Karen has a passion for people and wants to help anybody who’s motivated and talented to achieve their dreams. With a degree in linguistics and experience in both HR & marketing, she entered into social impact entrepreneurship 6 years ago and created a series of projects: the coding school BeCode, the digital campus BeCentral, the Belgian startup association Startups.be and the European Startup Network.
Q: You are actively involved in the European tech startup scene. What was your key driving force to become an entrepreneur and how did you get so interested in technology?
My own career also spiralled from HR over marketing into IT/startups in a very organic way. It was not a very conscious choice for me to become an entrepreneur. I kind of rolled into it when entrepreneurs all around me started relying on me to connect them to the most appropriate mentor, investor, (first) customer or acceleration program. Only after I created my first social profit company with Startups.be and jumped shop from my safe and comfortable career path, I realised that helping people out in itself does not pay the bills and so I had to learn fast and the hard way. It’s been an incredible rollercoaster ever since!
Q: As part of the Belgium startup ecosystem, can you share some insights into the entrepreneurial climate there?
With an excellent base of research centers and universities, a lot of break-through innovations are started on Belgian soil. Our companies tend to be better at inventing than at selling, though, which often slows down their (international) growth and drives the companies into foreign hands too early on. The startup community has grown considerably the last 5 years, though, with many success stories now inspiring new generations into a slightly more risk-taking mindset. Many of those “first generation” entrepreneurs have since then either created their second and third ventures, being more and more successful thanks to the cumulative experience — or moved on to become business angels and mentor other high-potential startups into success. With a heavy B2B focus, the most important industries amongst the near-3000 Belgian startups are Creative Industries, IT & Business Solutions, Health & Care, Media & Entertainment and Fintech.
Q: Can you share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your entrepreneurial journey?
It seems there are so many stories and experiences, it is near-impossible to select just one!
What strikes me most as an entrepreneur is how lonely it can become and how rough it can be for your mental health. This is the side of entrepreneurship seldomly shared in public, which is why many entrepreneurs experience the hard aspects of entrepreneurship as personal failure, not understanding that all entrepreneurs go through these same experiences. It was the main reason why we created massive campaigns around “Failing Forward”, showing that for ALL entrepreneurs making mistakes, falling flat on our face and starting over is a normal — and even essential — part of entrepreneurship. Putting the most successful role models on stage and seeing them struggle to tell these honest and often heart-breaking tales of their most painful failures, how they managed to get through them and how they contributed to their success today, has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my entrepreneurial journey.
Q: What is the toughest decision you had to make in the last year?
I had to fire my number two in my current social venture, the coding school BeCode. And that did not go smooth. I had to be harsh and cut him out from one day to the next since the atmosphere in the team was under serious threat and it was clearly beyond repair. I knew I had to put the interests of the team and the company first and remain icy cold in the process, but as a human being, I tend to suffer a lot through these experiences and I lose a lot of sleep over it.
Q: How important is having the right team to be successful?
It is absolutely critical.
Q: Who has inspired you in your life and why?
I have been most inspired by my mother, who died when I was still very young but who taught me early on that nothing is impossible if you really set your heart to it and are prepared to fight for it. My partner added the courage to take the deep dive into entrepreneurship and is my most trusted mentor and friend. Their joint faith in me is what keeps me going every single day — with a beautiful family of 5 kids (3 + 2) to pass on the passion 🙂
Q: What is your favourite life lesson quote? And how was that relevant in your life?
I’ve made a lot of bad hires throughout my career and most were because I was looking for a skill set that I did not personally possess at a time of urgent need and I compromised too much on the mentality side. Finding a team that really shares your vision and the DNA of the company is much more important than anything else, especially since there is so much than can be learned “on the job” these days.
Q: You were listed among the 50 most influential women in Europe’s startup and venture capital space. What would be your advice for women entrepreneurs?
Dare to dream — and dream big! Don’t hold yourself back and don’t be restrained. A rewarding entrepreneurial career can be combined with a social life and being there for the family if you want it to. Be inspired by and talk to female entrepreneurs and don’t wait for all the pieces of the puzzle to fit — they never will 🙂
Q: What’s next for Karen?
I’m hoping to prove that social profits can be as scalable and sustainable as traditional companies with BeCode — aiming to add 1.500 new digital talents (web developers as well as specialists in AI, cybersecurity, etc.) to the Belgian talent pool every single year and doing so without being dependent on public funding!