First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Catalina Iorga
‘Amsterdam is the place to be for social entrepreneurship,’ says Willemijn Verloop. Before co-founding Social Enterprise NL, a national membership body that connects and supports the growing Dutch social enterprise community, Verloop learned that ‘Amsterdam has a rich history of entrepreneurship and private initiative focused on people’s talents instead of their perceived disabilities.’ The feeling is shared by Tatiana Glad, co-founder and Director of Impact Hub Amsterdam – which is part of a mature entrepreneurial ecosystem of more than 15,000 social innovators in almost 90 cities worldwide. ‘Doing good business and improving society is part of Amsterdam’s DNA,’ she says. To ensure that innovative businesses continue to make Amsterdam a better place to live and work while getting more visibility and prominence, the Social Entrepreneurship Action Programme will help strengthen the collaboration between the city’s diverse impact players, including networking platforms, knowledge institutes, incubators, accelerators, corporates and investors. ‘We are excited to invite entrepreneurs to innovate with the city and to help tackle Amsterdam’s health challenges,’ says Ellen Oetelmans, the city’s public lead on social entrepreneurship. To that end, the municipality recently joined forces with Impact Hub Amsterdam to develop the Amsterdam City Fellowship, an accelerator running until December 2017 that aims to co-create and implement solutions to health-related urban challenges such as clean air and mobility.
A magnet for international and local talent
‘The Netherlands was a natural next step after we established ourselves in Oslo,’ says Karen Dolva, co-founder and CEO of the Norwegian initiative No Isolation. ‘We needed a central European hub and Amsterdam seemed perfect. The fact that everyone speaks English helped a lot, as did the straightforward rules and regulations for establishing a private limited company,’. No Isolation has created the world’s first telepresence robot, which enables children and young adults with long-term illness to join school classes and stay in touch with friends. ‘The municipality was very welcoming, and we have already met several entities from the municipality of Amsterdam since our arrival,’ Dolva adds.
Another company that felt immediately at home in the Dutch capital was the family-owned business African Clean Energy, which produces biomass-fuelled, high-tech cookstoves that enable smoke-free cooking and provide solar power in Sub-Saharan Africa. ‘People often ask us why we run our business from here instead of Lesotho, where we have our main operations and flagship factory. And part of the answer is that you need to be in the place that helps you best. Amsterdam is forward-thinking, inspiring and full of like-minded enterprises. And it has fast Internet, for when we need to Skype with our team in Uganda for instance,’ explains Director of Operations, Judith Joan Walker.
But it’s not just young entrepreneurs from abroad that make up the city’s impact talent pool. Budding changemakers can enrol in the Social Entrepreneurship Honours course developed by the Amsterdam Business School at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) in collaboration with multiple partners such as the Vrije Universiteit (VU) and ENACTUS, an international not-for-profit that invests in students who improve the world through entrepreneurial action. ‘As a city university, our mission includes contributing to Amsterdam and its communities,’ says Dr. Machiel Keestra, Assistant Professor at the UvA’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies. Keestra is also one of the coordinators of the course, which includes developing a social enterprise business plan and engaging in a minimum of 80 hours of community service.
‘Students in Amsterdam are usually well aware of sustainability and social issues, and become more motivated when they apply their academic skills to advancing social causes,’ Keestra says. And that motivation brings results, as shown for example by a recent assignment in which students advised the Amsterdam electric taxi company Taxi Electric how to improve the lives of their drivers, many of whom had not worked in years.
The perfect place for scaling impact
‘Taxi Electric is about changing mindsets: showing that you can get people off the couch and into car seats while offering a great customer experience and competing in a not-so-social industry,’ says Warner Philips, a partner at Social Impact Ventures NL whose first investment was Taxi Electric. ‘When I moved back from the US two years ago I felt I could contribute by investing in social enterprises with healthy business cases, in order to prove that positive impact can go hand-in-hand with financial returns,’ explains Philips, who has nearly 20 years of experience as an international cleantech entrepreneur and impact investor. ‘We found that many of the entrepreneurs we want to support are based in Amsterdam, which has always been a great centre of entrepreneurship.’
House of Eléonore is a social enterprise that recently won the 2017 edition of Impact Hub Amsterdam’s Investment Ready accelerator programme with its luxury jewellery made from laboratory-created diamonds and 18k FairTrade gold. ‘Amsterdam is the only place we could have done this, as the roots of our industry are here,’ says its co-founder, Bernd Damme. ‘We really want to lead the transition from natural diamonds to conflict-free, laboratory-created diamonds, and bring production back to Amsterdam, which was the capital of diamonds before World War II.’ Thanks to backing from established players such as the Royal Asscher Diamond Company, an upcoming new office and production centre at the heart of Amsterdam’s Museum Quarter, and ambitious plans to expand to the US market, Damme is well on his way to fulfilling his personal mission: ‘It is my obligation to support sustainability and change, and to leave the planet in a better state.’