Pro tip for start-up founders: read books, talk to experienced entrepreneurs, absorb everything you possibly can, look for moral support and surround yourself with people just as crazy as you. “But in the end you are the one taking the decisions, pulling the strings and putting your ass on the line.” We talked to founders Liesbeth van Oeffelen (BiosenSource, biotech) and Hannelore Waterschoot (Talentree, recruitment). About their tribe, about their network, about the loneliness of entrepreneurship and how to counter it.
BiosenSource-founder Liesbeth van Oeffelen was not born as an entrepreneur. “Far from it. (laughs) Both my parents were civil servants. I became an entrepreneur out of necessity. I had the idea to drive drug discovery by developing electronics-based measurement devices and data analysis software. Medical innovations leading to new drugs take about 13 years. By bringing the fields of electrical and bio-engineering together, we can speed up measurements performed in drug discovery, make them more accurate and more affordable. I could not develop my idea within the university after my PhD was finished. But I felt so passionate about it and I was so determined to make the world a little better that I had no other option than to start my own business.”
BiosenSource-founder Liesbeth van Oeffelen
Talentree was born from a similar urge to turn things around. “I have always been active in talent development, but I noticed that too much talent was being ignored”, founder Hannelore Waterschoot explains. “Although more and more companies are aware of the importance of diversity, of a staff that mirrors the society out there, a lot of multicultural talent does not find the way to these companies. There’s a huge gap. Contrary to popular belief especially higher educated people with a different background struggle to find a job. Two years ago, I saw my own brother-in-law, who’s Egyptian, struggle to find a job in spite of his experience and his qualifications. Back then, the refugee crisis was all over the news and thousands of people – also highly educated people – would be in need of a job. I wanted to bridge the gap, and match employers and diverse talents.”
Already making any money?
Both Talentree and Biosensource started as one woman armies. “In the early days of BiosenSource I participated in a few competitions to get feedback on my business plan”, Liesbeth looks back on the birth of her start-up. “Every single time at least one jury member wondered out loud whether a woman could cope with a start-up on her own. But I am not someone to go with the flow. If people express doubts on me, it only makes me more determined to go ahead with my ideas. I didn’t look for support, let alone approval. I educated myself, I talked to experts, but in the end I crafted my own path based on what I think is best.”
“Entrepreneurship is lonely by definition, so it’s important that you can count on moral support”, Hannelore emphasizes. “Knowing that my husband and my friends have my back makes it easier to jump into the deep unknown. My tribe gives me peace of mind and confidence. Only my parents were a bit reluctant, it was hard for them to understand why I would give up a solid and well-paid management position. (laughs) They now back me up, but they still ask me with a sorry undertone whether ‘I am already making any money’?”
Hannelore Waterschoot (Talentree, recruitment)
“It’s a generation issue”, Liesbeth van Oeffelen thinks. “Where my parents’ generation only sees the pitfalls, my generation sees the opportunities. And where they – especially as civil servants – see insecurity, I see freedom. Different views.”
The network gives you a headstart
Hannelore works with foreign students, newcomers, expats and their partners, and Belgians with a migration background. One of the main obstacles to find a job is the lack of a network. And the networks they do manage to be part of never meet the employers network. No need to convince her of the importance of a network.
“My experience gave me an advantage. It’s much harder to build a network from scratch, I could fall back on the network I built when I worked at Vlerick business school, where I coordinated the executive programs. My former colleagues, and also my former boss believed in me and encouraged me. They introduced me to their own networks, and they even gave me a hand on building the Talentree-website and the platform.”
A world of difference with Liesbeth’s experiences. “To survive as a start-up, you either need to raise capital or start generating revenues on a relatively short term. The university and imec were not in a hurry to transfer the intellectual property rights, and without those, I knew I simply could not raise funding. Therefore, I started my company as a consultancy business, and luckily, I had the chance to work on a project that led to the development of a new software product. With the revenues from this product, I could continue the development of the measuring device when the IP was finally transferred a year after my PhD defense. I guess most start-ups would not survive a full year without being able to work on their product. In traditional environments such as a university, there’s still too much bureaucracy and reluctance to share ideas and talents, creating a big hurdle for researchers wanting to start a spin-off.”
“That’s why I get so much inspiration and even more motivation out of the start-up community at Start it @KBC. (laughs) The other founders reassure me that I am not the only crazy one out there. There’s a buzzing energy among the start-ups that constantly lifts you up.”
Hannelore fully agrees: “I am surrounded by incredible energetic people. The vibe is unrivaled. I have discovered that you need to be an entrepreneur yourself to fully understand what it means. Whenever Talentree arrives at a crossroad and I have to make tough decisions, I consult my personal network. I used to also consult people in big companies. But I have shifted more towards other entrepreneurs – like Inge Geerdens from CV Warehouse, role model and mentor at the same time - for guidance. No offence to Corporates, but other entrepreneurs have been there, have done that, and are still doing it. They have seen both sides: they have moved mountains, but they have taken punches as well.”
Is there such a thing as ‘female’ entrepreneurship? Do women and men handle their businesses in different ways?
Hannelore has got the impression that female founders and female entrepreneurs tend to focus on different things when they network and meet. “Women strongly focus on the obstacles and the challenges they need to overcome. Men tend to focus on their successes and the things that run smoothly. For example, I believe people are more judgmental about your life as an entrepreneur than whether you are a man or a woman. My kids are 6, 8 and 10 years old. It can be quite a struggle to balance work and family life, and I’m 100 percent sure male entrepreneurs face the same struggle. But they don’t talk about it to each other, they prefer talking about clients they win or money they make. And although they might exaggerate a little to boost their status, female founders should watch out not to be too self-critical or too modest. Success sells.”
Liesbeth sees yet another difference between male and female entrepreneurs: “I think men are more sensitive to the idea of belonging to a group. They want to fit in. That’s why I’ve got the impression that they are more likely to do things the way other entrepreneurs do them.
“The start-up community is getting more balanced, female founders are on the rise. But when you look at the scale-ups, the male dominance is more persistent. When at a certain point start-ups are looking for funding, who do they go to? People who have already sold a company and have already made some money doing so. Who has already sold a company? Not the entrepreneurs in their 20s and their 30s. Most investors, venture capitalists have started companies back in the era where female founders still were a curiosity. So we’ll have to wait for this generation of female founders to make enough money to be able to invest in other start-ups. (laughs) I am definitely not there yet.”
Artemis brings female entrepreneurs together
Lien Warmenbol, project coordinator Artemis
“Women don’t network just for the joy of networking”
Artemis brings women with an entrepreneurial attitude together, and has been doing so since the 1950s, project coordinator Lien Warmenbol explains. “Back then our members mainly were the so-called ‘assisting spouses’. But over the years we have seen more and more women starting their own business. Today, over 40 percent of all new businesses, not just start-ups off course, are women.”
“A network is incredibly important for entrepreneurs. They obviously get business out of it, but they also learn from each other and inspire each other. We notice that our members want to make sure the networking is worth their time. They want to make sure they get something out of it. No networking just for the joy of networking, it needs to add value to their business.”
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