When Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) opened up the public nomination process for this year’s Distinguished Alumni Awards, it asked for alumni who demonstrated RSM’s mission. The Awards were presented during a dynamic and purposeful RSM Leadership Summit at the Van Nelle Fabriek in Rotterdam, and this year’s four awards were presented for actions that clearly show there are many routes to being a force for positive change.

Story by Justine Whittern

Recipients for the Awards were chosen from more than 38,000 alumni worldwide by the RSM community for their achievements or for their voluntary work. They were shortlisted by a jury of six: RSM’s Prof. Dirk van Dierendonck; Martin Kersbergen, Distinguished Alumnus 2013 and chief brand officer at Coöperatie DELA; Elizabeth Rogers, Distinguished Alumna 2017 and founder of Kuunda 3D; Alba Tiley, Distinguished Alumna 2014 and global sustainable antibiotics director at DSM Sinochem Pharmaceuticals; Sue Martin, director of corporate and alumni relations at RSM, and Willem Koolhaas, RSM’s director of corporate marketing and communications.

Diederick van der Wijk

It takes a particular kind of determination to inspire refugees to successfully use their entrepreneurial talents in their new home country. The benefits extend to the Dutch community as a whole and there is potential for the whole business community to learn from their perspectives, says Diederick van der Wijk (MSc International Management/CEMS 2018), who founded non-profit organisation Refugees Forward, based in Amsterdam, in 2017. He was presented with the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award 2018.

Refugees Forward runs training and coaching programmes that unleash the advantages of diversity in society through a four-month incubator programme for refugee entrepreneurs. Under Diederick’s management it has so far raised €100,000 in funding, and now works with major companies to provide quality training and mentorship for participants.

When accepting the Award, Diederick credited RSM for its part in helping him to recruit colleagues Marta Fiolhais, another CEMS master graduate from the Nova School of Business and Economics in Portugal, and Laura Di Santolo (RSM BSc IBA 2016 and MSc International Management/CEMS 2018), who nominated him for the award.

‘Diederick is the heart and soul of the organisation. He works every day and there’s no out-of-the-office time for him,’ said Laura. ‘He consults with every one of our entrepreneurs and manages our major stakeholders and investors with such energy and passion. When you meet him, you believe in his vision: to empower every entrepreneur to become economically self-sufficient and to rebuild lives through entrepreneurship.’

It’s a role that gives Diederick a great deal of enjoyment. ‘I enjoy thinking about entrepreneurship for our organisation and for everyone in our programme. And I especially like the fact that we are active in social entrepreneurship. Participants know the implications for sustainability and social impact. They are capable of starting something that could be a social enterprise, and just need a little push. We give them motivation, support and a network.’

Refugees taking part in the four-month programmes are aged from early 20s to mid-50s. ‘Their common denominator is experience in entrepreneurship. Maybe they were factory managers or had their own businesses in construction or software. They want to use their skills here in the Netherlands but they face hurdles such as diplomas or certificates that aren’t recognised here.’

So far, 21 people have been helped. Of those, 10 have started a business, and participants of Refugees Forward have raised €250,000 in capital, well above expectations. Diederick is extending activities from Amsterdam to Rotterdam in February 2019 so that Refugees Forward will cover the Randstad and the south of the Netherlands with two programmes in parallel for 60 entrepreneurs. The plan is to offer it to 200 entrepreneurs in Western Europe by 2020.

Inspiration to take the entrepreneurial leap came from a professor in Diederick’s behavioural economics class during a study exchange at the Graduate School of Management, St. Petersburg University, who told the students if they really want to start a business they would have started it yesterday. ‘I knew then it was time to get started. I saw people active in social enterprises in Russia, and started thinking about doing the same in the Netherlands.’

The drive to grow the enterprise comes from Diederick’s enjoyment of what he does. ‘I plan to keep on doing what I am doing for now. And later, simply to do things that I like that are related to society. I really enjoy it, so it’s more or less effortless. RSM is still very relevant to me because we recruit through RSM directly or through its network. The school really helped me to start on the right foot – with the right people.’

Niels van Deuren

Recognising there was an accommodation problem when he was preparing for his international study exchange in Singapore resulted in Niels van Deuren (BSc IBA 2009 and MSc International Management/CEMS 2012) founding HousingAnywhere, a global online marketplace for student rooms. The company now employs 90 people and operates in more than 400 cities. Niels received the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award 2018.

Accepting his award on stage, Niels said he would like to see RSM encourage students to be more entrepreneurial to create ‘a huge database of entrepreneurs’, and to put the RSM Leadership Summit spotlight on entrepreneurs as well as CEOs of big organisations.

Niels is now looking ahead for ways to further apply his entrepreneurial skills, and to learn new ones. ‘My company and I are slowly separating: I have put a great management team in place at HousingAnywhere so I can focus on new ideas for things I still want to do with my life,’ he said.

Soon he will travel for a few months ‘to do nothing but get inspired. Then, I want to freelance for a couple of years advising start-ups. And after that, I will start another company of my own.’ 

Travelling and work bring him into contact with interesting people who inspire him. ‘Inspiration gives me new ideas, which brings me a new energy for life.’ These outward-looking habits are the attributes mentioned by fellow alumnus Maarten de Smit (MSc Marketing Management 2012), who nominated Niels for the Award.

Putting his own self-starting entrepreneurship skills aside, Niels recognises that sometimes everyone needs support in the right way at the right time. ‘I like that my company helps students on this first basic step in their new life,’ he said. ‘Moving to another country is a process that’s “super old”. As long as there are universities, there are students renting rooms, but it’s complicated for international students. HousingAnywhere helps them find a place online, book it safely, and gives them one thing less to worry about.’

Niels is an ideas man, but credits RSM for giving him the theoretical knowledge for marketing, for human resource management and for finance that helped him to put his business ideas into operation. And he says that through RSM he met a lot of business-minded people who helped him grow his company in the early days. He gives guest lectures to inspire students and meets the new generation of students. ‘Every new generation is full of energy and new ideas. This also gives me new ideas and energy,’ he says. 

Alexandre Monéton and Jasper Buntinx

Alexandre and Jasper were jointly presented with the Distinguished Alumni Volunteering Award 2018 for setting up the RSM Entrepreneurial Spirit Scholarship – now supported by a small community of alumni – for first-year students starting the three-year BSc International Business Administration (IBA) at RSM.

Both men mentioned the valuable experience of their own bachelor studies at RSM. ‘We’re happy we can let others experience the same, said Alexandre, who graduated from the BSc IBA in 2012, followed by the MSc International Management/CEMS in 2014. He’s an investor in emerging and frontier markets through his three-year old company, Danish Capital, in Toronto, and he says he intends to continue supporting innovation through the allocation of capital as a force for good.

Jasper graduated from RSM’s BSc IBA in 2012, and the MSc Finance & Investments in 2014. He is an infrastructure associate at Macquarie Group in London. His personal ambition for success is based on a desire to continue contributing to society, and to develop the scholarship so that it becomes a self-perpetuating part of the BScIBA programme. After just three years, the scholarship is currently supporting three students. Its third student, Matilde Sévilla, expects to graduate in 2020. Previous scholarship recipients Emilian Todinov and Nicholas Savvakis nominated their benefactors for the Award.

‘We both spent nearly five incredible years at RSM. The school gave us so much – we simply want to give something back,’ said Jasper. The scholarship, for students with an entrepreneurial spirit who are more financially constrained than others, comes with dedicated mentoring: recipients are encouraged to participate fully in university life and to think ahead. ‘We believe education is a pillar of personal growth and development, and want to do our part in opening it up to as many people as we can.’

The scholarship was established with the adage of “what goes around, comes around” in mind. Fostering alumni community involvement encourages students to give back to others when they can. ‘The positive feedback loop spreads,’ says Alex. ‘The next step will be to open it up to more potential donors and mentors, and thus more students. Ultimately, our goal is to support a large number of students every year,’ he said – but only once they are satisfied with the structure and process, which is still in development.

There’s another point that the pair make clear: the success of the scholarship shows the value of mentorship, which creates and promotes a more inclusive business environment. ‘We think businesses should be more actively involved in the nurturing of students at a time when they need it the most,’ they say.

There are plans to increase the size of the scholarship fund to support 25 students over the next 10 years. ‘We think we can create a small and dedicated network of sponsors and RSM students to make the scholarship attractive to supporters and well as students.’

They credit RSM with teaching them the power of building relationships. ‘IBA helped us to develop into global individuals with a strong academic and practical foundation from which we benefit every day; it fostered a community of individuals. That‘s what we are doing through this scholarship too.’

Tom Marshall

Seeing student colleagues who weren't utilising their talents or creating impact as they wanted to when they transitioned from student life to professional life inspired Tom Marshall (MSc Management of Innovation 2016) to speak about the importance of utilising freedom and opportunity to do energising and meaningful work during the master graduation ceremony at RSM in autumn 2016. Tom realised this also applied to him, and Extraordinary Life was born as a result.

It’s an organisation that empowers people to live with purpose, and a movement that aims to evolve the purpose of work, empowering professionals and students with the mindset and tools to achieve success and impact in their lives. Tom is also an innovation consultant at Deloitte.

He was presented with the distinguished Alumni Volunteering Award 2018. In the days following the presentation, he gave his two-hour ‘Inner Beast’ workshops and coaching sessions at the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship, and to students at Copenhagen Business School. The sessions focus on discovering inner talents, finding out what energises participants and the impact they want to make, and making a timed plan to unleash it.

‘There was an important outcome to that Copenhagen presentation,’ Tom told us. ‘Five people there want to work with me to scale up Extraordinary Life internationally by setting up a community in Copenhagen. I want to empower them to give sessions without me; that’s fundamental to being able to scale a movement organically.’

Extraordinary Life is changing from being a coaching provider to building its own social movement. ‘We are connecting with people who believe the same as we do and empowering them to share our ideas about how work should evolve.

‘We’re just getting started,’ says Tom, who started out alone in 2016 but now works with four students, plus others who contribute. He credits his master studies for teaching him an understanding of testing and validating ideas, scaling up a proven idea, and for fostering creativity among colleagues. All of this is understood and appreciated by Vildana Gačić, career development manager at RSM who nominated Tom for the Achievement Award.

RSM really supports me and Extraordinary Life,’ said Tom, who believes in giving back to those that helped along the journey and has given more than 60 sessions on campus to RSM staff and students.

More information

This article was first published in the winter 2018 edition of RSM Outlook – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at mschouten@rsm.nl

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