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'Swedish firms really want to be responsible'

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'Swedish firms really want to be responsible'
Belgian entrepreneur Martin Vercouter. Photo: Emily Evans
07:37 CEST+02:00
Belgium-born entrepreneur Martin Vercouter tells The Local how he's building a business that helps young people in Stockholm's suburbs and encourages Swedish companies to think responsibly.
The cobbled streets of Stockholm's Old Town, the extravagant yachts docked in the city's Östermalm district and the achingly cool boutiques and vintage stores on hipster island Södermalm paint just one picture of Sweden's capital.
 
The gap between the rich and the poor in Stockholm is growing faster than ever. In some parts of the city, youth unemployment tops 25 percent and there are deepening concerns about tensions between different immigrant groups.
 
Martin Vercouter, 26, is trying to make a difference with his business Starta Farsta, which helps people aged between 16 and 26 from Stockholm's suburbs who are seeking to set up their own companies, by providing them with office space, mentors and advice.
 
"We started in Farsta, which was a good test bed in a way. It's not the worst suburb but there is unemployment, people need help and there is a bit of an image problem for the area. We're expanding into Kista in the north in the autumn and we've identified about seven other places where we believe we're needed and can make an impact," he tells The Local.
 

Vercouter speaking to young would-be entrepreneurs in Stockholm. Photo: Private
 
Each programme targets between six and eight entrepreneurs and according to Vercouter, plenty have now launched successful side projects, with some now making a living from their new companies.
 
"We had one 17-year-old who picked up the programme while he was still at high school and wanted to develop his own clothing line. He was a designer in his spare time but he had absolutely no idea how to go about it. So we helped him right through the process, from connecting with factories in China, to getting samples and setting up a webshop," says Vercouter.
 
"Another girl developed what she calls a 'blogazine' - something between a blog and a magazine. She was one of the first to do that in Sweden and she combines that with her web design services and is doing really well."
 
But while Vercouter's concept clearly works for the young entrepreneurs, making the business profitable is proving a challenge for Vercouter and his team.
 
"My goal since the spring has been to try and develop a business model. Swedish companies really want to be responsible so we thought we could just get sponsorship from firms looking to improve their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibilty) and might want their logos on our website to be seen to be doing something good, but it is a lot more complicated than that," he says.
 
"These days companies want to be more involved - to keep a closer eye on where their money is going - not just throw it into a black hole. What we are doing now is selling our young people's credentials. So if you're a partner you can tap into their creativity and skills, use them as a panel or as a focus group or to help identify new trends among people...kind of an outsourced innovation consultancy."
 
He adds: "in our pitches we usually say 'if you're the kind of company that wants ideas from outside the box, then you might as well go outside the box to get them' and that is what we offer".
 
Vercouter concedes that it "has been hard" to attract partners but says he is making progress and believes that this has been accelerated by his fluent Swedish as well as a "welcoming and friendly start-up scene and working culture" in the Swedish capital.
 
"Swedish really helps when you are trying to score business locally. Even though Swedes speak excellent English they usually feel more comfortable if you speak their language, especially if you're selling a tricky or unusual concept."
 

Vercouter (right) with Starta Farsta entrepreneurs. Photo: Private
 
Originally relocating to Stockholm five years ago for a previous personal relationship, the entrepreneur says he managed to reach level D (the most advanced level at most institutions offering Swedish lessons for foreigners) within a few months, despite only speaking in French to his then partner at home and without taking any formal courses.
 
He claims he has "absolutely no idea" how he picked up the language so quickly, but concedes that he must have a knack for absorbing new vocabulary having learnt Flemish and English as a child and previously been a teacher in his native French tongue.
 
The 26-year-old is refreshingly honest and direct about his adopted home, admitting that he "kind of got stuck" in Stockholm and "doesn't mind" being here for now, although he's far from gushing about living in the Nordics.
 
"I started working in a school...then did a Masters and then a further programme. I have a network here and now I've got this business so it just makes sense to stay."
 
"If I really didn't like it I am sure I could make my way elsewhere," he adds.
 
Over the next few years Vercouter's hoping that Starta Farsta will expand to Sweden's other big cities, Gothenburg and Malmö, and he's also eyeing up other European capitals where the concept could work including Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam as well as Tel Aviv in Israel.
 
But he says he believes that he'll really know his business is a success, when he's no longer running it.
 
"Maybe in a while I could hand it over to somebody else. My goal is not to work with this for my whole life. I want to make it fly but I don't want it to be dependent on me, I want it to grow and work and fly on its own."
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