Flemish entrepreneurs are committed to contributing to a better society

First scientific research into the motives of Flemish entrepreneurs shows strong social commitment

The image of entrepreneurship in Flanders could be a great deal better, especially in comparison with neighbouring countries. This is why the Flemish government agency Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship, with the support of Flanders DC, Voka, and Unizo, is starting a multi-annual campaign to show that Flemish entrepreneurs have diverse and palpable motivations. What’s more, they often go into business to make a positive impact on their own living environments, or on society as a whole.

Philippe Muyters, Flemish Minister for Work, the Economy, Innovation and Sport: “Entrepreneurs in Flanders often have to contend with prejudices and a negative image. This is unjustified. Entrepreneurs provide jobs, add value, create prosperity, and play a hugely important role in society. For the first time, together with Vlerick Business School, we have carried out scientific research into the precise significance of this social aspect of entrepreneurship.”

Persconferentie maatschappelijke impact van ondernemerschap
From left to right: Hans Crijns (Vlerick Business School), Karel Van Eetvelt (Unizo), Pascal Cools (Flanders DC), Vanessa Vankerckhoven (Novosanis), Philippe Muyters (Flemish Minister for Work, the Economy, Innovation and Sport), Yannick Dillen (Vlerick Business School) and Hans Maertens (Voka).

Vlerick’s research, the very first scientific study into the social aspects of entrepreneurship in Flanders, is part of a Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship campaign.

Minister Muyters explains: “We want to see more starters, more stayers, and more growers in Flanders. We need to be proud once again of what entrepreneurs achieve for themselves, their employees, and society. Today, we are launching a campaign entitled ‘Entrepreneurs are in business for everyone’ to show what entrepreneurship in Flanders provides for us.”

The study shows that nearly half of Flemish entrepreneurs are in business to make a social impact, and that sustainability is a critical aspect for Flemish entrepreneurs. Many entrepreneurs are also active as volunteers, offer free services to organisations with social aspects, or give financial support to social initiatives.

The campaign, developed in cooperation with the advertising agency Boondoggle, will tell the stories of entrepreneurs to the general public for the next four years.

Download the complete research report 'Impact van ondernemers op de maatschappij' (available in Dutch only).

Respect and admiration for entrepreneurs lag behind in Flanders

Flemings have less respect and admiration for entrepreneurs than the European average. Only 54 per cent of Flemings believe that Flanders' successful entrepreneurs enjoy a high status and command great respect. In neighbouring countries, the figure is up to 70 per cent or more.

So, Flemings prefer to be employees - only 30 per cent prefer entrepreneurship status, compared with 37 per cent in the European Union.

Bernard De Potter, Administrator-General of Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship explains: “Flemings do not always have an accurate picture of the motivations that drive someone to become an entrepreneur: the passion for a subject or technology that you need to start a business, and the search for the solution to a problem. Flemings often confuse entrepreneurs with managers and therefore do not always see how close entrepreneurship is to their social world. On the other hand, entrepreneurs are not always good at telling their stories to the general public. In short, there is clearly a need for a more realistic view of entrepreneurship. And that is what we want to achieve with our ambitious, multi-annual campaign.”

Six types of entrepreneurs

On behalf of Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Vlerick Business School has examined the motives and social impact of Flemish entrepreneurs.

Professor Hans Crijns of Vlerick Business School remarks: “This was the first scientific research into this subject in Flanders. Based on in-depth interviews we identified six types of entrepreneurs. In addition, we used a questionnaire to survey the social commitment of entrepreneurs.”

The study shows that Flemish entrepreneurs see themselves mainly as ‘makers,’ one of the six types of entrepreneurs from the Vlerick study.

Hans Crijns explains: “Four out of ten Flemish entrepreneurs consider themselves first and foremost as makers who deliver high-quality products and services, and they are proud of that. After that come the ‘inspirers,’ who want to share ideas and creativity (23%), and the ‘mentors,’ (13%) who want to teach people something. Only a small minority (7%) is in business purely for financial considerations.”

The six categories with the percentage of surveyed entrepreneurs who regard themselves as belonging to a particular category are as follows:

  • ‘Makers’ (38.89%) focus strongly on the products and services they offer to their customers. They provide high-quality work and deliver a high-quality product or service.
  • ‘Inspirers’ (22.84%) give people insight into how things can be different and how to convert ideas into concrete actions. They inspire their customers and their environment through ideas, perseverance, and creativity.
  • ‘Innovators’ (12.96%) develop innovative products and services and want to pass these innovations to the people in their environment.
  • ‘Connectors’ (9.88%) are socially aware and want to connect people. These entrepreneurs strive to strengthen social relationships.
  • ‘Mentors’ (8.64%) try to educate their customers and also their employees on ways of tackling things. They learn from the ambitions and ideas of the entrepreneurs.
  • ‘Realisers’ (6.79%) are in business purely for financial considerations.

85% contribute to a better society: sustainability and a sense of community score highly

The survey also showed that Flemish entrepreneurs feel a strong social commitment and want to express the positive role of entrepreneurship. 85% of Flemish entrepreneurs say that they contribute to a better society and nearly half (48%) of them have specifically included the pursuit of a better society in their companies' mission statements.

Hans Crijns comments: “This is a very striking result, but it is undeniably present throughout the study. About half of the entrepreneurs want their business or service to expressly mean something for society, or to try to solve a social problem that is not resolved by other parties.” 

There is a strong emphasis on sustainability in the production process (32%), but entrepreneurs also think of community spirit (19%) and health (10%).

Entrepreneurs also want to convince those around them that entrepreneurship can have a positive impact on the world. For example, 67% of entrepreneurs say that as entrepreneurs they want to play a proactive role in changing the world and 53% actively try to convince others that companies can solve social challenges.

Subsequently, suppliers are often chosen on the basis of their social impact. As many as 60% select suppliers based on their social impact, sustainability, and other non-economic factors.

Outside work, Flemish entrepreneurs also invest time and money in their environment and society. The survey results show that entrepreneurs see social commitment as their moral duty. In total, more than four out of five Flemish entrepreneurs support socially committed organisations. They do this through sponsorships (56%) but also through the deployment of their network (13%) and volunteering (10%). Supporting the immediate environment (neighbourhood, family & friends) is important (23%) but there is also a strong focus on contributing to a better society in general (52%). Entrepreneurs also indicate that they seek to bring people in the local community together (49%).

Flemish entrepreneurs admire ‘Flandriens’

The survey also looked at entrepreneurs’ role models.

Flemish entrepreneurs admire innovation and decisiveness (Elon Musk of Tesla), ambitious starters (Arnaud Rasking of Mobile School and StreetwiZe, Jeroen De Wit of Teamleader), but also entrepreneurs who pursue sustainability and craftsmanship such as Hendrik Dierendonck of the renowned butchers of the same name. Flemish entrepreneurs also mention failed entrepreneurs, such as the founders of Take Eat Easy, as people whom they admire.

Hans Crijns: “You could say that Flemish entrepreneurs love the mentality of ‘Flandriens’ (tough cycling veterans) because they often mention characteristics such as perseverance, resilience, and passion.” 

Self-test: online tool

“The study shows a highly diverse picture of entrepreneurship in Flanders,” continues Hans Crijns. “It emerged from statements made during our interviews that for entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship has an explicit social aspect. Entrepreneurs stated that they make investments in order to introduce more sustainable production methods into their sectors, that they are driven to share knowledge, help patients, or improve communications between citizens and the government.” 

Boondoggle has developed an online tool for Flemish entrepreneurs to fill in a questionnaire to find out what entrepreneurial type they are.

Pascal Cools, Director of Flanders DC, which supports the campaign, says: “Entrepreneurs can use the online tool to discover what their own motivations and driving forces are. In addition, we have created badges that they can share on their social media profiles to indicate to those around them what type of entrepreneur they are. We are thus giving them a highly accessible way of engaging in the conversation about entrepreneurship and society.”

“Entrepreneurs deserve a place in Flemings’ hearts”

In a second phase, which starts today, the objective of the campaign will be to correct the image of entrepreneurship in Flanders. This campaign was launched today at a press conference in the presence of Minister Philippe Muyters, Flemish Minister for Work, the Economy, Innovation and Sport. The campaign is being coordinated by Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship and supported by Flanders DC, the Flemish organisation for entrepreneurship in the creative industry, and entrepreneurs’ organisations Voka and Unizo

Bernard De Potter, Administrator-General of Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship explains: “We want to improve the image that the Flemings have of entrepreneurs. This broad campaign will contribute to this. By letting entrepreneurs tell their own stories, we will be emphasising the diversity of profiles and highlighting all aspects of entrepreneurship. Above all, our objective is for people to regard entrepreneurship as a normal and viable career choice.”

Over a four-year period, the campaign will tell the stories of entrepreneurs who testify openly about their motivations and social commitment. One of them is Vanessa Vankerckhoven, CEO of Novosanis, a developer and manufacturer of medical equipment based in Wijnegem.

Vanessa Vankerckhoven: “If you had asked me a few years ago to become an entrepreneur, I would have called you a fool. I was very happy in my academic position. But when I developed an idea for better and more painless administration of vaccines, I soon felt that we had something very good. It not only looked good but also worked well and is safer for medical staff. I then decided to set up my own business. Being able to make a difference for patients and caregivers gives me a huge amount of energy.

Hans Maertens, Deputy Director of Voka, recognises in Vanessa Vankerckhoven's story the social motives that are characteristic of entrepreneurs: “Entrepreneurs are well aware that they can only be successful in the long term if they also do something about the problems of society. Not only do entrepreneurs have ideas for products and services that people consciously or subconsciously need. They also do everything – indeed they are in business – to bring those ideas to life so that everyone can benefit.”

Karel Van Eetvelt, Unizo's Managing Director, adds: “We want to emphasise that importance of entrepreneurship as a social motivation. By focusing on entrepreneurs’ passion for creating, improving, and adapting these products and services to the needs of society. But also by focusing on the contribution entrepreneurs make to the environment, innovation, and employment. In short, things that benefit everyone.”

Bringing entrepreneurs to the people

The campaign will bring entrepreneurs to the people through a variety of different channels. The campaign website www.ondernemersvooriedereen.be will gather stories and video testimonials from entrepreneurs. In addition, entrepreneurs can find out about their own motivation by completing a self-test.

Besides the testimony of Vanessa Vankerckhoven (Novosanis), you can also watch the testimonies of David De Keyser (Deeleenkoe), Geert Houben (Cubigo), Dieter Frimout (Bakkerij Frimout), and Murielle Scherre (La Fille d’O). There are also twenty written testimonies.

Pascal Cools, director of Flanders DC remarks: “The testimonies will show how entrepreneurs started, what motivates them, and what they find important. These are personal stories that show how entrepreneurs get a business off the ground on the basis of a gut feeling or a passion. It will be immediately apparent to visitors that the impact of entrepreneurs goes far beyond – and is sometimes even contrary to – financial interests.”

The campaign will also include a TV commercial, TV show, and a roadshow.

Pascal Cools remarks: “This is the first time that a roadshow will be set up around entrepreneurship. The roadshow will bring entrepreneurs closer to the people in the large, central Flemish cities. In this way, we hope to provide the Flemings with a different way of looking at entrepreneurship. Voka’s Enterprise Open Days and Unizo’s Client Weekend will also be part of this roadshow.”

‘Constructive journalism about entrepreneurs’

Finally, the initiators also want to work on the discourse about media entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs will be able to receive coaching on how better to present their stories. In addition, there will be an initiative to provide journalists with accurate and more detailed information about entrepreneurship.

Pascal Cools: “How entrepreneurs present themselves to the outside world, and the translation of these stories by the media will determine the broad perception of entrepreneurship. We therefore want to equip entrepreneurs to tell strong stories. And by entering into a dialogue with the media, we want to create awareness about the image of entrepreneurship. You could call it ‘constructive journalism about entrepreneurs’.”

Every day, we see people who, based on their talent, their enthusiasm, or their desire to improve things, take the risk of going into business. They set things in motion and thus contribute to the world we live in. We hope that more Flemings will realise that we need entrepreneurs and that they will support them,” concludes Pascal Cools.

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