Netherlands | Social entrepreneurship

Startup The Switch combats climate change and inequality

28 August 2023 17:00

What if you bring together the talents of refugees, an innovative form of entrepreneurship and the will to really do something about climate change? Then you get social enterprise The Switch, where newcomers are trained to become solar installation technicians, given a contract and earn an income. In the process, The Switch is offering people and climate a future, and addressing the shortage of technicians.

The Switch - projectpartner van Rabo Foundation

‘It’s striking to note the disparity between the number of people talking about climate change and the number of people actually doing something about it,’ says Wouter Kleijn, one of the founders of The Switch. He and co-founders Tjebbe Schalij and Federico Fusco used to work together at a foundation called HackYourFuture, which trains people with refugee backgrounds for a job in IT. ‘We said to each other: why don’t we do this in the energy sector? The outflow and shortage of professionals in the field are high, so there’s a real opportunity here to make an impact on society and the environment.’

Throw the switch

Tjebbe spent a few months during the corona pandemic retraining to become a technician and electrician. With some help from experienced installation experts, the three entrepreneurs developed a course for new employees. It was a resounding success that was rewarded after an initial pilot phase with seed funding from Rabo Foundation, DOEN Foundation and the Anton Jurgens Fonds, an investment that enabled them to launch The Switch, a company with a social and ecological mission, on January 1st, 2023.

Investing in people

The Switch is a commercial operation, but far from standard in its approach. ‘We spoke with many people in the industry about the high outflow. As a result, we decided to offer our recruits an immediate 12-month employment contract and a competitive salary. We are also working on a company culture in which people feel safe, keep developing themselves and aren’t afraid to take the lead. Meanwhile, there’s hardly any hierarchy, and you regularly see non-technical people like me on roofs alongside our installation technicians. That makes it easier for colleagues to give each other feedback, which in turn promotes sustained improvement all round. And we’re making the work itself as safe as possible, a concern that is in our opinion deserving of more attention in the sector.’

Special selection

The selection procedure at The Switch is different, too. Like HackYourFuture, the company approaches people with a refugee background, a group easy to reach thanks to the founders’ network. Those interested are asked make a video introducing themselves and subsequently invited to a climbing gym. ‘It’s the ideal way to quickly find out whether candidates feel comfortable doing physical labor, aren’t scared of heights or easily distracted, communicate effectively – and whether they’re punctual: appointments are always bright and early because our day starts at 7 a.m.’

The Switch - project partner Rabo Foundation
The Switch - project partner Rabo Foundation

“It’s perfectly feasible to pay a decent wage, have fun together and do good for the world.”

First success

After the climbing gym, candidates are put on a free two-and-a-half-week course. On the basis of their performance, The Switch then either offers people a paid internal traineeship, or refers them to other installation companies for training and a job. Six months into the startup and there are already two teams of six technicians on roofs full time. ‘It’s proof that we know how to source talent and take it to the desired level. The next step is to scale up. By the end of 2024, we aim to be working with six teams and to have taken on a total of 60 trainees, of which 40 will have completed the course.’

Sustainable growth

The Switch’s scale-up is intended to make its innovative approach to doing business financially sustainable. ‘We want to better sell our story and hope this will attract client interest. We’re also experimenting with steward-ownership, whereby employees play an active role in the company’s management. That’s how we envisage healthy growth, while putting our mission first and setting an example for other entrepreneurs: it’s perfectly feasible to pay a decent wage, have fun together and do good for the world.’

Rabo Foundation and The Switch

‘We fell in love with The Switch instantly,’ says Nynke Struik, Program Manager Social Entrepreneurship at Rabo Foundation. ‘The startup’s social entrepreneurs make precisely the kind of impact we seek: resolving the labor shortage and creating opportunities for refugees with a residence permit. To boot, they’re contributing to the energy transition. And all of it is enthused with a sound revenue model that’s been thoroughly researched and piloted. Their story adds op; they’re very good business people.’

Rabo Foundation therefore provided seed capital and helped the entrepreneurs with the issue of governance. ‘We’re now actually providing further capital,’ explains Nynke in conclusion, ‘which The Switch intends to use for research into improved safety in the sector. The goal is to offer employees superior training that teaches them to do their work in an even safer manner and with that, improve safety in the sector as a whole.’

Are you – or do you know somebody – interested in joining The Switch? Or perhaps you’d like to know more about how Rabo Foundation supports social entrepreneurs?