Co-Founder & Director
Entrepreneurship for David Hwan is a subject that begins at home. With a great-grandfather, grandfather, and father having run successful ventures, the Philosophy and Tax Economics student from the University of Amsterdam saw setting up Refugees Forward with Diederick van der Wijk as a complementary challenge during the final phase of his studies. David looks beyond political labels and sees the newcomers in the Refugees Forward program as entrepreneurs alone. Perhaps their influences helped David take inspiration from a much-quoted African proverb that stresses the need of combining forces to take a vision as far as can be. In his work at Refugees Forward, he hopes to bring different strengths together to make a lasting positive impact on the larger society. Before he launched Refugees Forward, David worked as a teacher at the University of Amsterdam at the Economics and Business Department, at a legal startup and did and internship at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Amsterdam at the M&A Department. David also spent seven months in Indonesia working as an English teacher at an orphanage.
Lately, David has been adding Arabic to his repertoire of languages that includes Dutch, English, (street) Indonesian, and smatterings of German. He is also preparing to take part in the half-Ironman contest while continuing to be a compulsively competitive amateur pool player.
Get to know David
What was the genesis of the idea of Refugee Forward?
Setting up something of my own to solve a big social problem was the prime motivation to create Refugees Forward. Together with Diederick, we came up with the idea to empower newcomers who had great talent. I am driven by the idea of making an impact on the greatest possible scale, simply because I know I can do it. I believe the allure of the challenges that came with the narrative, and the growth and learning along the way also prompted me to walk into this idea and begin fleshing it out.
How did your education help in the process?
While studying Tax Economics made me realise that my calling was not to be within the four walls of a corporation, it has eventually come to help entrepreneurs who choose to enrol in our program. Additionally, my degree in Philosophy made me analytical, giving me strong argumentative skills, and a certain humbleness that comes when one realises there are limits in what one can do in any situation.
Studying and creating a start-up must have been difficult. What were those days like? Give us a brief insight into the first few months of building this enterprise?
To be honest, it was mostly a fun and energtic experience. Everything came quite naturally, even working with my best friend and roommate Diederick. There were moments when we worked from early morning till late in the night but those moments were still enjoyable. I loved every part of it, and the first months were all about learning what we wanted to do and trying it out. We planned an event, even before we had a program, to test one of our assumptions. The thrill of learning by doing, diving right into the deep blue and gathering a committed group of people around you is unbelievable. Recollecting all of this makes me realise how far we have come, and all of us, from our very first volunteers to our new team members, from experienced investor to the first-year student, all of us did it together, and that was how it was from the very start.
What have been your greatest learning during the entire process?
I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur actually. I always saw myself in corporate life and making an impact later. By actually getting started I realised that entrepreneurship is a mindset, a way of doing things your way. Though I am still both shy (which is very counter to my actual personality) and astonished when people call me a true entrepreneur, I am starting to believe it myself.
What has your experiences been with working with newcomers, students, and mentors during the first year?
An old African saying we used to have on the website says it all, even (or especially) if you work with a group of people of diverse backgrounds, ages, religions, interests, and perspectives: “If you want to go fast, do it alone. If you want to go far, do it together.” This dictum encapsulates the feeling I have about everyone I worked with this year. They have made us stronger and allowed us to take the leaps and strides the organisation has.
How do you see Refugees Forward progressing in the future?
We are going to be the best incubator for refugees in the world. I know it. We will grow, and the world will follow our stead, simply because all the people we attract, from refugees to students to coaches to team members, are simply exceptional in every single way, and those people are going to make all the difference.
Give us an update on how did you go about fundraising and the industry and government perception of the Refugees Forward model?
From a very early stage, we showed our belief in the potential of the people we work with, i.e. the entrepreneurs but also the students and the willingness of the coaches to make a difference. Now that we were lucky to be funded for our first round, we have also shown that our model is viable. With a quarter of million Euros of investments in our entrepreneurs, only a year after our very first event, it shows what these people labelled refugees can do. We went about it in a way that was both very professional and humane. Where people expected t-shirts, we showed up in a suit. Where partners expected a formal pitch, we threw a huge party. We did everything grand, and with all the energy our community could give. I think that people saw that, and it made them believe what we believe, that newcomers can make a difference if you give them the right opportunities.
How have you changed over the course of Refugees Forward’s work given you have a front-row seat with newcomers and their struggles?
For sure, because I don’t see them as newcomers, I see them as entrepreneurs or as people. Even though our name does not show (and because we kept it for effectiveness reasons) the moment people get into our offices, they are entrepreneurs, and that is the only thing that matters. When it comes to the broader group of people, seeing as we only get to work with the elite, the same applies: people are a lot of things, they are fathers, they are friends, they are Muslims, they are women. They are all these things before the label refugee, and even though it makes them different from people who get to stay in their own country, it does not always define them.
Give us a brief about how every day is at Refugees Forward?
Hard work, professional hardship, personal challenge and interpersonal struggles, but also, and luckily mostly: genuine fun times, lots of partying, more hard work, as well as real passion and true enjoyment when it comes to working with all the different people in our organisation. A day at Refugees Forward is always a special one.
If you could change one small thing about your community, country or the world, with regards to newcomers what would it be?
A quote I once picked up would be a good answer: “You don’t have to be great to get started. You do have to get started to be great.”