WHU is widely known as an entrepreneurial hub, with 15 unicorns counted by the end of 2021. Those within Germany will recognize the names of Zalando, HelloFresh, Flixbus, or Rocket Internet. Today, we see a new wave of start-ups aligned more closely to core values and personal impact. Empion is one of those start-ups, launched in 2021 by WHU graduates Dr. Annika von Mutius and Dr. Larissa Leitner. Empion is a recruiting platform with a difference, focusing on corporate culture and how to present it in a tangible way to future employees. Using an algorithm developed between WHU and a UK university, Empion matches companies and applicants based on their cultural fit.
Both Annika and Larissa are WHU bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates. However, despite studying at WHU together, they did not initially start as friends. “It is funny to think that we studied in the same place for so long but never really knew each other,” laughs Annika. “When Larissa finished her doctoral studies and successfully defended her thesis, I received an email about it and responded to say congratulations. From there, we started texting, then chatting on the phone, until eventually, we met for a weekend in South Tyrol, Italy. Our friendship just blossomed from there.”
“It’s important to find a company that fits your cultural values and needs.”
Working for a start-up in San Francisco from 2017 to 2019, Annika returned to Germany for a conference for the next-gen community in family businesses, organized by Larissa. “The focus was on employer branding. In Silicon Valley, they do it very well; applicants understand and are drawn to the company culture. In comparison, we saw that the branding of medium-sized firms or family businesses in Germany was generally quite unattractive. We realized that the problem was not the firm itself but the branding, which is highly important when people are looking for a job at the applicant stage. What motivates this next generation of employees? Our research found that seven out of ten job satisfaction factors are cultural. And company culture is hugely underrepresented in the recruiting market and on the largest recruitment platforms. Job postings look the same, and you discover nothing about the company culture. Companies often do not know how to present themselves to applicants or find someone who fits. Empion fills this gap by merging culture and recruiting.”
“The WHU network and community helped me to become a founder.”
In the final stages of Annika’s own doctoral thesis, they were both ready to take the leap as founders themselves. Both are from families of entrepreneurs; it was a role that they were both familiar with. “When I joined the company in San Francisco, I was among the first to join the team and the first with a business background. I realized during that time how much influence you can have if you start a company. The idea of being a founder was appealing, and I never planned for it. But Larissa and I knew we worked well together, and the idea was so good. I couldn’t resist taking the risk.”
Completing her doctoral degree in game theory, Annika reflects that some of the most valuable learnings during her time at WHU were not the theoretical aspects but the internships and the practical approach to teaching. “Of course, the network is significant too – it’s how I met my co-founder! But the open exchange and connection between the students and alumni are so strong. When we first wanted to validate our idea, we contacted people from the WHU network. Almost all of them responded to talk to us about it. I am really thankful for that.”
“I believe it is essential to stay authentic and true to who you are in business.”
“Something that I have learned from WHU and throughout this journey is that it is essential to stay true to yourself. I thought I had to change when we started the company. That my voice was too high, or the earrings I wore were too big because people wouldn’t take me seriously. I must be who I am to be at my best and worry about how others perceive me.
The other significant learning is to always think bigger. We initially thought and felt too small as a new start-up, and most investors told us to think bigger. You cannot think too big when starting a company. Imagine all the possibilities and really run with the idea.”