Antwerp is home to Europe’s most entrepreneurial university
Karel de Grote University College (KdG) is a partner in the Take Off Antwerp ecosystem for student entrepreneurship. Annemie Soetewey, Entrepreneurial Center Coordinator, explains: "Within KdG, our Entrepreneurship Center serves all KdG programmes and campuses. We've been in operation since 2014, with the goal of giving entrepreneurial students more than just a traditional education, enabling them to graduate with a degree and their own businesses. We were initially funded by KdG, but have since become a self-sustaining business unit. This caught the attention of the Triple E Awards jury, making KdG stand out from other participating universities and colleges. The Entrepreneurship Center is not just an administrative service within the school; it's a creative force that passionately nurtures both staff and students. We are able to do this thanks to our extensive partner network."
Choosing Antwerp as a Starting Base
Two students studying International Business at KdG’s Groenplaats Campus in the heart of Antwerp, Aaron van Dyck and Max Lüdmann, are both final-year bachelor students and student entrepreneurs. Max explains: "I started in 2022 with the idea of getting people to put down their smartphones. So, we started Offline, a clothing brand that exists only in the real world, without a webshop, website, or social media. This summer, we organised a pop-up summer bar to offer people a smartphone-free experience. Generating word-of-mouth publicity requires extra effort. We collect addresses and send postcards. In just one year, Offline has grown faster than we predicted. We have received positive feedback from young people who completely understand our concept, and from curious adults." Aaron, on the other hand, launched his business, Ignite, as a social media marketing agency for small businesses in Antwerp, specialising in the white-label food sector and petrochemical industry.
Max continues: "KdG has provided strong support for my entrepreneurship. We are able to visit the Entrepreneurship Center two days a week to meet with experts, teachers, and partners. It's a great source of free advice on topics like financial planning, business plans, legal advice, and insurance – things you'd normally have to pay for. The teachers who run the Entrepreneurship Center are always available via WhatsApp." Aaron elaborates, "Deciding how to approach your business, choosing the right legal structure, these are essential when starting your journey as an entrepreneur. I’m definitely considering Antwerp as a potential home base after I finish my studies. I'm already living here and, economically, the city is a hub for major industries and the port. Antwerp is also a vibrant city with great nightlife.” For Offline, the city of Antwerp has already been very supportive. Max: “Our summer bar was hosted at Het Steen, a beautiful historical location. The Entrepreneurship Center and the umbrella organisation, Take Off Antwerp, have also supported me, and I've met many people at their events. Young entrepreneurs receive strong support here, so it makes sense for me to continue living and doing business in the city."
Entrepreneurship at Every Level
A decade ago, a student entrepreneur was a rare thing. However, since 2017, entrepreneurship has been a part of the Higher Education Codex, and in Flanders, the requirement to have a business management certificate was abolished in 2018, allowing individuals to start a business in most sectors without a diploma. KdG boasts the largest Business Management programme in Flanders, with 1,200 students in entrepreneurship-related fields. Entrepreneurship is ingrained in the DNA of all programmes. Annemie Soetewey: "Our teachers use teaching methods that strongly emphasise entrepreneurship, and personal leadership is a core competency. We understand that not every student will become an entrepreneur, but they should acquire entrepreneurial skills as survival skills that will serve them throughout their lives. You need to be adaptable for the future. Even if you work as an employee, you still need entrepreneurial qualities. Taking risks, identifying opportunities, persevering, learning from failure – these are all very important. Getting up again and trying something different is also entrepreneurship. We instil this entire entrepreneurial mindset at KdG."
Over 1,000 Student Entrepreneurs Since 2014
Antwerp, with its startup scene and dynamic environment, is contributing to the success of the Entrepreneurship Center. Annemie Soetewey: "The entire Antwerp ecosystem comes together here for this 2023 kick-off by the Entrepreneurship Center. Everyone knows each other. We connect people and introduce students to experienced entrepreneurs and professionals. It's not easy for an 18-year-old to have conversations with partners like the City of Antwerp or a bank. We lower that barrier. Antwerp companies, associations, and sectoral federations are often present as well." Since 2014, the Entrepreneurship Center has had over 1,000 alumni. Annemie Soetewey adds: "Some alumni return to the Entrepreneurship Center as partners for startups, as coaches, or simply because they received excellent support here. Our marketing partner, Jasper Dockx of De Twaalfde Man Media, started his own business while at KdG – completing the circle. We're also seeing more international student entrepreneurs coming from our English-language programmes, making up about 10-15% of the total."
In collaboration with the City of Antwerp, the Entrepreneurship Center focuses on digital, sustainable, and socially-responsible entrepreneurship. Annemie Soetewey: "For our Sustainable Entrepreneurship Masterclass, we rely on a strong partnership with the City of Antwerp. Sustainability and digitalisation are two pillars the city is heavily investing in. We also work closely with SAAMO, a community development organisation, to promote social entrepreneurship. We collaborate in other key areas of our city too, such as creativity, fashion, the port, and industry."
The creative fields are seeing an increasing number of entrepreneurs. Ann Laenen is the director of Sint Lucas Antwerpen, the arts campus of Karel de Grote University College (KdG), offering programmes in photography and visual arts. During the kick-off of the new academic year for the many student entrepreneurs at KdG she explains: "Entrepreneurship is integrated into the curriculum. It's a significant part of the professional bachelor's programme in photography, as well as within the visual arts programme. We familiarise students with creative entrepreneurship and connect them with partners. Entrepreneurship is also part of our after-graduate programme, with a series of workshops spread throughout the year. We aim to keep our students permanently immersed in this entrepreneurial environment. Additionally, we connect our students with organisations like Kunstenloket to teach them how to correctly prepare quotations and more. This is very practical for the many art and photography students who work as freelancers during their studies. Photography and the arts lend themselves well to entrepreneurship; our student entrepreneurs create logos and launch campaigns."
Within the school, there is cross-pollination between different fields. According to Ann Laenen, "this often leads to spontaneous collectives being formed by students searching for a space where they can exhibit and sell their work. We teach them to step out into the world and make a name for themselves. We provide opportunities for them to invite people and showcase their work in our showroom. This way, we aim to inspire them to be entrepreneurial. In their master's year, they learn about self-organisation and self-orientation. If they want to start as freelancers or join a collective the following year, we are more than willing to provide guidance on how to proceed. We can continue supporting them in this regard. Space is often the most crucial thing an artist lacks. For all fields of study, we offer studios and workshops, which we also open to our alumni. This is a unique way to facilitate and support entrepreneurship, even after graduation."
Becoming Part of the Urban Fabric
KdG’s Sint Lucas Àntwerpen campus is located in the centre of the city. Antwerp, with its creative industries, seems the ideal setting for this school. Nodding in agreement, Ann Laenen says, "There are many connections, with Antwerp's museums, for example. But we also actively strive to become a part of the urban fabric. It’s part of our mission: we are an open school where everyone is welcome, including students and people from the neighbourhood. We gladly facilitate neighbourhood events and try to make it easy for people interested in art to participate in workshops or collaborative projects. Sint Lucas Antwerpen is also a member of Antwerp Arts, and we have a close connection with the De Singel theatre."
"In fact, all our art teachers are entrepreneurs themselves," concludes Ann. "I’m not only a director but also a curator of exhibitions. I was self-employed from 2002 to 2015. Many aspects converge here. The connection between entrepreneurship and academia is a significant guiding principle for this school."
The Importance of the Right Mindset
Mie De Backer, Head of the Photography Department, asserts: "Students at KdG are prepared for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is part of the curriculum and contributes to their academic credit. Students are paired with what we call 'clients,' partners who collaborate with KdG and commit to offering students work experience. These clients range from companies to editorial offices to NGOs. Every student can choose based on their interests. They receive lectures from alumni who have become entrepreneurs, sharing their experiences, including their failures. We also invite KdG's Entrepreneurship Center to our campus. Our photography students constitute one of the largest pools of student entrepreneurs within KdG."
Payroll firms explain the importance of accurate invoicing. Knowledge about copyright is closely linked to entrepreneurship. It's essential to make students aware that they should always pay attention to their returns. In Fine Arts, the artist statement and personal exhibitions are crucial. For these students, maintaining a network with galleries and editorial offices is highly important. Mie De Backer continues: "Many aspects of entrepreneurship emerge in our after-graduate programmes. For instance, students are informed about Take Off Antwerp, our annual kick-off event, as well as lectures from organisations like Amplo, Tentoo, Kunstenloket, and Sofam. They learn about networking, pitching, and pricing. We aim to develop our emphasis on entrepreneurship in an organic, more modular way, so that every student, and our alumni, can participate in sessions. There's certainly potential to further strengthen the entrepreneurial drive."