Entrepreneurship in Belgium
A love/hate relationship?
Every company starts somewhere, and that somewhere is entrepreneurship. As this is our Entrepreneurship Issue, we start off with a quick survey of the entrepreneurial environment in Belgium by sitting down with Thierry Villers and Fabienne Baise of Mini Enterprise, Simon Ulvund of the HUB, and ULB Professor of Entrepreneurship Olivier Witmeur.
Jeunes Entreprises was an idea born in the US in 1919 and exported to Belgium in 1977. “Its purpose is to promote among youth the spirit of initiative and a sense of responsibility by providing them the opportunity to gain some practical experience that will prove very useful when they start working ‘for real’,” says Theirry Villers of Mini Enterprise. “In Belgium, almost twenty years after its inception, the movement had 450 mini-companies representing more than 5,000 youngsters and 550 advisers.”
Fabienne Baise notes that volunteers play an important role in the organization as they coach the young students and that Jeunes Entreprises is constantly looking for new volunteers to join and support their programs.
Even with the success of such programs as Jeunes Entreprises, Belgium has a long way to go before it can consider itself an entrepreneurial haven.
“In general we don’t have enough entrepreneurs in Belgium, there is a lack of initiative, so it is important to start working with young people to stimulate them and show them the advantages of entrepreneurship,” says Villers.
“Lack of information and knowledge are the major problems hindering a fast development in the field, together with mentality and cultural issues. Another important aspect is indeed the complicated administrative process. These barriers have to be lifted.”
That being said, Baise was quick to add that the state does support entrepreneurship and there is much effort to make the process of opening an enterprise easier. “The government has developed social security for entrepreneurs, but if we speak about direct financial support, then there is not much one can expect,” he says. “The chamber of commerce is supporting entrepreneurs by offering consultancy. There is also some initiative on local and regional levels. For instance, there is a program for unemployed people trying to establish their own business without losing their social security.”
Creating a HUB of Entrepreneurs
The HUB in Brussels opened in December 2009 and already has 150 members working in the field of entrepreneurship and innovation. The HUB is an incubator for social innovation, offering access to inspiring collaborative work and meeting spaces for entrepreneurs and people with imaginative ideas.
Ulvund stresses that entrepreneurship does play a big role in the Belgian economy. “From an expat prospective, Belgium is very diverse and full of activities with dozens of nationalities coming together. So why not turn it into a melting pot of new ideas and innovation? Belgium has the potential of being a leader in this regard, but the government has to make entrepreneurship a valid option and for that to happen there first needs to be a change in mentality.”
Belgium Begins to Blossom
Needless to say, Belgium has somewhat of a bad rap when it comes to entrepreneurship. It’s not uncommon to see the country listed as one of the least entrepreneurial in the popular press. But according to Olivier Witmeur, Professor, Bernheim Chair of Entrepreneurship and Director, Solvay Executive Education, this is not an entirely fair picture.
“Belgium was a bit late in paying attention to the importance of entrepreneurship,” notes Witmeur. “It wasn’t until the late 1990s that we started to understand that we needed to do something about SMEs.”
Since then, the country has done quite a bit to support this sector and continues to move fast. As a result of this history and the quick catching up it has done, Witmeur sees Belgium today as being a good place to do business.
When it comes to supporting new businesses, one area where Belgium excels is in grants. “There’s a grant for everything,” says Witmeur. “If you start looking, there are over 300 grants available for every type of startup imaginable.”
And it’s not just grants. According to Witmeur the public sector plays a significant role in helping new businesses get up and running. “From incubators to subsidized office space, government funding to programs in schools – there’s now so much out there you could even say that we went one step too far and sometimes it’s overwhelming to figure out what program is best for your particular needs!”