‘Betting everything on black or red – that has happened to me many times’

Top entrepreneur and online marketer Jeroen Adriaans, who you may know from Undiemeister men’s underwear and from other companies and brands as well, seems to be in a good mood during our conversation with Fontys director Ronald Philipsen. Here’s the deal: one of his former trainees, who is now completing the last stages of his studies, has, on his own initiative, scored an extremely favourable media deal for Undiemeister. Soon, after his studies, he will start working with Jeroen. It’s a great story. It illustrates the contemporary relationship between business and education, where the boundaries between studying, internships and work are becoming increasingly blurred.

Text Ronald Frencken
Image Eddie Mol

In the building where Jeroen (35) and Ronald (52) meet, the former TNO building on the TU/e site, there are always students and teachers coming and going. Ronald is in charge of all the economics and communication courses. In this capacity, the university-educated liaison moves gingerly between 5,000 students – ‘the new, energetic generation that will make it happen’, as he puts it, maintaining a daily hotline with 50 different nationalities, 450 employees and countless partner companies.

Leaders of tomorrow

“Education is expected to prepare students for their futures in the best possible way,” says Ronald. “But the way this is done has changed dramatically. I believe we are educating the leaders of tomorrow. This is increasingly done in terms of social values: a focus on sustainability and the opportunities to work towards a better world. Developments are happening so fast that we, as an institute, have to design education together with entrepreneurs. We can’t do that on our own any more. What do you need to attract students to the campus? It takes an institute run by competent, coaching lecturers who know exactly what is required now. Lecturers who are close to the business community, who are all too often part of it themselves, who want to pass on their knowledge and in turn learn from students, from whom we expect more initiative than ever before.”

‘Developments are happening so fast that we, as an institute, have to design education together with entrepreneurs’

Football over homework

Long before Ronald became Director, Jeroen was already a student at Fontys. He graduated in 2009. Studying was, so to speak, not really his thing, but he did see the benefits of gaining knowledge in business management, and the tail end of business economics that later followed. “I was never one for learning. I’d rather be playing football with friends than doing my homework. That’s why I opted for general secondary education (MAVO) and secondary school (MBO), even though higher vocational school (HBO) was easily achievable back then. When I was employed, I often got bored pretty easily. If I didn’t get something I wanted, I quickly moved on. I remember my parents panicking about me wanting to leave the pension department of a bank: ‘Don’t do it boy, you’re safe at the bank!”

Bamboo underwear

His departure from the bank turned out to be Jeroen’s stepping stone to a job at an online marketing company. There he learned the basics of online consulting and entrepreneurship. The job then brought him to a new brand of bamboo underwear where he was behind the idea of the stylish commercial with the panda masks, and was involved in online activities. His departure then turned out to be the green light for him to focus on online marketing consulting, the profession he had by now mastered. “In 2018, I started E-Expansion, an e-commerce company that works to strongly market good companies and brands online – think Houben Worstenbrood sausage rolls and the shoe brand Blundstone. Two and a half years ago, Undiemeister was created, men’s underwear made from patented, maximum CO2 neutral Mellowood fabric. We have built up an incredibly high level of spontaneous brand awareness here in a short span of time.”

Organised chaos

Within the learning community that Fontys promotes in its economic and communication courses, online marketing as a subject occupies an important position. “A good development,” Jeroen believes. “Entrepreneurship means knowing your way online and being easy to find. Search for ‘boxershorts’ and you will find Undiemeister at the top, above Zalando and Wehkamp. How did we manage that? Take a look at my laptop. It provides a glimpse into my organised chaos. You wander through hundreds of tabs, and each one provides me with data that helps me steer our businesses online and enable better conversions. It is the work done by me and my colleagues and we are good at it.”


“At the same time,” says Jeroen, “it’s impossible to keep up with all the developments. You need students for that. They bring new insights. Most of our MBO and HBO students are eager to learn and to make their marks. They are young and already think very differently. They see alternative options, new opportunities. They discover new applications for technological developments and help us do our work even better. Look at social media. I’m still a Facebook fan and I know a little something, but not everything, about Instagram. TikTok is a whole new world for me. Students keep us on our toes and make sure we can stay relevant.”

Recognising the gems

Ronald understands the challenges faced by entrepreneurs in having to stay up-to-date in a dynamic online world. It is his mission to keep his economics education relevant in this area as well. “We are constantly searching. The business community helps us with that. That’s a win-win. We work together with large online marketing agencies, for example. They provide us with educational material in the field of search engine optimisation and online advertising. They also provide us with lecturers who are really interested in the content. Free of charge, because our cooperation gives them early access to our gems. Our ‘own’ lecturers, who often have a connection with the business world or are entrepreneurs themselves, have more of a coaching role. This division of the roles between lecturers who teach content and lecturers who coach is very appealing to our students.”

‘The ball is really in the students’ court here. They have to break a sweat. And that’s a good thing, because often even the entrepreneurs don’t know where to look for the answer.’

VVV tourist office

“We enjoy a close connection with countless companies in Brainport and beyond,” says Ronald. “We also have 70 partners in education, companies that we have agreements with on practical cases, guest lectures and company visits.” But this was not always the case, Ronald recalls. “When I started this position, I spoke to a lot of entrepreneurs. Without exception, they recognised the need to work with Fontys. But they had certain conditions. They insisted on a better link with their dynamics. This was understandable, because the business world won’t allow itself to be planned. They also wanted to do away with fixed internship periods. I managed to do something about that. Internship activities can now start throughout the school year at the request of the business community. We now have hubs at Strijp-S, the High Tech Campus and in the old Eindhoven VVV tourist office at Stationsplein – locations that are physically separate from the school and close to the practice. Students, often from all sorts of different Fontys study programmes, for example also those studying technology or ICT, work together on complex issues in a multi-disciplinary approach with the business community and coaching staff. The ball is really in the students’ court here. They have to break a sweat. And that’s a good thing, because often even the entrepreneurs don’t know where to look for the answer.”

A tonne of turnover

Budding entrepreneurs are in good hands at Fontys. Students who really want to become self-employed full-time after their studies can opt for the Entrepreneurship and Retail Management programme during their studies. Fontys also has a scheme that allows students to formally start their own business and earn money during their studies. “Make no mistake about the returns these student entrepreneurs achieve,” says Ronald. “On average, they make a tonne of turnover with their businesses. I recently attended a pitch session that students have to go through to qualify for the scheme. There was a student there who bought up B-choice insulation material abroad and sold it here. This brings in two tonnes of turnover every year. It’s great to see such an idea flourishing in practice.”

Seeking out risks

Jeroen: “Fontys is trying to stay closer to entrepreneurs with its training. That’s great. I do think that as an educational institute, it is ultimately difficult to prepare students in depth for the possible consequences of high-risk entrepreneurship. My experience is that you only really become successful if you dare to go off the beaten track. I’m the kind of entrepreneur who seeks out risk. Betting everything on black or red – that has happened to me many times. When we had only just started Undiemeister and only had limited capital, we decided to make a commercial and broadcast it on TV. It succeeded with crowdfunding, but the financial pressure was enormous. It worked out well, but to what degree does an education prepare you for the choices you have to make if you want to take risks?”

‘I still remember the start of E-Expansion. My wife Manon was heavily pregnant, we had bought a house and a month later we got married. So, plenty of uncertainty; the perfect breeding ground for stress.’

Common thread: e-commerce

As far as entrepreneurship is concerned, Jeroen still has a lot in the works for the upcoming years. “Once you get a taste of your own product or brand, then you know it is the best there is. Our team once set the goal of building five companies in five years. Now we have built nine in just a few years, including Dryly, a bedwetting alarm clock company, and Kiber, a men’s watch company. We are now holding off for a while to make sure we can keep up with the growth. As diverse as they are, the common thread between our companies is e-commerce, where the same basic principles apply to each. A nice added bonus is that I can apply the online developments that occur in my own companies to every client in E-Expansion. HBO and MBO students help me to ensure that I can keep an overview of all the options, and that I can continue utilising new technological developments.”

Plenty of uncertainty

Jeroen is surprised by the steps Ronald is taking to teach students entrepreneurship. “I still remember the start of E-Expansion. My wife Manon was heavily pregnant, we had bought a house and a month later we got married. So, plenty of uncertainty; the perfect breeding ground for stress. But I seized the opportunity to start anyway. Just because it was possible at the time and because it seemed like a good idea to me. Since then, I have taken a number of considerable financial risks, and sometimes backed the wrong horse. The bottom line is that real success is achieved when you are outside your comfort zone. Only in practice do you truly experience what taking risks can do to you. You can only prepare for that to a limited extent. I sleep well, even in those times when I don’t have a firm grip on things. It’s my personal good fortune, which undoubtedly makes risk-taking easier.”

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