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Slovenian Startup Enhances Education Via Entrepreneurship

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Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on Unreasonable.is.

By Unreasonable.is Staff

The up-and-coming millennial generation is entering an unforgiving marketplace riddled with high youth unemployment — over 20 percent in Europe and nearly 15 percent in the U.S. On top of this, they enter straight out of an education system that doesn’t seem to prepare youth with the best tools to succeed. One startup makes it their mission to empower youth to create their own projects and jobs by providing a new framework.

“We’re expecting to have business superstars when many kids don’t start thinking about business until they are almost 20 years old,” says Matija Goljar,  co-founder and CEO of Ustvarjalnik, a Slovenian startup. Goljar is a 2014 Unreasonable Institute alumni who partners with high schools to provide after-school entrepreneurship programs for youth. “That’s not going to work. You’ll never get a gold medal at the Olympics if the team starts to train when they’re 20 years old.”

Matija and the team at Ustvarjalnik — pronounced “oost-war-yall-nick,” meaning “creative place” or “creative machine” in Slovenian — arms hundreds of youth in Slovenia with tools to create a meaningful career through entrepreneurial thinking. “We all see the problems in the educational system, and yeah we all want change,” says Matija. “We don’t want to change the education system—instead we want to compliment it.”

The program has three simple keys. First, they put an emphasis on fun; tasks designed to break comfort zones and encourage relationship building with influential community members. For example, go take a picture with the mayor.

Secondly, they put an emphasis on action. “We don’t care about business plans. We don’t care about ideas,” says Matija, “We want to see the real deal. We want to see the thing sold. We want to see the app built. We want to see the kids actually succeed.” Instead, Matija and the Ustvarjalnik team encourage participants to test ideas then rapidly iterate them; a concept found in lean startup principles.

“I took an entrepreneurship class in high school,” Jernej says, a mentee and first-hand witness of Matija’s program. “We were told to pick an idea, and start writing a business plan. Our idea at the time was 24/7 computer support. We still got an A, even though we wrote in our business plan that we’ll employ five people in our first month (plus four founders), and everyone will have big salaries. That kinda seemed unreal, and discouraged me from entrepreneurship. Then Matija told me about lean startup and my mind was blown.” Jernej is now a student at Watson University, a social entrepreneurship school in Boulder, Colorado.

Lastly, they provide a massive amount of positive encouragement. “We work with them to make their project happen,” says Matija, “So if they say ‘Hey, we want to make a submarine that’s capable of reaching the Titanic,’ we as mentors say, ‘OK, where do we start?’ And then they actually do this.” And they did. A team of students gained access to Slovenia’s only battleship to prototype a submarine dive with the help of mentors.

The program has seen incredible success since its inception in 2011. Matija’s first student, now 20 years old, wanted to be a photographer and now just got invited to Red Rocks, a well-known concert theatre in Boulder, Colorado, to take pictures for concerts there. A student group developed a wristband that alerts Alzheimers patients when they need to take their medication. Another student group developed a mobile app that gained one-hundred thousand users within months without any online marketing. A seventeen-year-old student created a computer keyboard that charges itself when people type on it. And another sixteen-year-old drummer was invited to TechCrunch Disrupt last year to showcase an iPad app that listens to the drumming and creates musical notation.

Ustvarjalnik has grown to one-third of Slovenia’s entire school system. Now they are partnered with Up Global — a nonprofit dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship and grassroots leadership—and they’re expanding globally by creating an online scale kit and support system for mentors in communities around the world to take to their local high schools.

Here’s how it works: high schools pay Ustvarjalnik to provide an after-school program, global events and entrepreneurship curriculum, and Ustvarjalnik in turn pays the mentor—a local entrepreneur who wants to bring the curriculum to their local community—a stipend for hosting the program at the high school. Each kit creates enough working capital for the program to break even within a couple months of being deployed.

School administrators in Taiwan, the U.S., Spain, Greece, Kazakstan, and elsewhere are eager to bring the programs to their schools because they empower kids and incite creative action—something greatly needed in today’s high-school environment. “We teach people how to empower themselves,” says Matija, “We’re enhancing education.”

When talking about how to fix our education system, a piece in Time magazine last year has serial entrepreneur and angel investor, Scott Gerber, stating that eighty-seven percent of youth in America desire to pursue entrepreneurship. Introducing kids to entrepreneurial thinking at an early age can not only be a key to meaningful career creation, but also a key to economic growth. “We’re simply the entry-level system of the pyramid of entrepreneurship support,” says Matija, “We’re creating the base. We will be sending people to Stanford, sending people to Watson, sending people to Techstars, sending people to Unreasonable someday. And that’s our role in the whole system.”

Want to bring Ustvarjalnik’s program into your community? If you’re a mentor, school administrator, or investor interested in bringing or financing a program in your community, email matija@ustvarjalnik.org.

Image credit: Jurij Vizintin/Ustvarjalnik via Facebook

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