Belfair helps young entrepreneurs take their first steps


The 15th anniversary edition of the Belfair event in Ghent saw 3,000 students from across Europe put their business know-how into practice

A growing success

Belfair, recently held in Ghent, is not your everyday business fair: Here, the businesses taking part were fictive, created with the goal of getting young entrepreneurs on the road to success.

The 200 participating companies were all “practice enterprises”: simulated import-export companies run by students in business schools or vocational courses administered by the Flemish public employment service (VDAB). These practice firms are meant to give young people a first taste of running a company.

“The concept is part of a larger European network, but Belfair is the largest international business fair of its kind,” says co-organiser Steven Dewaele.  

This year’s 200 stands were operated by practice enterprises originating not only from Flanders but also Wallonia, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Throughout the two-day event, more than 3,000 national and international students practised their entrepreneurial techniques. “It gives me great joy to see Belfair grow with each year’s successful edition,” says Dewaele.

Such success is needed in today’s economy. With youth unemployment skyrocketing, students and young job-seekers already face an uphill climb. The local entrepreneurial waters are even murkier. According to the European Commission’s 2013 SME Performance Review, only 57% of Belgians think entrepreneurs are perceived as having a high status in society. This may explain why only 16% of Belgians have started a business and 9% intend to start one within three years.

Aware that something needed to be done to facilitate young entrepreneurs’ first business steps, the Belgian Centre for Business Training (COFEP) teamed up with VDAB and the Flemish ministry of education and began the practice enterprise programme. In 300 schools and training programmes today, the programme has set up a business simulation, employing the same practices and procedures as a real company; the only difference is that no real products are produced and no capital earned. 

Giving students confidence

While imaginary in nature, these practice firms are real laboratories for entrepreneurship. There are more than 7,200 practice firms established in 42 countries, each with its own specific business activity. This year’s practice enterprises in Ghent specialised in everything from electronics and clothing to travel and fitness machines. Madibel from Deinze, East Flanders, proposes affordable local products distributed in creative ways, such as via its original SpeedyFryer frieten dispenser.  

These creative young individuals’ dedication was really outstanding

- Veerle Scheunis

“We work with schools and the VDAB to give students the proper confidence to step out into the real business world later on,” explains Dewaele. “After a year working in a practice enterprise, they are ready to join the workforce.” The practice enterprises perform their simulated business activities mostly virtually, making 21,700 domestic and international business transactions in 2013 alone via email and telephone.

Belfair, celebrating its 15th edition this year, is the annual event that brings together all the participating students who have worked in a practice firm that year. One would never guess that this fair was for practice: At last week’s event, the tone was strictly business. Professionally dressed young entrepreneurs ran from stand to stand, trying to close sales.

“Both students and their mentors really look forward to attending the fair,” said a COFEP practice enterprise mentor. Indeed, students prepare all year for the event, holding simulated client meetings, giving sales pitches and negotiating. A school or VDAB mentor guides them through the process and gives feedback along the way.

In a new addition to the programme this year, 40 practice enterprises gave themselves the challenge of finding an original way to sell their company in the 60 seconds it takes to ride the elevator – the so-called “elevator pitch”. Participants tried everything from original videos to poetic pitches and impressed the contest’s jury, made up of HR directors Lina Timmermans and Carole Delava from Carrefour and Veerle Scheunis from Colruyt Group.

“These creative and committed young individuals’ dedication was really outstanding,” said Scheunis. “There is professionalism, commitment and innovation galore at Belfair.”

The 15th anniversary edition of the Belfair event in Ghent saw 3,000 students from across Europe put their business know-how into practice.

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