May 26, 2016
entrepreneurship Estonia Europe international

Supporting an Innovation Mindset Among Estonian Youth: An “Entrepreneurs in Schools” Pilot Project

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Marek Kiisa, Class 19

Ewing M. Kauffman, a U.S. pharmaceutical entrepreneur and philanthropist, once stated the following: “I think the greatest satisfaction I have had, personally, is helping others, doing something that either inspires them or aids them to develop themselves in their future lives so they’ll not only be a better person but be a better productive citizen.”1 His passion was to help young people obtain an excellent education in order to assist them in reaching their maximum potential and thus improving their own lives, as well as the lives of the people around them. Inspired by Mr. Kauffman, I enlisted the Estonian entrepreneurial community to initiate a new program, “Entrepreneurs in Schools,” to present and interpret the entrepreneurial life for young people.

My own background in entrepreneurship began at university, when I started my own company translating technical texts from English and Swedish into Estonian—helping to finance my university studies. I clearly remember the time when I sent my first invoice. I was so excited! That extraordinary feeling sparked my excitement to become an entrepreneur.

In high school, though, my personal attitude toward entrepreneurship was quite different. Given the political climate in the 1980s in Estonia, the thought or dream of becoming an entrepreneur was unrealistic. When I was a high school student (having graduated in 1987), there were only two options following high school or university: to work for the state or work for a public or state-owned company. While opportunities have expanded for today’s high school grads, opinions and awareness of entrepreneurship have not changed among Estonian youth—a situation I set out to change.

Prior to becoming a Kauffman Fellow, I was one of the founders of the Future School Foundation [SA Tuleviku Kool],2 established in 2010 in Estonia with the purpose of creating the world’s leading combined primary and secondary school for innovation, technology, and creativity. Recognizing that education in Estonia (and elsewhere) needs systematic reform to be relevant to the 21st century, the Future School Foundation seeks ways to create the first Knowledge-Innovation Community (KIC) for a primary and secondary school, in which diverse partnerships of education and IT sector companies co-exist in order to create a synergy of ideas and applications.

The Future School Foundation recognizes that Estonia’s schools have not kept up with the pace of change in our society, even given their solid efforts toward integrating the educational and technological lives of our children. On the surface, students possess 21st century laptops and scientific equipment, but pedagogical practices steeped in the 20th century have created barriers—preventing students from applying their skills in a modern context. The leaders of tomorrow necessitate the daily practice of advanced thinking skills: analysis, evaluation, application, and creativity. It is essential that these skills are utilized in an authentic scientific and technological environment for collaboration.

Entrepreneurship in Estonia: The State of the Field

A new generation of Estonians, who have grown up online surrounded by ever-advancing technology, will soon be joining the workforce, but the country’s educational systems have not adapted to the rapid societal changes resulting from the new economy.3 Technological innovations have revamped how these young people study, socialize, and engage in career selection—to say nothing of the career options themselves.

Estonian students may be tech-savvy youth, but the majority are unable to realistically assess their own potential. In order to prepare students (including young ones) to be able to adapt to the new economy and to fulfill their potential, four key skills are essential: accomplishment, initiative, self-confidence, and self-awareness.4

In terms of technology, Estonia is an ideal climate for entrepreneurship. Once Estonia regained its independence in 1991, after a 50-year history of being occupied by the Soviet Union, the country made a massive leap in technology adoption, becoming one of the most “techie” countries in the world. According to the Estonia Startup Ecosystem Report by Startup Compass, Inc., Estonia is the fastest-developing ecosystem in the world: a growth index of 10 out of 10, in contrast to the European average of 3.7.5 For example, all public services are performed online within minutes, from voting to submitting one’s tax declaration. In addition, a company can be initiated and run online, independent of one’s physical location. Recently, the government of Estonia (which is called e-Estonia) has received praise for its e-government solutions. Even non-residents are able to enjoy these technological advancements via becoming an Estonian e-resident or simply a virtual citizen.

In spite of Estonia’s innovation ecosystem outperforming its peers, two significant hindrances remain: insufficient entrepreneurial skills and negative societal attitudes toward entrepreneurship. A Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute (GEDI) report suggested launching a program called “Entrepreneur at School” to help remedy this situation.7 According to the report, Estonia ranks 111th among 120 countries based on the status entrepreneurs enjoy in their respective societies.8 The negative attitude voiced by the general public toward being an entrepreneur is likely deterring Estonians from choosing entrepreneurship as a career; entrepreneurs are seen, particularly by older generations, as speculators rather than value-creators.9 In addition, Estonia ranks 98th in risk acceptance, meaning that the fear of failure may also be preventing many individuals from becoming entrepreneurs—a “continued hangover” from the centrally planned economy of the Soviet era.10 The report indicates that Estonia’s educational system should play a key role in improving attitudes toward entrepreneurship to address these barriers. These report findings are consistent with my personal views and experience.

State statistics confirm that secondary school students in Estonia generally do not have positive regard for the prospect of becoming an entrepreneur, secondary to these societal attitudes. To be sure, there are a few young Estonians who desire to change the world with their business, but there could—and should—be more. While Estonians do recognize that they have very good opportunities for entrepreneurship, only one-tenth of the population is actually planning to act on these opportunities and become an entrepreneur.11 Our young people need additional motivation, and the understanding that anyone can succeed.

The Estonian educational system has been severely criticized for not forming positive entrepreneurial attitudes. On a 5-point scale, Estonian entrepreneurs graded the current entrepreneurship educational effort as low as 2.6.12 However, excellent extracurricular programs promoting the sharing of basic knowledge about entrepreneurship already exist. For example, ENTRUM, started in 2010 by the state company Estonian Energy, is a youth entrepreneurship ideas contest and development program. In the past five years, approximately 2,700 students have been served by the program.14

The ENTRUM program includes monthly 1- or 2-day seminars that, over the course of a year, form a mini-incubator. Starting with participants’ passions and inspirations, the sessions move through the basics of building a business: idea development, market research, developing a business plan, accounting, product pricing, obtaining capital, and the sales pitch. ENTRUM also connects participants with a one-on-one mentor, and introduces them to the entrepreneurial support system already available in Estonia. All events include sessions with entrepreneurial leaders as well as networking. The program culminates with a national business ideas contest; winners get additional support for implementing their projects.15

Another example of a student entrepreneurial program is Junior Achievement Estonia (JA Estonia), founded in 1991 to foster “entrepreneurial spirit in young people by giving them the ability to think not only economically, but also ethically.”16 The organization promotes entrepreneurial education by designing its own educational materials, running training programs for teachers, and sponsoring events for students. In 2010–2011, Junior Achievement Estonia programs and materials reached 661 primary and secondary classes—for a total of 12,441 students.17

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of young people are exposed to ENTRUM and JA Estonia, and this percentage remains low for two reasons: either the students themselves must be motivated to pursue these opportunities, or a school must be fortunate enough to have inspiring teachers who encourage the students in the direction of entrepreneurship.

Mentorship as an Agent of Change

Even if these existing programs could be expanded, they are lacking a key ingredient: contact between students and adult entrepreneurs. Karoli Hindriks is an excellent example of how an entrepreneurial career can be started as early as high school. She was involved with Junior Achievement Estonia, resulting in her founding an Estonian company named Jobbatical, which closed a €2 million funding round from well-established UK VCs in early 2016.18 Although Hindriks is only in her 30s, Jobbatical was not her first business endeavor. She was part of a student company in high school producing fabric safety reflectors, which became a remarkable success. In fact, she has been named the youngest inventor in Estonia. Hindriks has admitted that without proper mentoring initially, she would not be where she is today.19

If there is no entrepreneur in a young person’s close circles, entrepreneurship is not viewed as a future career option; it appears unreachable. Simply stated, it is easier and safer to work for someone else. In addition, as the GEDI report reflects, the educational system plays a role here. Most teachers do not understand the benefits of entrepreneurship; hence, they are unable to communicate its value to their students.20 This is in part because teachers and school administrators tend to be members of generations who received minimal exposure to the concepts of entrepreneurship during the Communist and post-Soviet eras. Among the more academically educated, in particular, a greater value continues to be placed on safe, paid employment over an entrepreneurial career.21

The most effective way to change Estonia’s mentality toward risk and innovation is to put students in direct contact with aspiring entrepreneurs. Although Estonia’s government is increasingly recognizing these deficiencies, reforms in such a complex arena as education simply necessitate much time and effort. In addition, it is not just a curriculum issue. Encouraging young people to create their own companies requires altering the attitudes of the nation, one person at a time. Entrepreneurs need to take the initiative in setting an example.

Entrepreneurs in Schools

To begin this process, the group of five supporters that I recruited initiated an Entrepreneurs in Schools program. Our initial goal was to enlist a minimum of 24 Estonian entrepreneurs willing to give an inspirational lecture to Estonian high school students as a pilot program with zero budget. We planned to spread this pilot program throughout Estonia, with the hope that even students living in the smallest, least inhabited rural areas would have the same opportunity as those residing in the capital city.

We targeted entrepreneurs who were representing the new economy, since we believed that their businesses were changing the world as we know it and thus would be the most inspiring to the students. We sought their involvement in a speaker program, giving lectures focused on their own success stories. Thus, we contacted top-50 startup company founders/CEOs to join our program, as we believed they would be those most familiar to those between 16 and 30 years old. Most of these entrepreneurs were already known to us, as my group of supporters and I had had business contact with them in the past through work with start-up leader clubs, Start-Up Estonia, and the Estonian Business Angels network.

At first, the process of launching our Entrepreneurs in Schools program was rather chaotic. On one hand, we were reaching out to entrepreneurs to join our project; on the other, we were simultaneously negotiating with students, teachers, and administrators to schedule the lectures. To our surprise, the system was functioning within just a couple of weeks. The most difficult task was to locate presenters willing to travel to more remote areas, where there was an absence of local volunteer entrepreneurs; nonetheless, some entrepreneurs even consented to drive 200 kilometers (125 miles). Consequently, many remote locations were included in the project.

The results actually exceeded our expectations. During Estonia’s National Entrepreneur Week (established by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication some years ago) in October 2015, a total of 71 entrepreneurs visited 65 schools, gave 100 lectures, and interacted with 4,000 students to share their experiences; this coverage represented 13% of all schools in Estonia22—a huge achievement. These entrepreneurs spent approximately one hour with young people between the ages of 15 and 19, sharing their experiences of how they became entrepreneurs and the lessons they learned in the process. The initial target group was composed of high school students in the 10th to 12th grades; 9th graders were also included in some locations.

The goal of this National Entrepreneurship Week drive was twofold: to motivate participating students to consider a career as an entrepreneur; and for entrepreneurs to share their stories of failures that eventually resulted in current success, in order to present a complete picture of what entrepreneurship entails. Listening to actual stories of entrepreneurs promotes the understanding that success does not simply occur overnight, nor at random. Failure is a valuable tool from which to learn and develop as an entrepreneur. Most successful entrepreneurs have survived multiple failures, resulting in invaluable lessons and experiences.

For example, Markus Villig, a young founder of a taxi fleet app named Taxify, joined our program to demonstrate that any idea can result in a successful business with diligent work. Villig also believes that it is possible to reach success in just a few years after graduating from school.24 Nevertheless, he underscored for our students that being an entrepreneur is not an easy life. He stated that if one wants to be independent in making decisions and is willing to take risks, then one may be well-suited for life as an entrepreneur.

As of this writing, it is premature to measure the long-term results of our first campaign and our visits to schools. Based on rough statistics gathered at the beginning of the entrepreneurs’ lectures, approximately 15% of attending students admitted that they had considered becoming entrepreneurs, but after just one hour of lecture, that number increased to 30%.25 Established business leaders were surprised and even astonished by the ideas that the young people conceived but had never considered fulfilling. The positive feedback from the students (shows of hands and thank-you letters from teachers) indicated that they found the lectures interesting and would value having additional practical cases in the school curriculum.

Moving Forward: Encouraging Entrepreneurship

The Future School Foundation’s objective is to continue our mission in the coming years in Estonia, and to spread it throughout the world. We are passionate about expanding our program globally. In 2016, our goal is to reach every secondary school (~430 schools) in Estonia through the Kauffman Foundation. We will also share the template for our Entrepreneurship in Schools program at no cost to other groups interested in implementing it.

Since Estonia has the advantage of being a small country26 with players in the ecosystem who are already acquainted with each other, the ideas presented here were easy to implement. For example, it was possible to reach one-fifth of all students in the target age group in the entire country. Our suggestion for larger countries is to simply begin with one city and its connected circle of entrepreneurs. Through their contacts, it would be possible to engage enough supporters to cover the area. Remember, everything starts with just one small step.

While listening to talks by successful entrepreneurs is no substitute for developing actual entrepreneurial skills, these lectures have the potential to encourage young people to explore ways to learn those skills. It is the responsibility of current entrepreneurs and leaders to establish a firm foundation of mentorship—taking responsibility to be a mentor to our youth—in order to increase the number of young entrepreneurs. This process requires only a few hours out of entrepreneurs’ schedules to promote an outcome that may include producing the next founder of Airbnb, Uber, or Dropbox.

We as entrepreneurs can—and should—step up to the opportunity to mentor. Kauffman Fellows are familiar with the benefits of mentorship, but every reader has either had, or can create, a positive mentoring experience by accepting this challenge to bring an entrepreneurial message to their own schools. For my part, the European Innovation Academy offered a 3-week course of “extreme” international entrepreneurial education to over 500 college students representing 70 nationalities in Nice and Torino in July 2016. I am proud to be the first Kauffman Fellow mentor for this course.

I offer my heartfelt thanks to the members of our volunteer group: Rivo Riistop, Estonian Development Agency; Merlin Salvik, lawyer/partner at Hedman Partners; Gea Otsa, communication manager, Estonian Employers Confederation; Karin Künnapas, Estonian Business Angel Network; and Marcus Lukas Kiisa, high school student.

Marek KiisaMarek Kiisa

Marek is a Managing Partner at Astrec Invest, a technology-oriented seed investment and VC firm, where he focuses on IT infrastructure and efficient system management. He tracks deal flow from Scandinavia and Baltic countries, and performs due diligence on incoming business plans and targeted companies. He is a board member of Astrec Baltic, the IT infrastructure system integrator. Marek also mentors portfolio companies that need an extra kick for raising the next round or reevaluating their prototype model.

Marek is a graduate of Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden; he holds an MS in combustion engineering and machine design and a degree in management from the Estonian Business School. He is a board member of the Future School Foundation and the Estonian Business Angels Association. Kauffman Fellow Class 19.marek.kiisa@astrec.com


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1 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, “Our Founder” (audio), 2016, 0:08.

2 Tuleviku Kool (Future School Foundation), Facebook page [Estonian], 2016.

3 According to BusinessDictionary.com, the phrase new economy refers to the idea that the “notable advances in information technology of the 1990s and beyond, and specifically to the rise of the Internet as a business medium had changed fundamental economic rules.” See WebFinance Inc., “New Economy,” 2016.

4 AIESEC, Ettevõtliku noore teejuht (Young Entrepreneurial Guide [Estonian], DVD, n.d.).

5 Compass, Estonia Startup Ecosystem Report (January 2016), 5.

7 The Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute (GEDI) and the Estonian Development Fund, Towards a More Entrepreneurial Estonia: Call for Action, November 2014, 7.

8 Ibid., 19.

9 Ibid., 43.

10 Ibid., 42.

11 Global Entrepreneurship Research Association, “Country Profiles: Estonia,” n.d., Key Indicators (2014 data).

12 Estonian Development Fund, Globaalne ettevõtlusmonitooring 2014: Eesti raport (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2014: Estonia Report), October 2015, 65.

14 European Commission, Directorate-General for Education and Culture, Unleashing Young People’s Creativity and Innovation—European Good Practice Projects (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union), 11.

15 Entrum Foundation, “Curriculum,” 2010.

16 Junior Achievement Estonia, “About Us,” n.d., para. 1

17 Ibid., para. 2.

18 CrunchBase, “Jobbatical: CrunchBase Profile,” March 2016.

19 Matt Gottesman, “Karoli Hindriks: Jobbatical” (Interview), Hustle & Deal Flow Magazine, 7 July 2015.

20 GEDI, Towards a More Entrepreneurial Estonia, 44.

21 Ibid., 43.

22 Haridus- ja Teadusministeerium (Republic of Estonia Ministry of Education and Research), 2014/2015 õppeaasta numbriinfo (2014/2015 Academic Year Inquiry), n.d., 6.

24 Äripäev (BusinessDay), “Vaata, kes osalesid aktsioonis ‘Ettevötlikkus Kooli’” (“Look Who Took Part in the Action ‘Entrepreneurialism School’”), 5 October 2015.

25 Estonian Development Fund statistics based on participants’ feedback. October 2015.

26 Estonia’s population at the beginning of 2016 was approximately 1.3 million, which is roughly equal to the 2015 population of New Hampshire. See Statistics Estonia, “Revised Population, 2015,” 4 May 2016, and U.S. Census Bureau, “New Hampshire: 2015 Population Estimate” (table), n.d.

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