From expat spouses to entrepreneurs

12 July 2022

Lital Afriat Zipper and Einat Grinberg started their own business during the Covid-19 pandemic. Just five years ago, they each left their homes in Israel together with their husbands for a new adventure in the bustling city of Maastricht. A new city for them where temperatures in summer are comparable to Israeli winters. They didn’t know each other when they arrived, but they soon became friends. With a shared passion for fashion but no experience as designers, their experience of disappointing headscarves that kept falling off and offering very little warmth gave these enthusiastic women the basis for LeMooi. Their own line of elegant scarves with a unique system of magnets that keeps them perfectly in place. Designed and produced entirely locally, with a version for both summer and winter. 

From expat spouses to entrepreneurs. It is the dream of many international newcomers, but how do you go about it?

You have obviously found a unique concept with your scarves. But if you want to start your own business, there are also some administrative matters to take care of – and in a country where you have not been living for very long. How do you deal with that? How did you start?

Einat: 'Searching online, reading a lot about the topic and especially asking a lot of questions! First within our own circle, which was not that big at the time.  But with all those questions we soon ended up at the Kamer van Koophandel – KvK (Chamber of Commerce).' 

Lital: 'We were so terribly nervous the day we went to the KvK, although it was actually quite easy. Suddenly, we had a company number for our own VOF, which has since become a BV. We even took a photo of it, the registration. It really was a milestone. We just wanted to start our own business and we didn't care how many obstacles we had to overcome. We were really very driven.'

Where did you turn to with your questions?

Lital and Einat together: 'StartersCentrum!' 

Einat: 'We ended up coming in contact with Marcel van Kasteren. If you send him an email you get an answer within a few minutes. He came up with a few names of institutions and people to help us on our way. But actually, we met helpful people everywhere during our search. We have also been to the municipality a number of times and to the Ondernemersklankbord (Entrepreneurs' Sounding Board), which we can recommend to anyone. The people from the Ondernemersklankbord put us in contact with an advisor for new start-ups.'

Of course, it will not always have gone smoothly if you now start again with all the experience you have gained. What would you do differently? Where would you start?

Einat: 'Then I come to StartersCentrum again. That is the best place to get initial information. We had already gone through the whole process and had been advised a bit too much by everyone and everything. As a result, we made a number of investments, in marketing for example, which we didn't need at all.' 

Lital: 'Actually, we just needed a guide. Someone local who could tell us where to go in this region for the right answers to our questions – and we found that guide at Starterscentrum. There are so many people from the design industry in Maastricht, but search for names on Google or Facebook and you don't know where to start. If you know someone who can make the connection for you, it's all easier. For example, we went to Fashionclash, which gave us a lot of interesting new contacts as designers. 

In the beginning, we had to get used to how slowly everything goes here. In Israel, you call someone one day for information and the next day you are already one step further in your process. Here, it doesn't go as fast and we understand that now. We now know how to do business here.'

Einat: 'We kept asking everyone who helped us in the process a lot of questions and then asked about their contacts. Then we would investigate at our leisure whether they were useful connections, but at least we had a new name.

In Israel, everyone knows each other and it is easier to find the right advisor. Here, we did not know anyone and we had to make those connections ourselves and we are still working on it every day. In the meantime, we also understand the language a little better, which also helps.'

Now you bring up the subject of language itself. Do you think it is something essential, speaking Dutch? Should Dutch language lessons become obligatory?

Lital: 'Mandatory? Ouch, I would have a hard time.' 

Einat: 'You make contact easier by speaking Dutch, but I think people sometimes underestimate how difficult it is for expats and their families. When you just move to a new country, you have to arrange all kinds of things with papers, the school for the children. You have to get used to different food, a different climate. For one reason or another, learning the language is just too much. I have tried to learn it. I passed my A1, but I found it very difficult. Meanwhile, this feels like home and I promise you that we will do our best in the coming years to speak better Dutch.'

You don't have to promise me that.

Einat: 'That's right, but if I promise you, I have to keep it.' (laughs)

Lital: 'People speak different dialects here, that makes it even more difficult. To be quite honest, I think that making learning Dutch mandatory is the only way to get me to speak Dutch. Because actually, you can find your way around so well with English, for the basic things anyway. Sometimes you try to ask something in Dutch and then the person you are talking to immediately switches to English. That doesn't challenge you to learn it. On the other hand, it is of course very pleasant that it goes so smoothly. It makes you feel welcome.' 

What is your general experience as an international start-up in this region? Are we welcoming enough?

Einat: 'I can’t compare it with anything. This is the first country where I have started my own business. But for me the experience has been very good. Everyone has been very helpful.'

Lital: 'If it's up to us, there will be physical shops as well. First in Maastricht, this is our base. But as far as we're concerned, there may be more, also in other locations.

If I may give a tip to other starters. A good partner helps. If you have to do it all by yourself, you're more likely to give up. Now you have each other as a sounding board.' 

Einat: 'Indeed, it is a kind of marriage.' 

Lital: 'We didn't want to come here just to live as the wife of an expat and keep ourselves busy. We wanted to set up something for ourselves. To do something with joy and passion and I think we have achieved that.'

Einat: 'Absolutely, we just do it. And if by telling our story we can inspire other people, especially other expat women, to start for themselves, we will do so with just as much love. Did you know that every scarf we make has a woman's name? Names of women who have inspired us, in the hope that a piece of that inspiration will continue to be worn by the person who is going to wear the scarf.'

Find out more about LeMooi at their website.

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