Wendy van Ierschot

From October onwards, entrepreneur Wendy van Ierschot will write a column every month on the importance of HR policies in practice when it comes to innovation and start-ups. Van Ierschot is an HR expert, podcast maker, and speaker on international podiums. She studied Public Administration at Leiden University and in 1996, started her career at Shell in the Netherlands. She set up several HR companies during her career there and afterward, including VIE People, which she currently leads.

Van Ierschot has been investing in innovative start-ups for several years now. She does this in cooperation with the European Angels Fund of the European Investment Bank (EIB).

What kind of companies do you invest in?

“I invest in technology within my own area of expertise. These include educational platforms, feedback apps, and workplace surveys. I have just joined a start-up specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy. We can do increasingly more with language. You can use technology to analyze whether they are depressed or not and how deep, based on the choice of words someone uses.  You can use technology to measure the climate in an office and its impact on productivity. It’s a massive market.”

What does cooperation with the European Angels Fund bring in terms of added value?

The European Investment Bank has an investment program. Part of the money earmarked for start-ups and scale-ups in Europe is disbursed by business angels whom the EIB selects. They are given the task of investing that money coming from the European Union. In that program, I was the first woman in Europe to make it through the ‘due diligence’ process of the European Investment Bank. They turned me inside out for nine months. Basically, I have now received a pile of money from them. If I decide to invest in a start-up, they will double my investment out of that fund. For example, if I invest €50,000 in something, they add that same amount without me having to consult them. It could also involve €100,000 or any other amount of money. It is up to me to make that decision.”

What do you want to write about?

On the importance of the human side of a company’s organization. I see, for example, that things often go wrong with a start-up or scale-up because the leader is not consciously working on his or her personal development as a leader. Like when the company grows, you end up in a different role as a leader of maybe a thousand or ten thousand people. You learn how that works as you go along. But something inside you needs to happen as well. You might think: ‘That makes sense.’ But it’s not as simple as it seems.”

Why isn’t it logical that you intuitively adapt to your role as a leader?

Most people who embark on something innovative are a bit stubborn. They tend to think: Everyone does it this way. I’m going to do it differently. Or else it’s not innovative. Apart from that, you shouldn’t go wherever the wind blows. You get investors on board at the initial stage of your start-up. One says: ‘Focus on a niche.’ While the other says: ‘You have to attract a customer first and then go on from there with developing further.’ Another says: ‘Throw your net wide and then see where you gain the most traction.’ In order to decide on which course to take, you have got to be stubborn. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get your start-up off the ground. But as your company grows, that stubbornness has to make way for the fact that you are also the leader of a large company. Being vulnerable is a part of that too. It involves noticing what happens to the people in your company. You have to think about what kind of teams you are putting together and how you can make them work effectively. This is a completely different skill set than setting up a start-up. 70% of the founders of start-ups fail to see that.”

Do things often go wrong with start-ups for that reason?

“Yes.”

Do they go bankrupt then?

“Yes. Or they get taken over. A lot of start-ups don’t make it. After five years, 50% are dead in the water.”

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