Interview with Ruben Nieuwenhuis, Managing Director TechConnect

We started a series of interviews with global tech professionals who drive the tech ecosystems of countries and cities, develop startup communities, and push cutting-edge innovations forward across the globe.

We are happy to present our interview with well-known international changemaker Ruben Nieuwenhuis, the Managing Director of TechConnect and the Managing Partner of TechGrounds. He is a mentor for global tech ecosystems and works towards diversity & equality in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Region. In addition, he is the co-author of the book StartupCity. Strategic adviser of TechUkraine.

TechUkraine: You are the star of the country’s and city’ startup ecosystem building. Could you tell us a bit about your first projects and current projects and how you entered the startup world?

Ruben: Okay, this is a big question. I entered the startup world obviously with FellowForce – one of the first crowdsourcing platforms in the world. This was prior to Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but I think timewise, we were a bit too early. Then we swapped from being a B2C platform to B2B, and we helped a lot of companies in open innovation. That was my first experience with startup life and tech life. This was the second company where I was the founder. 

After this experience, I said okay, I want to give something back to the ecosystem and do something good. So I started DutchBasecamp. DutchBasecamp (DBC) is a platform to grow startups internationally. I had some good connections with Silicon Valley. DBC was a not-for-profit NGO, and then we did a lot of bootcamps and a lot of networking for startups around 12 years ago or so. DutchBasecamp connected me with all kinds of efforts privately but also with public partners to grow the ecosystem. We really wanted to start a program in the Netherlands to strengthen the ecosystem on a national level. That ended up as StartupDelta, with the local level as StartupAmsterdam.

I was being invited and involved to help bring my insights. Then, after bringing the insights, I was invited to become an entrepreneur in residence to run the program with Bas Beekman, public lead at StartupAmsterdam. I was the private lead, and he was from the government side. After two years or so, we wrote a book, Startup City, about our approach, and it’s being translated into English. 

We were sharing insights as ecosystems, sharing networks, sharing learning and sharing clients or partners. Then we started collaborating with all kinds of cities, and then they were inviting us to help them out. They were asking: “Can you do a bit of mentoring? Can you help launch projects?” So I’m mentoring and advising cities and countries around the world: in Cologne, Montreal, Ukraine, Tirana, Trentino and so many more. So that’s a bit how I ended up there.

And now I’m in the Dutch ecosystem. I’m working on bringing diversity and equality because tech is beautiful, [but] with that said, it can lead to inequality, and it can lead to a lack of diversity, so my work here in the Netherlands is 100% focused on becoming the most diverse tech ecosystem… So, yeah, that’s a bit of my story.

TechUkraine: As the board member and strategic advisor of TechUkraine, what do you think about the Ukrainian tech ecosystem in comparison to the leading EU and global ecosystems? 

Ruben: It’s really a broad question because you can compare it with Bahrain, Singapore, Montreal, Cologne, etc. It’s like really a different position, but let me say a few things:

  • I think that the Ukrainian ecosystem is still a bit too IT-focused, and IT is driven and IT-service companies are driven. But it should be more startup and tech. Therefore, TechUkraine is a really good tech narrative. . . .  Ukraine is really a tech nation, but it’s on the IT side of being a tech nation, and it really needs more entrepreneurship. 
  • The second thing is that Ukraine has so many IT experts, and they need to learn. . . to think more in business models. It’s a second point that is important.
  • I think the ecosystem in Ukraine is a bit more mature compared to when we started StartupAmsterdam. So when I’m visiting Platforma, UNIT.City in Kyiv or visit other cities in Ukraine, you are entering some sort of an ecosystem that is comparable with Israel’s. I think there it’s already a bit more advanced than at the moment we started in Amsterdam.
  • However, a bad thing with the Ukrainian mindset is that they still don’t see themselves really as being advanced. They should be a bit more proud and celebrate a bit more such companies as Grammarly and MacPaw. Connect them with Ukraine as their origin. I see other countries or cities doing that. So that is one of the things I love about TechUkraine doing this: celebrating the country, celebrating the entrepreneurs and celebrating that mindset of really growing your businesses, building things. But that should be embraced obviously a bit more by everyone.
  • Another thing when I compared some ecosystems, is that some really do have budgets to grow things, like in Singapore or Qatar. There is so much money and financial resources available in these countries. That’s a bit of a problem here in Ukraine. On the other hand, I like some programs where you don’t need that much of a budget, like Startup-in-Residence and other programs, for instance, which are frugal or on a low budget. So, if you’re a bit, let’s say, flexible, then, it shouldn’t be a problem. Yet, money-wise or financial-resources-wise, it’s been really a bit of a challenge.
  • Also, what I see in other cities is that companies are collaborating with the ecosystem builders. Because they do so, there are resources and networks, and you have some momentum. You can really grow in Ukraine. I think the challenge is to have companies just saying: “Okay, let’s join with 25,000 euro”, and when you know 20 companies just say we are in with 25. Okay. Then we can have better international bootcamps; then we can grow growth hacking academies. Then we can grow the Startup-in-Residence program [and] you can speed up tech transfer. I see that corporations or all kinds of private partners are choosing their project to do something for the ecosystem instead of just joining forces. And they always want him to know exactly what is happening instead of “Okay, I will draw 25K. I want others to join as well. I will call them up. Then you come up with a plan, and we say yes. And that is unfortunate. You see, for instance, in Paris with the La French network  . . .  these private partners, you see them collaborating around events, around initiatives, around building ecosystems. And here, every time you have to make a deal, like a shitty 1,000 euros or 5,000 euros. So, that’s a pity. That’s what’s seen when you compare it. There’s a problem.
  • The last thing, you have events like Lviv IT Arena. I was visiting it last year – a really cool and strong event. But it was not that easy to collaborate. So then what happens is you get a sense you’re a visitor instead of a partner. You have to set ambitions together. I’ll give you an example in Amsterdam: We met with Extra Conference and said: “We will help you grow to 50,000 visitors. Let’s do it together!” Then “okay, what is your model? How do you see it? Okay, this is how we are going to help, and then you find something.” Then as here in Ukraine, this is already cool, let’s say some sort of success, and then we celebrate a small success. But you know that we’ve all really grown to something super special because it is not protective. People don’t want to push it to the next level, which is important. Like running the Finnish event Slush, in Helsinki, where corporate people really push it to the next level because everyone is in Slush and everyone mentally owns Slush. That is not happening in Lviv and Kyiv. . . . The responsibility is with the organizers of the event to invite them in and to make sure that everyone will contribute. It also has to do with wording like when you use IT. You need new words such as Tech Nation (UK), La French Tech (France), TechLeap (the Netherlands). So, I think, TechUkraine is a perfect name. And I hope others are more embracing that.

TechUkraine: You are the founder of TechGrounds, the project that opens up tech entrepreneurship and digital skills to vulnerable communities and neighborhoods so that tech can be for everyone. Could you please share details about this free tech training program, the mission, and the first achievements of the TechGrounds activity? Why education is so important?


So let me give you some examples: 

  1. Guillermo is 29 years old. He has a multicultural background, he graduated in applied science, and he was looking for a job for nine months. He wanted to work in IT, but no employer was willing to hire him, and then he found TechGrounds. It is a free education, and then he was educated as a cloud operator. Then, after training, he found himself in an IT job within three months – a new step in his career. 
  2. Another example is Rowenda. She was a grounded stewardess and was unemployed. She was looking for something new. Rowenda found herself in the AWS cloud and now is responsible for the cost optimization of Randstad’s cloud department. By the way, she’s 32 or 33 give or take.
  3. Rene is 59. He is a freelancer, doing a lot of video production work, and he re-skilled himself with us. He had a lot of knowledge and experience, and three months after working with us, he’s now working a cost analysis in

This is what we do – we educate people. It’s free of charge. We have startups in the middle of the vulnerable areas. And then we have an entirely new talent pool that’s made available. That new talent leads to diversity, and that leads to equality because people will have a good job and they will be able to buy the houses and so on. Now we have 9,000 vacancies in IT in Amsterdam, providing IT people to startups and scale-ups but also to hospitals and government organizations. So this is how we do it, and we want to hire a diverse team by

  • finding vacancies in IT 
  • building IT educational programs around all kinds of companies and people who are part of the program
  • doing workshops and involving experts, such as career bodies
  • finding the financial resources for people who have had obstacles to participate in these types of programs
  • finding ways to make peer-learning and  lifelong activity for these people 

So now we have three locations: The Amsterdam metropolitan region, three to four areas in Rotterdam and we signed a huge deal with Randstad, which is a partnership. Potentially, we can run into the rest of Europe to all kinds of areas. 

And the question of why education is so important. Education will lead to equality; education is everything. Because with such hubs that we build in the middle of the deprived areas we bring access to success for everybody and bring different people to the IT and tech startup community.

TechUkraine: What’s your point of view about going global this year: is it the right time to save achievements or rather to grow fast? Could you share your advice for startups and scale-ups?

Ruben: Obviously, you should always take risks as an entrepreneur. But now I’m speaking on behalf of startups, scale-ups of tech companies that have grown, are scalable and have repeatable business models. So scaling fast is really important. When it comes to COVID-19 being tied to some industries, they have real problems because of the market. They have to secure a base, and then they can grow. Afterward, they have to make sure that they will stay alive. But also what you see now, a lot of companies are pivoting, finding new ways to find clients, etc.

So, but, overall by default, growing fast is essential when you are developing your market share. When you want to own markets from a startup point of view, these markets are even more of interest because . . . your competitors are also facing problems. So, you know, the more you can win, the faster you can grow, the better. The timing is always now. Companies that grew from out of a crisis are a great example; they find a way out of the crisis or use the crisis to catch the opportunities. 

TechUkraine: But maybe it’s time to go local, is’t it?


Okay, that is a good thing. One of the things that I did was to set up a short chain between the Dutch farmers and the deprived areas. We provided 200 or 365 families with free food on a biweekly basis. Then, we grew it into a sustainable business, potentially with 10s of thousands of households that will receive their weekly vegetables and fruits for one-third of the price that they have to pay a retailer. It is called BoerenVoorBuren (in English “Farmers for neighbors”). . . . This is one of the things that is now really pushing out as a huge opportunity to make local work. Being self-sustainable, more local is really important from the perspective of cities, of people and of societies. 

But when it comes to a startup, you know, growing global should be the default model. Otherwise, you’re just an SME. [There’s] nothing wrong with being an SME, but startups should grow. I embrace the local and say the local movements [are] important.

TechUkraine: Thank you very much. 

Ruben:  Thank you, everyone.

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