introducing eva bandelj from startupbootcamp.
Eva Bandelj is Head of Innovation Ecosystem at Startupbootcamp and Innoleaps, a Women Who Tech advisor and an Impulse4Women ambassador; an individual committed to helping startups grow and industries change for the better. Startupbootcamp, her main endeavor, is a global network of accelerator programs that helps tech founders scale their startups. Combining events across the world with mentoring, partnerships and an exhaustive investor network, Startupbootcamp have helped over 900 startups raise a combined total of 722 million in funding and create over 4000 jobs.
And their growing family of industry leading alumni speaks for itself; Relayr, an IoT middleware startup, was acquired by Munich Re for $300 million in 2018, Tespack, a startup focusing on pioneering wearables, was awarded the Best Energy Startup in EU in 2017, and Sendcloud, an e-commerce shipping platform, won the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 in 2017, claiming their place as the Netherland’s fastest growing tech company that year. In 2019, they were no. 51 in the Financial Times’ Top 1000 fastest growing companies in Europe. These are just a few. We talked to Bandelj about the value of mentoring, diversity in tech and why supporting startups is more urgent than ever.
Startupbootcamp is about supporting startups and their founders. Why is support so essential for startups, especially today?
Startupbootcamp is one of the leading accelerators in the world. We have over 900 startups in our portfolio, and 150+ are from Amsterdam programs alone. These young companies are disrupting their industry, creating new technologies, opportunities and jobs, which in turn has a positive impact on the entire innovation ecosystem. But they’re also at their most fragile, so supporting them is helping both the collective progress that startups are creating and the passionate people behind these innovative startups. We’re also investors in these companies, so it’s in our best interest to support the startups and their growth long-term.
This process of supporting startups is also even more important in light of the ongoing concerns surrounding the COVID-19 crisis. All our businesses are being affected and startups are among the most vulnerable. Often, they don’t have substantial financial back-up, and sales and customer acquisition processes have slowed down considerably whilst raising investment from new investors are almost on pause (at least for now). On the other hand, however, it’s also a period of new opportunities, and we’re really proud to see how some of our founders are stepping up, creating new solutions and giving back to their communities. We’re now moving most of our own activities online so that we can support our founders better during these challenging times.
Startupbootcamp is also the world’s largest network of tech startup accelerators. What does that international reach give you?
I believe our reach is one of our most powerful assets, and we often serve as a launchpad for startups to internationally scale. Our industry-focused programs are created in collaboration with our extensive network of corporate partners as well as our mentor and investor community, and those programs benefit from having such a diverse, global pool of support. We’ve had a presence in some of the leading tech hubs worldwide – Amsterdam, New York, London, Berlin – but we’re now also working in emerging startup hubs such as Milan, Cape Town and Melbourne.
All these locations are part of an interconnected whole, and we’re constantly supporting founders across the world. I’ve been working with the teams from all over – Italy, Spain, USA, UK, Netherlands, and Australia to name a few – and it’s good to build and maintain a network of contacts in local markets as well. In the end, we’re all part of the globalized world, and it’s necessary for startups to be able to follow opportunities, wherever they may be.
Do you think that in our increasingly connected world, startups have to think globally? Do you think it’s now a necessary mindset?
I guess, in its definition, a startup is a company in constant search of a scalable business model. It’s easy to start your own business today on the back of a credit card and call yourself an entrepreneur or a founder, but it’s significantly more difficult to scale that business.
And whilst modern technology does allow us to think beyond borders, it’s still important to prioritize your focus first before looking afar. Investors shouldn’t be investing in a company that doesn’t have that ‘growth mindset’, but there are many opportunities to expand horizontally in local markets as well; growing internationally isn’t for everyone. I guess that’s where the difference is, startups don’t have to think globally, but they do have to think in terms of growth.
A crucial part of Startupbootcamp is the mentors that you connect founders with. Why do you think mentoring is so important for growth?
Indeed, I believe mentorship is very important. It’s actually one of the topics that really fascinates me. At Startupbootcamp, we work with hundreds of volunteer mentors that are experts in their fields. At the beginning of each program, we organize a few matchmaking events to find each startup a circle of mentors. We want every startup to have a small network of individuals of up to five people who take an active stake in their business.
Mentors can be peers and the ones who champion your startup, but they can also be your harshest critics and your competitors. There isn’t a rule that defines who can be a mentor or what dynamic creates the mentor relationship. Interestingly, during the current crisis, we’ve seen that expert advice is becoming arguably less valuable than a peer-2-peer idea exchange between founders on how they are tackling the current challenges. They want to hear from someone who is going through the same thing themselves, so you can see how fluid the idea of a mentor can be. Regardless of who they are, however, mentors are crucial for people and businesses to grow.
Have you been personally mentored, and if so, how has that helped you grow?
I’ve been fortunate to have found a lot of mentorship from the Startupbootcamp Managing Directors. I even have a couple of friends who probably don’t even know that I consider them a mentor, but I often go to them for professional support. Mentors aren’t just those who give themselves that title.
I also mentor startups myself and support women in tech. Giving back is priceless to me, but I see it as a give and take relationship with whoever I’m mentoring. That’s why I’ve never sought advice from a mentor I'd have to pay, because I believe that value can be created both ways. That’s not to say, however, that mentors that charge are bad, it’s just a different perspective.
And mentoring isn’t just about both sides growing, it’s about the relationships you build with some great people that are willing to give back. We just co-organized a hack the crisis hackathon to address the challenges faced by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and it was incredible how many of the mentors from our ecosystem at Startupbootcamp, Innoleaps, and The Talent Institute volunteered to support. Those kinds of things remind me why I like mentoring so much.
The tech industry is notoriously male-dominated, unfairly so. How did you get involved with Women Who Tech, what do they do and how are you working towards a more diverse industry?
I’ve been privileged to have built a very large network of brilliant people – as I always say. And it’s not important to me what gender they are, what their background is, nationality, race, or age. But, unfortunately, there continues to be a massive diversity imbalance in the tech industry, and that SDG Goal 5: 'Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls' has a long way to go.
I feel a need to help other women in tech, and that’s why I became a Women Who Tech Advisor and recently an Impulse4Women Ambassador. Both organizations are helping build a more diverse, more inclusive industry, looking at culture, funding and the female entrepreneurs behind all these innovative, but sometimes restricted startups. They work in a similar way to Startupbootcamp, using programs, networks, mentoring, partnerships and resources to support women in tech. It’s a good, necessary cause, and both organizations have a team behind them that are passionate and skilled enough to make a difference. Saying that, it’s not just about the organizations, but the cause behind them.
Do you feel your work at Startupbootcamp feeds into your work with those two organizations and vise versa?
My work at Startupbootcamp gives me quite a bit of exposure as well as access to a large network, and I use those two things to bring attention to issues of diversity and inclusion. For instance, I often get asked to speak at leading events and I’ll be talking at the European Women in Technology this November in Amsterdam. We were also invited to facilitate a workshop at SDG Global Festival of Action in Bonn this month, although it’s now been postponed due to the current pandemic. So Startupbootcamp gives me access to some really important opportunities that feed into my other work, and likewise, my work with women in tech only makes my network that I work with at Startupbootcamp stronger and more diverse, and that helps the startups we support there. It’s all rather connected.
Is it ever difficult to work in a field that has such rampant gender inequality?
I do get a bit disappointed each time we select a new cohort with only a couple of women CEOs. I feel the same when I read the appalling statistics on the ongoing gender pay gap, or on the number of investments in female founders. It makes me cringe when I still see a panel of expert speakers who are only men and often all white as well.
Progress, however, is being made, and I really appreciate all the efforts that are being made, in the Netherlands in particular. Just a few months ago, the #FUNDRIGHT initiative launched with twenty-five Dutch VCs committing to bridge the gender funding gap. And even more recently, endorsed by Her Majesty Queen Máxima of The Netherlands, the Borski Fund that only invest in female talent and diverse teams raised 21 million euros. People are understanding more and more that innovation should be inclusive and that financial inclusivity and female entrepreneurship are keys to future prosperity.
Have you got any female-led tech startups that we should look out for?
Have a read of this #FUNDRIGHT publication and you’ll find a lot of upcoming, progressive startups that you should definitely be keeping an eye on. Quite a few are from our extended ecosystem.
Lastly, what can every startup start doing today that will help them grow?
Surround yourself with brilliant people. Your team, mentors and advisers, customers and investors should all be people who can help your business grow. Aim for the best support, everyone needs it. Ask for help and give up some of your core competencies to someone else who is potentially even more skilled than you so you can focus on running the company.