What do children dream of? If we were dreaming of a flight to Mars or a flying skateboard, today, they are looking for a way to cope with the changes in the world that are catching up with them. The students who are social activists and entrepreneurs prove that they can find solutions to the problems by equating them to their own experience, and this is the basis of any successful project or business.
I found the digital entrepreneur Georgi Mutafchiev through the 2018 Best Student Startup in Bulgaria award at the Junior Achievement’s Rising Stars Forum. Georgi is the creator of KnnectMe’s platform for exchanging contacts between business representatives. He was later declared 2018 The Best Young Farmer of Bulgaria for a project on the production of Organic Goat Milk Whey for the Family Business. And all that – before he graduated from high school.
“At high school, I found my passion for website development, and that turned out to be my main occupation while I wasn’t studying. Gradually, I started getting real orders,” he says.
Georgi enjoys the support of his teachers and family, but faces some difficulties. “Learning the material by heart and the automatic solving of the same type of tasks do not help young people to think creatively and express their personal opinion in a valuable way. At school, there is no talk of money and personal entrepreneurial initiative, which is very important. I was left with the impression that the school was preparing staff, not leaders.”
However, his purpose remains to help people solve everyday problems with the help of information technology. His first major project, developed with a team of classmates, is called HotelUp – an online application that makes it easy for guests to take advantage of in-house hotel services. Hoteliers are successfully testing his work. He started developing project after project: HelpToBe, an application for group workouts for overweight people, Gradee, an application for automated check of exam materials, etc. He also participated in the organization of the first digital entrepreneurship hackathon in Bansko in 2017 and 2018.
Dozens of entrepreneurship and programming trainings and clubs have been created and operate for young people like Georgi. The Startup Factory Initiative in Haskovo helps students aged 13-18 learn more about technology innovations – 3D printing, robotics, blockchain, virtual reality and entrepreneurship principles. Emanuil Manolov, an English teacher, talks about one of the greatest successes of the talent factory. In 2016, students from Haskovo won third place in the Startup Weekend hackathon at the American University in Bulgaria while competing with 10 other universities. They presented a platform for searching and offering temporary work for school and university students. Today, the winners study abroad, but the project is being developed with the support of the school principals and the municipal authorities. He hopes more potential investors will support young people, because otherwise their projects are difficult to implement.
According to Srebrina Efremova of the Causes Entrepreneurship Exchange, promoting youth entrepreneurship is a way to tackle many social challenges, such as poverty and social exclusion. “The Exchange meets business and social projects with their potential investors. We are creating a safe environment where entrepreneurs can ‘fail’ early enough to be able to correct themselves.” Many students have participated in the Exchange over the years, but it is difficult for them to track how they are developing because they are most often minors, i.e. cannot register a company.
But it is with them that the deficiencies of the education system are best seen. “Entrepreneurs are not well prepared to talk about their ideas. Until at school being in front of the whiteboard is considered a punishment, there is no way to become confident when speaking before an audience. On the other hand, they need practical skills – on how to register and start a company, what costs they should include in their financial plan, what are the main marketing tools, the appropriate funding programs. “Mentors in the financial sector, such as Nikolay Georgiev, in the marketing sector, such as Justine Toms and Marina Stefanova in the social responsibility sector, support the development of the participants in the Exchange.
“It is crucial to find sources of adequate feedback at the beginning of your endeavours. I can’t say I’ve ever lacked a mentor. The most valuable support I have received is the critical feedback,” Georgi Mutafchiev comments. He overcame the “wow” effect of the constant attention at entrepreneurial events and after graduating the Language School in Blagoevgrad, he continued his education at New Bulgarian University in the Business and Entrepreneurship speciality. He invested the cash prize from a startup competition in his business because he failed to raise funds from Bulgarian and international funds. According to Georgi, the lack of preferences by the administration for school and university students who are entrepreneurs is a serious obstacle. He hopes that there will be a less-burdensome state tax and social security system.
A group of students from the Sofia High School of Mathematics also follow George’s path. They created the Headstarter platform for searching and offering internships to students. Nadezhda, Aleks, Radostina, Rangel, Ivana, Lazarina and Boris Vladimirov are participants in the first season of the Teenovator program – a project of the Proznanie Foundation.
Teenovator is a continuation of a Slovenian program for support of teenagers who want to develop a business. The format is based on the practical application of successful practices by the Stanford University. The program was approved by the Ministry of Education and started with startup clubs in 4 Sofia schools, and this year – in 16 schools in Sofia, Varna and Vratsa.
The participants work on a specific startup project with mentors and present it to investors. “The local startup and business environment is accessible and open to such projects. We now have nearly 40 mentors with a career in Hollywood, with experience in biotechnology, with IT knowledge,“ says Svetlana Savova, Program Director of the project.
Avgustina Paseeva, a manager at a company that develops biometric solutions, is the mentor to the Headstarter team that won the competition at the end of the first season of Teenovator. She supports students because “encouraging them from an early age to engage in entrepreneurship, face the challenges of developing a business and learn the importance of teamwork is extremely important.”
Headstarter was born as an idea in the summer of 2018, while Nadezhda and her friends were looking for opportunities to gain work experience. “All doors were shut under our noses because we were very young or inexperienced. We want our classmates not to crash into the same walls as we did.” The platform is working and the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce, the Bulgarian Startup Association, the Bulgarian Association for People Management and other business organizations and companies show interest in it.
Nadezhda adds that entrepreneurship has taught them mostly life-skills because they are not taught at school what to do after graduation. “It is difficult when you go to a business meeting and say that you are 16. In business, when you show what you have done, sometimes they say: “Imagine what he or she will do at 26...” It is more difficult to handle school and business at the same time,” she explains. Elena Nikolova, also a mentor in the program, adds: “Students teach you to find arguments beyond the learned phrases. Teaching children to believe in themselves, to take risks, to sell – these are soft skills that are valuable to all of us.”