Melanie Butcher
Contributing writer

4 female tech founders in the Netherlands share their tips for success

May 24, 2022
Diversity and Inclusion IT Leadership

From integrating emerging technologies such as AI and blockchain to staying laser-focused on the user, these female entrepreneurs offer valuable advice for staying ahead of the curve.

Credit: Shutterstock/pathdoc

There’s never been a better time to do business in the thriving Dutch tech industry, where a robust digital infrastructure and national entrepreneurship initiatives have created fertile ground for innovation.

In the Netherlands, there are female-led companies in the fields of fintech, education and healthcare technology, agritech, and AI – though there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the tech sector. The Diversity & Inclusion Taskforce, part of the Netherlands’ Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, found that only 18% of IT professionals in the Netherlands are female, with only a fraction of that number holding top management roles in tech companies. The Dutch government hopes to raise that number to 50% by 2030.

Even within a thriving Dutch entrepreneurship ecosystem with more than 4,000 startups, women are struggling to get funding: European startups founded by women won only 1% of funding last year, and 5.7% of total funding in the Netherlands in 2019. In the Netherlands, there is a noticeable lack of women leading funding rounds, with only 6% of partners at venture capitalist funds being female — far below the European average of 12%. With VC firms and investors largely dominated by men, one can only wonder how many female tech entrepreneurs’ ideas and innovations never come to fruition.

However, there are also encouraging signs of support for women in tech in the Netherlands. The Dutch Chamber of Commerce found that the number of female entrepreneurs is on the rise, increasing 62% between 2013 and 2022. The share of women holding top positions is gradually increasing, too.

From professional communities such as The Next Women and She Matters to organisations that advocate for gender-diverse funding such as Fundright and Borski Fund, there are an unprecedented number of resources for Dutch female entrepreneurs. We Rise, an Amsterdam-based organisation created to support women in tech, received an investment of  €750,000 last year to support women in the tech sector, including the creation of a three-year program including mentorship, networking, and training courses.

Just as important is the role of mentors and role models in fostering female tech entrepreneurship, to share experiences and lessons learned on the path from startup to scaleup and beyond. These four founders share their tips and advice for professional women following in their footsteps.

Diane Janknegt

Diane Janknegt

Janknegt is the founder of Wizenoze, a cloud-based, AI-powered EdTech platform that uses data and machine learning to make digital learning more accessible and personalised.

On the importance of staying curious:

“Without curiosity and eagerness to learn, Wizenoze would have never been there. I think that these are two basic ingredients for every entrepreneur. If you lack these skills, don’t even think about starting your own company. For me, curiosity and learning are always on!”

Advice for leaders who are beginning to use emerging technology such as AI:

“The phrase ‘AI’ is highly overrated and misused. It’s not a Holy Grail, it’s a tool that helps you move towards a goal. I would recommend that they dive into the basics of AI before considering using it. It doesn’t leave a strong impression if you mention AI as part of your proposition.”

On diversity and inclusiveness in tech in the Netherlands:

“Diversity for me is much more than a gender discussion. It’s about different ages, colours, religions, beliefs, introverts vs. extroverts, etc. In the long run, a truly diverse team will always outperform a team without diversity. So, it’s not just a fashionable topic, it’s a lifeline towards success. Unfortunately, we are far from having a balanced number of diverse entrepreneurs in tech in the Netherlands, which is truly alarming. One big reason for that is the lack of capital invested in diverse founders. That is shockingly low: only 1.3% of the VC capital is invested in female founders, and even less in founders who are people of colour.”

On encouraging more women to start tech companies:

“In order to stimulate female entrepreneurship, we have to fix accessibility to growth capital by getting more female venture capitalists and promoting an open mindset with all VCs and showcase the fun side of being an entrepreneur.”

Bernadette Wijnings

Bernadette Wijnings

Wijnings is the founder and associate partner of Het Strategiekantoor, a Dutch consultancy firm, and previously founded Blanco, a fintech company that develops technology and digital services for the wealth management industry.

Her leadership philosophy:

“Team is everything. As a leader, you have to carefully select your team members and make sure that they live your company values. Each individual contributes most to the team when they can use their strengths and work in the way that fits them best. At the same time, it’s extremely important that responsibilities are clear. For my new venture that I’m setting up right now, I have started with writing the ‘design principles’ – what makes the optimal SaaS company? Many design principles are centred around people, the rest around the setup of the company itself. Everyone joining my new venture, be it new colleagues or investors, needs to subscribe to the design principles. This saves a lot of discussion and thinking power when scaling up.”

On cultivating innovation:

“For a culture of innovation, it is essential that mistakes are allowed and even openly discussed and celebrated, so everyone can learn from them and feel safe to experiment.”

On improving women’s representation in tech leadership:

“Gender diversity in the Netherlands still has a long way to go; the vast majority of startups and scaleups are still set up and managed by white males. Women’s representation in tech leadership can be improved in many ways, though one of the most important steps is for investors to become more open to investing in more diverse founders, not only in terms of gender, but also ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and socio-economic background including education. Furthermore, more inclusive cultures need to be built, not only accepting but truly embracing diversity. Part of what is needed is educating the ‘non-diverse’ on the positive impact of and societal need to create diverse teams.”

On knowing when it’s time to transition to a new venture:

“I knew it was time to transition because I noticed that I was getting less energy from the challenges Blanco was facing going ahead: less building from scratch and more into professionalising processes, more operational optimisation, more increasing delivery capacity. While my strength lies in building companies, and I felt I wanted to start over, I wanted to feel the rush of a fresh startup again where every action mattered and every choice has tremendous impact.”

Lessons learned from founding a fintech:

“As a small selection: automate everything right from the start, from client onboarding to reporting. Make everything data-driven, never ever build any tech without a well-thought-out user story and functional design. Select your investors thoroughly and invest time and money in education and your team.”

Willemijn Schneyder

Willemijn Schneyder

Schneyder is the founder and CEO of SwipeGuide, a performance platform for the manufacturing industry that captures, scales, and automates critical operational knowledge across teams and sites.

On driving new ideas:

“SwipeGuide is a young technology company. Every Swipee is an expert and an innovator. They join because they have something to contribute to our mission. We have rituals that help to unlock the ideas like hack days, innovation challenges, etc. We stimulate our team members to look outside the box, get inspired in different industries and events. But at the core, we try to apply the same principles inside that we sell to our customers: unlock untapped potential from within by making sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute to product development.”

On staying focused on the user’s needs and pain points:

“We talk a lot to other technology companies to learn about different approaches to ensure that as you grow everyone on the team is laser-focused on solving real user problems with impact. There are three core concepts SwipeGuide has embraced since its founding and that we hope to foster and evolve as we grow: a deep understanding of our users, open innovation collaboration with customers, and bringing together different areas of expertise.”

“SwipeGuide has been developing the solution in open collaboration with users since founding. Initially, we used a customer board to verify problems and solutions. As we grew, we shifted to a system open to all users. They can make suggestions to a public innovation board and upvote problems they would like the solution to solve. Concepts we design and develop get verified and tested with our users, of course, as many organisations do. But the key is to get behind the question, to design and develop what they need instead of what they are asking for. In that sense, we are the most human-centred software solution. Every incoming Swipee that joins the team, whether in marketing, sales, product development, or engineering, is requested to spend some time at the front line with our customers and users. How can you develop sticky digital tools that solve real problems if you don’t know the hassle of an average factory operator or maintenance engineer? Finally, you will see that our product is built by experts in computer science, mechanical engineering, behavioural design, and educational sciences. Solving big puzzles with different hats on brings value.”

On her experience as a female founder:

“My challenges as a female founder have been no different than a female entrepreneur, manager, innovation consultant, or whatever role I executed as a woman before founding SwipeGuide. Access to finance is 10 times more difficult in the tech world because it is all an old-boy network. So for sure, we had to – and still have to – break through bias barriers as a diverse team, but I believe we are more resilient because of it. I also see a lot has changed already in the last couple of years. People become more and more aware of their bias, their privilege. But we need to ensure that we address it intersectionally, not binary men/women. I have lots of privilege as a highly educated, western European white woman, so actually, am I the right person to talk to this topic? Not entirely. I believe we can make real progress when we develop awareness of the prevalence of unconscious bias.”

Marieke de Ruyter de Wildt

Marieke de Ruyter de Wildt is the founder of The New Fork, which uses blockchain to help agrifood businesses optimise their supply chain, reduce risk, and improve food integrity.

Marieke de Ruyter de Wildt

On financing your business:

“In software and new technologies, the most difficult part is to get your first paying customer. What is often seen as a good thing to do is to first get finance, then develop your idea, and find your customers. I’m a strong believer in the reverse order: get a paying customer first and then get financing to upskill and improve the product.”

My leadership philosophy:

“Good leaders are system thinkers: they see the strong and weak points within systems and can see the bigger picture, rather than specific bits and pieces. The capacity to be able to see a system as a whole is essential to taking advantage of new opportunities. Leaders get great minds to work together and put people in positions where they can maximise their individual power.”

On introducing complex technology to a user for the first time:

“When we pitch something, it is received by the primitive part of our brains, which have a very simple response menu. Often, we try to explain complexity by unpeeling complexity, but that doesn’t work. You just need to grab your audience’s attention and keep them engaged. So don’t talk technology: explain the effects that technology can bring but don’t go operational. Rather than talking technology, we aim for experiencing its impact and have a PoC as quickly as possible.”

Advice for young women following in your footsteps:

“Be self-confident, have thick skin, and think big and bold. Build a team from Day 1, and fire anyone who doesn’t appear to be an A player. If you have B or C players, they can really take a toll on everyone else. In technology, the key resource is still people. You need to have good people who can build the right technology.”