Thilo Weigert (H.17)
A Mirror from Over the Rhine
Berlin. Thilo is the last interview we made for HEC United’s first edition, and he will actually graduate from his masters the same years as we will. Entrepreneur-spirited, ambitious and attached to the link between France and Germany: he has given us a great mirror image of our generation from over the Rhine.
Read full transcript…
HU: Hi Thilo, let’s start the Proust portrait. So, if you were … a color ?
TW: I would be white and blue like the flag of Bavaria.
HU: An animal?
TW: I would be a dog because dogs are loyal, they like to play and they enjoy life.
HU: A meal?
TW: A paella from Valencia because there are many different varieties but they are always tasty!
HU: A song?
TW: I would be a football song.
HU: Which one?
TW: I think we need another football song actually because we only have three songs in Germany which are composed of two words: “super Deutschland super Deutschland, ole!”.
HU: A movie?
TW: I would be The Revenant, because I always make my way home.
HU: A sin?
TW: I was going to say arrogance because I studied in Paris but hmm… I would be greed, because sometimes I want too much.
HU: An object?
TW: I would be a pen because I want to write a meaningful story with my life.
HU: A sport or a game?
TW: I would be beach volleyball, because it is outdoor, it requires a large set of skills and it is a team sport!
“I was asked who were my heroes for my highschool yearbook. I answered Lance Armstrong and Oli Hurnes and one has been caugh for doping and the other for tax evasion. So I gave up on heroes…”
HU: A bad habit that you would like to get rid of?
TW: Definitely, using the snooze button.
HU: A hero or a superhero?
TW: I was asked who were my heroes for my highschool yearbook. I answered Lance Armstrong and Oli Hurnes and one has been caught for doping and the other for tax evasion. So I gave up on heroes… but I admire everybody who is no in the spotlight but does good.
HU: End of the Proust portrait. Now could you sum up your professional background in just 30 seconds?
TW: I went to university in Mannheim. I worked during a gap year for Audi in Beijing and then I was a teacher in Colombia for a few months. Then I joined HEC for my masters. That’s when I first got in touch with entrepreneurship. I founded a company with two more HEC student, trying to bring Vietnamese coffee to the European market. I am about to join the MIT for my second master year and I also tried out consulting at AT Kearney here in Berlin.
“Team is very important. Even though you are good friends at the beginning, if you have too similar characters and skills it is not a good set up for a start-up”
HU: What was the idea behind creating Maimai Coffee?
TW: Before joining HEC I was in the same mindset as many international business students: graduating from HEC’s great masters and moving to banking or consulting. Through an event we organized at HEC – HEC SEED – I got in contact with start-ups and entrepreneurs for the first time in my life and it really inspired me. Because these persons were all working for a cause that was important to them. So I wanted to try it out ! I shared this vision with two colleagues from HEC and we wanted to take an additional gap year to try out something. One of my friends had lived in Vietnam before and made us discover Vietnamese coffee. It is a unique variety of coffee and it looked feasible to bring it to market in one year so we decided to build something out of Vietnamese coffee in Europe. Just for the curiosity of having a start-up in an unknown field. So we started to reach out to people in Vietnam and helpful people in the industry.
HU: What is the recipe of Vietnamese coffee?
TW: Vietnamese coffee stems from a long tradition. There are two types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is mild and Robusta is bitter and rich in caffein. In Vietnam they only have Robusta beans so they add condensed milk – which is very sweet and sticky – and stir it up. The result is a very strong coffee that tastes a bit like chocolate and caramel. So it is a good drinking experience for people who don’t like the taste of coffee but need the effect.
HU: How did the Mãi Mãi Coffee adventure go and end up?
TW: We started off full of ambitions! We moved to Berlin, did some market tests. Then we decided to move to Vietnam to meet farmers. Our initial vision was to control the whole product and supply chain cycle. We wanted to have a holistic approach, starting with the farmers. So we spent 2 months in Vietnam, visited 8 to 10 different farmers and struck a deal with one who share our idea of sustainability, workforce treatment and quality. Then we started to build up our supply chain. At the beginning we had the ambition to do everything ourselves because we wanted to learn as many different things as possible. It turned out that the task was more complex than expected. Once you get the coffee from the farmer you have to bring it to the port and then import it by the sea. It takes weeks and a lot of paperworks. Then you need to roast it, grind it, brew it, mix it with all ingredients, treat it for conservation, bottle it, distribute it, market it… We were initially very excited about it but doing everything turned out to be overwhelming given the time frame we had: one gap year. In the process we realized that some steps just couldn’t be accelerated… Our product was a ready-to-drink, bottled, Vietnamese coffee. So the real bottleneck turned out to be improving the product’s conservation, as it is quite perishable. A feedback loop with the lab to test a new recipe takes about four weeks! We were feeling like time was running out without there being to much progress. As the idea is good and we have received enthusiastic feedback from our first customers, we decided to keep Mãi Mãi Coffee as a side project while finishing our studies. We now complemented our team with people with expert knowledge such as a food scientist, a supply chain engineer and industry specialists. We underestimated the importance of having a diverse team.
HU: What did you learn from this entrepreneurial experience?
TW: Team is very important. Even though you are good friends, if you have too similar characters and skills it is not a good set up for a start-up. We also learned that it pays out to approach people. Talking to people that had launched drinks start-up before was a real shortcut! Don’t do that, try this, talk to these people … those pieces of advice were so valuable and time saving. It just takes the courage to write an email to a CEO. Even when they were competitors most people helped us. This was a great takeaway.
“We also say that Berliners don’t get along well with us Bavarians, so sometimes I have to say I am from Austria so they talk to me…”
HU: Let’s talk about Berlin, the city you live in now. When did you move in here?
TW: We moved here in September. If you’d tell somebody “I have been living in Berlin for 9 months” he would be surprised since the turnover is so fast in this city. That’s good and bad: you always meet new people and there is a very dynamic international young crowd here but for me the city corresponds to a certain period in my life and I definitely think that when I have a family I will go back to Bavaria.
HU: If you had 24 hours left in Berlin, what would you do?
TW: Now that we are in summer, I really enjoy the open air clubs, there is some good music and it is quite popular. Berlin is fairly green so there is a lot of parcs, some lakes that are very nice to hang around in summer. It is cool to walk around Kreuzberg and enjoy cuisine from all over the world. I am a big fan of fusion food. Then of course, a summer day would not be complete without a Vietnamese coffee. That would be my typical day in Berlin.
HU: What do you like about people from Berlin?
TW: Sadly I don’t get to meet many people from Berlin living in Berlin because the city is such a big hub for young people from all over Germany and Europe. Stereotypes about people from Berlin are that they are a bit rude, like in many European capital cities actually. We also say that Berliners don’t get along well with us Bavarians, so sometimes I have to say I am from Austria so they talk to me… It is more banter than a real conflict.
HU: What are the main stereotypes associated with people from Berlin and people from Bavaria?
TW: Of course I am heavily biased in the conflict of Berlin and Bavaria… In Bavaria the stereotype says that we are very conservative and closed minded, that we don’t like foreigners… When I ask Berliners why they complain about Bavarians they would give me exactly these reasons and I would reply “how open minded of yourself judging over 10 million people like this!”. We are proud of our culture but on the other hand everybody who has lived in Bavaria would admit how open and welcoming we are actually. I invite people from Berlin to spend some more time in Bavaria.
HU: What about people from Berlin?
TW: I think they are proud about their accent, and proud of coming from what has become such a cool city nowadays: liberal, open, home to people from all sorts of backgrounds. It is true that they are more cosmopolitan traditionally, because it is the capital.
“I think the topic of integration of immigrants cannot be stressed enough because if we now fail to integrate refugees, maybe nothing will happen next year … but for sure in 10 years or in a generation problems that would threaten our society will arise”
HU: What is Germany’s main challenge today from your point of view?
TW: A big topic is immigration and integration efforts that our country has to do. I think this topic cannot be stressed enough because if we now fail to integrate refugees, maybe nothing will happen next year but for sure in 10 years or in a generation problems that would threaten our society will arise. I think education and integration for people that just came to our country is very important. And I am not sure everybody understands it. The good thing is that there are many private initiative by people who want to get involved in this task. But nobody really know how to do it and the initiatives are too separated from each others. Secondly I think Germany is missing out on the topic of digitalisation and digital infrastructures. We are proud of our engineers but this is mainly legacy. Building cars and traditional pharma are cool stuff but it is maybe not where the future is going to happen. People that know things about digitalisation are not in the place to where they can influence decisions and this should change.
HU: Is Berlin really a dream city for entrepreneurs?
TW: It depends on what you are doing! Munich is catching up on the internet of things as there are many technological universities there. However regarding web ventures, e-commerce or Rocket Internet businesses, everything is happening in Berlin. Because life is cheap and there is an existing ecosystem in these domains. If you look at success stories of start-ups in Berlin it is not that impressive actually. Rocket Internet did a big shot with Zalando but they have hundreds of other ventures that nobody has heard about. There are at least the same amount of promising start-ups in Paris. But I think I will be able to tell better when I go back from the U.S…
“As I had done an exchange in France during high school I had a connection with that country and I wanted to make the connection deeper and meet some like-minded French people. I wanted to take a part in growing the German-French relationship which is crucial for the future of Europe”
HU: Let’s talk about HEC now, why did you come to HEC Paris?
TW: There are two main reasons: First, it is a very well ranked school in France and in Europe. It is very well connected, alumni are all over the world and that is a strong asset. Then, as I had done an exchange in France during high school I had a connection with that country and I wanted to make the connection deeper and meet some like-minded French people. I wanted to take a part in growing the German-French relationship which is crucial for the future of Europe.
HU: What was your favourite place on the campus?
TW: The HEC campus is a very special ecosystem, because it is so closed and you meet many people in a condensed environment. I like the “hall d’honneur” because every time there was a party there you knew it was going to be good… Or the e-lab (entrepreneurship lab) because that is where we worked for our start-up event.
HU: What is your best memory from HEC?
TW: My best memory was the start-up event that we started from scratch: HEC SEED, with 30 international and French students. It was a major effort because nobody in the team had ever done anything in that scale. In the end we had over 200 participants, 30 speakers, 30 start-ups. I was responsible for inviting start-ups to hold workshops and it was an incredible feeling to see companies and people getting more and more interested in the event as we were building it. It was very satisfying when in the end, some companies that we would have paid to come to the event even offered to pay for coming. One moment that made me very proud was when at the day of the event I went to pick people up in my car in Massy Palaiseau and I realized some people were coming all the way from Marseilles, Monaco and even Italy!
“The guy who is selling in the street has a story to tell, experience to share and he is better than you are at something for sure. To keep this humbleness is a great goal for any graduate from a business school”
HU: Do you think there is a barrier between French students and international students at HEC?
TW: I don’t think there is a barrier but indeed we are coming from very different worlds. There are many dimensions to it, be it age, previous education, interest, mindset… It would be possible to mingle but in the end it is easier to just stay in your bubble with your friends. International people often share internship or travel experiences so it also keeps us apart. And there also are factors that are not helping such as the traditions that seem quite weird to foreigners. It is funny to have traditions and there should be traditions everywhere but they should exist in a way that is not offensive to or excluding other HEC students, that is a consensus among us. Some initiatives really want to help but for instance I lived in the D building, there is the rugby team, the football team and the BDE … they were not always acting in ways that made it easy or enjoyable to cohabit.
HU: Do you have any suggestion to bridge the gap between these two categories of students?
TW: I think we need more touch points that are interesting for both sides. And our event was one of these touch points. We had students from both backgrounds because we shared a common interest. I think this also happens in some sports clubs. But I think it would help if the clubs were a bit more relaxed and “free”. What I understood is that most clubs are also supposed to be your groups of friends, so if you do a certain sport you are also expected to spend a big part of your free time with that club and not talk to people from some other clubs. Of course this is the extreme situation, but it is to make you understand the feeling we get as international students. This is not very precise but I think an easier and more open approach to the formation of common interests would help. For us the embodiment of not being welcome was the BDE, maybe it changes every year but that turned us off so much. For instance, when I am at the POW and at the bar there is a beer ready to be served, but the guy who is supposed to hand it out is just dancing behind the bar… There are 50 people waiting and I am just wondering “why?”. Of course, this is just a small thing but in accumulation it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. So I think the traditions are not the problem, but both groups of students should communicate more and find common interests.
“I just wrote : “Hey can we meet for coffee, I am going to study at the MIT, what advice can you give me?” and so next week I am going to meet a guy I don’t know in SF and share something”
HU: What would be your advice to someone just entering to HEC?
TW: It is a good school so you will want to take the most of it from an academic point of view. But if you only do that you are missing out the biggest part of it which is the student body. One year after, I realized the biggest asset I built at HEC are the people I met, the stories that we shared and the project we founded together. Meet a diverse set of people, share stories and build on that in the future.
HU: What would you advise to a fresh HEC graduate?
TW: To keep in mind that you can learn from anybody in the world. When you come from a prestigious school, you are surrounded by a lot of smart people and professors, you have done highly intellectual stuff, you can forget about seemingly “simple” things and that is a big mistake. For instance, also the guy who is selling in the street has a story to tell, experience to share and for sure he is better than you at something. To keep this humbleness is a great goal for any graduate from a business school.
HU: For which reason would you like to be contacted by an HEC alumnus?
TW: I think the alumni network is the biggest asset an HEC graduate has because it is there for a lifetime and it is composed of people with amazing lives and background. Even last week I looked up for people to meet and be mentored by in San Francisco on the HEC alumni network. I just wrote : “Hey can we meet for coffee, I am going to study at the MIT, what advice can you give me?” and so next week I am going to meet a guy I don’t know in SF and share something. I would definitely meet someone contacting me like that! I am a big proponent of helping new generations. For now I am on the receiving side but I think it is innate in humans that we want to help nice people.
HU: HEC’s motto is “the more you know, the more you dare”, what would be your motto?
TW: Better done than perfect. Maybe you saw it on Facebook’s wall, that’s one of their motto as well but I think it is essential. Not only for entrepreneurs, I think we always want to overdo things, to be too precise but I am convinced that if you want to do something now is the right time, and then you can move on to the next stuff.
… or pick a category…
…or an Alumnus
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