Next Icon | Beyond the border of Twente: Novel-T says goodbye to CEO Jaap Beernink
This year, Next Icons revolves around the theme "Open Frontiers": pushing boundaries and choosing unexplored territory. Someone who has spent this year doing just that is Jaap Beernink, who stepped down as CEO of Novel-T and started as a member of the executive board at Deltion College in Zwolle on September 1, 2023. We look back with him on his last year at Novel-T and talk about his decision to look beyond the borders of Twente.
This story was first published in the Next Icons Magazine. You can read the entire magazine here.
This year's Next Icons have all pushed their boundaries in the past year, doing or achieving something special. Last year, you said Novel-T needs to be just as entrepreneurial as the entrepreneurs we help. What were Novel-T's highlights in the past year?
"The new GROW program represents a highlight for me, for several reasons. This program has completed our range. From idea to scale-up, we now offer 1-on-1 support and programs for each stage. It makes me proud to see the first participants in the GROW program walking around with big smiles and to hear them express much appreciation for each other and the program. They help each other develop, enabling Novel-T to build a new community that was not yet really connected in Twente."
"A stellar highlight was that imec.istart was named the best university-linked business accelerator program in the world. This shows that it was a good decision to partner with imec and bring this program to the Netherlands. At the same time, it serves as a confirmation that Novel-T has built up a strong position over the past few years since imec sees us as a suitable partner in that program. We are pleased that Novel-T is a sought-after party to work with. This is also reflected in SLUSH's choice of Novel-T as its partner for the Dutch version.
In addition to these major highlights, I am also proud of things like the knowledge breakfasts we organize for SMEs. This is not very high-profile, but it is very valuable. All those investments we have made over the past few years - building a broad network, creating awareness among SMEs - are now paying off. We could not have done a specific SME event with a full house five years ago. The seeds we planted then enabled us to reap the benefits in the past two years. That's an awesome accomplishment for our team. A lot of great things are still in the pipeline, but unfortunately I won't be there to see those come to fruition."
Yes, that's the elephant in the room: you are getting off the Novel-T train. How do you look back on the past six years? What are you most proud of?
"That's actually an easy choice. When I announced my departure on Linkedin, I was overwhelmed by all the praise for what we achieved over the years. We have really made a difference, both regionally and nationally. But whatever people mentioned as examples - the international startup missions, the unified dealterms, Next Icons - none of those are things I accomplished on my own. The key success factor of all those accomplishments was that we have an organization that can make it happen, with people who get things done. So if you ask what I'm proud of, it's definitely the Novel-T team. If you look at the type of organization, the culture, and the people who want to work here, we have really evolved tremendously over the past six years. I sparked the flames, but once the fire got started, it burned brighter all the time. So I am also genuinely proud of the people who work at Novel-T."
You have mentioned before that Novel-T is a unique club full of talented people. So why are you moving out now?
"That has nothing to do with the people. It is all about wanting to leave my own comfort zone. I feel I have been in my comfort zone for about a year now. That sounds nice, but for me it just doesn't work so well. I feel like I'm not getting the most out of myself, so I don't have an optimal contribution to the organization. And Novel-T deserves better than that. There is an amazing, solid foundation on which to build and that also calls for fresh momentum at the helm again. The way I see it, I left at my peak and I'm proud that I made this decision. It would have been very easy to stay, to hang around your comfort zone, where you know you feel happy and safe. So in that sense, I'm excited to be jumping back into the deep end, stepping out of my comfort zone again. I hope everyone at Novel-T continues to do the same. Pushing boundaries has always been very important to me. That made me join Novel-T in the first place, and though now I'm leaving, I can assure you that I am leaving that talented club of people behind me with pain in my heart."
With this step, of course, you are literally crossing the border of Twente. Were you ready for that, too?
"Yes, although I wasn't necessarily bored with the region. But I've been around for a while within the ecosystem, and I don't want to become that grumpy old guy who thinks he's a man of the world, but has never actually been outside the region. If I asked myself what next step would get me excited, it would be an opportunity outside of Twente, to begin somewhere people don't know you. And in another region to gain new insights, learn new dynamics, and see new systems working. This is also the pitfall of Twente as a region: as long as we do not look beyond the borders of the region, it seems as if we are doing very well in our own little circle. This is a self-perpetuating condition if we do not remain sufficiently critical of ourselves compared to what is happening in the rest of the world. Personally, this felt suffocating at times, so moving outside the region was a logical choice for me."
You chose to go to Zwolle. What do you hope to bring to Deltion from your experience here at Novel-T and in Twente?
"I hope to fulfill my role like a mini Van den Kroonenberg. In my new office, I will put one thing on the wall, and that is a portrait of Van den Kroonenberg, haha. The new role as board member instead of managing director is exciting. It’s less of an auxiliary role than I am used to having. At the same time, I intend to be an executive who is close to the people, who above all is committed to serving and connecting. Deltion feels to me like an organization with guts and ambition, so that gives me a lot of confidence. They have the same entrepreneurial spirit, are open to innovation and have tremendous social value and regional ties. So does Novel-T, so there is overlap there. And the challenges facing MBO (secondary vocational) education in a broad sense - the appreciation of its added value, equivalence with HBO (higher vocational education) and university level education, how the (education) chain is linked up, etcetera - are also, in my view, similar to the challenges we had 10 years ago regarding the position and importance of startups and technology in the Netherlands.
In addition, like Novel-T, I see Deltion as very pragmatic. Actual realization is much more important than having good ideas. Big challenges require an approach, not a solution. In my opinion, that is a great fit with Deltion, and if not, I'm going to try to introduce that. What helps is that the position of MBO education is very clear. Everything is about craftsmanship, vocational skills, and that cannot be taught without collaboration in the field. So whether you're talking about healthcare facilities and nursing education, or industrial and mechatronics education, that expertise partnership is crucial. Making that connection with the private sector is something that I am well versed in and what I can contribute. And I hope I can do my part to improve equity in education. That parents are also really proud when their child attends MBO, and that an MBO diploma is seen primarily as a valuable starting qualification and not as an entry certificate for HBO. There's a world to be won there, and I really wish that for the MBO, but I especially wish that for all those young people who don't consider themselves good enough because they're doing MBO. If I can be on the barricade for that, I would love that."
That sounds like a great ambition. But you also leave ambitions behind at Novel-T that your successor can work on. What advice would you like to give to that person?
"Cherish what is there, and look critically at what is not there. I hope the next person at the helm will be a different type of person than me, because that fits the next phase of Novel-T. It should be someone who is not too managerial. After all, Novel-T must still be as entrepreneurial as the entrepreneurs it helps. I see the new CEO as someone who enjoys building on what is already there. Novel-T's goal of helping 100,000 entrepreneurs improve the world through innovation by 2033 should not be scrapped again. There is no need to invent a new course, rather there is really a lot to be gained. Programs, for example, are far from perfect, and the organization is not yet known throughout the region, so there are certainly gains to be made there. I would advise the new CEO to go full steam ahead on that: that the person builds on what's going well and is critical of what's not catching on and, of course, chooses new paths. A year from now, I hope people at Novel-T will say they are glad I left because my departure paved the way for further growth. So let's catch up next year!"