Find a subject you’re passionate about — and just get started. That’s the attitude that Zarah Bruhn and Maximilian Felsner had when founding the startup Social-Bee in 2016. That made them the first social temporary work agency to actively integrate refugees in the job market and society. It’s not an easy subject, but it’s important. We wanted the founder to let us know what motivates her, the prejudices she encountered while founding and now faces in daily work as well as what makes her happy.
What motivated you to found a company?
While studying, I worked in the field of cleantech venture capital. I met many founders in the industry and was inspired by their commitment to using economic ideas and green technology to create sustainable impact. I wanted to do the same. What ignited it all was when I was in Sweden and became friends with a student who had fled from Syria. That was mid 2015 when so many refugees came to Europe. She and I got involved by welcoming refugees at the train station and quickly noticed: this is my subject. My passion. What might be unusual: Knowing that I wanted to found a social company to integrate refugees came long before the actual concrete idea. The culture of welcome was a big thing — but then everyone asked themselves: What now? The only thing I knew was that I wanted to become part of the long-term solution. The rest involved analysis and hard work — learning to understand refugees, being able to define problems and break them down into individual issues and also trying out different ideas. I never would have thought that I would at some point integrate refugees with a non-profit temporary work model combined with an integration program. The approach is so specific that it’s not something you simply come up with while falling asleep. That’s why my message to others when starting a company is: Find a subject you’re passionate about and get started. Why wait for an idea? The first idea right at the beginning is never the one you’ll go with in the end.
“Your own ideas are the best role models”
Did you have role models when starting the company?
Your own ideas are the best role models and you should work to achieve them. However, there are some people who inspire me. Some examples: Denzel Washington gives great talks. Bill Gates is a full-blooded entrepreneur with a big heart. Amal Clooney is a powerful woman who promotes justice. And then there are the amazing social entrepreneurs that I get to meet. Like Bart Weetjens, who trains rats to defuse landmines without being harmed, and they have cleared whole regions of mines in Africa.
When and where do you have the best ideas?
When I think about the future. When I imagine what we could achieve in the next few years. When I listen to other founders’ wild dreams or motivational speakers. Then I think about how we can achieve those things. Most of the time it’s also together with team members or friends who contribute their ideas while enjoying a beer.
What’s your biggest talent?
Initiate, initiate, initiate. Rethink. Do it. Nothing is impossible. I would describe myself as a 30/70 person. I usually come up with the first 30% from thin air, which is pretty painful and takes a lot of energy, and I get the ball rolling. What helps me with all that is having a good combination of wild dreams and economic pragmatism.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
My motto is: “No regrets.” Mistakes happen. You learn from them and draw new strength. I’ve definitely made some major mistakes, but there hasn’t been one decision that I’ve regretted over the long term. You usually only find out if something works after giving it a try. We have a lot of ideas at Social-Bee. Some work well, others go wrong. You have to be able to deal with that. It would ruin me if I started questioning every decision and then myself in the end. I try to ignore the bad feelings that can stop me and to instead concentrate on positive results.
What’s your secret networking weapon?
Just being genuine. It’s not about what you say. The main thing is to say something. A friendly smile and being strong and confident helps. Don’t degrade yourself, but also don’t take yourself too seriously, and listen. Most people are happy you’re interested in them!
“Get started. Try it out. Now.“
Do you think now is a good time to start a company?
There’s never the perfect time. I think we should liberate ourselves from that kind of passive way of approaching life. We shouldn’t wait for the right time, the right idea or the right partner. We shouldn’t envy others or compare ourselves. We shouldn’t complain about others being faster. A lot of people have ideas and say “I could have done that too.” But the point that most people never reach is actually doing it. All I can say is: Get started. Try it out. Now.
What are the three most offensive prejudices you’ve encountered in everyday startup life?
- “Starting a company on the side works well” — in my opinion, that only works with ideas for you on your own or during the first few months when you’re trying things out for the first time. But if you actually want to establish a company and get other founders on board with you and dream big — then you’ll want to and have to invest all of the energy & passion you’ve got. If you’re not ready to do that, then it’s better to not do it at all.
- “Social issues can’t be used to grow a business” — a non-profit company can operate just like a classic startup. It’s just the motivation that’s different. Earning money is just a means to survive, to be independent. Making an impact is the top priority.
- And then of course you have all the prejudices held against people with a refugee background. Unfortunately, racism is part of what we deal with daily.
What’s on top of your desk at the moment?
My TEDx Talk for next week — I’m representing Germany at an international TED Talk conference about migration and refugees. I’m being trained for it professionally right now — which is a new and exciting challenge.
“It all depends on what you make of it”
What makes you happy?
Every time we find a job for a new refugee, or when someone is hired for the long-term by one of our partner companies. It’s a great feeling to know that we’re able to change the lives of refugees and their families. To me, there’s nothing better than seeing how our team is helping move the world in the right direction just a bit. My motto: “Love what you do” — which I do. Otherwise, good food, surfing on the Eisbachwelle and my awesome family make me happy.
Was being a female founder an advantage or disadvantage for you?
An advantage for the most part. Being confident, very business-oriented and having the guts to carry out your ideas are important prerequisites to being taken seriously. A lot of women with great ideas — particularly in the social sector — still have a tough time. But I still think it all depends on what you make of it. Coaching is a great opportunity to develop (but that’s exactly where there still aren’t enough good programs and structures). You do need to be a bit louder and crazier to not be systematically underestimated. If that’s how you are or you learn to be that way and surprise people — contrary to their expectations — then you can inspire others even more as a woman.