The pink jumpsuit-clad woman seated at the conference table in front of floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing New York City’s Greenwich Village does not seem like she could have ever been the self-described “demure” Belgian girl who called her first experience at Maastricht University nerve-wracking, but she is. Marlies Verhoeven, cofounder and CEO of global arts club The Cultivist, has come a long way since she first stepped foot on the campus at Maastricht University — and a long way it is from Maastricht to New York, which she has called home for the past 11 years.
Just a little adventure
Living in New York City was supposed to be a “little adventure,” Verhoeven says. “I came here straight after graduation. I was meant to be here for an internship to finish my Master’s for a six-month internship, and I never really left,” she explains.
An internship at private equity firm The Carlyle Group allowed her to finish her thesis for her degree in International Business Studies, but it ended up teaching her much more than that: she didn’t want to be in finance, but she did want to be in New York. And as she had known since she was a child — in fact, her focus on becoming a businesswoman “was always a big joke in [her] family” — Verhoeven was still set on becoming an international businesswoman.
She has since succeeded with The Cultivist, which celebrated its one year anniversary in July 2016 (with a boxing-themed party that featured both real boxing and contemporary art). The company is still a startup, but it’s gotten more earned press than Verhoeven expected and is growing at a rapid rate. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and even Het Financieele Dagblad have covered the exclusive club, making the marketing budget Verhoeven and her team had set aside in its early days unnecessary. The Cultivist operates as a service for art collectors and enthusiasts, providing 24/7 support for its members around the world — 80 percent are located in its key regions in London, where cofounder Daisy Peat is located; New York; Paris and Los Angeles. Members get front-of-the-line access to museums, private tours, art fair access, travel recommendations and all-around personal service that would be expected from the $2,500 yearly price tag.
From finance to fine art
Before Verhoeven could realise the dream of starting her own business, she had to pay her dues in the corporate world. But to even reach corporate New York, she first had to navigate the tricky business of obtaining a visa to stay in the United States. Luckily, her minor in European studies — the first year Maastricht University had actually offered the minor — gave her an advantage when applying to work at the Belgian mission to the United Nations. She stayed at the UN for only nine months, but it was the open door she needed.
“When you commit to the city, it tests you to your limit,” Verhoeven says. “New York is not easy. But for me, I was committed to this. I wanted to make it work and I was going to make it work one way or another — but it wasn’t easy.”
Though Verhoeven certainly made it look easy after landing a job at art broker Sotheby’s, where she found her niche. Having grown up in Antwerp, attended school a stone’s throw from the Rubens House and visited museums on a regular basis, she was always attracted to art even though her mind was set on business.
“I have always liked art. It intrigued me. My mom took me to museums all the time, but I definitely didn’t study it,” Verhoeven explains. “[But] a family friend said at a dinner one night, ‘You should apply to a job at Sotheby’s because they really need more people like you, people who have more of a business background.’ I went for an interview and then I stayed for eight years.”
Verhoeven started out as a marketing manager for Sotheby’s; two years later, she was the head of that marketing team. Just a year after that, she became the VP of marketing — the youngest VP in New York at the time.
“I’m proud of it,” she says. “But it was a lot of hard work. My first three years at Sotheby’s, I remember working such long hours. But the way that I was able to also get so much exposure in the business is because I always took on new projects even though I had a full plate. So that meant that sometimes I was literally running from meeting to meeting,” Verhoeven says, laughing. “I remember one time running through the halls to get to this other meeting in heels and a suit!”
It was here that she founded the Preferred programme, a loyalty programme offering services for Sotheby’s clients that would become the catalyst for the Cultivist. When Preferred became so popular that people who were not Sotheby’s clients wanted access (at whatever price), she and Peat, who was the team leader at Sotheby’s at the time, began developing the idea for the Cultivist.
“She and I had a conversation: ‘Wouldn’t it be great? Clearly there is demand for this. We could do this independently,’” Verhoeven says. “It started a little bit as a joke, and then it turned very quickly in the scope of two hours. We basically thought through the whole thing and created a business plan in our head. We put it on paper a week later and started raising money for it. And we left two months later.”
Cultivating the Cultivist
The Cultivist is a perfect combination for Verhoeven. It’s her own business — her “one-year-old” child, she says, in addition to her two other young (actual) children she has with her husband, who had joined her on the “little adventure” years before.
“I always knew that I wanted to have a business one day and be successful,” Verhoeven says. “I was ambitious. So [business] was my field of interest and art was more of a passion, so now I’ve kind of merged the two.”
Verhoeven says they want to expand into other cities this fall, with fundraising plans already in the works. Though because of the personalised service offering, she says the company will expand laterally; instead of accepting more members (there is a cap), they may begin offering services for travel planning or within the performing arts.
“Savour the moment”
For those young people looking to move abroad and become an international businessperson, Maastricht University proved to be an asset, Verhoeven says. It’s a “great breeding ground for [students’] future careers,” she explains, because they’re being groomed — whether they realise it or not — to be internationally-minded students.
“You have so many skills that you don’t even realise you’ve been taught along the way, working with all these nationalities and even in the programme, the way they approach things,” she says.
She also gives credit to her internship, which was the first step in entering the business world. Students now should focus on getting those internships in London, Hong Kong or wherever in the world they want to go, because that is really what opens the door, she says. After all, “the world definitely runs on connections,” she says.
But what is more important, Verhoeven says, is to “savour the moment. Feel confident in the fact that the education you’re getting and the way you’re being taught to approach projects and learn and work is setting you up for success in terms of international jobs. Because when you do come to corporate life, it’s really not about the amount of vast knowledge you’ve pumped into your head… but more how you approach a project, how you work with your colleagues and if you can have that analytical thinking and creative approaches to solve problems. So be confident in that and savour it. It’s a wonderful moment to be at.”