Rick Scholte of Sorama and Ilse Wouters

In 2016, Ilse Wouters knew it was time for her to have a place of her own, so she started the Ilse Wouters Academy at Sectie-C. In her own theatre space and with fiery enthusiasm, she helps people convey their stories as powerfully as possible. For this interview, she unleashed her curiosity on Rick Scholte.

Noise pollution

Ilse:Make the world sound right. That is your mission with Sorama. What’s wrong with the way the world sounds?

Rick: Noise pollution is the second most harmful environmental factor for humans after air pollution. Sound is invisible, intangible. It is something indirect. You don’t just drop dead from harmful noise. That’s why so few people are aware of it. Ambient noise like from ventilation, road traffic or air traffic is there in the background. It doesn’t hurt our ears, but the stress builds up unconsciously. People who live near railway tracks get used to the noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Your ears are always on and your brain stem determines whether or not you are conscious of it. If the sound does not go to the consciousness of the cerebrum, you produce the stress hormone cortisol. This is how you can develop cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. If we have a lot of noise around us, it constantly triggers the fight/flight response and it is becoming clearer and clearer how significant that impacts our health.

Ilse: In my opinion, the world is currently in transition. Are you concerned in these turbulent times?

Rick: Yes, the progress is too slow. Studies show that noise pollution will outpace declining air pollution by 2025. We are still working in too much of a niche. Last year, Sorama set up the Klankbord.nu foundation together with several organisations such as TU Eindhoven, Groningen University and Merford to rapidly raise awareness both in the Netherlands and internationally.

Ilse: How is Sorama helping create a quieter world?

Rick: We make sound visible. Sound is made up of small waves, just like light. We measure sound waves with a sound camera – a lot of microphones – and then colour in the waves. This shows engineers where their products produce excessive noise. This then inspires them to come up with adjustments to their design to make the product quieter. A lot of items in our homes are quieter because of what we do.

Management philosophy

Ilse: You apply the cell theory from Eckart Wintzen, which is based on growth, development and cell division. What is it that appeals to you about that?

Rick: I like to look for analogies in nature. Once you understand how nature works, you can then apply the parallels to your product or business structure. The cell theory ties in nicely with that concept. I was constantly getting stuck on the big corporate structure with all the different little departments, and managers telling others what to do, and the focus on shareholder value, without any oversight or contact with customers. Eckart Wintzen states that when a cell has more than 50 employees, a cell division takes place and new leaders emerge from both teams and move on. That gives people responsibility.

But I also struggled with the complex puzzle of setting team goals. After a workshop on the Bitsing method from Frans de Groot, where goals are achieved with an outcome and return predicted in advance. That also turned out to be simple: cost = revenue. The overriding goal is the survival of the cell. Within that framework, the team is responsible for revenue and costs.

Ilse: How do you apply that concept?

Rick: Breaking down the larger goals into smaller chunks works well. I also ask everyone to set three personal goals related to their team targets that affect costs and/or revenue. That way researchers, for example, also have to think about it. And who do they need in the team to achieve their goals? People start talking to each other and a small network is created. Then, a test is carried out to see if all those goals combined will actually help drive progress with the team goal. This reveals where there might be a need or where something is missing.

Ilse: But how does that translate into practice?

Rick: We work with the Agile Scrum method. In the morning, each team has a stand-up for a total of 10 minutes. Everyone briefly mentions what they have achieved, what they are planning to do that day and whether they have gotten stuck somewhere. This ensures that every team member hears what’s going on and can help each other move forward. We also have Drinks & Demos every Friday afternoon. That’s when everyone presents what they’ve achieved in a two-minute pitch to their colleagues. It’s a friendly get-together with a serious undertone, which helps inspire everyone in a casual way.

Ilse: What is your role in that?

Rick: I pay close attention on those Fridays. I’m increasingly able to step back from the team as they evolve independently. But I still get questions on a regular basis about business strategy or pure hardcore technology. I bring valuable points to light for inspiration and get feedback. When you give teams that kind of freedom, the lines you draw on the pitch are important. I oversee the framework in which we can make these agreements. We work in a very structured way with a Trello Board where each team member keeps track of their tasks, workflow and deadlines. The trick is to provide structure and speak the same language.

Ilse: That requires people to be self-reliant. It sounds like there is a lot of space for openness and trust.

Rick: Absolutely. There are prerequisites, of course: communication, exchange and inspiration. Otherwise, you can’t create moments for sharing, apart from at the coffee machine.


Ilse: Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur, a scientist or an idealist?

Rick: My everyday role consists of three components. I’m the CEO, I visit customers in live situations and I’m involved in R&D with the team. I perform at that perfect point where the commercial, social and research aspects of Sorama converge.

Ilse: When I see photos of your team, I see diverse, confident people with a happy look on their faces and a keen look in their eyes. How do you manage that?

Rick: I have deliberately created a corporate culture where exceptionally talented people are challenged to push the boundaries of what is possible and are given the creative freedom to develop in their own way within that framework. An environment with a history where they can meet casually and exchange experiences to gain new insight. In the end, you develop a critical mass in the team that also considers this important and seeks out new people accordingly.

Ilse: What kind of leader are you?

Rick: I believe in leading by example. I am very analytical and quickly switch gears to finding solutions. I’m direct, honest and straightforward, but you could also put ‘too’ in front of all that. I’ve learned that I have to be more empathetic towards others, because I used to scare people off when I actually intended to help. Now I hold back, calmly listen to their story and don’t just immediately take over.

Ilse: How did you manage to unlearn that?

Rick: I started talking to employees, using our external HR people as sparring partners who held up a mirror in front of me. Admitting that I had sometimes behaved like a jerk made more introverted team members, for example, start to enjoy talking to me again. Self-reflection allows you to learn so much from people and situations. It’s powerful when you can bring together all those different concepts and approaches from such a diverse team.

Ilse: Are there times when you put your foot down and choose a different approach anyway?

Rick: That used to happen sometimes. But these days I only make that decision when they are unable to work it out together. We have to move on. That’s why I keep a helicopter view on the one hand and can delve into details on the other. That’s the added value I bring to the organisation.


Ilse: What inspires you?

Rick: I actively keep up with all the latest, read about new research and insights in our field and enjoy talking to other entrepreneurs. I admire the tremendous drive and entrepreneurship of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. That way of thinking big, making clear choices, the willingness to do it and then going full throttle to get things done.

Ilse: Would you like to have their boldness?

Rick: Not on that scale. I think reducing noise pollution is big enough. I could spend my entire life doing that. I don’t have their restlessness to buy Twitter and launch a rocket. But I do want to have the same courage and motivation make a difference.

Ilse: Do you take risks?

Rick: No, everything is well thought out. Although it was daring to start a company two weeks after getting my PhD.

Ilse: What kind of collaborations are you looking for?

Rick: We are combining technology and sport more and more. We do that with PSV and we’re also consulting with major sports clubs in the US. I’m an athlete by nature. There are many similarities between top-level sport and entrepreneurship. You have to be goal-oriented and have perseverance. Once you start having doubts, you can’t take the next step. Focusing and carrying on where others stop, coupled with unexpected interdisciplinary overlaps. That’s it.

Ilse: When do you see yourself as successful?

Rick: When I hear an advert on the radio from a customer about the quietest central heating boiler, I get goose bumps. I want to have a healthy impact on people’s lives, but that mission is never fully accomplished. I make sure to incorporate short cyclical moments in my life that make me happy. My aim is to have my energy levels back to normal after a day or week. On the Friday before a holiday, I’m already looking forward to the following Monday. I don’t want to make the company super-sized. If we can achieve our goal with a smaller company, that’s perfectly fine, too.

Ilse: What has helped shape you?

Rick: When I was 18, I contracted whooping cough. I had been playing basketball at a high level and was planning to study. I was sick for a year and a half, was forced to stop playing sports and barely passed my exams. Then there was a point late one night when I stood in front of the mirror and couldn’t breathe. I looked at myself and thought: ‘Well, that’s it, then.’ That’s when my father came in at just the right moment and slapped my back, bringing air back into my lungs. That was a turning point. Actually, my life had ended there. Since that moment, I have realised how precious time is. How much can I do in the time I have left?

Ilse: Do you believe in happenstance?

Rick: You can control quite a lot, but sometimes you just need some luck. Coincidence plays a role here. But coincidence is chaotic. If you aren’t searching yourself, you won’t find anything. You have to take the initiative, set a goal and persevere. Then you’ll find the answers.

Ilse: What is the best advice you ever received or can give others?

Rick: Make yourself redundant. Be sure that your organisation will achieve its goal even if you step aside. Otherwise, you’ll handicap your company’s growth.

Ilse: Does that come from a sense of modesty? That’s a nice trait as a human being, but as an entrepreneur, shouldn’t you stand firm on your own ground?

Rick: No, it comes from that cell theory. I’m not essential to its survival and that’s healthy. As an entrepreneur, there’s no reason to be modest. As a researcher, you have to be more cautious. But if the research results are substantiated, then please come out and tell everyone. I find the opportunism in the US very refreshing. They are always open to making contacts. They have the mindset that anyone you meet could be your next boss or client. They are open to opportunities. In the Netherlands, we only do that at networking events. Entrepreneurship and discoveries are found in exactly that kind of open attitude.

Ilse Wouters

Date of birth: 16 April 1976

Profession: Founder and owner of Ilse Wouters Academy. Theatre maker, trainer and entrepreneur.

Education: Theatre studies, University of the Arts Arnhem, graduated in 1999.

Experience: 22 years of theatre courses, training programmes and master classes in corporate settings on powerful public speaking. Coaching of managers in the areas of leadership and communication.

Special details: Committee member of Youth Ribbon for the Municipality of Eindhoven and ambassador at Women for Women.

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