Dr Laureen van Aswegen, the newly appointed CEO of SmartTechNXT, has over 25 years combined experience in executive technical leadership and business process transformation. Her unwavering commitment to delivering excellent value to customers through Intelligent Automation Solutions is an inspiration to women entrepreneurs who are looking to expand their ventures internationally.

Pétanque NXT

In 2018, Laureen joined Pétanque NXT, a boutique consultancy aimed at business process architecture and re-engineering based in South Africa, as a shareholder and founding partner of Pétanque NXT Europe. Her focus was to build out their intelligent automation division and expand the business. “I had a great opportunity to step out of corporate to finish my PhD. I took a step back to look at what opportunities the next stage in my career could provide,” she says. “I am an engineer and believe that the interface between people and technology is essential. I wanted to help people live smarter, better working lives enabled by technology.

“Working as an entrepreneur opened up a whole new world for me. In my previous corporate role, I had worked with internal customers. Now I was working with a plethora of people from different sectors to understand a variety of problems and a diversity of ways to improve their working lives.

“Early in that process I represented our Intelligent Automation practice at a science and technology meeting with Dutch Ambassador Han Peters in Pretoria, South Africa. There I was introduced to the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA) and the Southern African Netherlands Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SANEC) who provided invaluable support for internationalising our business. We already had a small footprint in Portugal at that stage – however, I immediately realised that there was a huge opportunity for growth in forward thinking, tech-mature countries like the Netherlands that are actively working to make technology a force for good in business. I also realised that, rather than support a foreign office remotely, we needed to roll up our sleeves, climb in boots and all, and make the opportunity a reality.”

South Africa – The Netherlands

In contemplating the move from South Africa, Laureen and husband, Kurt, decided to navigate the business owner relocation landscape themselves. “Working in another country wasn’t a daunting task for me,” Laureen recalls. “As engineers, we are quite pragmatic and structured in our work, and internationalisation works in a structured way. The process was an interesting learning curve, and it brought us a new network of people and businesses in the international sphere – we were fortunate to find really good partners and a very supportive network.”

In early 2020, Laureen and her business partner, Michélle Booysen, started developing the business in the Netherlands and quickly came to realise that recruiting new clients would require a different approach to that in South Africa. “While knowing the local language is sometimes important for expansion, particularly in regions where English is not the predominant business language, our biggest lesson was that you must be absolutely focussed and crystal clear in your messaging.

“We were used to marketing our consultancy services under the banner of business process improvements. When we started expanding the intelligent automation side of the business, the feedback received was that we sounded like a consulting company. Our message wasn’t landing and that’s when we decided to establish a new entity focussed on business process automation and robotic process automation.”

SmartTechNXT

In July 2021, Pétanque NXT announced the establishment of SmartTechNXT, an independent NewCo that focuses on delivering Intelligent Business Process Automation Solutions in Europe and Africa – a process that was completed on 31 August. With Laureen at the helm, SmartTechNXT offers smart automation and digitalisation to accelerate the harmonisation of human and digital workforces in the manufacturing, finance, legal and people management sectors.

“Organisations that choose simpler, smarter automation are better equipped to thrive in a highly digitised and fast-moving world,” Laureen observes. “Our mission is to create simplified, people-centric ways to digitally transform businesses. At SmartTechNXT we automate business processes with smart technology in the service of people to unlock business value.”

Female entrepreneurship

Commenting on the needs of female entrepreneurs from the Netherlands regarding international business, Laureen says, “In my experience I have needed, and have been blessed with, an amazing support network, primarily through The Southern African-Netherlands Chamber of Commerce (SANEC), the East Netherlands Development Agency (OostNL) and the amazing team at WTC Twente – who have embraced us as part of their family and done everything in their power to help us succeed including securing government support for our international expansion, coaching, and identifying pathways to neighbouring countries.”

Like any entrepreneur, Laureen’s motivation for international expansion is growth. She admits that finding information on funding for business expansion has been difficult to navigate because, while there are numerous funding instruments, it’s not that obvious where to go and what to do in order to apply, so access to information for these processes could be improved.

Laureen also believes that women’s networks have an important role to play in this respect. “In South Africa, we were a member of WEConnect International, a network of certified procurement ready women business owners. We would collaborate and bid together for new business. In South Africa, corporates are actively driving diversity within their supply chains and are making huge strides towards gender parity in terms of business ownership and leadership, and I constantly felt like we were all working towards this goal collectively. I find this is missing in the Netherlands and its absence makes me think that there’s more that can be done to support female entrepreneurs. WTC Twente’s ‘Women in International Business Project’ is the first time I have seen this addressed as a local initiative in a very deliberate way.”

For those who are just starting out on the business internationalisation process, Laureen’s advice is, “Don’t go it alone! You do need a pioneering spirit but organisations like Invest Holland (NFIA), SANEC, WTC Twente and OostNL were invaluable in facilitating our internationalising journey – they are genuinely interested in helping us to succeed. We have felt supported at every turn and are encouraged that our vision for the future of our business is shared.”

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Contact Dr Laureen van Aswegen | laureen@smarttechnxt.com

Contact SmartTechNXT: connect@smarttechnxt.com

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