19 Dec 2016
A Conversation with Bert Twaalfhoven (MBA 1954), Pioneering Promoter of European Entrepreneurship
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Bert Twaalfhoven

In the more than 60 years since he graduated from Harvard Business School, eighty-six-year-old Netherlands native Bert Twaalfhoven has been involved in a slew of businesses, most of them under the umbrella of a holding company called Indivers (as in industrial diversification), from which he formally retired in 2003. As he writes in his 2013 autobiography, Learn Earn Return: The Journey of a Global Entrepreneur, “Over time, Indivers would grow into a multinational enterprise, a collection of companies based on niche opportunities. It was a roller coaster ride: 65 companies in 14 countries, including 32 startups, 12 acquisitions, 25 joint ventures, 35 exits, and –yes--16 failures.”

In his involvement in entrepreneurial ventures, Twaalfhoven was way ahead of the curve in Europe. Not long after he had earned his Harvard degree, he began carrying the flag for the cause of entrepreneurial initiatives in Europe at a time when the continent had long been dominated by big business and risk-averse managers and investors.

He was eager to preach what he practiced, giving speeches far and wide and intent on extending his reach even further by training European business school professors, who would then return to their universities and spread the word to their students, who would in turn go forth into the world of business – a virtuous cycle that would continue for decades.

To help accomplish that as effectively as possible, in 1987 Twaalfhoven cofounded the European Foundation for Entrepreneurial Research (EFER), which has played an active role in promoting entrepreneurship across Europe, sharing best practices in the field, generating support for case studies, conducting research, and influencing policy.

A later offshoot was the European Entrepreneurship Colloquium, an intensive one-week residential educational program, which was held at HBS from 2005 to 2008, in Europe from 2009 to 2015, and then at Harvard Business School again last summer under the co-direction of HBS professor Tom Eisenmann. That session also had a unique special ingredient, a tribute to Twaalfhoven to mark his retirement from the leadership of the program he had watched over so successfully for so many years.

Once described by the Financial Times as the “revered…elder statesman” of European entrepreneurs, Twaalfhoven, whose energy and enthusiasm remain as strong as ever, recently sat down for an interview to reminisce a bit about his extraordinary career.

Can you flesh out for us the founding of EFER?

The gestation began when I was asked to give speeches in Davos, Switzerland, at what was then called the European Economic Forum, now the World Economic Forum. I had been asked to give a talk with the then-president of IBM, and I realized what a tremendous platform this would be to give a message in Europe, where big business reigned, about the importance of entrepreneurship. I had been inspired by HBS’s entrepreneurship pioneer, Professor Howard Stevenson, and by David Birch of MIT, who had discovered that most new jobs come from new companies. Awareness of this didn’t exist in Europe, so I helped promote the fact that entrepreneurship is the key to our economies.

EFER was an initiative to train professors, launched with the help of Stevenson, venture capitalist and HBS alumnus Pitch Johnson, and a number of other professors. We did it regionally in Europe in 1988 and1989, but when communist rule collapsed in 1989, I held a conference in Berlin attended by 1,000 people. That opened up all the gates for us. We then held conferences with case studies in Warsaw, Prague, all over the rest of eastern Europe, and that set up a far-reaching network.

Then we came up with idea of holding an annual colloquium of one week of case studies on entrepreneurship, beginning at Cambridge University in 2002. After that, the European Union came to me and said they would also like to sponsor these events, so we held annual conferences for them with usually 60 or 70 professors. All told, in the almost 30 years since EFER’s founding, we have had about 600 professors attend our events. All the leading universities of Europe now have a department of entrepreneurship, and like HBS with the addition of The Entrepreneurial Manager to the first-year Required Curriculum years ago, many of them have also included a requirement in entrepreneurship in their MBA programs.

What is the current state of venture capital in Europe?

Venture capital now plays an active role across Europe, and the amount and availability of VC funding have increased. At the same time, venture capital is also being supported by institutions like the European Investment Bank, based in Luxembourg, which has billions in capital reserved for innovation and startups.

What is the attitude in Europe these days regarding failure as part of entrepreneurial experience?

Twenty years ago, failure was a stigma, but I think the financial world has gotten over that. It’s much more acceptable now. When I interviewed people, whether for an investment or to hire them, I always wanted to know if they’d had failures. If I stand in front of a class, and I’ve given 250 speeches in my life, I will ask who has had a failure in business, sports, and whatever, and half the students will raise their hand. There is a saying in Chinese that failure is the mother of success. With sixteen faiIures in my own career, I guess I’m living proof of that.

Is there anything you still wish you had done?

A number of years ago, I came up with a proposal to exchange entrepreneurship faculty across Europe for a week, so that someone from Vienna, for instance, could teach in Paris and vice versa. The pilot program for that became popular, but we could not find sponsors to sustain it or improve it by enabling the exchange to last longer than a week. This ability to cross borders and create networks is essential for both faculty and practitioners, since I don’t think that any entrepreneur in a small European country can grow except by expanding into other countries.

Given your high level of energy, are you really retiring?

At my age, yes, the time has come to step away, but I will remain active. I actually want to write more articles about my failures. There are still lessons to be learned from them. My attempt after World War II to introduce coin-operated washing machines to Holland, for instance, was slow to win customers, since Dutch women continued to take pride in doing the washing themselves. But I’m happy to say that subsequent attempts to fill the needs of niche markets proved more successful. Beyond that, since five of my eight children are entrepreneurs in their own right, I will never be far from the action.

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