Young entrepreneurs: driving the pace of progress
Four committed RSM alumni. Four original business ideas. Four fully-operational companies. Four fresh perspectives on what it takes to follow your dreams and make your ambitions a reality. RSM Outlook spoke to Emilita Fernandes, Yvette Koppert, Ralph de Groot, and Pieter Levels about their professional and personal paths. They have all become change-makers, which recently saw them – and RSM student Teodor Cătăniciu – feature in the “50 young entrepreneurial talents of 2017” published by Dutch national newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad.
Story by Kevin Titman
THE WOMEN DRIVER
Emilita Fernandes, co-founder, Mama Taxi
‘It might sound clichéd but you need to be more than 100 per cent devoted to make your business dream come true,’ begins Emilita Fernandes (MSc Human Resource Management 2012), whose ambition to set up a taxi firm named after her grandmother and staffed by female-only drivers began back in 2014.
Following a career in banking at ING, Emilita took her constant drive to combine profit margins with social engagement a step further by launching her own venture, one which has now quite literally been on the road since February 2016. Today the Rotterdam-company offers clients a fleet of all-electric luxury cars and states on its website that. ‘Mama Taxi is a private, all-female taxi service. Our drivers work for business executives, private individuals, officials from the world of politics and the diplomatic corps,’ she says.
As Emilita can attest, every good driver needs to be surrounded by the right people, be it staff or those off whom to bounce ideas in order to make the right decisions for positive change. ‘The idea was very much my own but since the creation of Mama Taxi I have set in place an Advisory Board. I use them as a sounding board for expert advice on all kinds of matters, from acquisitions and outsourcing decisions through to investment strategy and communications.’
While women empowerment via the opportunities provided by Mama Taxi is one of Emilita’s self-proclaimed goals, she also has the future career of each of her employees firmly in mind, as reflected in her management style and the longer-term goals of the company. ‘I like to mix a hard and soft approach to leadership when and where required. That said, I make a special effort to get to know each member of staff personally and to see where their time at Mama Taxi may take them in the future. I like to think that the communications, etiquette and hospitality skills that they will acquire in their time with us will serve them well in the future, in the event of them moving on to another job.’ It seems safe to say that the inspiration provided by Emilita will encourage other women to “change destination” as the company’s tagline underlines.
THE SWITCHED-ON LEADER
Yvette Koppert, co-founder and CFO, Gerrard Street
Ever wondered just how the younger generation is suddenly cash-rich enough to spend on headphones what one might normally spend on an entire stereo system? Well, to address the problem for those who would never spend such an amount on headphones upfront but have a desire for top-notch products, Yvette Koppert (BSc Business Administration and MSc Finance & Investments 2013) has devised a service that answers the financial question while tapping into a whole host of recycling possibilities. What’s more, the system is flexibility in a nutshell. For a nominal €8 monthly fee, customers can hire modular high-end headphones in a service that also includes repairs and updates.
Even better, still-working parts from broken products can be reused to make new headphones. ‘We started two years ago and, to my knowledge, there is no precursor to the service in the consumer electronics sector. There is a clear demand for this kind of product but we also need to be realistic about cost and the potential environmental effect, hence why the recycling dimension is so important to the project,’ says Yvette, the co-founder and CFO of Gerrard Street.
Since launching, Gerrard Street has already garnered an impressive 700 customers. The plan is to branch out the service based upon the same model but by integrating new, additional products. For Yvette, this will put her way of doing business truly to the test. ‘I’ve always worked on the premise that you shouldn’t over-think a project at the outset, hence the ultimate simplicity on which Gerrard Street is based. However, I’m always ready and willing to correct things along the way, provided the right investment is in place to begin with and operations are timed properly.’
With the help of three coaches, Yvette is clear as to her priorities. ‘Following our initial success we need to scale operations up. This, though, will not change the way I seek to lead my team – social relations with my colleagues are crucial, not necessarily in order to be their best friends but to ensure that their strengths are leveraged rather than focusing on weaknesses.’ Given how fast-moving and ever-changing the product line is in which Gerrard Street is creating its own niche, such a flexible approach to management should be music to the ears of the burgeoning company’s staff and customers alike.
THE BUSINESS FEEDER
Ralph de Groot, co-founder, Restoranto
At a time when food shortages are chronic in many parts of the world and food waste never more serious in more affluent regions, what better way to tackle both problems than by trying to encourage consumers in the latter situation to contribute to improving the former? Better still, why not encourage restaurant-goers to buy into this idea by offering them discounts if they eat at restaurants participating in such a scheme, each of which contributes a meal to people in greater need for every order placed? Such is the principle on which Ralph de Groot (BSc Business Administration and MSc Strategic Entrepreneurship 2015) co-founded his app-based project Restoranto back in June 2016.
‘I saw this as not only as my own response to food waste but also a way of trying to get diners and restaurants engaged in the process. We can all make our own small contribution in one way or another and via the handy app that we have developed. It couldn’t be much simpler,’ explains Ralph. The idea has caught on quickly, with 100 establishments in the Rotterdam area already participating in the scheme, a figure that Ralph hopes to see rise to 800 by the summer of 2017. However, he is very much aware of the personal as well as business challenge this will entail. ‘I’ve always been a positive, easy-going kind of person, but since I launched Restoranto I’ve been faced with my fair share of sleepless nights as I handle the pressure of starting and managing my own venture from scratch.’
Backed by advice and support from his former RSM teachers, Ralph is concentrating his efforts not only upon business development but also on achieving sounder financial stability in order to take Restoranto to a new level. To do so, he retains a clear leadership philosophy about how to drive his company forwards. ‘The potential to learn is constant; so I make sure I involve all my colleagues in a truly democratic process. We meet regularly to keep one another sharp and on our toes.’ The key challenge now is to keep diners moving their feet in the direction of participating restaurants, to the benefit of all.
THE NOMAD LIFESTYLER
Pieter Levels, founder, Nomad List
The digital age presents not only new opportunities for companies, but also a new challenge to traditional, more static ways of running a business. People are constantly on the move, to the extent that working from a fixed point within a specific company is no longer a pre-requisite for success. It was with this in mind that Pieter Levels (MSc Business Administration 2012) packed his belongings into a rucksack and headed for Asia on a journey that has seen him set up and run his own online business from such destinations as Bangkok, Singapore, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. His goal – to help fellow nomads track down low-cost places around the world from which to work at distance on whatever business project takes their fancy.
‘In the early days I was inspired by the many success stories I had read about on the website Hacker News. The seeds for the project were sown back in August 2014 through a simple spreadsheet providing information about cost of living, safety and internet speed that I shared on Twitter,’ begins Pieter. ‘Within the space of a week, I had 1,000 followers exploring the data I had published on 250 cities.’
It seems safe to say the now fully-dedicated online platform has exploded since, with 100,000 data points on 1,000 cities and monthly visits to the Nomad List site in the region of 400,000 – all the fruits of labour that has cost Pieter very little in terms of overheads but rather more in terms of personal sacrifice. ‘The flexibility that both the service and the nomad way of doing business offer is great, but for me personally it hasn’t been glamorous or flamboyant – I have had to forego my social life in order to dedicate myself 100 per cent. This is no side project but a whole new way of life for the time being.’
While the operation itself and the type of businesses it supports are virtual by nature, the aim is to push operations forward by organising physical events for fellow nomads in the form of “soft-landing” programmes. These will be designed to prepare those starting out for the opportunities and pitfalls of the professional existence that awaits them. In so doing, Pieter hopes in his ‘non-chosen leader role’ (to quote the man himself) that Nomad List will soon be in a position to provide training and bring into direct contact people who will then branch out personally, professionally and geographically to do business all around the world, when they want and from where they want.