Calling All Belgian Entrepreneurs

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Monday, January 17, 2022
By Miguel Meuleman
Photo by iStock/pixdeluxe
Vlerick Business School launches a new initiative designed to encourage and strengthen scale-ups and growth-oriented SMEs.
  • Vlerick Entrepreneurship Academy aims to grow Belgium’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
  • Focused programs help entrepreneurs at all stages overcome issues that inhibit their growth.
  • Short half-day lab formats help participants develop action plans, learn best practices, support each other, and create a community.

It seems obvious to say how important entrepreneurship is, both to the economy and to society as a whole. Smaller startups, scale-ups, and small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make especially significant contributions to the global economy. In fact, Statistica estimates that there were approximately 22.6 million of these smaller businesses in the European Union in 2021.

In my work at the Vlerick Business School in Ghent, Belgium, I concentrate on the creation of new ventures, enterprise growth, business model generation, and entrepreneurial finance. I know that the country has a history of being dominated by small and medium-sized companies.

But while entrepreneurship is of vital importance to Belgium’s economic ecosystem, relatively few Belgian startups are growing quickly or sustainably. In 2020, there were only 9.3 new businesses per 1,000 residents. In a recent survey, Belgian small-business owners noted that they are stressed over the challenges they face. Many say they lie awake worrying about the healthy continuation of their businesses instead of focusing on growth in turnover, profitability, and shareholder value.

It’s clear that not only does Belgium need to do more to stimulate its entrepreneurial ecosystem, but its existing entrepreneurs need more help, support, and advice. That’s why, last year, Vlerick Business School launched the Vlerick Entrepeneurship Academy (VEA).

A Connected Ecosystem

The creation of the academy was a way of playing to our strengths. Entrepreneurship has been a primary focus of Vlerick Business School since the precursor of the present-day school was founded by Belgian businessman André Vlerick in 1953. Today, all of our MBA, master’s, and executive education programs include a major focus on teaching and fostering entrepreneurship, and we also offer a Master’s in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The result is that 15 percent of Vlerick graduates ultimately start their own businesses.

With the launch of the VEA, we have brought under one roof all of our separate, concentrated entrepreneurship initiatives. We hope the connected ecosystem of the VEA will stimulate entrepreneurship in Belgium and Europe—and also throw down the gauntlet to ambitious entrepreneurs by challenging them to rise to their full potential.

The Vlerick Entrepreneurship Academy will provide a community that offers answers to entrepreneurs’ questions at every stage of growth.

Through the VEA, we will provide academically underpinned frameworks of training and share the latest entrepreneurship research with participants. We also will facilitate networking opportunities with a high-caliber community of business owners, academics, practitioners, and entrepreneurs-in-residence.

We expect participants to come from businesses that are at one of four different stages. They might be relatively new enterprises poised for growth; expanding businesses that need personalized solutions to their challenges; companies aiming to scale up quickly, possibly by entering international markets; or successful businesses looking to sustain their growth after a scale-up period. The VEA will provide a community that offers answers to entrepreneurs’ questions at every stage.

Classes and Community

The work of the academy will be split into three key areas:

Programs. The academy’s first focus is delivering short, intensive, executive education programs to founders and managers. These classes, which are available both virtually and on campus, educate business owners about the typical challenges they might face as they grow their businesses.

To offer these classes, the school draws on its years of experience providing similar short executive education programs. Academics, entrepreneurs-in-residence, and alumni all offer knowledge and insights to ensure that these programs are as up-to-date and innovative as possible. The goal is to help entrepreneurs overcome the issues that are inhibiting their growth and enable them to become bigger parts of the Belgian ecosystem.

Labs. The VEA also offers half-day, in-person labs designed for entrepreneurs who have already gone through the initial processes of launching or scaling up their businesses and need further guidance in tackling their next challenges. Through the labs, participants learn from academics at the business school, while also getting a chance to network with other entrepreneurs who have overcome similar obstacles to grow their businesses.

Three labs target business owners at different levels. Scale Labs are for founders and the C-level executives of fast-growing companies. Excellence Labs are for owners of SMEs, including alumni of the school’s SME Excellence program. iGMO Labs are intended for owners of mature and large SMEs. Many of these attendees are alumni of our iGMO program—which stands for Incubators for Growth in Medium-Sized Companies (or Ondernemingen in Dutch).

The labs cover topics such as employer branding, implementing systems and dashboards, and rethinking strategy. By focusing on these topics in a short half-day format, participants can develop action plans, learn best practices from other entrepreneurs, and enter a safe space where they can both push and support each other in their efforts to grow.

VEA participants can hear from Vlerick’s entrepreneurs-in-residence—alumni who return as guest speakers and offer real-life knowledge to students and budding entrepreneurs.

The community. Business owners who attend the VEA (we call them V-Entrepreneurs) not only gain greater knowledge and sharper skills, they also join a larger and more connected community consisting of other entrepreneurs, Vlerick faculty and alumni, business coaches, corporate partners, and policymakers. All of these community members can help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

In addition, VEA participants can attend events where they hear from Vlerick’s entrepreneurs-in-residence—alumni who return as guest speakers and offer real-life knowledge to students and budding entrepreneurs. They will have ongoing access to other learning, mentoring, and career services, including inspirational talks and development sessions that focus on areas such as digital transformation and innovation. They can join events where they pitch for funding for their entrepreneurial ventures. They also can take part in Vlerick’s social forum, which matches students with organizations that develop, fund, and implement solutions to social, cultural, and environmental challenges.

Focused on the Future

Because the VEA opened only a few months ago, we are still putting some of the pieces together. We had a formal launch in October during our Vlerick Venture Awards, and since then we have been promoting our activities through traditional online channels.

However, we have realized we need to keep better track of our entrepreneurial alumni so we can reach them with our marketing efforts. To announce the launch of the academy, we had to manually scrape contact information from LinkedIn. Ultimately, we hope the academy brings in at least 500 entrepreneurs on a yearly basis.

To determine how successful the academy is, we will measure the number of entrepreneurs we serve, the number of female entrepreneurs who participate, the number of alumni who start businesses, the number of alumni who raise venture capital or secure other sources of growth-oriented funding, and our Net Promoter Score.

We also will pay attention to whether our participants see measurable success. In the recent past, school activities have helped develop three “unicorn” companies—the name for privately held startups valued at more than 1 billion USD—and another unicorn is on the horizon. While not every startup can reach that level, most can experience significant growth.

No matter what their size or success level, entrepreneurial enterprises are vital to the economies of Belgium, Europe, and the world. Most of the challenges that business owners face can be overcome with a little guidance and advice. The VEA looks to help startups grow and scale as a way to benefit the global economy and society as a whole.

Miguel Meuleman
Professor of Entrepreneurship, Director of the Vlerick Entrepreneurship Academy, Vlerick Business School
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