Teenovators Favor World Shaping over Window Shopping

They are teens but they want to help resolve the most pressing challenges our communities are facing today. Photo by Iliyan Ruzhin

They don’t while away their time at the mall window-shopping for new phones or comparing Instagram-worthy poses. They aren’t in thrall to technological fads; they make technology serve them. They don’t use the pandemic as an excuse to do nothing or merely get by. Instead, they take time out of their disrupted routines to improve themselves and learn something new.

They are young adults aged 16–18, from across Bulgaria, who are engaged with the world around them and want to help resolve the most pressing challenges our communities are facing today.

In Teenovator, they have a creative outlet for their aspirations. By connecting them with like-minded peers from around Bulgaria and mentors from various professional fields, the year-long entrepreneurship program challenges them to come up with innovative, technology-enabled solutions to social, environmental, economic, and educational challenges.

Тhey have until the end of the school year to turn their ideas into working businesses.

Over the weekend of January 22–23, nearly 400 Teenovators — the program’s name is a portmanteau of teen and innovator — from 30 Bulgarian towns came together, physically and online, to work on their first business proposals and pitch their ideas in front of a jury. They had been building up to this moment for a whole semester, engaging in teambuilding activities, participating in simulations, and discussing real-life business case studies during weekly meetings with their mentors. In the next four months, the aspiring innovators will be drawing up business plans, working on prototypes, and preparing investor pitches for the program’s final in May.

Nancy Schiller, Zornitsa Mitkova, and Bulgarian innovation minister Daniel Lorer. Photo by Iliyan Ruzhin

A total of 76 ideas took shape at the Teenovator Ideas Weekend 2022 in January, all of them showing considerable creativity and promise. Not only do they attempt to tackle challenges in novel ways, but also three out of every four projects employ new technologies to resolve a problem. Among them are a system for generating electricity from passing traffic; an online learning platform using student-generated content; an empathetic social network; a virtual shopping assistant; and a recycled-clothing brand.

More than technological innovation, what unites these projects is their community mindedness. Zornitsa Mitkova, who runs Teenovator for the Proznanie Foundation, the program’s parent organization, says that last year’s edition brought home just how interested in social entrepreneurship Bulgarian youth are. Acknowledging its importance, the organizers made it a main theme in the program curriculum.

“It is impressive that they focus on social projects, projects aimed at disadvantaged people, at solving their problems through technology and innovation. Empathy and the desire to help others fit right in with startup culture precisely because social problems are resolved through innovation worldwide,” Ms. Mitkova says.

In his address to participants at the Ideas Weekend opening, Bulgaria innovation minister Daniel Lorer emphasized the link between entrepreneurship and community mindedness, saying that successful economies and societies have long encouraged programs that, like Teenovator, focus on entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship in particular. “In these places, from an early age people start thinking about building their own businesses, doing things differently, and serving others. That’s the entrepreneurial spirit. The sooner we ignite it in their hearts, the further we will go,” Mr. Lorer said.

A total of 76 ideas took shape at the Teenovator Ideas Weekend 2022 in January, all of them showing considerable creativity and promise. Photo by Iliyan Ruzhin

Teenovators won’t all end up running businesses out of their college dorm rooms, nor is this the program’s main goal, according to Veronica Racheva, a program director at the Proznanie Foundation. “By no means do we expect that all 400 participants will become entrepreneurs and launch startups. Their very participation in the program and completion of the process gives them valuable skills that will serve them at university, as company employees, and as small and medium-sized business owners.”

Program participants also gain new friends and partners.

Addressing Ideas Weekend attendees, ABF President Nancy Schiller stressed the community aspect of the program and challenged participants to help nurture a cooperative spirit: “Teenovator is building a community. Each of you is a member of that community. Support one another. Encourage one another. Challenge one another. And have some fun.”

Ms. Schiller concluded her remarks by saying: “I’ll end with a quote from Steve Jobs: ‘The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.’”

Judging by their passion and vision, Teenovators might just prove Mr. Jobs right.

An initiative modeled on tested practices from Stanford University and run by the youth-focused Proznanie Foundation, Teenovator prepares Bulgarian youth for the jobs of the future. The program’s fourth edition was supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center, UniCredit Bulbank and Kaufland Bulgaria.

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