A Teen Innovator Is a Teenovator. Now Watch Them Go!

A Teenovator team at the final. Photo: Iliyan Ruzhin 

A private tutoring platform, a healthy-food delivery service for schools, a robotics learning kit, software that recognizes drunk drivers, a project to foster offline communication among teenagers.

These are some of the ideas high school students worked on as part of Teenovator this past academic year. With the help of entrepreneur mentors, over the course of nine months, they transformed their ideas into viable business plans with the potential to spark investor interest. Twelve projects were presented at the final pitch in Sofia in June, with some of the projects having advanced to prototyping. The winning project, EduBots, a robot kit for beginners, is even available for pre-ordering.

Impressive as these ideas and their progress are, developing actual businesses isn’t the main goal of Teenovator, a network of entrepreneurship clubs spanning 17 schools in three Bulgarian cities and reaching more than 250 teenagers in 2019–2020. Teenovator aims to inspire young people to tackle problems creatively and develop the skills necessary to launch and develop their own business ventures, when they are ready for them. Crucially, the program strives to show them that they can design a future for themselves regardless of their zip code.

“I don’t expect all participants to become entrepreneurs but to acquire new knowledge and the confidence that they can do it,” says Kalin Georgiev, who mentored the entrepreneurship club in Vratsa’s math and natural sciences high school. Georgiev lived abroad for 20 years but returned to his hometown three years ago and has since been involved in projects seeking to boost local initiative.

Mentors Kalin Georgiev, Boriana Statkova, and Ivaylo Yordanov (middle front row) and Teenovator participants from Vratsa

To Georgiev, one of the main advantages of Teenovator is that it changes the notion, prevalent in small towns in particular, that success depends on someone else. An entrepreneur with several successful businesses behind his back, Georgiev believes that success hinges on one’s own initiative. Entrepreneurship is just one way of taking responsibility for your life.

“The important part isn’t how a project develops but the skills that young people build over the course of the program,” says Svetlana Savova, who manages Teenovator for the Proznanie Foundation. “Professional success in the 21st century requires new skills, and the young generation needs to be prepared for that. The goal of Teenovator is to teach high school students to make a living out of what they love doing.”

This is perhaps why entrepreneurship is such a popular extracurricular activity in high schools around the world and what explains the emergence of networks such as Ustvarjalnik—of which Teenovator is a part—spanning nearly 200 startup clubs in high schools in Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, the United States, Mexico, and for the past two years Bulgaria as well.

After its pilot edition in four Sofia schools in 2018–2019, Teenovator expanded to 17 schools in Sofia, Varna, and Vratsa in the past school year. As part of its commitment to encourage sustainable development in Bulgaria’s Northwest through community engagement, the America for Bulgaria Foundation supported the Teenovator program in Vratsa.

Participants from Vratsa at Teenovator Startup Weekend

An important part of the Teenovator experience are mentors—young professionals with at least one successful business venture to their name. In weekly meetings throughout the academic year, mentors challenge students to think about real-life business issues and perform an array of tasks designed to encourage creative problem-solving. They support their mentees through the development of business ideas, which students present in two rounds, at Teenovator Startup Weekend in January and at a final round in May/June, in front of a jury of investors and business leaders.

Some projects advance and their teams grow stronger, while others fall apart between rounds. “This reflects what happens in the labor market in real life,” Savova says.

“In the real world, you will end up having to deal with the city administration, and you will have doors close in your face. So, you have to find a way to achieve what you want,” Georgiev says. To give students real practice, he asked them to arrange a photo shoot with the mayor and local fire department chief. Only some of them were successful.

A Vratsa participant in full swing. Photo: Iliyan Ruzhin

Boriana Statkova, another mentor from Vratsa, accompanied her group to Teenovator Startup Weekend in Sofia in January. “The benefit of [participating in this event] is that it helped them overcome their shyness about talking in front of an audience, in front of investors, and learn to present their business plan in as organized a way as possible in the space of two minutes,” she says.

Georgiev calls it a privilege to have been able to work with young people so thirsty for knowledge and eager to do things. “It was interesting to discover what each of them was good at and encourage them to develop in that direction,” he says. “Unlike the traditional approach to education, which emphasizes working on your weaknesses, mine is to help them work on what they are good at.”

The approach seems to have paid off. Two out of the five projects from Vratsa presented at Teenovator Startup Weekend received awards, for most sustainable business model and for best presentation. Even though only two Vratsa projects made it to the final round in June, “Teenovator woke those kids up,” Georgiev says.

Inspired by another mentor, Ivaylo Yordanov’s experience, one Teenovator graduate is working toward starting his own digital marketing company, while another is writing an e-book about overcoming loss and hardship. Outside the program, students from the club fundraised in support of people and wildlife harmed in the Australian fires in 2019–2020, while another group pitched their idea for a cellphone recycling startup in another competition. A third group helped with food deliveries to elderly people during the coronavirus-related lockdown in the spring.

To Statkova, these initiatives are good examples of what Teenovator is about. “The goal of programs encouraging early entrepreneurship is to teach young people not how to make money but how to be resourceful and to persevere with the cause they are championing,” she says.

All Teenovator finalists. Photo: Iliyan Ruzhin

Yordanov agrees: “The real awards are visible to this day: the skills they have built will be paying off for years to come.” Yordanov, who has continued providing mentorship and support, says the program isn’t about competing and getting awards but about making contacts with like-minded individuals and learning to support each other.

“More involved youth in Bulgaria who care and who do something” is what Ms. Savova sees Teenovator achieving in the long run.

A goal we can all unite around.

Help Teenovator get there by making a donation.

Teenovator is an initiative of the Proznanie Foundation, a youth-focused nonprofit, and is modeled on Slovenian high school startup incubator Ustvarjalnik. Its 2019–2020 edition was supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center, Sofia Municipality, international and local businesses, and investment funds. Leading NGO and business representatives and investors judged the student projects in both rounds.

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