Prins Constantijn. Beeld: Techleap
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According to Constantijn of Orange-Nassau, one of the solutions for a better ecosystem for start-ups is to give entrepreneurs a more prominent place at the negotiating table (read part one of this two-part series here). In this instalment, we talk to him about the importance of diversity, why the Netherlands has relatively few start-ups that thrive and the largest tech fair in the world: CES.

One of the conclusions from the 2021 Atomico State of European Tech report is that 87 % of the founding teams in the Netherlands are exclusively made up of men. Does that deter potential talent – such as women or people from immigrant backgrounds?

“Absolutely, inclusivity and diversity are really an issue in the Netherlands. There is a whole pool of people in the Netherlands who are not drawn to the tech sector because that sector is still extremely male and very white. I think you could attract a much more diverse public, but that’s definitely a long-term strategy. Somehow, there’s a kind of bias in our education system, in our culture and in our upbringing that makes women drop out quickly or only get into tech jobs later in life.”

“The lack of diversity, in addition to being a social problem, is above all a strategic challenge for tech companies. We are constantly warning entrepreneurs about it. As in, if you want to set up a big company in the Netherlands, you will have to go international at some point. That means you will have to create a culture that is attractive to international talent. Do you have a white, male and Dutch-speaking company culture and do you want to scale up? Then you’re doomed. The engineer from India or brilliant programmer from Ukraine will never go for you. As such, inclusivity and diversity are not just a problem, but the solution as well. If more and more tech companies establish themselves here, we will increasingly have to fish from international pools of talent. And you can only fish successfully if you build up a diverse and inclusive corporate culture.”

In two weeks time, you were supposed to travel for the fifth time to CES, the biggest tech fair in the world. You will not be going this year due to Covid-19, but the 50 start-ups and 20 scale-ups are boarding the plane. What message would you like to give them?

“Don’t hesitate to adopt a fake it till you make it attitude, although obviously within certain parameters. If you are standing around with a prototype, you have to be prepared for the question of when you can deliver 100,000 units. A typical Dutch reaction might be: ‘I’m not that far yet, knock on my door again in five years’ time.’ We are now trying to teach participants that they should think about these kinds of questions in advance. That is improving all the time. I am very proud of the delegation, we are really showing how much innovation the Netherlands has to offer.”

Together with the University of Utrecht, Techleap has published the research report ‘Thinking Bigger’. In it, they went looking for the answer to the question why there are relatively few start-ups in the Netherlands that are able to grow into scale-ups and unicorns. The conclusion is: a culture that fosters the growth of start-ups is missing. How do you view that conclusion?

“With a smile, on the one hand. As this has been proven time and again, yet for Dutch entrepreneurs, autonomy is a key driver: self-reliance and independence are extremely important. But whenever a company does grow, the founder automatically sacrifices that independence. More money, more people and more processes are then involved. Those factors limit autonomy. As much as I appreciate that drive for independence, it also has a downside.”

Also read: In search of chill talent

“Apart from that, we in the Netherlands really like start-ups when they are small. We like helping them out. But as soon as a company grows, we don’t find them sympathetic anymore and the successful entrepreneur is suddenly a grifter. It’s something that’s rooted very deep in our Dutch culture – that we don’t celebrate private sector success. I talk to successful entrepreneurs in my own podcast. They have often worked incredibly hard, delivered a first-rate result without us giving them any recognition for it. I find that very galling. In Scandinavia, and much more so in Israel and America, success is celebrated. We have to learn to do that too, that’s how you can make entrepreneurship much more attractive for future generations.”

For Dutch entrepreneurs, autonomy is a key driver: self-reliance and independence are extremely important. But, when a company does grow, the founder automatically sacrifices that independence.” Prince Constantijn

Back to the drive for independence for a second. In some ways, that inhibits the growth of a company. What can be done about this?

“It is helpful when entrepreneurs who have done well share their experiences. The report also shows that entrepreneurs who are starting a business for the second time are more ambitious and have fewer fears. You can see this especially clearly in female entrepreneurs, who in the Netherlands tend to have a lower level of ambition than men. But, among women who start a business for the second time, the level of ambition is almost equal to that of men. Therefore, with so-called ‘serial entrepreneurs’ and through role models who tell their stories, we are able to partially close the ambition gap.”

Lastly, do you have another word of advice to start-up Netherlands?

“My mantra is: ‘It is more than just about technology.’ In the end, it’s about whether you, as an entrepreneur, know how to set up a company, attract the right people, know how to develop technology and how to run an organization. I see far too many companies focusing on technology. They forget that you also need a vision. If you sit down with an investor and you don’t know how big you want to become, what your benchmarks are and who you want to be, then there’s a good chance you’ll keep going around in circles and not know when you should or can take the next step.”