The American dream
Last month in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Flemish entrepreneur Christophe Van Aerde joined two friends to open the Japanese restaurant BambooTori. The founders met and formulated their idea as part of a Global Entrepreneurship graduate programme and secured start-up funding from one of their professors.
BelCham is helping Flemish enterprises make it in the US
Co-founder Hendy LaMothe says their plan involves reaching into Belgium, but first they must get through some of America – and they are setting up in a hot spot. There are nearly 5,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone, and 80% of restaurants in New York City close within five years of opening. Nonetheless, early reviews of the small restaurant that specialises in Japanese-style grilled chicken have been positive, and LaMothe is bullish. “We don’t see why we can’t do it,” he says. “Our model is easily scalable.”
A day after BambooTori’s grand opening – and less than a fortnight after Hurricane Sandy tore through greater New York City – the Belgian-American Chamber of Commerce (BelCham) threw its annual black-tie gala at the Harvard Club, where successful and promising Belgian enterprise was honoured, including Flemish physiologist Emile Boulpaep, who received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement award (see sidebar).
The influence of BelCham
BelCham has been around since 1918, helping Belgian businesses grow in the United States. The US was recently ranked fifth in a global leadership survey by consultancy firm SHL, while Belgium was ranked 16th.
“BelCham is taking a leadership position in helping firms compete by bringing them together to exchange knowledge and collaborate,” says BelCham executive director Bieke Claes. In addition to hosting networking and other events every few months, BelCham is getting set to launch two professional programmes for Belgians in the US, jointly called the Belgian-American Career Programme.
The first component is the Strategic Business Centre, which offers support to Belgians in America who have a business plan to improve or specific problems that need to be solved. “Once we understand what people are hoping to explore or discuss, we assemble a team of accomplished business people from different fields and backgrounds,” explains Claes. “They sign a non-disclosure agreement, and then we schedule a meeting for the group to come together and have a discussion regarding the idea or problem.”
The second component is a human resources support service that helps BelCham members find employees and interns, as well as placing Belgians in positions at American companies.
Demand for Belgian talent
“There was and is a great demand for Belgian talent,” says Claes, who was born and raised in Rotselaar and worked for a local law firm before heading to the US for further studies two years ago. “Belgians are productive, highly qualified and easily fit into the culture of American companies. With the Belgian-American Career Programme, we want to create and foster a Belgian-American business climate that increases knowledge, builds on collaborative relationships and can pride itself on entrepreneurship and innovation.”
Vincent Herbert, the CEO of Brussels-based cafe chain Le Pain Quotidien and a BelCham board member, is a fan of the organisation’s initiatives: “We would love to have more Belgians working at Le Pain Quotidien in the US,” he told BelCham. “They speak several languages and carry with them the local colour of our company. We want to let Belgians know that Belgian companies in the US are open for business.”
The US Department of State has designated BelCham as a potential sponsor of J1 visas – the visa that interns must have – so it helps applicants through the process. A new website is also about to be launched, where members will be able to promote themselves.
Big night out
At the BelCham gala earlier this month, about 200 attendees sipped champagne and Stella as they mingled with ambassadors, toasted globalisation and listened to speeches from award winners at the annual Entrepreneurship Awards Gala Dinner.
Brussels Airlines was named Company of the Year, in part for re-opening a direct route between Brussels and New York. Most Promising Company of the Year went to software company Acquia, whose Drupal software – the brainchild of Dries Buytaert, a 33-year-old from Antwerp – is used in the websites of the White House, among others worldwide.
And the gala concluded with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Yale University molecular physiologist Emile Boulpaep – though not for his science, but rather for his role as a businessman.
Born in Aalst and educated at the University of Leuven, Boulpaep “turned the Belgian American Educational Foundation from a $3 million organisation into an $80 million organisation,” says Claes. “The foundation is in line with BelCham’s mission and values: creating a link between the US and Belgium to facilitate exchange and stimulate collaboration.”
Past winners of the Lifetime Achievement
Award include Eddy Merckx and Le Pain
Quotidien CEO Vincent Herbert. I’m told
a journalist has never won, but I still have
hope. It would take, says Belcham director
Bieke Claes, “entrepreneurship, the will
and courage to dig deep, writing the truth
even when it’s risky or controversial and
stimulating a critical sense and autonomous
thinking among the readership.”