BONUS: Julie Lietaer, the inspiring entrepreneurial journey of our founder 

We’ve had the privilege of interviewing over 20 inspiring guests on the Ellie.Talks podcast, each sharing their unique stories. However, there is one story that has yet to be told – the story of our very own founder, Julie Lietaer.

Known as the local ambassador for circular textiles and fashion, Julie’s entrepreneurial journey has led her to become the CEO of her family company, European Spinning Group, the creator of her “professional baby” #hackyourjeans, and founder of the startup, Ariadne Innovation, the company behind your favourite Ellie.Talks’ podcast.

In a special twist, we’ve turned the tables on our usual podcast host and had Florence, team member from the first hour at Ariadne Innovation, interviews Julie.

If you’re curious about Julie’s journey and want to learn more about her experiences and insights, this episode is a must-listen!

Be inspired by the story!

Key Takeaways

  • Intrapreneurship is a key enabler for sustainable innovation: give employees the freedom and responsibility to test certain projects, vital for future developments.
  • Sustainability needs to go hand-in-hand with your long-term goals.
  • Educate and inspire the next generation, they’re our future
  • Thinking globally, acting locally: reaching milestones on a global scale, requires the entire world’s engagement.
  • No matter the size of the company, the lean approach, to test, learn & adapts, benefits all.
  • Surround yourself with people that share your vision and that are committed to helping you move forward.
  • Pursue your dreams, act on them in an authentic way, and create ambassadors that share the dream with you and are committed to making it come true.
  • If you want to make an impact, you need to put your ‘boots on’ and take steps forwards, no matter how small they are, every step creates an impact.

Getting to Know Julie: CEO & Founder with a Passion for Textiles, Innovation, and Sustainability

(c) Wallican.

Meet Julie, the third-generation CEO of European Spinning Group (ESG) and founder of Ariadne Innovation.

Beyond her business background, Julie is a proud mother of two young girls and happily married to Benoit. She describes herself as a highly creative individual, constantly seeking ways to connect her passion for textiles with her creativity. Julie has a deep love for meeting new people and discovering their unique stories making her a natural networker.

She got it from her (great-grand) father

Julie’s roots in textiles run deep. Her great-grandfather was a flax farmer in West Flanders, and her grandfather established connections with Asian textile suppliers while traveling for his passion for pigeons. This led to the import of the first textile products to Europe in the 1970s and was the foundation of Symaco, the parent company of ESG.

Those who know the logo of ESG know why it features a pigeon now. 😉

Julie’s father followed in the footsteps of the grandfather, as the second generation of the company, and was the one who established the spinning mill. Initially operating as a distributor, this marked a significant shift as the company could now produce its own yarns and explore innovation & further developments in the region.

Today, ESG is an internationally operating B2B company that offers professional products to diverse end markets, including home textiles, outdoor, technical textiles, fashion, and more. With over 100 different raw materials. This diversity is closely linked to technology, which is an integral part of the industry’s evolution and innovation and is not often recognized as such. 

‘The first time I walked into the spinning mill, I was expecting old-fashioned infrastructure, I only knew spinning wheels from in the fairy tale, so you can imagine how amazed I was seeing the automated robots moving from one machine to another.’ – Florence  

Julie runs the business with her cousin Karel Ghesquire and is committed to building a bright and sustainable future for the company.  

Innovation, Creativity and Sustainability.

Despite not starting her career at ESG, Julie has been driving innovation in the company. With her experience in strategy consulting and at Barco, a technology company, she brings a fresh perspective to the development of products. Julie also emphasizes the importance of creativity and marketing in driving growth and sales. ESG has made the transition to a more customer-driven approach, which is challenging for a production company that operates at the bottom of the supply chain.

Julie’s commitment to sustainability is another important driver for her. She believes that intrapreneurship, where employees are given the freedom and responsibility to test certain projects within the company that could be important for future development, is crucial to driving sustainable innovation.

#hackyourjeans project, inspiring change

One of the most inspiring projects that Julie has started within ESG is the #hackyourjeans project. This project started as a collaboration with the Dutch Knowledge Institute to develop a new yarn from recycled denim, which was then used to create a towel in partnership with one of ESG’s customers, Clarysse.

At the time, there was hesitance in the market to adopt recycled products, but Julie believed in the potential of recycled denim yarn and created a sandbox for product development and marketing with the #hackyourjeans project.

The project started small with a young team and a small budget, but it grew to inspire people with its focus on sustainability and innovation. Through product development, marketing, and design thinking, the project’s success created a pull effect in the market. Brands that were not ESG’s direct customers reached out with interest to start developing products based on recycled denim yarns. The business approach evolved from a product push approach to a design thinking approach, thanks to the strong marketing story behind it.

While the project may not be part of ESG’s day-to-day business as a spinning mill, it has already led to several different projects of varying sizes. The team is committed to telling the story of making new jeans from old ones, creating a common synergy that is crucial for the future transition.

The importance of authenticity and purpose

Although the development of recycled denim products is still a niche market, the project’s impact is not solely based on the product itself, but rather on the mentality and message it conveys. The project’s fit with ESG’s mission and culture has resulted in many changes observed at ESG and a chain effect noticed in the ecosystem. The #hackyourjeans team’s ties to the project make it authentic, and the emphasis on marketing has created an ambassador effect that attracts young people spontaneously, without the need for a recruitment agency. Attracting young talent is essential for the future of the industry, as emphasized by Karla Basselier and Tim Vannieuwenhuyse in previous podcast episodes.

It made sustainability tangible by demonstrating the possibilities and making it easy to understand. This is particularly important in the case of denim, which is often questioned in terms of sustainability.

From sandbox to startup: founding Ariadne Innovation

Ariadne Innovation’s founding back in 2020, was primarily inspired by the work done within the #hackyourjeans project. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many supply chains were interrupted, but the desire to continue innovating in a sustainable way remained.

People turned to Julie, the Sustainable Textile Ambassador, for guidance and referrals, leading her to realize the need for a structural partner in the sustainability transition. This realization, combined with a surge in digital technology, led to the creation of Ellie, a digital independent partner for sustainable change in the industry.

The thread of Ariadne, and the all-language-proof Ellie

(c) The collector

The name Ariadne Innovation has a personal story behind it, with Julie’s fascination for Greek mythology and her heritage at ESG. Ariadne was a female entrepreneur before her time, and her story of the green thread helping the hero escape the labyrinth and the minotaur is a good metaphor for the challenges of sustainability in textiles. However, it became clear that Ariadne wouldn’t be the best name for the market.

While Julie would love to share an inspiring and creative story about the name Ellie, it was nothing more than a long brainstorming session to find a good and easy name. The goal was to create a digital co-pilot, a partner for textile and fashion companies, inspired by Siri, with a common name that can be easily pronounced and remembered in any language.

Ellie, your partner for change

So what does Ariadne Innoation offer with Ellie to the market? First, there is the monthly dose of inspiration via this podcast, but more importantly, there is the Ellie.Connect platform.

Ellie.Connect is a digital platform designed to help textile and fashion industry stakeholders work towards sustainability. The platform is offered in both free and premium membership versions, providing members with access to a wealth of information, connections, and inspiration. Users can search for actors, products, articles, documents, podcasts, and challenges, as well as post their own challenges, all with the goal of finding the right connections and support to help them achieve their sustainability goals.

The mission of Ariadne Innovation for the Ellie.Connect platform is to enable peer-to-peer connections and collaboration, where people, cross-value chain, and cross-region, can help each other without the need for expensive consultants or third-party intermediaries, in the transition towards sustainability. To that end, Ellie.Connect has been designed to be a low-barrier tool that anyone can use, regardless of their level of expertise or resources.

In addition to the platform itself, Ellie also offers other products to help businesses achieve their sustainability goals. Ask.Ellie sessions provide users with the opportunity to work with experts to solve their challenges, while Ellie.Circles allow users to physically meet and connect with people who fit their needs.

By offering a range of low-cost, low-barrier Ellie products and services, Ariadne Innovation hopes to create a chain effect within companies, where everyone can connect to the platform and benefit from the knowledge and connections available.

By breaking down borders and connecting stakeholders across industries and ecosystems, Ellie.Connect aims to be a powerful tool for sustainable change in the textile and fashion industry.

The power of a strong network

When the startup was founded, Julie had certain expectations and a certain vision of the direction she wanted to take the company. However, the different crises the industry faced, have caused some shifts in the original plan. Despite this, the startup is on the right track, thanks to a strong network of support and experts. Julie’s mother has been a co-investor from the start, and the bELLIEvers and a new partnership with the Genius Forum have joined later and are of big value for the growth and success of the company.

Building a brand takes time, but Julie is confident that Ellie will grow in Europe and worldwide, as their product is well-suited to the market. The team has also grown and knows the system, what to focus on, and what not to do. Although some people say that the team is limited, they don’t feel it thanks to the experts surrounding them.

Celebrate successes; no matter how small

(c) Wallican

The impact and journey of creating Ellie have been incredible. As an entrepreneur, Julie has become more mature than she thought she would be. When asked what she’s most proud of, Julie mentions her decision to take the plunge with Florence, a wonderful entrepreneur, and co-entrepreneur.

Ellie’s small successes, such as the first clients, fundraising, and hiring, have led to bigger successes, such as their participation in the RegioGreenTex project at the European level and the Living Laps project at the Flemish level, which will help build the ecosystem. In the startup world, it’s important to be proud of every win, no matter how small.

“The journey and the impact we are creating is incredible. What I’ve learned as an entrepreneur has made me much more mature than I thought I would be.” – Julie 

Startup vs Corporate

In the business world, leading a corporate company and a startup is not easy. But for Julie, it’s an opportunity to deal with different cultures and create a synergy between them. Balancing between corporate and startup feels very natural for her, and she quickly realized that team building and professionalization were crucial for both organizations.

By trusting and empowering employees to take ownership of the company, Julie has brought the entrepreneurial spirit to ESG, creating a kind of startup within the company. She implements certain approaches in both organizations, such as the lean startup method, which allows them to try new things in the market and adapt if they don’t work.

Julie’s balancing act between ESG and Ariadne Innovation is a great example of how to lead two organizations with different cultures and make them work together. She also wants to be an inspiration to entrepreneurs and women who often face the issue of work-life balance.

A personal mission

Julie is often called a Circular Textiles ambassador in Belgium and beyond, and it’s not an empty reputation. She is motivated to make the textile industry more sustainable, and she also tries to be a more sustainable consumer. By seeing herself as an ambassador for circular textiles and talking about the intersection of her creativity, network, and social motivation, she makes her story authentic.

The importance of educating for the future of the industry

At Ariadne Innovation, sustainability is at the core of everything they do. Julie emphasizes the need to prioritize people, the planet, and profit while also addressing current economic challenges. This approach to sustainability encompasses various aspects, including technological advancements, creating ambassadors, and educating future generations.

Julie recognizes the importance of instilling in the next generation a desire to make a positive impact. She already introduces her 4 and 6-year-old daughters to the concept of sustainable fashion through #hackyourjeans and encourages schools to educate students about textile recycling in addition to other forms of recycling.

One big dream

Julie dreams of making Ariadne Innovation a global company, with Ellie ambassadors around the world, visiting customers and suppliers in Asia or the United States. Next to that, she dreams of seeing more milestones in sustainability reached. While we often think of sustainability as a European thing, the whole world is working on it, whether it’s poverty reduction, good working conditions, or equality. 

On a personal level, Julie hopes to travel more with her daughters, giving them the same opportunity she had when she was young and whilst working at ESG in purchasing

Small steps, big impact

(c) Wallican

Julie’s key takeaway to all of the listeners of this episode is to take small steps towards creating a better future, regardless of whether you are a change-maker, pioneer, or small or large business.

Each step towards sustainability makes a significant impact on the future.