‘I have an unstoppable need to create’

Erasmus & you

‘The desire to prove yourself and make a difference can come from anywhere. I discovered I had something to prove to myself, first and foremost,’ says entrepreneur Ali Keles. ‘When I was ten, I first heard the word ‘business man’, and it kept singing around in my head.’


NAME: Ali Keles
AGE: 34
CAREER: Entrepreneur


‘The only rebellion from my teenage years was quitting piano lessons. I’m from a broken home and my mother mostly had to do it alone. So I didn’t want to rebel against her. She has done so much for me,’ adds Keles, sitting at the long table in his office on the Schie river. The room has the vibe of a gallery. He likes to surround himself with work by modern artists, even if they’re still up-and-coming. Keles points at a creation by Alexander Kaletski, a Russian refugee who fled to New York empty-handed, and collected cardboard boxes to use as a canvas. ‘Kaletski is a role model to many, because he shows you can leave behind the misery that often befalls refugees.’

Always busy
Art is the common thread in Keles’ life. ‘I currently attend lectures about modern at the Open Academy and hope to get back to college one day as an art history student.’ As a student, he was very active. ‘That’s why it took me so long to graduate,’ he laughs. ‘I worked at the legal aid centre, the Legal Complaint Desk, I was a coordinator and board member for the Student Forum for European Affairs and worked at my first startups in university, even if we didn’t call it a startup in those days.’ On top of everything else, he became a council member for GroenLinks, the Dutch green party.

Dental care in every part of town
Everything Ali Keles does is characterised by humanitarianism. There’s a reason Philosophy was his favourite subject in school – it applies to his entrepreneurship as well. That’s why he signed the Diversity Charter by the Social Economic Council last year. ‘We have people from eighteen different nationalities working for us, of which 53 percent are female and 47 percent male.’ Although it wasn’t exactly hip to be an entrepreneur during his university years, it was always his thing. ‘When I was ten, I first heard the word ‘business man’, and it kept singing around in my head. I have this unstoppable need to create. Whether it’s a film festival, like the Red Tulip Festival that provided a Dutch platform for Turkish arthouse cinema, a magazine (Pandora, ed.), or realty. I want to get things off the ground, preferably collaborating with others.’ From his boutique private equity house, Keles established the Dental Care Group Netherlands with business partner Dr. Go. It sets up practices throughout the Netherlands, in disadvantaged neighbourhoods as well. ‘Full-spectrum dental care. Providing all services.’

Local employees
‘I like to provide employment for people that live in these neighbourhoods. It’s not unheard of to approach the reception desk as a patient and leave as an employee.’ That’s exactly what happened to a young woman who was in between jobs. Keles encouraged her to go back to school and become a dental assistant. Today she’s the practice’s coordinator. ‘I’ve come to think of myself as an enabler more than a business man.  The perfect vantage point for servant leadership.’

TEXT: Carien van der Wal
PHOTO: Charlie De Keersmaecker

Ali Keles