Can you share the story behind Econverse? What inspired you to create an NGO that supports high schoolers in developing future-ready skills?
I have been working on educational projects for more than five years now. I actually started my first project in 2018, in the aftermath of the infamous education reform in Poland. I became involved in these projects because the Polish education system is based on dry theory rather than teamwork, creativity, or passion. I felt it was very outdated and didn't provide me with the skills I would later need, either as an entrepreneur or a policymaker, so I decided to grow on my own terms. It was very hard to make it succeed as I could rely only on myself, lacking knowledge, mentors, and tools. Moreover, few people took the ideas of a 17-year-old seriously. So I had my share of failures, but also made a lot of wonderful friends and memories on the way.
I began to see the entrepreneurship, joy, and agency that projects bring, as uniquely valuable. Naturally, I wanted my peers to experience their power as well. I learned I wasn't alone in my struggles. This problem is especially severe in small cities, outside Warsaw. 53% of Polish teens want to build their own businesses but have no idea how to start.
So, the idea for Econverse came up quite naturally, as I slowly developed my network - in terms of both institutional partners and peers. I succeeded with some smaller projects in 2021, before starting Minerva, and thought it was time to go big in 2022. That is when I involved Hubert Pyskło, Matvii Kotolyk, and Antek Kałuża and, after four long months of stealth mode in South Korea, we finally launched, with our first event happening on the National Stadium in Warsaw!
How has the active learning philosophy at Minerva influenced the values and approach of Econverse? In what ways do you see a synergy between the educational philosophy of Minerva and the mission of Econverse?
The timing of our launch was important - I started to build Econverse during my first semester at Minerva when I got to know about #scienceoflearning and the value of active learning and knowledge transfers, which were a key inspiration behind the Econverse formula.
To add a bit more context: during Econverse events, teens build their own startups from scratch, gaining skills in workshops, from areas like design thinking, communication design, or segmentation, working with previously unfamiliar peers interested in the same industry, and gaining valuable feedback from highly renowned and experienced mentors. To participate in Econverse, you don’t need to know anybody, or even have a business idea. You simply apply and learn everything on the way, so Econverse is accessible for all – regardless of skill level and background. Importantly, however, you stick with your team from the start until the Pitch Contest, where, in front of a jury of business stars, you compete for scholarships, internships, and partnerships with startups and corporations.
In terms of the synergies between ourselves and Minerva, Econverse was built upon the science of learning principles: desirable difficulty, emotions, deliberate practice, and generation effect. The challenge increases as participants “get in the game,” receiving feedback from mentors and steadily developing, iterating, and building on knowledge gained in different contexts.
Our formula is also highly gamified – motivated by both awards like scholarships, or internships, and the dynamic peer-to-peer rivalry. And, most importantly perhaps, Econverse participants transfer newly learned concepts to create their own startup ideas, learning under a novel, startup simulation technique, which is a lot more exciting and practical than traditional business education.
Congratulations on winning the Emerging Europe Awards in the Inclusive Entrepreneurship category! What impact do you believe Econverse has had on the Polish youth who participated? Could you highlight a particularly inspiring success story or outcome?
Through 15+ Econverse events and 30+ workshops, we have opened the doors to the world of startups to 1500+ Polish students, most of them coming from small towns. We have also provided them with a fair share of inspiration – during our events, they can meet representatives from leading companies, like Baker McKenzie, Google, or Zabka, as well as esteemed speakers and entrepreneurs, including Rafał Brzoska, Marek Zmysłowski and Prof. Jeffrey Pfeffer.
Our work is particularly impactful because of a lack of bridge between high school, college, and work, which leaves some of the most brilliant minds behind. Teens often find entering the market difficult, as both career and extracurricular opportunities are usually unavailable. Although well-connected students from wealthy backgrounds can find their path and support, the same cannot be said about the majority of teens - regardless of their talent, potential, or skills. So, we try to ensure that Polish youth have access to the knowledge, skills, and connections needed to kickstart their careers and become entrepreneurs.
In terms of specific outcomes, our participants work with Google of Startups, EY, and Sebastian Kulczyk’s InCredibles. They have received internship offers at ERGO Hestia, Synerise, and inStreamly – Poland’s leading firms and startups. They are pursuing other efforts that enhance their entrepreneurial and social aspirations. For example, one of our laureates, Kuba Dobosiewicz, became a Rise Global Winner, having developed his “Mendly” solution during Econverse.
Thus, only 2 years into our roadmap, dozens of careers have been transformed thanks to our work, and we want to support hundreds more in 2023 and beyond. That is also why we launched Warsaw Startup Club – a spin-off initiative connecting technical, legal, and business students to develop a stronger ecosystem in Warsaw. Emerging Europe Awards are massive in that they can help us expand and attract new partners.
Can you elaborate on the role of mentors in Econverse and how they contribute to the development of the participating high schoolers? How do you select mentors, and what qualities do you look for in individuals supporting your mission?
First and foremost, we look for like-minded people – not loaded companies. Yes, financial support is important for us as we ultimately need to somehow fund our operations, but it is not our core focus.
See, the education system has remained unchanged for so many years that only a handful of people can look beyond the smokescreen and understand what learning is actually about.
And yes, it is obvious for us at Minerva – where we learn in the future — but pretty unimaginable outside the bubble, which is why finding those who align with your mission can be challenging. And so it was, at least initially, when we were organizing an event at the National Stadium of Warsaw as a group of 19-year-olds with not much support behind us.
Luckily, it is changing. And we are helping ignite the change, which is immensely important for us. We are developing a community of people who believe education must finally change. This includes teens, mentors, parents, startups, corporations, and institutions. More and more mavericks are joining, later getting their companies involved, which allows us to support our efforts (we have 50+ Mentors and 20+ Partners involved in Econverse now).
What are your aspirations for the future of Econverse, and how do you plan to build on this success to further your mission of supporting young entrepreneurs in emerging Europe?
In the short term, we would like to further increase our impact in the region. This Fall, as part of Econverse Cup, we have successfully scaled to four Polish cities and are aiming for six more next Fall. On top of that, we will continue working with Google for Startups, universities, and policymakers to accelerate the student startup ecosystem in Warsaw, where we are based. We are also eyeing expansion into other Central and Eastern European countries, primarily the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.
On that front, we want to not only inspire and empower local teens but also increase ties between national ecosystems, as bringing them together would mean that Central and Eastern European startups would grow in markets of 150 and not 40 million users, which could prove massive for the region’s prospects.
In the long run, we want to spearhead a parallel model of learning, where ambitious teens, regardless of their backgrounds, are provided with the tools necessary to begin their own endeavors and don’t have to break out of educational cages.
For that vision, I was recognized as a Transcend Network Fellow, joining the biggest global network of founders building the future of education and work, with $150M+ of total funding. I hope to materialize it in the future because I believe that Econverse participants, supported by top entrepreneurs, innovators, and the public sector, will be best equipped to tackle the multifaceted challenges in the future world. And we intend to keep up the good fight.
If you were inspired by Jan's story and are seeking a college experience that will teach you valuable pragmatic skills that will enable you to change the world, start your Minerva application today.