Rocket Internet, Project A Ventures, Zalando, OnVista, Dubsmash, Movinga: brands that rank among the most exciting in German tech. The link between them? A small business school in the town of Vallendar, population: 8,463.
The WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management recently celebrated only its 32nd birthday. But the school, which was founded by the chamber of commerce of nearby city Koblenz and has just 1,300 students, has amassed one of the most impressive alumni rosters in Germany. And it’s one that’s heavily weighted towards tech.
Research Germany’s technology industry for long enough and you’ll encounter swathes of references to the WHU (which stands, in German, for Wissenschaftliche Hochschule für Unternehmensführung, or the Academic Higher Education Center for Corporate Management – and which is dedicated to Metro AG billionaire Otto Beisheim). Red Herring noticed the high number of influential founders who have attended the school – like Uwe Horstmann of Project A Ventures.
“When the digital era started in Germany in 1998/99, there was a large percentage of graduates going into that sector,” he told us. “The trend that you see today is still a consequence of those pioneers.
“The WHU was one of the first universities, offering classes with a focus on entrepreneurship,” added Horstmann. “A lot of alumni kept the spirit and started their own online businesses just after they graduated, profiting off the first steps of the digital economy. Those graduates are now mostly defining the german startup ecosystem, because they made their mistakes and tried a lot of things and now consult as business angels to the new generations of founders.”
A cavalier, more American attitude to risk is one of the many things that has allowed the WHU to produce so many business leaders. Professor Dr Christoph Hienerth, the head of the Chair of Entrepreneurship and New Business Development, told us that the school, which teaches entirely in English, “is definitely aligned with US startups.”
Hienerth, a Vienna native who came to the WHU from Copenhagen Business School in 2012, says that the school’s philosophy rests on three pillars: research, teaching and company contacts. He had to quickly adapt from his teaching style, which was predominantly theory-based, to keep up with the school’s – and tech’s – furious pace.
“When I came here it was incredible how the student activities were, which keep the teachers up to date,” he said. “We have to change a third of our slides each semester, because there are so many tools that come out each year. Each couple of months you have new things, so we really have to be careful what we show the students. You simply cannot tell them stuff from five years back.”
The WHU’s private status means that students are effectively customers, which pushes teachers to offer the best courses possible. It also changes the attitudes of the students. “Here you do not become a civil servant, and you do not have these lifelong contracts, and you’re measured on many more aspects than a public school,” he said.
“Mixed with these riskier contracts, it attracts people who want to take up that challenge.”
But it is the WHU’s alumni network, said Hienerth, which gives the school its biggest edge in today’s business world. Former students regularly return to give presentations, and many stay in touch as investors. There’s a huge chance to be financed by WHU alumni, “even if they are 19 or 20 years old, which is of course great because the students know there is a process to get finance if they have a good idea,” he added.
From next fall the school will also offer a Master in Entrepreneurship, which includes the chance to work on their own ideas at hosts such as Project A and other network partners. “We hope that this will be hugely attractive for students to sign up and already during their studies build their own ventures,” said Hienerth. “It will further fuel the German startup machine.”
Another factor is the WHU’s ‘Initiative’ series of conferences, of which around 20 are held yearly by second-year students. They’re “truly professional,” said Hienerth. “They have international speakers, sponsors – even a limo service. Each team of organizers wants to be better than the last, which creates an entrepreneurial vibe in itself.” The school also holds a renowned startup conference, IdeaLab, which draws some of European tech’s top names.
Combine that with a national tech market that is coming on leaps and bounds, with Berlin cementing itself as a startup capital and VC money pouring into young firms up and down Germany, and it’s little wonder that the WHU’s risk-taking, US-based teaching model is doing so well for its students. Just ask OnVista founder Stephan Schubert, Kitchen Stories’ Verena Hubertz or the management team at Kingii, a water security device maker that was supported by the WHU’s startup incubator.
Germany’s business world has long been criticized for its aversion to risk. Thanks to a new breed of entrepreneurs, that stereotype is wearing increasingly thin. And the WHU is at the movement’s bleeding edge.