It’s all about the why, what is it that drives you?
Kees van Rengs studied Strategic Management at the Tilburg School of Economics and Management of Tilburg University. Even as a student he showed an interest in sustainable entrepreneurship. He not only decided to graduate in Sustainable Entrepreneurship, he also, together with fellow student Niek Franken, started his own company, called Plennid. I have arranged to meet Kees in his office in Rotterdam, on the 11th floor of the Rotterdam Science Tower. Against the backdrop of the hustle and bustle in the port below, we discuss what drives him, his company, and his experiences as a student at Tilburg University.
by Annemeike Tan
You knew very early on that you wanted to be a sustainable entrepreneur. Where did that drive come from?
Partly it’s something I’ve always had. From a very early age I’ve had this urge to leave something behind. This may sound kind of woolly, but I enjoy doing things that make people happy. I’ve never been interested in selling products that nobody really needs. Besides, as an academic I feel a responsibility to contribute to the solution of complex problems in our society.
But apart from it being something I’ve always had, it’s also partly thanks to a particular person I got to know during my studies who put me on this track. It was James Small. I’d already gotten to know him in my Bachelor’s program, when I did the Entrepreneurship Minor. I met him again later, when I took the Sustainable Entrepreneurship track in the Strategic Management Master’s program. James was a unifying thread during my studies in Tilburg. He introduced me to the knowledge and statistics that made me understand where the world is at, which triggered me to continue on that track.
You and Niek started Plennid when you were still students. You drew a great deal of attention right from the start. You not only won the Elevator pitch, you also got nominated for the 2017 BESI Award. Is Plennid still the same company it was in those early years when you started out?
Nominee BESI Award - Kees van Rengs, Plennid
No, it’s not actually. We’ve had to change the way we do things. The initial plan was to set up a co-working space, a physical place where entrepreneurs, researchers, retailers, municipalities, and others could find each other and together work on plans for sustainable developments. But a co-working space requires investment in buildings, and that’s a costly affair. At a certain point, we were forced to change course. Like any other enterprise, sustainable entrepreneurship can’t get round the triple P: people, planet, profit. If there is no money coming in, you need to change your strategy. Instead of co-working and consultancy, we now got into setting up projects ourselves. You subsequently get clients, your network grows, and a community forms. Within that community we noticed there were a lot of young professionals looking to make their work meaningful and fulfilling. We then said to each other: Let’s help these people. And that’s how, next to our own projects, we also got into mediating in projects and helping people find ‘green jobs’.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your projects?
We do project development on the basis of circular business models. These are models based on use instead of ownership (think of Swap Bikes, for instance, so popular now among students). We also look at material flows: what is the product made of, where do raw materials and products come from? Can’t we look for materials in the more immediate environment, or for other materials? Circular procurement is part of that too. We partly carry out these projects ourselves, and partly outsource people to organizations or municipalities. So thirdly, we are also into human capital management, helping people find green jobs.
Back to the University. For some time now, Tilburg University has had an educational profile that chimes with what you practice as a sustainable entrepreneur. This profile is built on three pillars – knowledge, skills, and character – that inform Tilburg University’s aspiration to educate students to become competent, self-confident, and engaged academics who understand society and who make a meaningful contribution to society.
Thank you for bringing this up! It is precisely because of ‘knowledge, skills, character’ that I’m keen to give this interview. Our motto at Plennid is that in our candidates we don’t look so much for educational training as we do for character. It’s about the why, about what drives you. That fits the University’s profile to a T. Knowledge won’t make you stand out. We recognize that too. Why should people want to hire you? What sets you apart is character, and vision. What drives you, what can you contribute?
Did you see much of this in your studies at Tilburg University?
Not a lot, to be honest, apart from the fact that I was offered the opportunity to do the Sustainable Entrepreneurship track and to get my teeth into a practical case. But what strikes me, and that is true not just for Tilburg University, is the propensity for slow processing in education. Education is consistently not up to date and is incapable of responding adequately to swift social changes and corporate innovations.
You yourself are now working with young professionals. What do today’s young professionals need and what can universities do to accommodate them?
Looking at the Economics degree program, I’d say that it should include a traineeship or a course on the circular economy. But there clearly should also be a focus on soft skills: giving presentations, getting the message across, communicating – to young entrepreneurs these are very important skills. Before studying at Tilburg University I attended a university of applied sciences, and I think that young professionals need both worlds: research-based knowledge and skills combined with a solid grounding in a practical approach. You build your own character, but a university can make its students aware of their responsibilities and organize its educational program accordingly.