Lien Keulemans, Managing Partner of Sparkle
Her passion for technology brought bio-engineer Lien Keulemans after a career of more than 15 years in consultancy and biotech to the data consultancy company Sparkle. As a Managing Partner, she attaches great importance to human leadership. She does not see this as typically feminine, but as a leadership style that she has developed throughout her career. By listening to people and connecting them with each other, she helps them to bring out the best in themselves. The result: happy employees and satisfied customers. “Sparkle’s culture is fully in line with my own vision and values. Here I can become the best version of myself; I really feel at home here,” says the passionate tech entrepreneur.
“Technology has always fascinated me. Use tech usefully to make a positive contribution to the business world and society: that is my purpose”, says Lien Keulemans when we asked her at the start of our conversation how she ended up in the tech sector as a bio-engineer.
The passion to change and improve things is no stranger to her, she explains. “My parents were both very involved in this. My dad was a professor and researched how we can provide the world population with food on a permanent basis, and my mom was involved in the reception of refugees.”
Helping companies grow
After her bioengineering studies, Keulemans first worked for 8 years in consultancy and biotech. “I found it fascinating to gain experience in different fields, because I consider myself more of a generalist than a specialist. Because of my interest in technology and my sense of entrepreneurship, it was a logical step to set up a tech company with my husband in 2013.”
Krinos Academy offered cyber awareness solutions to companies to sensitize their employees and customers about the danger of cyber attacks, hacking and phishing. “On the basis of a positive story, we wanted to teach people not to fall into the trap anymore,” she explains.
In 2017, Krinos Academy was acquired by Cranium. Keulemans worked for the specialist in privacy, security and data management for 3 years to help the company grow. “I started a team with a focus on biotech and pharmathe industries where I had already worked for most of my career.”
“In a year and a half it grew to 22 people. I discovered that I get a lot of energy from helping smaller companies, both start-ups and scale-ups, to develop their own culture and market position”, says Keulemans about her motivation to make organizations grow.
That drive brought her to Sparkle in December 2020, the company where she is today a Managing Partner. Sparkle is a strategic and holistic data partner with expertise in five areas: data platform modernization, data governance, data visualization, artificial intelligence and enterprise architecture.
Kristof Van de Loock, the founder of Sparkle who had known Keulemans for several years, had already asked her to become a partner before 2020 and to help grow his company, which was founded in 2016. “I hesitated for a long time because I wanted to be sure that it was a sustainable match. In the end I decided to go for it.”
In two years’ time I saw Sparkle grow from 15 to 50 employees, 34 percent of whom were women
“I fully agreed with Sparkle’s mission: to maximize the value of data for companies and to use technology to make things better. I immediately felt that Kristof Van de Loock was different from the leaders I had worked with in the past: from the start he treated me as an equal partner”, says Keulemans, who saw the ‘Sparkleers’ team grow in two years’ time from 15 to 50 employees, 34 percent of whom were women.
We would like to know whether she, as a female manager, has anything to do with this. “During my past work experiences I have realized that professional happiness is largely determined by the company culture. That’s why I attach so much importance to the human aspect within Sparkle. Offering a listening ear, making sure people feel safe in the organization, creating connections: that gives me so much satisfaction.”
“The fact that our employees and customers are satisfied and that our company can grow as a result may have something to do with this human leadership. But it is not only my merit, because Kristof Van de Loock and I complement each other perfectly as co-founders.”
Throughout Keulemans’ leadership at Sparkle there are three core values: humility, teamwork and enthusiasm. “Humility means looking at things from different perspectives, not just your own. That you realize that there is more than one truth, depending on the context. Because I have experience with ego-driven leaders, I attach great importance to this – because humility is the opposite of ego.”
“This is closely related to my second value: teamwork. Good decisions are always based on multiple points of view and collaboration between different people. Even though the Sparkle team consists of experienced people, everyone occasionally needs help and advice from colleagues. I am proud of our corporate culture in which every employee shares his or her expertise with colleagues and customers.
A day without laughter is a sign that we need to change things
Last but not least there is enthusiasm, a value that is reflected in Sparkle’s company name. “We strive for fun and happiness at work: we want to spark professional happiness. I am convinced that fun and humor are the basis of a successful company. Kristof and I often say to each other: a day without laughter is a sign that we have to change things.”
Fill all spots
Keulemans sees the fact that she does not have a strict tech background as an advantage for her career in a technology company. “I can’t carry out customer projects myself, that’s right, but that’s not where my added value lies,” she says. “Unlike in many other companies, as a Managing Partner I do not have a clearly defined role. Based on my strengths, I take on the role that is needed at that time to move the company forward.”
“I love being part of our team of experts. I like to listen to people, so that I can guide them to get the best out of themselves. Is that typically feminine? Maybe, but I think it’s more about your leadership style than whether you’re male or female. Because I must confess I wasn’t always like this. In the beginning of my career I was among the ‘sharks’ and I started to behave that way in the long run.”
You can be tough and empathetic
“It took time to realize that things can be done differently: you can be tough and empathetic. At Sparkle I have found this balance. I think it’s a rewarding job to fill all the spots and connect people. I feel at home here: I am the best version of myself and I help people to bring out the best in themselves.”
Because two experienced employees who are involved with HR and the human aspect recently joined the team, Keulemans has more time to take on a sales role. “I also enjoy doing that, I am very commercially minded. Selling also comes down to listening and working with people: the things that give me the most satisfaction”, it sounds.
Spark professional happiness
Keulemans considers the development of a strong leadership team as one of the major milestones during her career at Sparkle to date. “First it was Kristof alone, then the 2 of us and in recent years we have done a serious growth spurt. In addition to our office in Leuven, we now also have branches in the Netherlands and Estonia.”
“We have found the right people to lead our teams there. We give them a lot of freedom and responsibility. They deal with this in an excellent way, with great results on a commercial and human level as a result,” she says proudly. In the future, Sparkle wants to invest more in training and a mentorship program based on self-chosen career goals.
We don’t have to be the biggest. We are ambitious, but above all we want to grow sustainably and keep the employees we have in our company
Keulemans wants Sparkle to grow even more than in the past 2 years, although growth in itself is not a primary objective. “The basic philosophy of Sparkle – and the reason Van de Loock founded the company at the time – is that we want to have fun. We don’t have to be the biggest. We are ambitious, but above all we want to grow sustainably and keep the employees we have in our company.”
“Today we mainly attract a lot of mature people with an average of twenty years of experience – that is atypical in the consultancy world. We obviously need this expertise to provide high-level services. But we also want to create an ‘intermediate layer’ of less experienced people. They can learn from the seniors, who like to share their knowledge and in turn learn from the younger generation. In this way everyone can develop to their full potential and we will continue to enjoy professional happiness for many years to come sparkle.”