“At Vlerick I learned that social entrepreneurship can be a valid, profitable business model. They also showed me how to get investors to understand this…”
On her Masters in Innovation & Entrepreneurship programme at Vlerick, Clara Maspons met the two other team members of the social start-up, Maternia.
The organisation is now tackling a heartbreaking global crisis – the fact that 2.6 million babies a year are stillborn, mostly due to pregnancy and childbirth-related complications, and lack of adequate healthcare.
From her earliest adult years, Clara knew she wanted to create lasting social impact. Studying International Relations in her home city of Barcelona, she realised that her true passion was challenging social inequalities – in particular, gender equality.
After her first degree, she went to work at Women Political Leaders – an international NPO based in Brussels that works to increase the number of women in leadership positions and the influence they have. The role involved working in partnership with high-profile organisations including the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Commission, the European Parliament, governments, large consulting firms and others.
Clara says: “It is a great place to start your career. You’re part of ambitious projects that allow you to get a closer look at global challenges. Moving from advocacy to action was the next step for me, but I didn’t yet have the hands-on abilities or tools to do so. So I started looking for ways to learn the approaches I knew I would need to make real impact.
“I did a lot of research and the Masters in Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Vlerick stood out. It allowed me to live in Brussels – which is a wonderful, international, and entrepreneurial city that never fails to surprise me. It also included a course on social entrepreneurship – and had an emphasis on sustainability and a very proactive approach.”
In her first semester, as part of the programme’s Start-up Accelerator, Clara pitched an idea to her fellow participants.
She wanted to find a cost-effective solution to help pregnant women in low and middle income countries who had little or no access to healthcare.
Clara says: “I introduced an unfamiliar problem, followed by a solution that prioritised impact over profit. At Vlerick, you learn that business success can be measured in social impact as well as profit – so a not-for-profit is still a valid business model.”
Of the students who joined her in developing the idea throughout the rest of the programme, two – Tanzanian national Zainab Dakik and Natalia Villarreal, from Panama – are now also running Maternia.
Clara continues: “It was a valuable learning experience. We had high-profile entrepreneurs and professors helping us to challenge our thinking and take clear business approaches to make these ideas reality.
“Professor Veroniek Collewaert was our mentor. She kept telling us not to fall in love with our solution – and instead to fall in love with the problem. This is an approach that helps start-ups to stay on track and to pivot when necessary.
“Conducting field research and involving the target beneficiaries in the process was crucial. My teammate Zainab took this on – and I’m extremely grateful to her. My teammate Natalia was in charge of formulating the technology concept. It was an ambitious challenge that involved interviewing experts to develop our solution – but she succeeded in identifying the essential parameters.”
At the end of their learning journey, Clara, Zainab and Natalia pitched their idea and received substantial investment from the Vlerick Entrepreneurship Fund.
Clara says: “It has been an unbelievable journey. Vlerick played a key role in turning the idea into a reality and supported our approach to prioritise social impact over profit.
An NGO can generate income… they simply do it with a different business model, which puts people’s needs first.
“Business and social purpose are not separate things. Vlerick gets this – and sustainable business is baked into their teaching. Sustainability is core to business practice – which means it’s core to Vlerick teaching.
“At Vlerick, everything I learned came together to light an entrepreneurial fire in me. My ideas and a will to make a change are now being translated into action. It’s in the teaching and it’s in the support you receive and the connections you make.
“I took the leap. We had this amazing opportunity to learn how to launch a start-up, to do it as part of a diverse community of entrepreneurs – and to be guided by more established entrepreneurs and be introduced to funders and get continuous support. Our team is very much aware of the positive impact Vlerick had on our journey.”