Rens ter Weijde: Combining for-purpose and for-profit to create sustainable impact
These days, it’s all but impossible to have large-scale impact without using technology. But for many of us, it’s still challenging to figure out how to harness technology for the greater good. This is the space where Rens ter Weijde likes to play as an entrepreneur.
“I work in the for-purpose sector because I believe that governments are typically too slow to respond to the rate of change in both society and in technology. That’s where for-purpose business can step in to fill a gap.” Rens is the CEO of KIMO, a company developing a scalable personalized learning engine for students around the globe.
“My vision is to ensure that every student in an emerging region has access to high quality education at their fingertips, probably via their mobile. We’re not making the content, we’re developing a way to curate the best content available on the web.”
The vision is simple; the execution is anything but. Michele Ernsting spoke with Rens about the challenges of delivering on this vision and what he has learned about his own leadership along the way.
“A big challenge is in personalization at scale. This means the content needs to match the level of difficulty students can handle, as well as their context (year, semester, college), format and source preferences, not to mention the capabilities of their devices. Our current niche is on tech education but we could tailor this engine for any learning focus in any geography. We’re trying to build something that can scale exponentially by working with leverage points such as engineering colleges in India who are educating millions of students. I’m betting on engineering students as I believe innovation has the potential to solve many large problems in the world, areas where governments typically move too slowly. This is a system change.”
Building scale and sustainability into the business model
“From a for-profit perspective, my belief is that I need to build a scalable engine that can sustain itself. If this learning engine needs to be fed with money every year, it will probably wither and die. But if it can sustain itself financially, it’s probably going to survive and grow.”
What have you learned about yourself as a leader during this start-up?
“This company has taught me where I’m strong and not so strong. I’ve learned I’m comfortable with high levels of complexity. You do your research, attract talent, start building, but you can only start selling once your product is ready for a specific market. In addition, that product needs to work flawlessly on all local devices and connectivities, which increases the challenge.
Where I’ve struggled most in the past year is the bridging of culture gaps. In India, many decisions are made by elderly men with a limited grasp of technology, time is perceived differently, and agreements (even signed ones) are seen as fluid. This has clashed with my time sensitive nature. This has provided me with a good mirror to understand myself.”
Discipline as a driver of performance
“Discipline shows up in my haircut, and in pretty much everything I do. I have a martial arts background and my hair has been shaved short since I started. My discipline means I probably work harder than most people. I get up earlier. I do exactly what my calendar says I will do that day, and will ensure it’s planned in detail to not spend the time on irrelevant items. I believe it’s pretty much the only way to get results in very challenging situations. I don’t think I’m very creative, so I bring discipline and hard work to the table.”
Listening to you talk about your sense of discipline, I wonder how you are doing on another leadership practice, namely nurturing self?
Rens laughs. “I’ve done martial arts since I was 4. Almost my entire youth, I was practicing three hours a day. The good thing is that you come out quite hardened. The downside is that it’s not a very compassionate culture where they teach you to be open about your feelings with others. I mostly maintain my energy by exercising. I enjoy running, swimming, climbing and kitesurfing sessions on a daily basis. I also have a two-year-old daughter. This takes me out of complexity. The simplicity of what we focus on is fantastic. This morning we were looking for her bike helmet. You can spend an hour thinking about the helmet and ‘searching’ for it together. It’s amazing.”
Learning as a path to self-renewal
“I would say that for me, learning is my renewal space. There will always be five to ten books on my couch which I’m reading. It keeps me young, and it helps me see new things. So even with this new company, I was super curious about almost everything it would take to build it. From funding rounds to building the teams, to finding a market strategy for India, to the execution of that strategy. The whole thing intrigued me with all of its six million pivots.”
What’s the best piece of feedback you ever received?
“Two pieces stand out. A very close friend I was working with started calling me “Relentless” instead of Rens. It was a joke but not really a joke. It was good feedback on how I work. There’s a positive side to being relentless and there’s a downside in that sometimes you go too far and push too hard. So that was indirect feedback which I really liked because it says a lot about who I am. My other great piece of feedback came from my two year old daughter. When I’m busy or traveling, I get kind of agitated, annoyed and tired. When I come home in that state, my daughter will gravitate towards her mom. If I’m coming close she tells me in her own way “you can’t come near me now. I’m not not looking forward to this cuddle.” At that moment, my daughter is giving the feedback, you’re not a nice person. That’s more powerful than what any manager can tell you.”
Vulnerability as a balance to discipline
“During my time in the THNK Executive Leadership Program, what I found quite powerful and surprising was the softness that people showed. I’m not from that background, softness was not in my family nor in martial arts. Typically, I would not disclose that much about myself. At THNK, people were very open to discuss their views of life, fears and challenges. Anything from personal doubts to self esteem issues or uncertainty about jobs. Everything was discussed and the softness was maybe the most beautiful thing I encountered because it was not intuitive for me.”
This is the moment where you may have the gift of a call to action to put out into the universe. What would you call on other leaders to do?
“My first thought for a call to action was; try to build a business in the for-purpose and for-profit space, but I think that is five years out of date. Today my call to action would be: Build a for-purpose company which relies on the latest technology. If you’re not from a technology background (like me, I’m a psychologist) then study it. It will teach you a lot about what’s going on in the world, and will allow you to build more scalable purpose-driven enterprises. Whether it’s influencing elections, recommending videos, or building learning platforms, the required tech stack is remarkably similar and can be learned if you put the time in. So, build a purpose-driven company that’s tech-enabled, and you’ll learn more about yourself and the world, than you ever imagined!”