Just start!

Catching up with Karel Leusink

In this series we catch up with former IMPROVERS to see how they’re doing. For this episode we interviewed Karel Leusink, the founder of International Students Work. International Students Work is a recruitment agency that helps local companies grow faster by connecting them with international students. We asked Karel about his idea, his challenges and his ambitions. Read the story of startup International Students Work below!

Karel has a simple explanation for how he came up with the idea of International Students Work. He has been an ‘international student’ himself in Osaka in 2017 and in Rome in 2019: “When I studied abroad in Japan it was really hard for me and other foreigners to find a job. One of the main issues was that I didn’t speak the local language. Off-campus not many people spoke English, so even finding a job in a restaurant was tough. You feel very limited in your options”. When he came back to the Netherlands he saw that international students here faced the same difficulties, something he didn’t expect as most people in the Netherlands are able to speak English quite well. But as it turns out, in most workplaces around Nijmegen and Arnhem, it’s still a necessity to speak Dutch. “This is a shame, as international students can potentially be a real asset to both large and small businesses. They have the guts and motivation to travel to the other side of the world to reach their goals. I am 100% convinced that companies are looking for employees with such a mindset.”

Karel decided he wanted to tackle the issue and provide international students with a fair chance of succeeding on the local labour market. He founded International Students Work together with Jeroen Verboom, whom he knew from his student association. “Starting a foundation was an option but we decided not to go that route. We wanted to make an impact on the long term and provide continuity with International Students Work, which fits better with the organisation structure of a business. Adding to this, we wanted to challenge ourselves and see if we were able to start a business successfully”.

Jeroen and Karel started talking to potential employers for students directly. “We just walked in and started asking about the possibilities. We had no experience with negotiating job placements and we decided to just try it”. During this time, to gain more knowledge about starting a business, they joined the Mercator Launch IMPROVE programme. “Mercator Launch helped us see where our idea could go, they gave us the feeling that our idea could be big. They accelerated our learning process by offering knowledge during the tracks. I remember a guest speaker that talked about funding that made me see that there were a lot more opportunities for growth capital than I realised”.

One of the biggest challenges Karel faced came when co-founder Jeroen Verboom left International Students Work. “We were a good team and Jeroen has specific skills and knowledge I don’t have. He always had great insights and we had a lot of fun in the process of building the startup. It is different when you’re on your own, but this is not all negative. Now I can make decisions faster and I’m the only one to blame if the startup doesn’t succeed. Seeing these advantages and taking this new situation on as challenge was important, as getting demoralised would not have helped International Students Work progress.”

The students that Karel helps to find a job are also his biggest inspirations. Getting their feedback means a lot to him: “To hear a student say that getting a job has really made a difference in his or her life is amazing. Getting a job for these students means having less stress, as it gets easier for them to get by, which in turn helps them to focus on their studies”. This drives him in his ambitions to help students and employers in Arnhem, Nijmegen and Wageningen to find each other. “There is a lot of potential to grow in this region. Of course I have higher ambitions for the future, but helping this region is the logical first step”.

During the interview Karel advocates challenging yourself and trying out new ideas. He tries to adapt continuously when he gets feedback or when he sees areas of improvement. It is therefore not a surprise that when asked about a tip for future entrepreneurs he says this: “Just start! Trying things helps you find out what works and what doesn’t. Go get help at Mercator Launch, everyone there wants to help you. Starting something is always nerve-wracking, but you’re not alone. Many people are willing to help you out, you just need to ask. This can really get you on the right track”.