#23 Laurens De Poorter: The Man Who Dares to Dream

updated on 11 March 2021

Engineers are the ones inventing and building upon ideas. But to actually change the world, you need a viable business strategy. Technology alone is not enough. 

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The best interviews are the ones that you leave feeling like you want to go out and change the world.  Laurens was humble, down-to-earth, and vulnerable. Rather than a corporate superstar, he was our older brother making incredible achievements look reachable. Not surprisingly, after listening to Laurens’ story, we all screamed: Let’s fuck*** do it, let’s get on a plane to Silicon Valley and build robots! 

Laurens is currently working as a VP at Dawn Capital, a London-based VC with over ~$1bn under management. Before that, he worked for BCG as a consultant and interned at The Moonshot Factory, Alphabet’s R&D lab. On the side, he has co-founded BloomUp, a Belgian start-up revolutionizing mental health support, and Academics For Development (AFD), an international student organization promoting social entrepreneurship and building social businesses. He’s a graduate in energy engineering from KU Leuven and holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Harvard Business School. Wow! 

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups and downs, the late nights, the early mornings, the failures, and the victories.

In a few words: we want to share the real stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The  interview is purposefully raw and does not reflect any of the opinions of Laurens' current employer, Dawn Capital

What did you dream of when you were a kid?

I’m originally from a small town near Antwerp, in the north of Belgium. My dad was an IT consultant and was helping SMEs and their IT networks. He always brought gadgets to our home, and I naturally developed an interest in them. As a kid, I was always playing with computers, tablets, and the first generation of smartphones. It quickly became clear that I wanted to become an engineer. Engineers are the ones solving the big problems of this world. They invented electricity, cars, airplanes… And I wanted to have that kind of impact! 

I’m a very reflective person and I often wonder where my ambition came from. One aspect is that I’ve always been pretty competitive. Another is probably because I always felt isolated in my little hometown. I hadn’t planned on sharing this, but I was bullied pretty heavily between the age of 11 and 13. During this difficult period, I retreated into reading. That was my escape. Harry Potter helped me a lot because it was the story of this amazingly smart and courageous guy who was simply born in the wrong place. Part of me was desperately hoping to get a letter telling me that I was invited to join a wizard school; a letter telling me that there was nothing wrong with me – quite the contrary.

This made me want to become the best version of myself and had a huge influence in fueling my ambition. When a friend of mine, two years older than me, who lived close by, left to study engineering at MIT straight after high school, this became a huge inspiration to me. I immediately thought that, if he could study in the US, I could do it as well. 

As an aspiring engineer, MIT became my Hogwarts.

Although by this time, I already built a great group of friends, I did a lot of research on how to leave Belgium and study abroad. Unfortunately, it was difficult and insanely expensive. Given that I was the first one in my family to move and study at university, I ended up staying in Belgium for my Engineering degree. 

How was that university experience?

People often say that your years at university are the most formative of your life and I tend to agree. Three life-changing experiences for me were volunteering adventure in South America, my exchange at Imperial College London, and founding AFD. Funny enough, as with a lot of things in life, all of them are closely connected.

During the third year of my bachelor’s, I started working on this project to build a wind turbine in a remote village in the north of Peru. The idea was to provide electricity for a local school. It was a big deal in many ways, difficult to pull off, and slightly crazy. It was the first time that I was going to do something for the world – and my first time traveling outside Europe. With two other engineering students, I worked extremely hard to design the turbine, raise funds, and learn Spanish, all on top of hefty coursework.

Unfortunately, the project was a total s*** show. There was very little wind; the turbine generated very little electricity. What’s more,  the village did not even need any of it, because it had just been connected to the grid. It didn’t have any impact – we didn’t have any impact. But, it radically changed my view of the classic non-profit sector. Giving away for free, unless in emergency situations, doesn’t have any meaningful long-term sustainable impact. It only makes us feel good about ourselves. 

We should leave this white savior complex behind us, and rather build local economies together with local entrepreneurs.

The infamous wind turbine getting installed 
The infamous wind turbine getting installed 

After that rich experience, I spent one year on exchange at Imperial College London. I ended up meeting a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs, predominantly through co-founding the Venture Catalyst Challenge, the university’s start-up competition. They inspired and encouraged me to take action. I was frustrated thinking about how most volunteering projects looked like my wind turbine, while countless entrepreneurs who wanted to grow businesses that would benefit their local community, did not have access to funding or support. I dreamed of a non-profit organization that would enable students to leverage their expertise to help these entrepreneurs. One year after my return from Peru, I founded Academics For Development (AFD) to do exactly this. 

All of these experiences gave me the feeling that, if you genuinely have a creative idea that solves an important problem, good things will come to you. 

I understood that engineers are indeed the ones inventing and building upon ideas. But, in order to actually change the world, you need a viable business strategy. Technology alone is not enough.

And then, BCG?

Intrigued by business and keen on learning more about it, I decided to join BCG, where I spent four years. I learned what business strategy actually means, got to look behind the curtains, and sit in boardrooms of some of Europe’s largest companies. I was based in Brussels but worked across 10 countries. This was an eye-opening experience; I learned a ton. 

And then the Holy Grail, Harvard?

I loved my time at BCG, learning a lot while being surrounded by like-minded young ambitious people but, as a consultant, you’re trying to make old-school companies a little bit more innovative. You’re helping a massive container ship make a five-degree turn. I was dreaming about scrappy small speed boats to build from scratch. 

Getting a bunch of scholarships for my MBA at Harvard was a huge relief. It meant that I could think freely about my next big move and not necessarily be tied to a return at BCG afterward. (Note to the reader: if you are sponsored by a consulting company like BCG for an MBA, you need to return two years after graduation, in exchange for them paying your tuition fees.)

Apart from the unstoppable desire to fulfill my childhood dream to study in the US, there were 2 big reasons for me to do an MBA at Harvard Business School (HBS).

First, HBS was going to complement my engineering degree with first-class business education and mold me into a well-rounded professional, ready for big entrepreneurial endeavors. Although I had worked for four years at BCG and probably had learned almost everything about "textbook strategy", the Harvard case method, focusing on learning, together with peers, really challenges your ability to voice your opinion and debate.

Second, HBS, through its lectures, guests, professors, and peers, is a unique breeding ground for innovative ideas. Boston as a city and its proximity to MIT are additional catalysts. The MBA allowed me to take some time away from 80-hour workweeks, let my creativity and intellectual curiosity flourish, and think about my next move.

Those two years were a dream come true –  but be warned it was not always easy.

I was surrounded by mostly native speakers. More often than not, charismatic Americans with persuasive, eloquent, and clear arguments that were completely wrongheaded, but who could still swing a whole classroom to follow them. This is very different from Belgium, where we typically are too modest to think big and always try to look for consensus. This is exactly why I learned a lot at Harvard. 

Americans sometimes push the "fake it till you make it" a little too far. But I definitely learned how powerful the weapon of self-confidence can be.

Is there anything you do NOT miss about Harvard or the USA?

America still feels like a foreign country to me. Its pervasion of childhood for those of us who grew up in Europe is enormous – so I went to Harvard very much still carrying the American Dream in my small-town boy pocket. 

What the States makes you realize very quickly, however, is that Europe still values the social contract: the sense of duty many of us have around paying taxes, the importance of funding healthcare and education for all – those simply don’t feel as pronounced. I guess as someone who thinks about this stuff a lot – social injustice, how we actually improve the lot of everyone, at scale – I really noticed this. In some ways, it made me feel more proud of being European!

Institutions like Harvard champion and embody American philanthropy. But actually being there just served to remind me that there is a hell of a lot more to do. Cronyism and corporate capitalism keep the delta between rich and poor widened. Someone once said to me that people are richer in the States, and poorer too – it’s so true. We run the risk in the West of sitting complacently on our laurels when it comes to innovation. This feels really acute for me because I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in “innovative” institutions. But all our institutions – those created by the state, by tech – need a revamp. We need better leadership, an output- and goal-focused culture, an emphasis on people and planet – not progress for progress’ sake. And we need the attitudes, freedoms, and opportunities for anyone – anyone – to go out and build. 

What’s the point if only a handful of people born in the right place at the right time are carving the future? Is that going to be an optimal future? 

It was actually really difficult to have open and honest conversations about things like this on campus, and beyond. Virtue signaling was everywhere I looked, and that just serves to homogenize an already pretty homogeneous group. HBS classrooms looked diverse, but they didn’t feel it. I’d like to think I could go back someday and thrash out the difficult questions. Hopefully, I’ll find a wider pool of people when I do!

Anything else about Harvard?

Don’t get me wrong, Harvard changed my life. It showed me that I could see things on a much bigger scale. It gave me the confidence to dream really big and act on those radical ideas. I’ve seen so many important people on that campus: former presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs, entrepreneurs, famous academics, and big thinkers. They were all coming to HBS to share their view and wisdom. Not only did I learn a lot from meeting these people, I always went to all the speakers immediately after the session to talk to them personally. Talking with them gave me a lot of self-confidence. 

Another point you shouldn’t underestimate is that I now have a safety net. Every year, between two and four  Belgians, end up going to HBS... If I waste the next four years of my life building a company that fails, at the very least, I will always remain an HBS graduate. I will always have a stamp of approval from one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. More than that, I will always remain part of the network, and (I am trying very hard to not sound like an arrogant Harvard brat), I am still convinced it is one of the most powerful networks in the world. 

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Google X — The Moonshot Factory

You will not hear me say anything negative about Google X (laughs). Google X was one of the coolest experiences of my life. 

Laurens and his girlfriend enjoying the perks of California! 
Laurens and his girlfriend enjoying the perks of California! 

Business, and especially business schools such as HBS, naturally attract people who enjoy competition, winning, and being top of the class. And in business school classrooms, as I mentioned earlier, winning can be done even if what you’re saying is total BS. In engineering, that's impossible. It works or it doesn't. It’s all about intellectual honesty. And so, after a year of HBS, going to Silicon Valley and being surrounded by engineers was very refreshing. Every single person I met was brilliant, humble, and focused on just trying to build great stuff.

Taking a step back, X (formerly Google [x]), is the semi-secret R&D facility of Alphabet, the holding group above Google. Their mission is to fill the Alphabet with new letters, “G” being for Google, new companies that have a massive positive effect in the world. They’re a bit like a start-up incubator on steroids. Because they target global impact, their timelines are longer and budgets bigger. The engineers are in charge, continuously looking for crazy ideas that could potentially save the world, while the business people (who number just a handful) are trying to make sure that engineers don’t burn too much money in the process. But everyone shares the same purpose-driven attitude!

I was an MBA intern, working on project Taara, which aims at expanding global access to fast, affordable internet with beams of light. People were working on this project for a number of years already and making great progress, but it had been a while since someone really zoomed out and critically reviewed the overall strategy. It was truly heaven for me, being a big nerd and former BCG consultant. I could review the project’s strategy and talk with all these brilliant engineers on a daily basis. 

Fun Fact: the first thing you encounter at the entrance is a sign saying Beware of the robots.

At Google X, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing!
At Google X, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing!

You seem to breathe entrepreneurship. Why didn’t you start your venture?

Beyond a safety net, BCG, Harvard, and Google X are first and foremost learning experiences that will enable me to, one day (if I bump into that right idea and/or team), take the plunge and start a company much more significant than if I had started it five years ago. 

Originally, I saw VC as a step in between two phases of my life: a transition from the corporate world of BCG to the start-up world. You're meeting entrepreneurs and researching cool technologies every day! I don’t think there’s any better way to explore opportunities, find ideas, and meet potential co-founders than working in VC. But who knows, I might stay longer than anticipated – possibly forever. I really, really like my role at Dawn Capital. And increasingly, I realize that investing is something you get better at over time. You start seeing patterns. You start building that network. You start being more useful on boards. I am starting to get on a roll, and I am not sure I'll ever be able to stop! 

What advice do you give to a recent graduate?

If I had graduated in 2021, I’d have joined a special project team (often called Chief of Staff) of an interesting start-up. This is like an internal consulting team, very close to the CEO. In hyper-growth startups, you see all the strategic aspects, the things that keep the CEO awake at night… and you learn a huge amount! 

A strategy is to go for the start-ups that are already established brands, like Revolut or Deliveroo, but I would personally try to find them before they become huge. Try to look for the next Revolut. One way to find them is to look at the portfolio of tier-one VC funds like Dawn and do research about their growth and future potential. Try to think like a VC! Once you find such a start-up, contact the CEO / team directly and sell the idea of having a Chief of Staff to them. Create your own dream job!

The big piece of advice for you is: reflect. Reflect on your personality, reflect on what you’re good at and don’t try to change yourself too much, but rather try to put yourself in a situation where you’re bound to be successful. 

If you could change one thing in your journey, something you now regret, what would it be?

I’m a zero-regrets person. I only look forward. There are so many people who want to change things about themselves. I’m not like that. The only thing that I like to do is to reflect and try to understand what happened. I don’t want to make the same mistake twice, but if I hadn’t have made the mistake, I wouldn’t have had the learning. 

If you only had 30 days to live, what would you do?

I don’t think I can achieve things in 30 days that will matter in the long run. Otherwise, I would probably do it now. It takes many years to build a company that creates an impact in the world. If I only had 30 days to live, I would quit my job, and go to Australia and travel with my girlfriend. And the last weekend, I’d have a two-day-long barbecue with all my family and friends. Actually, that might potentially be my only regret: not traveling enough. 

One book?

The Beach from Alex Garland. 

One Podcast?

How I built this with Guy Raz.

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Our Main Takeaways

  • Entrepreneurship drives change. To make a dent in this world and improve society, you must build a business.
  • Surround yourself with ambitious individuals. Like Laurens, it can have a transformative change in how big you dream and your subsequent achievements. 
  • Understanding yourself is key to success. Do not try to change yourself, rather, position yourself in environments where your growth is steepest.   

Inspiring story Laurens, thank you very much.

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