5 Questions with Laura Di Santolo and Diederick van der Wijk, Co-Founders of Forward·Inc

Apr 01, 2022

Laura Di Santolo is the Co-founder and Managing Director of Forward·Inc, a foundation offering entrepreneurship programs and events for people with a refugee background. Forward·Inc is an Amsterdam-based, internationally operating organization devoted to helping newcomers pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.

Driven to reach more and more newcomers worldwide with top-notch business and entrepreneurship education, she pushes her team every day to go the extra mile. Her main goal is to support 5000 newcomers by 2025 to start their businesses, allowing them to achieve economic independence for themselves, their families, and the communities they live in. She holds a double MSc. degree from Rotterdam School of Management and Vienna University of Economics and Business.

Diederick van der Wijk is the Co-founder of Forward·Inc. His goal is to build on Forward·Inc to create a global excellence center for entrepreneurship for newcomers. He holds an MSc in Political Science from the University of Amsterdam and an MSc in International Management from the Rotterdam School of Management.

01. Give us the elevator pitch for Forward·Inc.

Forward·Inc is an Amsterdam-based, internationally operating organization devoted to helping newcomers pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. We do this by empowering them to launch, grow, fund, and sustain their businesses. We believe in the incredible talent of people with a refugee background, their value to society, and their potential to build bridges across communities.

In the past 5 years, we have seen many refugee-owned businesses come to fruition with our support. We have trained over 680 people and 76 entrepreneurs have already launched their businesses with our support. Together, entrepreneurs have raised more than 1.7 million EUR in startup capital. 

Forward·Inc has developed a large network of volunteers and supporters and works towards its mission with over 100 mentors and coaches, over 120 university students and 16 corporate partners such as Coca-Cola, Sthree, eBay, ABN AMRO, and of course Techstars.

02. How does Forward·Inc create a more diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem?

Many refugees lack access to elementary forms of entrepreneurship education and support. Forward·Inc is all about providing access to top-quality entrepreneurship training, coaching, and networking to people from all backgrounds.

That is why diversity and inclusion are elements in every aspect of our organization. We bring people together from all walks of life and actively engage refugee women as program participants, and have participants from all newcomer communities. Forward·Inc has worked so far with entrepreneurs from more than 40 different nationalities. The 14 team members and over 120 university students and more than 80 mentors that are involved with Forward·Inc on an annual basis as well as our partnerships with corporates, NGOs, and government organizations further foster a diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem in which everyone can contribute and from which anyone can learn and benefit.

03. How will support from the Techstars Foundation and the Techstars network further the mission of your organization?

The Techstars Foundation and the Techstars network are huge contributors to Forward·Inc. It is critical for Forward·Inc to continue to expand its network of mentors to become even better equipped to support refugee entrepreneurs in their growth and acceleration. The Techstars network is a perfect fit for that.

The Techstars Foundation also provides us with an abundance of other resources to which we can provide newcomers access, such as online training, events, and opportunities to network. Allowing our participants to interact directly with the Techstars ecosystem is incredibly useful. 

04. How did you come to do this work and why is it important to you personally?

Laura Di Santolo - Working for multinational corporations, an investment fund, and a government institution all made me want to establish something that serves a purpose I can fully stand behind. Believing in what we do and seeing the impact of our efforts on people is truly fulfilling. Working alongside individuals from various cultural backgrounds at Forward·Inc makes every day a valuable learning experience.

Our main goal is to put a much-needed spotlight on newcomer value creators, where they would otherwise be overlooked. We're constantly looking for sustainable solutions to inspire others to commit to our mission with their resources, capital, and insight - with the goal of giving newcomers who participate in our programs access to the opportunities they deserve.

Diederick van der Wijk - My drive stems from acknowledging that all people, regardless of where they're from, have something unique to contribute to society. Human rights, freedom, and the opportunity for all to create are things I'm extremely passionate about and use to navigate Forward.

05. Share a success story.

We are proud to have Mohammed El Fakee as an alumnus, the Sudanese founder of Greenwheel Tech. Mohammed joined Forward·Inc in 2019 to achieve his dream of fighting hunger and poverty in Africa through solar-powered irrigation systems for farmers. Mohammed partnered with successful Dutch entrepreneur Ernst Peter Hovinga to launch his business Green Wheel. They've since received €50k from an angel investor, along with a €60k subsidy from the Dutch government to finance the construction of a sustainable farm in Sudan, where Mohammed is educating farmers about their solution. Mohammed has managed to make the first solar-powered irrigation system operational in Khartoum, Sudan. 

Forward·Inc is a participant in the Accelerate Equity program of the Techstars Foundation in 2022.

Donate now and advance equity through entrepreneurship with the Techstars Foundation.