When one thinks of a start-up incubator, what usually comes to mind is an organisation with facilities typically attached to a university, sometimes to a business school, and located in a prime, “hot” tech hub area. On the north-western edges of Brussels, there is a business incubator where local entrepreneurs of all ages can work on their projects and share their expertise: it’s called MolenGeek and its unconventional location, the Molenbeek commune, is, contrary to popular belief, a hotspot for young talents and innovators.
The New European had the chance to meet Ibrahim Ouassari and Julie Foulon, co-founders of MolenGeek, in their welcoming 170-square-metre premises and discover the success formula behind this amazing project which has been set up only two years ago.
As Ibrahim revealed to The New European, the choice to found MolenGeek in a neighbourhood which has, unfortunately, gained much bad publicity lately, was not motivated by the necessity of boosting the image of its community, but it was rather a pure coincidence: Ibrahim (who is also Founder and CEO of Crowdfly, a software platform used by companies to work with freelancers and consultants around the world) was indeed born and raised in Molenbeek and is still a resident of the municipality that once used to be the industrial centre of the Belgian capital.
“MolenGeek was originally an association of entrepreneurs who were organising start-up weekends, that is to say events where people could gather and share their project ideas with others. Then, in June 2016, the start-up incubator, as it is known nowadays, was legally founded”, said Julie Foulon, who already has a long, solid career within the tech community (she has been Managing Director of BetaGroup, a community of more than 8.200 people passionate about internet, new technology and online media, and Community Manager at Start it @kbc Brussels, the biggest incubator of Belgium).
“Our purpose”, added Ibrahim, “is to create start-ups and companies, to bring value to the society and to make the world of entrepreneurship, technologies and innovation accessible to everyone. And when I say everyone, it’s really everyone. We do not target only people from the Molenbeek area”.
Being mainly a co-working space, MolenGeek allows young people who are interested in bringing their projects to life to work together, in an environment that offers them space, the chance to meet senior professionals they can get advice from and the possibility to develop new skills through courses. One of the things the MolenGeek team is really proud of is the Coding School, a project that was launched in March 2017 and that was developed in partnership with institutions and companies such as Bruxelles Formation, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Google and Samsung.
As the number of coding jobs is only expected to increase over time, programming skills are becoming ever more important. In this regard, the MolenGeek community has been far-sighted and has succeeded in equipping its young entrepreneurs with what is seen as the core competency of 21st Century workers.
Julie explained that learning how to code is like learning a new language and that “if you need to create a website for your start-up or an app, you need to know how to code”. She added that “I have seen girls trying to create an app and spending thousands of euros for the help of an expert, because they didn’t know how to create a website. They were trusting the IT guy, since he was supposed to be a professional, but they ended up paying a lot of money for a website of a really bad quality. And this is not an isolated case”.
The thing that sets MolenGeek apart from other service providers is that there is no need to have an academic background in order to learn how to code. “Coding is not an “elitist” thing”, said Ibrahim. “We have seen people with neither academic nor tech background doing really well at our coding school. Everything is based on simple logic”.
The public has very fast come to appreciate the services offered by MolenGeek. The incubator has grown very fast in just a couple of years: it has become a community of 200 people which includes students, who usually manage to come every day, people who have a job and attend only specific events at MolenGeek, and freelancers who work full-time on their projects. Even some companies come to MolenGeek if they need to develop their own project.
But what is the organisation’s perception in the Molenbeek neighbourhood? “People really like us, because we have created a really positive ecosystem and they see the utility of what we do”, Ibrahim explained. “We are not just an association that gives an occupation to people to just kill their time. We go beyond that: we give them training and knowledge for their future. People see the difference, therefore we have a really good reputation in Molenbeek”.
Probably no amount of classroom time in a university will make one fully prepared to create a business, and even though business incubators have been around since the 1950s, the success formula of MolenGeek is that it is really open to everyone. The funding philosophy of the Brussels-based space is a very simple, even if somewhat revolutionary, one: each person has a different talent to offer, regardless of their educational or professional background.