Social entrepreneurship Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s motto describes the city as valiant, steadfast and compassionate: values that make it the perfect place to host an impact revolution.

“What makes Amsterdam different from the rest of Europe?” 150sec asked Dutch impact all-rounder Linda Vermaat. Its “sense of its rebelliousness” and ability to “dare people to make a change,” she claimed.

Social entrepreneurship Amsterdam
Linda Vermaat.

Vermaat’s career began in social entrepreneurship, turned to documentary filmmaking, and these days she spends her time making short videos for entrepreneurs, providing coaching for pitches, scouting impact startups and moderating impact entrepreneurship events.

Rutger de Rijk of Young Impactmakers — a support network that forms part of Impact Hub Amsterdam — believes that Amsterdam’s swift development in the impact sector is driven by collaboration, as opposed to competition, between social enterprises. 

A social enterprise is defined as a commercial organization that seeks to maximize improvements in financial, social and environmental well-being.

Amsterdam is on a mission to become Europe’s number one city for social entrepreneurship and it certainly does not fall short of homegrown impact startups leading by example. Tony’s Chocoloney, for instance, is a confectionary product that aims to eradicate slavery from the cacao industry, and Plastic Whale is a social enterprise that aims to both monetize and normalize the habit of plastic fishing from the city’s canals.

But how did the entrepreneurs behind these startups, along with countless others, achieve success? 150sec takes a deep dive into what the city of Amsterdam can offer social entrepreneurs.

How can the local government help?

Part of the success of Amsterdam’s impact entrepreneurship scene can be attributed to the municipality’s active support of the ecosystem. 

Rutger de Rijk.
Image courtesy of LinkedIn.

The Dutch government makes it easier for budding entrepreneurs to set up their own business than in many other European countries. With a simple trip to the Kamer van Koophandel (Netherlands Chamber of Commerce), entrepreneurs can register their business ideas as companies, as well as receive advice and support on how best to convert their dreams into reality.

“We try to make an impact career sexy and attractive.”

Rutger De Rijk of Impact Hub’s Young Impactmakers.

If entrepreneurs find themselves lacking a specific focus, Startup in Residence is a program that works alongside the local government to seek out ways to connect early-stage businesses with the city’s social challenges in order to seek and support innovative solutions. Founded in 2015, the program offers around 6 months of intensive training to ensure the growth of startups. 

Social entrepreneurship Amsterdam
Young impact entrepreneurs take part in project work for local social causes.
Photo: Young Impactmakers.

Once the startups are launched, the city-run initiative Amsterdam Impact is then tasked with implementing the municipality’s social entrepreneurship “action program,” which aims to strengthen Amsterdam’s impact ecosystem for all companies involved. The program’s approach is divided into six focus pillars, among them market access, capital, internationalization, local impact entrepreneurship and ecosystem connections.

Scaling-up is then made easier through initiatives such as Amsterdam Capital House (formerly Amsterdam Capital Week). Originally founded with money from the municipality and aimed at making Amsterdam a more startup-oriented city, it is a foundation that organises regular events to bring entrepreneurs and investors together. This year, the events will all have a special focus on social impact.

Where is investment coming from? 

Unlike in fields such as tech, where investors are mainly looking for financial return, impact investors are focused on generating return as well as helping a specific social cause, Vermaat told 150sec.

For this reason, she explains, difficulties can arise when it comes to matching individual investors with startups in Amsterdam. 

“Is the idea crazy enough to flip a whole industry?”

The question Linda Vermaat asks all prospective social entrepreneurs in Amsterdam.

That being said, investment opportunities are far from hard to come by. Many leading business consultancies such as Accenture, KPMG and PWC run yearly competitions for social impact startups that offer investment prizes in the form of agency hours.

Amsterdam is one of Europe’s leading cities for sustainability.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.

De Rijk, however, is critical about the motivation behind large corporate companies’ decisions to run these sorts of contests. He urges them to change the impact they have on the world, “not only because it’s good for their image, but also because they feel the urgency to change things.” 

Outside of the corporate realm, there are other opportunities for impact startups to compete for financial investment via the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge, one of the largest annual international competitions in the field of sustainability innovation. The Chivas Venture competition also offers a €1 million prize fund for entrepreneurs looking to tackle social issues. The yearly final is always held in Amsterdam.

2018 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge winning startup Great Bubble Barrier, based in Amsterdam.
Image courtesy of Linda Vermaat.

Subsidies and investments for social enterprises can also be accessed through the Stichting Doen foundation, which offers investment to pioneers making notable changes in individual sectors, as well as the yearly Investment Ready Program for startups looking to scale-up, run by Impact Hub Amsterdam. 

How can graduates enter the sector?

Besides the various opportunities to pursue a career in sustainability through further education on offer at the city’s universities, there are also other avenues available. 

Founded in 2018, Young Impactmakers is a network that provides training in social entrepreneurship for people between the ages of 20 and 30. Young Impactmakers, a collaboration of Impact Hub Amsterdam and Starters4communities, is a community where teams of students and young impact entrepreneurs work together to find solutions for challenges facing existing local social projects. 

“We try to make an impact career sexy and attractive,” the program’s manager De Rijk told 150sec.

Besides training in social entrepreneurship, the network also co-organizes monthly events around different impact topics such as food waste and sustainable travelling in collaboration with Taskforce: a group of recent graduates looking to make an impact. While the events attract around 1,000 visitors every year, De Rijk and his counterpart Raoul Becher (creative director of Starters4Communities) also organize smaller-scale networking dinners for young social entrepreneurs in the city. 

Young impact entrepreneurs enjoy a networking dinner courtesy of Young Impactmakers.
Photo: Young Impactmakers.

Which impact sectors have room for new talent?

The answer is quite simple —  “all of them,” says Vermaat, who claims there is constant space to make all industries more sustainable, highlighting the fashion, construction and energy sectors to name just a few.

While De Rijk and Becher agree that all sustainability sectors have room for new business ventures, they cite areas of healthcare, food, plastic usage and inclusion as potential areas for new impact entrepreneurs to look into. 

Social entrepreneurship Amsterdam
Linda Vermaat hosting the ADE Green conference on sustainability in the dance sector, Amsterdam.
Image courtesy of Linda Vermaat.

What does it take to be a successful social entrepreneur in Amsterdam?

It’s easy to go into a corporate environment, make some money and go on being bored,” said De Rijk, who claimed that for him, an ideal impact entrepreneur is someone who is willing to use everything they can offer for the common good. 

For Vermaat, who scouts social impact startups for a living, stand-out qualities are more connected to the entrepreneur’s ideas. “Are they really disrupting?” she asks. “Is the idea crazy enough to flip a whole industry?”

If the answer is yes, then they can count on her approval, she says.