Diederick Van der Wijk
Co-Founder & Managing Director
Diederick van der Wijk studied International Management at the University of Amsterdam and the Erasmus University Rotterdam. Upon graduation in 2017, together with his best friend and college roommate David Hwan, Diederick began Refugees Forward with the expressed understanding that integration for newcomers in the Netherlands begins by fostering economic independence, growing talent, and inspiring innovation by assisting them in building businesses. This is an idea that is particularly close to his heart given his family is steeped into entrepreneurship, and the struggles that come with it are not unknown to him. Having enjoyed the perseverance of newcomers during the first incubator in 2018, Diederick trusts that Refugees Forward will be able to assist 200 newcomers by 2020 in setting up their enterprises in the Netherlands and other cities in western Europe. Diederick has spent a considerable amount of time studying abroad in Toronto, Canada and Saint Petersburg, Russia. His work experience includes marketing at the legal start-up LVDO Legal, business development at tech-firm VIGOUR, as well as being a director at De Kleine Consultant, a non-profit consultant for start-ups and NGO’s in the Netherlands.
When he is not setting up meetings and conducting workshops for Refugees Forward, Diederick enjoys playing football, religiously attending his weekend matches where he plays as a centre midfielder or right-winger. He supports Ajax and is convinced he is their greatest cheerleader. Diederick is proficient in Dutch and English and can weave his way through French, German, Spanish, and Russian when required.
What was the genesis of the idea of Refugees Forward?
Refugees Forward came to life because two best friends decided to pursue the path of social entrepreneurship by identifying the most pressing themes in Dutch society and building a possible solution for it. We reasoned from our capabilities in bridging the gap between newcomers, experienced entrepreneurs, students, and corporates and focused on a topic we feel passionate about ourselves; entrepreneurship. From the first day, we have had tremendous faith in the core principles of our approach, and these persist, although now in a much more professional and structured way. We try and foster economic independence, grow talent and inspire innovation by letting people build a business together. Integration follows naturally from the connections, and community people create during that process.
What interested you in forming for Refugees Forward?
Refugees Forward allows me to bring a lot of things together that I feel passionate about. First and foremost entrepreneurship. Starting your own business or project is something that is first of all very much part of my family. My parents are both entrepreneurs as well as my uncle and brother-in-law. During my studies, I simultaneously explored startups – mostly focused on marketing – and I studied migration from a political and philosophical perspective. Now I can integrate both these streams while working with a fantastic team and support network of people I strongly believe in. This keeps me going and happy with the work that we do.
Why did you choose entrepreneurship as a means to the empower newcomers?
I see entrepreneurship as a powerful tool that allows people not to be ‘granted’ their place in society and the workforce by the grace of the locals but to show that newcomers have the talent and mindset to grow serious businesses in their new countries and spark innovation because of their different perspectives. It provides a strong narrative of people who take their faith into their own hands, who dare to take risks, and who believe they can achieve great things in their new country. Such people are role models for those who struggle to find their way on the labour market and in connection with locals. They provide hope and set examples
How did your education help in the process?
Because of my studies and general interest, I have some understanding of the political situation in the home countries of most of our participants
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?
In the run towards coming to our core activities, we initially had a crowdfunding platform for projects and business ideas initiated by entrepreneurs with a refugee background. Long story short, we did some research on which type of newcomer projects was already out there, and we realised there were not too many businesses yet that were fit for such an approach. And so, we started mapping out the landscape of organisations, institutions, and companies focused on entrepreneurship for newcomers and evaluated what we could learn from their respective approaches, but also what we would like to do differently. For me, it was a big step to publicly show my commitment to Refugees Forward at the very start, but from that moment onwards we have pushed each other to continuously take small steps. In the early days the small celebrations, such as the first applicant to our first Startup Weekend two days after launching our webpage constantly keep you under the impression that you are on the right path. It is important to see continuous progress, and to this day I have seen it every single day.
What have been your greatest learning during the entire process?
My greatest learning has been that people possess more power than you expect them to, whether it be the entrepreneurs we work with, my team members, or myself. Give them the opportunity and the belief in using this power, and they will exceed your expectations every single day.
What have been your biggest challenge during this time?
Being more confident in showing our achievements. We have the great ambition to support 200 entrepreneurs with a refugee background by 2020. If you continue to define your ambitions in the future but never take the time to reflect on what you already delivered and the change you have created, it is a pity. I realise this more and more that we have come a long way and are doing great things already.
What has your experiences been with working with newcomers, students, and mentors during the first year?
I think that we have learned about how to improve the set-up between our entrepreneurs, student consultants and coaches, but I am very sure that this approach in which the 3 of them work together works well. We try and match people with the highest level of complementarity, which at the same time makes sure people can be effective, but as well develop a team spirit. The mutual belief in one other’s capabilities is very important.
How do you see Refugees Forward progressing in the future?
I have strong faith that we can bring our solution to many cities in Western Europe that share similar problems, but also a set of opportunities with our current locations Amsterdam and Rotterdam. I think it is important that as we educate people on entrepreneurship and the importance of monetising the value that you bring, we should also start doing this ourselves more and more. I know we bring an incredible lot of value to our entrepreneurs, but also the municipalities, to students and involved companies. If we can capture this value, we can put it to use to support people in an even better and more professional way. I hope we also can be more involved in integration policy, but at our core will always be entrepreneurship.
How have you changed over the course of Refugees Forward’s work given you have a front-row seat with newcomers and their struggles?
Obviously, I have grown a much closer personal connection to the participants in our program, but also the general issue of integration as a whole. Especially over the past few months, I have grown very positive about the opportunities that newcomers pose to the Netherlands. I genuinely believe that in the upcoming year the tides will turn and we will see many more successful projects in the realm of integration that is led by or co-initiated by newcomers themselves. We try to be at the forefront of that by supporting newcomer entrepreneurs that provide such solutions in our programs. For example, one of our entrepreneurs is focused on training truck drivers, whereas another is developing a software product
Give us an update on how did you go about fundraising and the industry and government perception of the Refugees Forward model?
Up until now, Refugees Forward has been dependent on financial contributions from private philanthropic funds. Now we are trying to grow our revenue streams by asking our participants to reimburse their program fee if – and only if – they run a successful business. Secondly, we try to engage with municipalities to compensate Refugees Forward for its efforts, because of the massive government savings we achieve.
Our first round of fundraising was all about building credibility and excitement with our potential financiers. We knew that two young fresh graduates would have to show that they have thought everything through and have a clear understanding of the pitfalls when running such an enterprise. We presented the financiers a tight budget that allowed for the input of professionals, with an outlook on sustainability.
Give us a brief about how every day is at RF?
In between programs, it is different from when we run our operations. Now we get the opportunity to work on structural matters in our team of five and do so in a focused manner. My colleagues might not get that impression from me every day, but I love our team for it is strong and has independent characters who make the most of our time together. It is fantastic to work with them on a daily basis.
During programs, each day is planned, but unexpected things happen every time. Entrepreneurship is fast-paced and dealing with 15 businesses simultaneously means that needs regarding support, contacts, or anything else arise instantly. We try to cater to this as much as possible. It is a real challenge to be able to provide a tailored program to each entrepreneur, but I believe we do a good job.
If you could change one small thing about your community, country or the world, with regards to newcomers what would it be?
See opportunities where others see problems. It can change lives, just like it changed mine.