Young people need entrepreneurship skills more than ever, as only agile, creative and knowledgeable people can thrive in the current environment. Junior Achievement (JA) has promoted these since its establishment in 1919, in Boston, the USA. The Bulgarian branch of the organisation has been active for nearly 23 years now, working on fostering the entrepreneurial skills and mindset of children, teenagers and university students. In addition, it has helped completely overturn the image of the entrepreneur in the Bulgarian society – entrepreneurship has become a desired and viable career path in the past several years. CEO Milena Stoycheva shares more.
What did JA achieve in the first 100 years of its existence?
I like the fact that we are talking about JA as an old organisation with a future. One of its trademarks is that it works in the present but creates opportunities for young people in the future.
JA began in 1919 with the aim to provide the best models for creation and support of the workforce that were relevant to the needs of the market at that time. JA has been a forerunner in providing educational opportunities in the field of entrepreneurship and financial literacy and in preparing the workforce for the type of skills that are needed on the market and by the business community.
We created the model of running a company while still at school which is the predecessor of modern start-ups and small companies and projects that grow organically from the environment, providing agile solutions for the future. JA has been a leader in the area of education. Its Company Programme is recognised by the European Commission as the best practice in the field of entrepreneurship education.
JA also established and promoted curricula for early-age financial literacy, providing critical knowledge and skills to students that help them navigate the current environment.
Which are the most important achievements of JA Bulgaria?
Since our establishment in 1997, we have partnered with the business community and the education institutions, introducing the right conditions and environment for teaching crucial skills and competences in Bulgaria.
We successfully introduced a curriculum that covers skills in technology and entrepreneurship in the secondary school system. So far, we have supported over 300,000 young people on their journey to mastering this competence.
We promote the development of these skills from a very early age, recognising the importance of gradual build-up of this competence. It is as important for young children as are the other major literacy skills, and it needs to become natural to them, allowing them to have the right abilities and approach to a very changing and dynamic environment.
We also created university-level programmes which give students the opportunity to establish their own start-ups and learn from their personal experience in the process.
The mini companies in the high schools and the start-ups in the universities are an outstanding model to see the world of business and entrepreneurship, to test and attain skills such as leadership, team building, critical thinking, creativity, imagination, problem solving. Since 1997, about 26,000 students were involved in the Company Programme.
We were involved in the creation of this country's entrepreneurial ecosystem. We supported Sofia Tech Park and established there a creative co-working space as a focal point where students can identify problems and develop ideas.
University students participate in JA Innovation Camp
This year you launched the NEETs in Entrepreneurship programme. Tell us more about it.
NEETs in Entrepreneurship addresses the isolation, and even alienation, of young people from employment and workforce opportunities. The problem is present in Bulgaria and some other European countries. Our approach is founded on our belief that the best way to address the problem is through providing training, education and opportunities for young people to develop entrepreneurial skills and to realise a project of their own. The best way is to be proactive and to engage people through experience, inspiring them to make the next step by themselves.
In the NEETs in Entrepreneurship programme we work with colleagues and partners from Norway, Romania, Italy, Spain and our European HQ. It is a multi-layer and multi-national approach. We will establish three hubs in Bulgaria's Northwest, Sofia and on the seaside. They will target the needs of young people who are outside education, training and employment. Young people will receive training and mentoring and they would be also able to network and exchange practices with peers from other involved countries.
How do you promote innovation?
Innovation is the buzzword of our time and JA is all about it. Innovation differentiates organisations that want to stay relevant, that are never happy with the status quo and want to move forward, pushing to foresee and invent the future.
We decided to act on that vision and we established a spin-off company, The Edge: R&BD, where we put all of our previous experience. We are working to employ the open innovation model to support corporations and institutions in their general business and digital transformation through the involvement of young researchers and university students. The Edge also supports start-ups and researchers in commercialising their technologies for the market. These are different sets of skills that researchers do not necessarily have.
Both start-ups and established companies need to constantly develop their skills and human capital in order to rise to the next level. Such organisations are not so common, as they need to have the right people with the right mind-set for innovation and learning.