Karen Boers is co-founder and Managing Director of Startups.be, which brings hundreds of startups together with incubators, accelerators, investors and public actors in a local startup ecosystem. She also runs the European Startup Network, which aims to help create a truly pan-European bottom-up startup ecosystem. In this blog post, Karen talks about the challenges she has encountered, how she manages to achieve a good work-life balance, and her plans for the future.
As the co-founder and CEO of both the Belgian startup network Startups.be and the European Startup Network, I have always been passionate about creating opportunities for other people – especially entrepreneurs – to thrive. Connecting the dots, helping to create the right environment and bringing people and organisations together in meaningful relationships, that’s what I love to do.
It’s been challenging these last few years, as I never considered myself to be a (social) entrepreneur in the first place. Learning to close a deal, to master financial flows, pitch my project, make myself vulnerable and conquer the never-ending cash flow challenges are just a couple of the skills I have had to develop along the way.
It’s been great, though, to go after my dreams and show our kids that you can reach for the stars and nobody should tell you it’s impossible. My boyfriend and I have five of them jointly, so we really care about what the future holds for them. Being an entrepreneur allows me to work really hard, while still being available for them – picking them up at the school gate and helping them with their homework, their small fears and challenges. It’s helped me to show them that a healthy work-life balance can also mean being passionate about what you do, that work can be fun at least part of the time and that you can blend it together in a way that makes sense to you and your family.
Taking on the challenge of better connecting and streamlining the startup ecosystem across Europe comes with new challenges – and more time away from the family. But I really hope we can build an environment in which digital skills, a creative and entrepreneurial mind-set and the opportunities to put your talents to good use are within the reach of every individual, wherever they come from.
If I had to do it all over again, I would probably not change that much. I might be a little less naive to start out with, a little less cautious about empty promises and a little more aware of the time lapse between an agreement and actual money in your bank account. But, all-in-all, every single mistake I’ve made has brought me one step closer to where I stand today – and that’s exactly where I’m happy to be.
Those mistakes did teach me that it can be a very lonely ride as an entrepreneur, though. That’s why we are inviting role models from different industries to share their stories and lessons learned at our annual “Failing Forward” conference, proving that we all learn by falling down and stepping up again – and a helping hand can make a world of difference. Since, in the end, failing is not contagious, but success is…
Once you’re bitten by the bug, there is no way back. As I am very frustrated by the inability of our traditional educational system – notwithstanding the tremendous efforts some teachers and school staff are putting in – I guess that will be my next battlefield. Starting with the launch of a coding school for the underprivileged in Brussels city centre in early 2017, I am hoping to tear down yet another barrier to opportunities for all.
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Female entrepreneurs in the spotlight
After a month of interesting blog posts focused on mature entrepreneurship in August, the focus this month switches to women in business. Female entrepreneurship is often seen as an under-tapped economic reserve, capable of generating economic growth, creating jobs, promoting innovation and addressing inequalities.
In light of this, and to highlight the role of women in business and address their experience, throughout September our Entrepreneur in Residence and other contributors will share their stories on the Promoting Enterprise blog, allowing their peers to benefit from their experience, and perhaps inspiring them to consider their own business as a career option. If you know of any female entrepreneurs with inspiring stories to tell, let us know and we’ll do our best to feature them among others across our social media channels.
On the Promoting Enterprise blog, we have already started to introduce the members of the European Enterprise Promotion Awards Jury, and will continue to do so as well as provide other EEPA related information throughout September, so remember to check the blog each Friday for updates.
Finally, a topic of interest to young entrepreneurs. The deadline for submitting entries in the SME Youth Essay Competition has passed. If you are one of the many entrants, you can read some details about the entries we received, along with other important deadlines to watch out for below. Read more >>
Lisa Schreier has been Head of Research & International Strategy at the German Startup Association since April 2014, where she is responsible for the German and European Startup Monitor. She is also co-founder & CEO of the European Startup Network, which she set up jointly with Karen Boers from Startups.be. Before working with startups, she worked in consulting with the department for Inter-Parliamentary Conferences of the Bundestag in Germany, the commercial department of the International Chamber of Commerce in New York, and the American Consulate in Munich.
The first study on the European Startup ecosystem, the European Startup Monitor (2016), reported that, on average, 14.7% of startups in Europe were founded by female entrepreneurs. This means that over 85% of startups in Europe are founded by men. Although, some countries like Sweden (33.3%) and France (26.7%) paint a more positive picture, this number means that there is an urgent need to promote gender equality in entrepreneurship.
There is no clear explanation why founding a business is predominantly a male domain. One finding is that there has not been enough academic research on this topic, in addition to various soft factors, such as cultural influences, which make it difficult to resolve this mainly societal puzzle. When attempting to find answers to the “why”, three main areas should be taken into consideration: family, financing and sanity.
Firstly, when looking at the major startup hub – Germany, the German Startup Monitor (2015) found that 80.9% of startup founders – both male and female – completed tertiary education. It also found that the average female founder is 31.1 years old when founding her first business. Looking at demographic statistics, women with tertiary education on average give birth at 31 years of age. Since the average age of founding a business correlates with the average age of giving birth, this raises a question as to whether women are tending to choose family over entrepreneurship.
Secondly, studies have shown that attracting investors is more difficult for female founders since only 10% of startups that raised Series A rounds had female founders. Unfortunately, there are not yet any comparable studies on gender and venture capital in Europe. But the trend is alarming: 85% of all venture capital–funded businesses have no women on their executive teams. What’s more, only 2.7% of venture capital-funded companies have a female CEO. Looking at the venture capital firms themselves, female partners make up only 6% – therefore 94% of decision-makers at venture capital funds are male.
The third, and perhaps most surprising reason that is often discussed relates to the characteristics of founders. When starting and promoting a business under high-risk conditions, where there is massive uncertainty, founders cannot justify their decision with rational facts that have been carefully analysed. Successful founders are characterised by their decisiveness, resilience, and confidence. Not enough female founders are being put forward as role models for entrepreneurship, so these leadership traits are predominantly identified as masculine. Many females may decide not to found a business due to the high risk and uncertainty associated with this type of investment.
The upside is that, within current developments, there has been a change in perception of mixed founding teams. Research has proven that having a woman on the founding team has positive effects. First of all, when venture-backed, women-led tech startups bring in 12% more revenue than male-owned tech companies and achieve a 35% higher return on investment. Mixed teams have further proven to be the most efficient, since team members generally tend to be more focused on problem solving when gender is not an influential factor on the team.
So what do we have to change? We have to establish an education system that teaches about entrepreneurship and digital skills at an early age, as well as encouraging all genders to believe in themselves. All genders should be encouraged to be courageous enough to follow an idea without constantly worrying about failure. Embracing the possibility of failure should not only be taught in school but must be embedded in European culture. If society starts to accept out of the box thinking in both males and females while providing a network of mentors instead of critics, we may be surprised to see where the European Startup ecosystem may go in the future.