunities, and bring their vision to life. That's incredibly powerful. Thank you for sharing that. You mentioned Tony Robbins. You have had quite a few coaches and mentors along your journey. That has helped you to now want to mentor and coach others. What has been some of the best advice that your coaches or mentors have given you?
I will not go into the difference between coaching and mentoring. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter as long as we get the impact in our lives. One coach that I've had said one thing to me. He said, "Danny, just shut up and do this." That's not coaching. It's more like mentoring. As entrepreneurs, we are so stubborn and we want to find our own way, which is good. Sometimes it's great to follow a process with a proven track record and give it a shot. The next shiny object will come by, and then you follow that process, get this mentor or this coach, and everything.
One of my biggest mistakes is I've had too many different people that I've been engaging with. At one point, I was confused because different people told me different kinds of things. I was like, "What do I do?" Pick one person that you think, "That person is in the space that I want to go into. He has a proven track record and made results in this space. Let me listen to that person." The piece of advice that I would give is to shut up and follow somebody's process. If it's not working, you can always change and get somebody else, but at least give it a shot.
Shut up and do it. Take messy actions. Get out of your own way and get out of your head. Step into your dream. Take the first step and see what happens. I also love your point about being flexible and being able to pivot and adjust. You just try it and take action. If it doesn't work, you make an adjustment and you try it again. You pivot and adjust. Bit by bit, you find the rhythm that works for you. Don't reinvent the wheel. Find someone that's further along in the journey and living the path that you want, and then model them because success leaves clues. What do you wish someone would have told you that you had to learn for yourself the hard way? How can you now save someone the time and frustration from carving their own path?
Just take action. If it doesn't work, make an adjustment and try it again until you find the rhythm that works for you.
In the beginning, especially if you’re starting a business or you want to scale, it's a struggle. All of us entrepreneurs know that, but we don't know when the end of the tunnel will appear or when do we enter the light. I've seen a graph and it gave a great picture. It was an inverted curve where on one axis was time, and on the other was the amount of struggle. In the beginning, it was complete nonsense on how much struggle you have to push through, but then it gets so much easier once you reach scale and it's disproportionate.
What I wish I would have known is that it would take a bit of struggle and time to get established. I was quite naive and pulled the plug out of a well-paying interim position to start Coach Africa. If I would have known the runway that I would need at that point, I would have made some more sensible decisions. It would not have taken me that long to get to where I am. Push through because you never know when you will pick the gold. Maybe you're 1 millimeter away from it, so just push through and it will appear. Things will happen for you.
Where did you find the drive to push through in those challenging times?
I wish I could say that it was easy or that it was all inside me and it’s all mindset. Even if you're doing your daily priming, waking up and doing your meditation, visualizing your success and journaling, it's still hard. It's a lot easier if you do as much as you can to get into the state that allows you to be your best self. The thing that I never understand is when people talk about being grateful or super happy all the time. Maybe I'm not yet there but we never realize our happily ever after.
What is happily ever after to you? How do you define success?
I'm increasingly realizing that beauty is in the moment. Especially us achievers, we have so many goals and things we're striving towards. All of these things are great but often we forget to live, and years and very precious moments fly by. For example, I was with my family and my son asked me, "Dad, can I jump with you into the sea?" It’s a very chilly sea because that's a tradition that I've done for years. We were running hand-in-hand to the ocean. I've been watching that video so many times. I am enjoying that smile on his face, being there and my parents being so happy seeing us. These are the things that I think life is about. These are precious moments. Let's cherish them and take a moment to appreciate them.
That's so powerful. Far too often, we get caught up in the destination, the goal, the achievement, the accolade. What's the end game? We're so busy planning, climbing and persevering. We forget to stop, look around, be present, and realize that the magic is in the moments. Life is in those moments, the glances, the laughter and holding the hand of your son. Thank you for bringing that up. It's a powerful reminder especially in the last few years with the pandemic. People have been so overwhelmed and trying to keep up with the next thing and the uncertainty of it all that to remember to live each moment of each day is profound.
There's still so much beauty around but sometimes we don't realize it.
We're so busy that we don't take the time to see what is here with us and for us. I want to shift gears a little bit but on a related topic. What drives you?
On the one end, it's very personal. I don't want to go into my grave with a realization that I haven't been the very best that I could be. I would love to be the next Nelson Mandela. I want to push as much out of myself as I can. That's driving me, but it's for sure to leave the world in a much better place than it was when I was young. When I was a kid, I used to watch Captain Planet. I don't know if you or anybody have watched that before but they had this villain named Looten Plunder. He was always spoiling the Earth. I remember as a kid feeling so upset about, "How can you pollute the world?" At the end of the day, I am deeply touched.
I remember flying above Borneo, looking down from the airplane and seeing half of the rainforest was gone. I was seeing palm plantations for hundreds of kilometers. I want to do something about the bigger issues in the world. Sometimes, it's a challenge because then you're thinking, "What do I do? Am I doing enough?" I'm trusting that things are happening gradually. That's driving me to make a mark on this planet.
You might have so many goals that you’re striving towards, but don’t forget to live and cherish the precious moments.
How are you able to stay in alignment with that vision and your values, mission and purpose given all the distractions, noise, challenges and the busyness of life?
It would be listening to that voice. Everybody knows it subconsciously very well. Once you're heading in the wrong direction, you feel it in your body that that's not where you should be heading. Sometimes we ignore it and then we get a backlash. For me, that's still happening now and then. Sometimes I'm working too hard and I find that I'm compromising my family or my health, but then I course correct.
I'm not sure if we can all be like Mother Teresa and stay in complete alignment all the time, but I think we are capable of staying 99% on course because of our conscience. My conscience is always telling me if I'm going in the wrong direction. It's a very strong voice in my head that’s saying, "This is not right. This is not how it should be." I then don't go that route in terms of ethical behavior with the business or dealing with some kind of people.
It's also so important to have financial abundance in your life. What I've noticed is if you are under pressure financially, it blurs so many things. It blurs your values and creativity. The more abundant we become, the easier it feels to be on course to say no to some people that you don't want to do business with, to follow your passion and heart, and to craft the business or the life that you dream of. We need money for that.
Some people would say, "When you have money it's easy to say no to things. When you have money it’s easy to take that vacation and prioritize your self-care. When you have money it’s easy to hire people so that you have the time to balance things out.” That's fine and dandy for people who have money but what would you say to people who are in that situation where they don't have the financial abundance yet? They are struggling because they want to adhere to their values. They want boundaries, balance and joy. They want to stay in alignment with their values and missions. What advice do you have for them?
Money is an enabler. It becomes easier but it's not an excuse if you don't have it to not have all of that. We were talking about being present, being in that moment, and all the emotions. That's why I love your show. The biggest breakthrough that I've had, and I'm sure that's the same for many of you, is if you realize that you have the power to choose your emotions, that is very profound for a lot of us. If you're in a space where there's not a lot of financial abundance in your life, I'm sure there are a lot of other things that are going great for you at this time.
We can then choose our emotions that would make it easier to live in that state according to our values. It's still perfectly okay to say no to several opportunities that do not align with your value set. It's about what do you value most. If your contribution is love and connection and it’s at the top of your value set and needs, and after that is a certainty, then the money is not a factor at that moment.
It's aligning with, "Do I take care of my family and loved ones? Do I show up in a connective and powerful way? I don't have that much but do I give back now? If I don't give anything now, will I give anything if I have a lot of money?" It amplifies and makes things easier but it's not an excuse not to be in that state.
I love your reminder that you are in control of your emotions. You have the power to choose your perspective and priorities. You have the power to choose whether you're going to react or act because they are not the same. Are you reacting out of habit or are you consciously taking deliberate action? I love that you brought that up. For people who are struggling maybe financially or through trauma, pain, certainty and uncertainty, it's an important reminder to get clear on who you are, what you want, what you want your life to look like, and what your values and priorities are.
Make whatever choices you can every day that further your goals, values, mission and purpose. When you are living in your mission and purpose, then you can create that flow. Sometimes we don't want to say no to opportunities because there's a fear or a doubt, "Will another opportunity come? Will I be able to make it?" Sometimes saying no to the wrong opportunity or the wrong partner creates space to say yes to the right one when the opportunity comes along. How many times have amazing things come our way, then we looked around and didn't have that five extra minutes in the day? We thought, "I would love to do that but I don't have time."
It’s perfectly okay to say no to opportunities that do not align with your value set.
Being able to stay in alignment and sometimes saying no to things opens that time for prioritizing the self-care, creating the business plan, taking the next action or picking up the phone and having that conversation with the next prospect or the next connection that could open other doors or facilitate opportunities.
One of the things I love about you is sometimes I'm wondering how do you do all of these things as you're achieving. I'm sure some of the secrets to your success is saying no to some opportunities that come your way if I'm not mistaken.
It is saying yes to the things that align with you and no to anything else. You are someone who has taken the road less traveled. We've already talked about it a little bit being a White Dutchman creating a business and focusing on serving Africa. You've talked about some of the criticism that you faced, the self-doubt that came up or the negative self-talk, and how you've navigated that. How have you learned to shed the sting of the external, not only to silence your inner critic but also to not pay any attention to the naysayers and the external critics?
I was quite upset when I was attacked on social media sometimes when I was learning things. In the beginning, you make a lot of mistakes because you're super proud of the work that you do. You make the exact mistake that you want to avoid, namely to be that vehicle that talks about the continent in a great way, then you get the backlash. It was quite hard and discouraging because I was doing it with the right intentions. On social media, people don't have time to understand your intentions. They’ll bite off your head straight away. That's how social media works.
What I've come to realize is there are individuals behind social media. I've reached out to some people that made quite skeptical comments. I jumped on a Zoom call with some of them. At the end of the Zoom call, it was a completely different story. People were very appreciative of the work that I was doing and I was like, "This is a communication thing."
It’s the power of using your voice and sharing your heart.
That comes back to speaking from the head and not the heart. I even had a day when I didn't have a great conversation with somebody and I was upset about it. It was something that wasn't in alignment with my values. The conversation was not pleasant. Upon reflecting on that conversation, that was my mind speaking. I wasn't present during the conversation. The way I've managed to overcome it is not to be that much in my head but to communicate more from the heart, then things changed.
That's so powerful, especially over the few years with people having to pivot more toward doing everything virtually. They are feeling that disconnection and having plenty of time to go back into their head. We're seeing that with the polarization and divisiveness that is going on. It’s an important reminder to get out of your head and back into your heart. Have meaningful conversations from your heart with respect and be present in those communications so that you're able to hear as well as speak.
It's a game-changer if you open up, listen and communicate with your heart.
Do you incorporate that into your self-care practice and practice within your family? How do you prioritize that? What does that look like for you?
You are in control of your emotions. You have the power to choose your perspective, priorities, and whether you're going to act or react.
One of the things that are non-negotiable in our family is that every Tuesday, I have a day with my sons. The whole day is blocked off. We put a bit of structure around it so that it's not compromised. That's one thing which is important to us. The constant struggle that I'm having is that conflict between wanting to be everything that I can be but also being that best person as a husband or as a father. It's around blocking and transitioning from being engaged with work to switching being with your family completely and not thinking about work when you are at the dinner table.
With COVID, it's hard because you're working upstairs. That transition time when you used to have half an hour in public transport or your car, now you're downstairs in two seconds and your family commands all your attention. It's hard. We know that we can change our state and focus on that moment. Let's do that. I'm also speaking to myself. It's still a work in progress.
It takes some practice and intention. It goes back to what you spoke about being present. When you are working, you are fully present and focused on that. By having that Tuesday and dinner as a family blocked off, you're able to be fully present and focused on those moments. You were able to be fully present and focused on your work things during your work time. You have had an interesting journey. That is for sure and it is long from over. You're still building your empire, scaling your impact, and progressing along your journey. If you had to sum up all the twists and turns of your life and journey in a few sentences, what would they be?
Life is an adventure. Go out there and do unconventional things because sometimes swimming against the current brings you to the most incredible places. The most unexpected things can happen and the most beautiful encounters. Grab life and squeeze the last drop out of it. Go for your dreams and do not be scared. You're better than that. Life is happening for you. You have all the opportunities in the world. Go out and get it.
Go out there and just do it. Those are wise words. How can people find out more about what you're doing? How can they connect with you?
You can reach out to me any time. My main webpage is www.DannyDenHartog.com. You can send me an email or reach out to me on LinkedIn at Danny den Hartog. Feel free to reach out and ask me anything that you want. I would be happy to connect.
Run out and connect with Danny. He's incredible. Danny, what you're doing in the world is amazing and so needed. Thank you for taking the road less traveled. Thank you for living outside the box and for stepping into the role of closing those access gaps. Thank you for being that bridge and for the work that you are doing. I cannot wait to see how it continues to unfold and amplify in the world.
Ellie, thank you so much for the super inspiring work that you do with your show and through all your endeavors. Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you for being here. Until next time.
About Danny den Hartog
Danny den Hartog is an impact strategist with an impressive track record of shaping business models across international markets. Having worked in 14 countries across Asia-Pacific, he is a serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, coach, and social business consultant who is on a mission to redefine social entrepreneurship and equalize access to entrepreneurial education, training, resources, and opportunities.
He is the co-founder of Coach Africa, an organization that offers high-quality consulting, mentoring, and coaching for organizations, coaches, and entrepreneurs across the African continent.
There, he has facilitated access to clean energy for over 170,000 people, provided business training to over 500 entrepreneurs, facilitated the housing for over 160 refugees, and cultivated a successful network of coaches to help African entrepreneurs start and scale their businesses. He is proud to have won the “Doing Business in Africa” award for his work.