A Self-Made Brit in the Netherlands

Billy Allwood is the man you need to know if you are an expat in The Hague. Born in the UK of Jamaican immigrants, he is founder/manager of The Hague Online , the yearly Feel at Home in The Hague Fair and the Feel at Home Magazine. The man with the infectious laugh and indomitably positive attitude knows what it takes to settle in a new environment. He also lived in Rio de Janeiro and Paris and speaks Portuguese and Dutch with a London accent.

In the informal ‘office’ of his dining room, Billy tells his story.

Were you aware of race as a kid?

“I grew up in a multicultural part of London. My school was very multiracial. At the end of primary school, I took what was then called the 11+ test [high school entrance exam in the UK given at age 11 or 12], and I passed it. I was amazed; my parents were amazed. Nobody thought I was going to pass. So from going to a public neighbourhood school I went to a grammar school in a middle class neighbourhood. It was a small school, maybe 400 kids, and for the first three years I was the only black kid at the school.

It opened my eyes to a new world: not black or white but different. In those days, people’s parents in my old school worked in a factory or were plumbers. My father was a carpenter, what until then I considered a normal job. At this new school I came across people whose fathers were managers. The way they talked, their aspirations were different. These kids were aiming for white collar jobs.

In my first year, I struggled academically. When I was young my aspiration was to become a professional footballer. So that is why I didn’t want to go to the grammar school, because they played rugby. But I was on all the school teams and in a way I became the stereotype. I was the black kid and what’s he good at? He’s good at sport, but he’s a bit thick.

I don’t know what happened but in my second year, something changed. In my school before, we didn’t really study – we just went to school. I don’t think I realised in my first year that when we had a test, people were at home revising for it. At the end of my first year I nearly got kicked out for lack of academic achievement. In my second year we were streamed so I went to the bottom group. But by the end of the third year I was in the top group.

Are opportunities in life created or to be seized?

During A-levels I sort of secretly hoped I could go on to university. School said my grades were good enough to apply. I got in and was surprised: I thought you had to be really, really clever to go to university or at least cleverer than I am. I got a BSc in Chemistry and then a Post-graduate degree of education in physical education and mathematics from Sheffield University.

But then I realized that teaching, career wise, wasn’t one of the best places to be so I did supply teaching for a while. Then I saw this job interview advertised to do a PhD at Imperial College in X-ray Crystallography. But through that, what I realised was that long-term research wasn’t for me because it is a very slow process. So after I graduated, I started working for a British Chemical company as… a business development officer – nothing to do with chemistry.

After two years I left to be a business development officer for a Brazilian mining company. I was working in a corporate position, better pay, travel opportunities… I thought, why not. I was based in London, but after three or four weeks I was sent to Brazil for 5 weeks. Up until then I’d been on sports trips with school to France and Germany and had worked for 3 months in the US on a university exchange scheme.

What was it like to be an expat?

Brazil was super cool. In 1992 they asked me to move to there for a year to write a proposal document for the World Bank. I didn’t see myself as an expat. My [British] wife stayed in the UK. I was paid 50 USD per day, plus my apartment was paid for and I got a company car. The average Brazilian salary at that time was 100 USD a month so I was making a huge salary.

But it was also interesting because I realized that Brazil was actually quite segregated. I was the only black guy at the head office. I did notice it because I could see people wonder, who is this guy?

When my assignment ended they asked me to stay on for another two years. But my wife didn’t want to live in Brazil. On one hand I was angry, but on the other I could understand it. I could live under the radar: I could put my swimming trunks on and go down to the beach and people would think I was just another black guy. But for my wife, she felt very intimidated. She is 5’10” inches, blond and pale skinned. It made me think that if you are brought up as a minority, while people may be staring at you, you learn to just live with it. My wife saw more of the poverty and she felt very unsafe.

So in the end I came back but there was no job for me in the office in London. But one day the owner of the company called to say that he was going to relocate to Paris and he needed somebody to project manage the IT side of the company. I said, yeah, what are you calling me for? He said, will you do it? I don’t know anything about telecommunication technology but he knew me from the Rio office, liked that I spoke Portuguese and felt that he could get on with me. And I was willing to learn. So that’s how I got involved in telecommunications and IT.

Eventually, for tax reasons, they shut the office in London and moved the international headquarters to The Hague. That’s how I moved here in ’95. My family moved with me this time. But two years later the company was bought out by the biggest Brazilian mining company and they didn’t keep me on. They weren’t interested in having a foreigner. I realised that whether it was because I was black or because I was British, I was never going to get a senior position in a Brazilian company.

You stayed abroad rather than return to the UK?

Then, what I did is set up my own company in 1997. We sold financial software. At first we did really well but by 2003 the market was getting really tough and we wound down the business. For a year I licked my wounds and thought of what I wanted to do. That’s when I decided to start up a website for expats called The Hague OnLine. Later we started organising social events to get more traffic to the website. Then started the yearly Feel at Home in The Hague Fair. And then started the magazines. And here I still am, 11 years later.

I don’t feel that I’m an expat in the Netherlands. I’m a foreigner, but I feel as at home here as I would probably feel anywhere else. You make your community. I speak Dutch, and weirdly, I think many people don’t see me as black. There aren’t many black people in Holland and most

Dutch people don’t understand that there is a big Caribbean community in Britain. So often people think I’m American. I think about moving on but not going back to the UK. I’ve left. I think, in life, what you achieve is a combination of colour, culture and personality. If you are capable you can put your hand to a lot of things. Sometimes things fall into your lap and you grab them. Sometimes you gain opportunities because you are what you are, and sometimes you lose opportunities because you are what you are. On the whole, what I did and what I’ve achieved has been because of who I am and not what I look like.”

Photo Credit: Joao Prates
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