Spotlight: Maria Gross

Maria long

What drives you?

To show that we can do business better and differently without causing damage.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

Social entrepreneurship in Germany has exploded: Suddenly, the public sector and corporates have realized that it exists, as you can see in social impact’s work with SAP and Deutsche Bank. And we are not just talking financial support; we get their teams on board to help startups out with their expertise and through mentoring. With these sectors opening up, we had so many more connections – a great basis for good partnerships.

Currently reading

Self-esteem (“Selbstachtung”) by Poletti and Dobbs. I see many people burn out over their social start-ups and trying to make a living. It’s not sustainable, we need to learn to look after ourselves, so this is a good read.


Maria started out with an apprenticeship as an industrial clerk in automobile industry and stayed on in HR in total for six years. She did a part-time bachelor in management but didn’t see herself in the for-profit industry. She tried out development aid in her role as program assistant at the Goethe Institute in Togo and realized it wasn’t for her. “… at least not the way international development works at the moment. I raised questions of sustainability and impact of the work we were doing. To me, it lacked of enablement and created dependencies.” She went on to get her masters in non-profit management in Berlin but found that she was missing the practical experiences and relationships to the world of practitioners. “Around that time, I met Stefan, Elizabeth and Christina who had founded ROCK YOUR LIFE!. As one of the first franchises, we launched ROCK YOUR LIFE! in Berlin. And that was my introduction to social entrepreneurship. I had found a way of doing good through an economic lense, and got a chance to combine my passion and skills.”

As a social entrepreneur in Berlin, she soon learned about Ashoka and the work Norbert Kunz was doing at the Social Impact Lab. “I applied ‘Young Leaders for Sustainability‘ at the Collective Leadership Institute and their program enabled me to train in leadership while also working at Social Impact (iq consult back then). I transitioned to project assistant and took over the lab management in 2013. This is where I met my current business partner Jan who was a Social Impact Start participant at the time. I had worked so much with startups, I loved the energy and wanted to get involved. I had the chance to join Vehement in September 2013 as CEO and have worked two jobs since then.”

Being CEO of a social venture herself and having worked in the support industry for several years, Maria has a great sense for the realities of running a social enterprise. I ask her about whether she ever considered quitting the impact space and she responds: “Yes. It is little money for all the days and nights you work. I have been living on a shoestring budget ever since I left my corporate job. When I see how the careers of my peers have developed, I know I could make more money and that is tempting. At the same time, deep down, I know I wouldn’t want to do it, it wouldn’t make me happy. And then, something great happens and I am reminded of why I do this.”


Cartography: Amsterdam

March 24, 2015

Cartography[n.]: Mapping, review

In this second part of the review of my field visits to the Netherlands and Belgium, I share some lessons learned from Kennisland, Discovered, Social Enterprise NL and Impact Hub Amsterdam.


Though not a typical support organization, Kennisland taught me a thing or two that can be transferred to the more specific challenges of social enterprise. Quick recap: Kennisland is a think tank facilitating social innovation through civic participation. One of the tools they employ are social labs in which they bring a variety of relevant stakeholders such as government representatives, local service providers and the target beneficiaries to the same table to develop context-specific solutions to a shared community issue.

Any #SocEnt should run a social lab focused on their central issue before getting to work. Click To Tweet

In working with social entrepreneurs – and the lean start-up method is supporting this claim – I have found that they often shy away from talking to their beneficiaries and understanding the wider context of the issue they are trying to solve. I go as far as to say that any social entrepreneur should run a social lab focused on their central issue before getting to work, to understand the stakes of each party involved in or affected by this issue.

By the way, Kennisland has a brilliant website that I highly recommend checking out! Research insights, updates from their desks directly to the landing page and lots of background information with each post. Swing over to – worth a visit!


Discovered was the first social entrepreneur I spoke to about their general incubation experience and needs, in their case at a stage between acceleration and investment readiness. This is what I took away:

#1: Classifying and categorizing start-up stages helps us get a sense for the maturity of an enterprise. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that there aren’t soft borders and overlaps between those stages. Though I’m sure this seems obvious to all of us, we must keep this in mind when designing support programs, and make sure we have mechanisms in place to respond to support needs that come up in-between stages.

#2: I have come to understand that there are gaps between what support organization offer, and what the participating enterprises find valuable. Again, this is obvious, but the conversation with Discovered re-emphasized that we need to constantly assess whether the services our programs offer are what start-up and later-stage social enterprises need. What is the relation between perceived effectiveness by entrepreneurs as opposed to the outcomes programs hope to achieve?

Consult with your participants to fine-tune your #SocEntSupport to their needs! Click To Tweet

#3: An on-going discussion I have had over the last months was about the level of standardized vs. customized support for social enterprises. Part of the answer lies right here: Ask your participants to fine-tune your portfolio suited to what they need at any given point within the program.

Social Enterprise NL

Apart from trainings and services offered to members, Social Enterprise NL works in what they call Agenda Setting: The team around Stefan Panhuijsen represents social entrepreneurs’ interests in conversation with the Dutch government. In 2014, they published a policy agenda calling the  Dutch government to:

  • Recognize and acknowledge the entrepreneurial form “social enterprise”
  • Increase the availability of capital
  • Facilitate access to markets, and
  • Institutionalize social enterprise legislation and create targeted tax incentives.

Read more here (I recommend google translate!).

So far, I have not come across any other advocacy organizations for social enterprise and I wonder who takes it upon themselves in other countries. I can only speculate here but based on the social enterprise concept’s visibility and popularity as a newcomer in fields like academia or the start-up world, I assume it is a lonely job to represent the interests of entrepreneurs who fit neither in the profit-driven private sector nor into the world-saving charity category that we have so conveniently put in place.

Who are the agenda setters, advocates and lobbyists for #SocEnt in Europe? Click To Tweet

The one thing I did learn about advocating for social enterprise is: If a support organization wants to be their members’ voice, it can’t speak FOR them unless they speak WITH them, and keep a close eye on current issues and trends. I hope this list will grow substantially over the next months. But first tell me, dear readers, who ARE the agenda setters, advocates and lobbyists for social enterprise in Europe?

Impact Hub Amsterdam

My conversation with Wieke Van Der Zouwen about Impact Hub Amsterdam felt a bit like peeking through the keyhole into a whole new world of supporting social entrepreneurs through a tightly-knit network, franchise model and a pool of shared experiences and knowledge. Not to mention some exciting EU-funded research such as BENISI and Impact Hub Scaling. Impact Hubs are part of a closed network that generates a lot of know-how and best practices through their day-to-day work with social enterprises in over 60 locations across the world. But it is hard to gain access as an outsider. They do hold an annual summit called Unlikely Allies (click here to learn more about the June 2015 summit). The registration fee ranging from  EUR 1,200 to EUR 2,000 probably doesn’t allow many of us to participate. If anyone wants to throw Social  Venturers a free ticket for next year to see what it’s all about, get in touch!

What I do like about the Impact Hub model is that they lead by example in terms of financial sustainability. If you think that you can’t support social entrepreneurs unless it’s for free, think again.

Questions that I will take to my upcoming meetings with other Impact Hubs:

  • How do you organize your network-internal knowledge exchange?
  • How can the Hub Network open up and start collaborating with other support organizations?


Cartography: Rotterdam

Cartography: Brussels


Spotlight: Jacquelien Bunt


What drives you?

My career has always been about doing things I like and challenging myself into new areas… And by doing that, I can help people make a better life for themselves, which makes it even better.

Biggest #SocEnt trend in the last 5 years?

Social Enterprise has definitely become “hot” in the last five years. Now we have the challenge of upscaling from “projects” and “pilots” to viable businesses and making sure that the fact that we are “social” is not what sets us apart because being social is the norm.

Currently reading:

  • Professionally – Happy Profit by Herman Toch
  • Personally – Amsterdam. A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto.


With a background in industrial engineering, Jacquelien worked in telecommunications in the Netherlands and Asia before setting up her first social venture that was aimed towards providing job opportunities to Vietnamese school dropouts. Jacquelien says “I couldn’t really get my foot in the market and thus wasn’t contributing to the changes I hoped to see.  So I decided to work on other projects such as micro-finance and then joined dance4life where I could help to bring about change. When I learned about Discovered, I was interested because it coupled my passion for using business as a way of enabling people to improve their lives with my love of handmade products and the experiences I had as a project manager.” From her experience at discovered, I ask what her advice is for other social entrepreneurs: ”Make sure that you do it. Having a theory of change is fine, but there is also a rough reality. Don’t be a perfectionist, roll your sleeves up and start doing! It always gets you somewhere. And remember, it is always easy for others to point out what you are not doing. Don’t listen to the cynics.”

twitter @dscvrd



Through the eyes of a Dutch social entrepreneur

Between my field visits to Kennisland, Social Enterprise NL and Impact Hub Amsterdam, I had the opportunity to meet with Jacquelien Bunt to look at the offers of Dutch support organizations through the lens of a social entrepreneur. As someone who works at an online marketplace for artisanal and upcycled fashion from emerging economies, Jacquelien had cycled to our meeting in her high heels and as I pointed it out (very nice shoes, she is a pro!), she countered: “Oh, cycling is the easy part, heels don’t matter. Try running from meeting to meeting and it’s a different story.” Jacquelien seemed to me as Dutch as they come: Bicycle as an extension to their legs, pragmatic yet humble opinions and always straight to the point. We hunkered down at the large wooden table in the Impact Hub kitchen and started chatting.


Support needs

Discovered is a marketplace that connects rural artisans from emerging economies with ethical consumers in Western markets. Originally, founder Gijsbert van der Sleen saw products during his travels abroad that were not available for sale back in the Netherlands. He was sure there was a market. The idea for Discovered was born and started to develop in collaboration with Enviu in 2012. With Enviu as founding partner Discovered has had its share in other incubation programs.

As a start-up, you don't lack ideas, you lack resources. Click To Tweet

About her experience with incubators Jacquelien says “With some programs, they are all about generating ideas, but when you are a start-up there is no lack of ideas, but of resources. Secondly, programs will often tell you what to do, but not so much how to go about it. They will tell you that you need to revisit your marketing plan, for example, but I need to know where to start, with whom to consult, where to focus and put emphasis, how much to spend. Generic programs can’t do that. What we need at this stage, for example, is access to potential investors, to networks of partners and customers, and advice from experts in areas that we are still building up.”

Stuck between incubation and investment readiness

Discovered has a working product and is operating. Too advanced for an incubator, it is too early for them to participate in an investment ready program as offered by Impact Hub Amsterdam. “We need support working on our finances, marketing and sales, as well as distribution and market access. Until we have these areas figured out, we don’t need coaching towards investment readiness. We are in between, and need a program that suits these needs between early-stage and growth.” Jacquelien has little choice but to find this kind of support through her networks, which are rich thanks to her being located within Impact Hub Amsterdam.

How can we support #SocEnt in between programs? Click To Tweet

The questions this conversation has raised in me are how we as support organizations can help and empower social entrepreneurs within various phases of what we call “early stage” and “growth”. In addressing support gaps how can we organize to build a pipeline and offer tailored support to social entrepreneurs that do not fit into the programs currently offered or need a different mix of support services?