TEDxRotterdam meets: Katja Berkhout

Executive Director at Venture Café


Since this February, Katja Berkhout embodies the wind of change in Venture Café Rotterdam. Together with her team and sister organisation Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), she is working on an ecosystem for growth and innovation every day. In 2015, the American Venture Café decided to literally expand its borders and opened up a new establishment in the heart of Rotterdam. It’s here where on the 1st of September TEDxRotterdam’s very first Open Mic Event will take place. Katja tells us why the Americans have chosen Rotterdam as the first Dutch home base and gives us a taste of her enormous drive for connecting people and innovation.


“Connecting innovators to make things happen”


What does Aspire to Inspire mean for you?

TEDxRotterdam’s mission is a perfect match with Venture Café’s quest. Each day we ask ourselves how we can optimally inspire other people. In that context, the TEDx concept serves as an exemplary role, which is visible in the inspiring stories told at TEDx events and the insights you gain. As Venture Café, we would like to help people on their way, just like TEDxRotterdam. In that sense, we are partners in the broadest sense of the word. That’s why Connecting innovators to make things happen is our tagline, but it could’ve been TEDxRotterdam’s as well!


“For us, TEDxRotterdam is a partner in programming”


What exactly is Venture Café’s concept?

The American Venture Café founded its first foreign establishment in 2015. It is the perfect place to meet entrepreneurs, businesses and all other parties involved in the innovation ecosystem. Besides, we have room for programming and TEDxRotterdam is our programming partner, kicking off with its first Open Mic Event on September 1st. The American family of Venture Cafés wishes to strengthen its international bonds with each other, in order to achieve new support networks across the world. The subjects we tackle vary immensely – from social innovation to sustainability. We even organise speed dates between the most diverse corporates and start-ups. Subjects, such as growth, financing and expansion in international markets are important to us. Communities can also meet each other here and come to fruitful collaborations. For example, think of the interesting cross-pollination between Art and Technology. Right now, we are in the middle of a renovation – Venture Café will get a beautiful new meeting space in the Cambridge Innovation Center in the Groot Handelsgebouw. Together with CIC we have scheduled a grand opening on October 13th!


How did you come into contact with Venture Café?

I got introduced to the American Venture Café concept when I was still living and working in Boston. Six years ago, Venture Café started as an experiment in CIC, which today is Venture Café’s sister organisation. I’ve practically lived and worked abroad my entire career. Once back on Dutch soil, and after a great period at StartupDelta, I started Venture Café. It is this challenge that connects me with the ideals of TEDxRotterdam. For example, I find it fascinating to be able to create opportunities for people and introduce them to the right contacts, without being hampered by barriers, and to function as a bridge between cultures, companies and governments. What’s more, TEDxRotterdam and Venture Café share the same objective: We both wish to create a place where people get triggered and connected by means of inspiring ideas and promising new projects.


To what extent did Rotterdam need to get warmed up to a typically American concept such as this?
We are still examining how such an American idea is being received. Many factors play a part in converting an American concept into something we in the Netherlands can relate to. For instance, in American Venture Cafés you may only get yourself a drink, but in the Netherlands this is considered inappropriate! We had to let go of principles such as these pretty soon. We stayed with using English as the official language in the Rotterdam Venture Café though, because we cherish this part of the American concept, as we want to make Venture Café accessible to everyone. This includes the international entrepreneurs who have established themselves in Rotterdam and international visitors alike. Some American values are not always easy to translate into a Dutch context, but we’re learning how to every day. We constantly ask ourselves: does it make sense? All in all the vibe in the Venture Café was fantastic from day one.


“People here are looking for contacts in an almost American way.”


Could you describe that vibe?

The first time I entered the Rotterdam Venture Café I was deeply impressed by the atmosphere. It felt very much like the familiar American Venture Café. I would describe it as a combination of sparkling eyes, a pay-it-forward mentality and a very high energy level. What you see at TED talks on stage and in the auditorium is what you experience here live every Thursday. It is also about the way people network here. We’ve all seen it before: you are at a network event and there are small groups of people everywhere who distance themselves from the crowd. At Venture Café, people are hugely accommodating and make connecting to people for others very accessible. In my opinion, they are more open for a good conversation, and, where necessary, volunteers help them to make connections. People here are looking for contacts in an almost American way. You see many successful entrepreneurs who enjoy helping others. People who come back regularly know each other and can connect the first-timers perfectly.


“Boston and Rotterdam are clearly culturally connected.”


Of all places in the world: why did the American Venture Café choose Rotterdam as the first Dutch home base?

During the search for a new location Venture Café soon zoomed in on the Netherlands because of its entrepreneurial character and the multitude of talents within various industries. In addition, Rotterdam is advantageously located between the technical universities of Delft and Eindhoven. And let’s not forget Rotterdam is home to a prestigious business school. The Groot Handelsgebouw, in which we are now located, is directly next to Central Station. During WWII, bombings wreaked havoc on Rotterdam and its trade. Partly thanks to the Marshall Plan, the Groot Handelsgebouw was built with the intention to revive entrepreneurship. In that sense, the American character of Venture Café is also reflected. Both the Dutch and the Rotterdam culture were crucial as well. A typical entrepreneurial culture in which things are still being made that you can drop on your toes, were important for choosing this city. Boston is a natural sister city to Rotterdam on the American East Coast; over there, they also work hard to achieve innovations with a social impact, such as in medical technology, biotech and cleantech. And there is a large knowledge cluster. People like to roll up their sleeves and achieve great successes without much fuss. The cultural connection couldn’t be clearer.


What distinguishes Rotterdam from other cities in your opinion?

Cities are complementary, so I don’t really think in terms of differences. The way cities develop themselves, however, fascinates me all the more. Therefore, I don’t look at Rotterdam in itself, but at the city as an innovation ecosystem. When looking at the Netherlands from the perspective of a foreign company, it is a web of connections. I concentrate on the connections between those networks. We collaborate with partners in cities such as Leiden, Amsterdam and Tilburg. All cities have their own ‘unfair advantages’. Instead of wanting to distinguish ourselves, we can empower each other. We learn by working together. It is only then that you can really grow – together. Furthermore, today’s entrepreneur is not so much attached to one base anymore. I see that with the enthusiastic entrepreneurs who rent a small workspace in CIC, for example. Those entrepreneurs often want to rent a desk at various locations in order to be part of more networks. That’s a nice development, right? We will never have to mention postcodes again.


Which message would you like to give to the readers?

Worldwide we are coming back from a long economic crisis. At the same time, radical innovations are taking place by means of technological developments. The largest global companies are no longer in the oil or petrol industry; they are often technology giants of 10 years or younger. This creates large-scale chances, for example, with regard to social progress due to exciting new innovations in healthcare and transportation. The Rotterdam region and the Netherlands have all it takes to become a leader in this social and economic transformation. Let’s be smart and grab those chances – together!