Entrepreneurship2 March 20206 min

Female Foreigner Founder in Belgium? Why I applied to the Start it @KBC Accelerator Programme.

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Each startup founder's journey comes with its stack of difficulties. Apart from the usual concerns that make us lose sleep such as funding, marketing, and scaling, there are a million other issues that affect our direction and overall growth on our path to pursuing entrepreneurial success. It's also an entirely different ballgame altogether if you are just like me, a foreigner trying to build my dream in a place where I have no roots whatsoever. So before you throw in the towel and abandon your BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goals), read on and hopefully, my story encourages you to keep the dream alive.

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To provide a bit of context, I am a Filipina-American expat/foreigner founder based in Gent, Belgium. I migrated permanently in the summer of 2018, along with my husband Matthias, who is Belgian. Before that, I spent a year with him as a digital nomad, traveling from one city to another while working remotely, until we finally decided that it was time to pick a place to build roots.

For a good decade, I've built a career in sales and marketing, ultimately specializing in social selling through platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The same year I moved to Belgium was when I decided to end that season in my career, and to start anew by founding my own e-commerce business.

I ventured on with cautious excitement, as I had already expected hurdles to surprise me along the way. Though no founder is exempt from difficulties, what makes it extra challenging for foreigner founders like me is the language barrier. (Un)lucky for me, none of my two languages (Filipino and English) are officially used in Belgium. And despite my efforts learning Dutch, I know for a fact that it will take quite a long time for me to reach professional fluency.

Imagine being at the mercy of a translator for all your comms. It is both tasking and expensive, and I wouldn't advise to go down that route especially for new founders.

Imagine having no one to share or consult your business concerns and founder woes with. It takes a toll on your emotional health and raises even the smallest insecurities.

Imagine racking up more expenses for office space, skills training, networking opportunities, software fees and the like. What a sure way to over-charge anxieties.

So in my desperate attempt to navigate my way through the Belgian startup world, I knew I needed to find an accelerator programme that provided solutions for all of the above.

During my search, I found programmes not only in Belgium, but all around Europe. At face-value, one may feel that all accelerator programmes are just like the others. Of course, there's no denying the similarities between the programmes offered by different organizations. All of them will sound very attractive to the would-be member. This made my selection process harder and much more confusing than I had initially expected.

I found an Instagram ad (or it found me) by Start it @ KBC, calling for Female Founders. I only clicked on it because (1) the ad was in English and (2) the emphasis on female won me over. I went through each page, noting every detail I had to consider before applying to their programme.

The only problem: the next cohort was months away.

I checked their website regularly for updates, and at one time, even mistakenly crashed one of their member-only sessions. I mistook the event to be open to the public and some bug in their website allowed me to register. I showed up with my husband, and found out that it was a session intended only for startups already in the programme.

They could have turned us away, but thankfully, the community manager was very gracious and understanding, and instead welcomed us to participate.

That gesture in itself surely made a powerful and lasting impact.

I thought: If this is how they treat "outsiders" then what more the members who qualify for their programme?

This leads me to the 3 reasons why I believe an expat founder in Belgium like myself should apply:

It is a community, not just a programme.

I did not explicitly list this as an important element at the beginning of my search, but I realized that a sense of community ranks high up in the search criteria for many expats. Expats like myself have a desire to build roots in our new home country, as well as create meaningful connections with the people we meet. Although the size of our cohort seemed large for me, what's important is I have met and befriended like-minded founders whom I can spar ideas with. The Start it @KBC team also has a pool of brilliant, insightful, and pragmatic business mentors that do not think twice in helping you overcome roadblocks in the process.

It has a founder-focused approach.

I only found out about this during my first one-to-one meeting with my community manager. I explained to him that the product idea that we pitched to get into the programme is still in the prototyping phase, but our startup food brand has been operational for already a year. I somehow had the impression that I exclusively had to pursue the pitch we delivered. He said that Start it @KBC's approach is a founder-focused one, where in it is geared towards the growth and development of the individual startup founders. This, in principle, shall also drive the growth and development for their respective startups.

It does not take or require equity.

Giving away equity isn't necessarily a bad thing, and each startup has its unique set of needs when applying for accelerator programmes, so this was a plus for our situation being a very new food startup. I felt more at ease applying for a programme that impressionably first asks the question: "How can we help you?" and closes with a statement: "No strings attached."

We have been in the programme since October 2019, as part of the 2nd wave of that year. I have nothing but praises to the team behind Start it @KBC because they have truly helped me in my journey as a female-foreigner-founder based in Belgium.

I have seen that they are now screening for the next batch of startups for the first wave of 2020, and thus it prompted me to write about my experience, in order to pay it forward to other aspiring entrepreneurs out there, maybe also an expat like myself, who are hesitating to apply, or just looking for that answer to their early-founding woes.

Take it from me: You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Sign up here today: https://grow.startit.be/applynow