This Entrepreneur Went Backpacking to Find Himself at 21. Decades Later, He Founded One of the Largest Sustainable Startups in Latin America.

Dirk Van Nievelt went from backpacking to entrepreneur after leaving university to travel the world looking for his true self, but what he found was the path to success in sustainable business.
This Entrepreneur Went Backpacking to Find Himself at 21. Decades Later, He Founded One of the Largest Sustainable Startups in Latin America.
Image credit: Cortesía Denda México.

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This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.
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There are many ways to get to entrepreneurship and sometimes we find them in the most unexpected place, when we are not even looking. That happened to the entrepreneur Dirk Van Nievelt, co-founder of Denda, the most important online store of sustainable products in Chile and now with a presence in Mexico. His journey began at age 21, when he was backpacking looking for the meaning of life, but instead found his passion for business.

“In 1998 I went to Asia, but not to do business, but to seek my spiritual path. He was studying the third or fourth year of Engineering at the Catholic University of Chile. So, I decided to pause my studies, grabbed my backpack and went to look for the great martial arts masters of Asia, ”says Dirk wistfully.

The now ecommerce entrepreneur says that he toured all of China, India, Tibet and practically the entire continent, exploring all possible religions, from Buddhism to Taoism.

“I was living in monasteries and there I perfectly learned the Chinese language, speaking with the monks. I went walking through all the religions looking for the meaning of life only with a backpack, there was no internet or cell phones, ”he continues.

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The Chilean's search lasted 10 years, during which he had to find ways to earn a living and continue traveling .

“To finance myself I learned to do manufacturing and exports. He bought things in India or China, and sent them to Chile in a container. I was earning $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 per load and that was enough to live for about two years. I spent from 1998 to 2008, not doing business, without thinking that I was going to be an entrepreneur ”, says Van Nievelt.

From the spiritual search to scientific truth and from there to entrepreneurship

“In 2008 I was a bit disappointed because I did not find the truths I was looking for. Then I got to know the work of Carl Sagan and it changed my life, because I saw that the most certain way is science. And to get to science I have to be an entrepreneur, to be able to investigate these truths that I did not find on the spiritual side ”, explains the co-founder of Denda.

That same year, Dirk took advantage of what he had learned along the way and started a manufacturing business in China . To this day, his company manufactures products of all kinds, mainly medical supplies, and has "more than 200 clients in Chile and a turnover of 15 million dollars a year."

On the other side of the world, in his native Chile, businessman Felipe Parragué launched Denda in 2016, an online store of sustainable products. Three years later, the businessman and current CEO of Denda invited Dirk to be a partner of the company, bringing his extensive experience in manufacturing and imports.

“In 2019 I meet Felipe and he invites me to his project because I have a special ability which is to manufacture my own products. He told me, 'I need someone who is my co-founder, who is an expert in manufacturing to be on the right track, both in certifications and in products that do not exist.' And so I came to Denda, which we are seeking to change people's consumption habits ”, recalls the now businessman. "Felipe changed my head and nowadays I try to manufacture everything that I can sustainably."

Felipe Parregué and Dirk Van Nievelt, co-founders of Denda, the largest online store of sustainable products in Chile that is already in Mexico. Image: Courtesy Denda México.

Dirk Van Nievelt's experience backpacking in Asia laid the foundation for the entrepreneur he became.

“(Traveling) gave me languages, it gave me knowledge of cultures. I handle myself in Asia like no one else. I have bought the best cotton in the world in Bugarach, Uzbekistan. I traveled all over Asia knowing different ways of thinking and today I can manufacture anything anywhere in the world ”, affirms the Chilean enthusiast.

“That was what that first search gave me, to leave with a backpack without fear of anywhere and open my mind to everything. I respect all the religions that I studied, all the cultures, I believe in a global human being and without differences of race or sex, 100% inclusive. These are the values that we apply in Denda and that is the magic that lies at the bottom ”, he concludes.

Denda, the ecommerce of sustainable home products that wants to conquer Latin America

Felipe Parragué and Dirk Van Nievelt's company was born in Chile in 2016, with the premise of selling only certified sustainable products . Denda arrived in Mexico in 2018, hand in hand with venture capital ENGIE Factory, Denda's first investor that injected more than 2 million dollars for its expansion.

“In Chile we already have more than 3,000 sustainable products to replace your supermarket cart with a sustainable basket. Denda Mexico already has more than 1,000 sustainable products . In addition, we distribute them in reused boxes and bags, primarily through delivery ecofriendly. For example, in Mexico we work with '99 Minutes', which uses electromobility. We try to make the whole process, as far as possible, sustainable ”, explains Dirk.

However, the company also collaborates with Rappi México, not only for home deliveries, since you can also make purchases of Denda products from the app itself.

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To appear in the Denda catalog, products must have at least one certification that makes them sustainable and friendly with the planet, for example: cruelty free (free of animal cruelty), biodegradable, compostable, ecofriendly, organic or FCC ( sustainable forest), among others.

In that sense, Denda is very scrupulous with the items it selects, since between 90 and 95% are locally produced . "Our suppliers are certified companies and so we are curating the products that enter Denda," said Dirk. The remaining 5 to 10% are products brought from abroad, but developed by the company.

“We support local manufacturing a lot, we don't want to make products that replace local ones. In Chile we buy only Chilean products, in Mexico we buy only Mexican products ”, he highlights. "We also function as a meeting place for all sustainable suppliers."

What can you buy in Denda?

With categories such as the outdoors, food, home, children, pets, fashion, health and beauty and smart living, Denda can replace much of the polluting products currently used in homes.

In their online store you can find everything to start an ecofriendly life: makeup that does not pollute, biodegradable personal and household cleaning products, ecological water filters, compostable bags, biodegradable sanitary napkins and diapers, bamboo fiber baby wipes, condoms free from parabens, vegan proteins, household compost bins and more.

Buying through their website (for now they do not have a mobile app) is as easy as in any online store. If you order the products from their portal, they will arrive in 2 to 3 days with a 99-minute service . If you buy through Rappi, whose Denda catalog is quite small, the order will be at your door in about 30 minutes.

The good news for growers, customers and investors is that Denda has very ambitious expansion plans.

“We are on our way to make Denda global, we want to reach Silicon Valley. We are raising investment rounds with Engie, Sudamerik and with two of the largest venture capital in Chile to further expand in the market and make more sustainable products. We are looking for impact investors who believe in a different future, "said Van Nievelt.

The idea of the founding partners is to reach Peru and Colombia, to add them to the structure they already have in Mexico and Chile. Then, they would capture the sustainable production of those countries to offer it among them. "When we have a catalog with 4 or 5 Latin American countries, with all those sustainable products from each one, we want to go to the United States and Asia, to decontaminate China and India with Latin American products."

There is no doubt that Dirk Van Nievelt's travels were crucial in becoming a global vision entrepreneur. Now you know that, at least in commercial and business terms, the world is smaller and more accessible than we imagine.

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