Skip to main content

Ustvarjalnik and the pursuit of brighter futures for EU high school students

Originally published October 14, 2014

If someone from 1914 visited the western world today, he or she would undoubtedly be overwhelmed by the tremendous changes that have occurred within our daily lives. Today’s commonplace approaches to transportation, medicine, business and entertainment are all the results of near constant evolutions over the past one hundred years. Education, however, is still almost unchanged. Its current practices are, for the most part, identical in nature to those it employed during the early part of the twentieth century.

Sure, students may have access to personal computers, video conferencing, digital whiteboards and vast digital databases, but the core pedagogical strategies remain fixed upon the notion that it is best to pour knowledge into students, usually by a single instructor. Students are then asked to regurgitate their new knowledge into an assessment output such as a test or essay.

In terms of preparing students for standardized testing, this approach provides mixed results, at best. In terms of preparing students for the workplace, this approach is borderline criminal given that there are scarce job titles that incorporate the near rote memorization and recitation of facts and principals.

SFL is always investigating more constructive approaches to teaching and we found an interesting project in Slovenia called, Ustvarjalnik or builder. Led by a group of young professionals, Ustvarjalnik is an academic program that works with high schools to help students to design and to launch their own businesses in the EU. While the project is not completely unique, it does posses the vital ethos of practicality that eludes most educational programs in America.

SFL had the chance to pose questions to one of Ustvarjalnik’s founder’s, Matija Golijar, with the hope of learning more about the project, its objectives and its results. Upon reflection, it is quite clear that many administrators and instructors in America are ignoring gaps in education that can be filled easily in meaningful ways without impacting budgets or upsetting established curricular schedules.

If a college drop-out can convince former communist, high school principals to create entrepreneurship programs, then why in the hell is it so hard to do the same in the United States?

SFL: Prior to your work with Ustvarjalnik, what is your background in education?

Matija Goljar: I’ve done a lot of volunteer work during high school and most of it had to do with youth work. I was a member of the National Youth Council and I worked in summer camps with disabled children as a ski instructor where I developed teaching skills aimed at young people. I am currently a licensed trainer for non-formal education.

Matija Goljar, Founder, Ustvarjalnik

SFL: When did you start your first company?

Goljar: I dropped out of college to start my first company, but even before that, I helped out in the family business (My mother runs a midsized accounting business). My first startup launched when I was 19 and I sold it at 22. After that, I joined several other startups, but by that time, Ustvarjalnik was already my main occupation.

SFL: How did you think of the idea for your program?

Goljar: It is incredibly difficult to create and launch a startup when you are young, have no business knowledge and no peers that would have ever done anything similar. Growing up in a small mining town in an ex-communist country, I did not know anyone that was doing anything similar. It was hard. Business is not something you can learn by reading books or in school. Somebody needs to tell you the secrets. Luckily for me, I had the family business background, my mother became my mentor‚ but I was in a huge minority. And there were many people with talents that could be put on the market, but there was a real lack of business skills.

SFL: Who is your target audience with this program?

Goljar: We are a complement to the existing school curriculum, accepting students that wish to try out entrepreneurship as an extra-curricular activity in the last two years of high school. In Slovenia, that is 16-18 year-olds.

SFL: Why is there a need for Ustvarjalnik in Slovienia?

Goljar: In Slovenia (and in Europe in general), youth unemployment is huge. The last economic crisis really showed there are big problems in getting the young people on the job market. I am certain this generation is by far the most privileged in the history of the world‚ we are the most educated, the most mobile, we have access to the most information, we have free time, we are prosperous‚ but shockingly, this generation is also the most passive, the most afraid about its future. For many years all the authorities have been telling us, ‘Just do well in school. Have decent grades. Finish college and you will have a good job.’ Unfortunately, these things are not true anymore. The jobs are simply not here anymore. We need to create them. And different skills are needed for this, than are being taught in schools. This is what we ultimately want to convey to the young generation: they alone will need to create employment opportunities for themselves, and they need to start getting different skills.

SFL: When did you start Ustvarjalnik?

Goljar: After founding my first company, I was asked to give a talk to students at the school in my hometown. Only two students showed up, but it was fun, and they invited me back. The next year, they invited me to run a weekly entrepreneurship club, and that is where everything started. In the next year, there were two clubs. Last year, there were eight, and now we have our programs in 52 high schools, which is a third of the school system in Slovenia. We deliberately picked a wide array of schools: technical, grammar schools, religious schools, etc.

Of our 52 programs currently running, 6 are already integrated into the official curriculum. They are fully accredited, and our mentors work alongside with teachers to also grade the students. I believe this is a trend that will increase.

SFL: Where else do you plan to take your program?

Goljar: After reaching this level in Slovenia, we aim to expand our activities abroad. Our goal is to pilot our program in 4-5 new geographies in the 2014/15 academic year. We are going to focus on European countries initially, but we are very open to the idea of spreading worldwide.

SFL: What are the guiding educational principles behind the approaches Ustvarjalnik uses?

Goljar: The first months of our program focus on attaining the soft skills required to start a venture. We then shift our focus to creativity and idea generation. We move on to focus on implementation, teamwork, project management, prototyping and presentation. We firmly believe in experiential learning‚ this is why a significant amount of the work students conduct takes place outside of the classroom.

For example, the very first task our students get is to take a picture with the Mayor of their town. They have to go to the City Hall and convince the people there to get the photo. They almost always succeed with the task, and this motivates and empowers them to set higher goals for themselves. The challenges then become more and more difficult, until the end of the year, when they launch their own company.

One more important thing to note is that creating the business startup is only the vessel of learning and not the end-goal of Ustvarjalnik. By going through the process of creating a startup, we can touch upon the many of the skills that are necessary for success in the job market of the 21st century.

After the end of the program, we want the students to confidently state their life goals and be optimistic that they will be able to achieve them. They will have obtained the skills and the experience to succeed in whatever they set out to do because they have already started a company in their teenage years.

We empower them to become self-starters.

SFL: Describe the process students work through within Ustvarjalnik.

Goljar: The most important behavior change happens when they experience first-hand that it is possible to succeed in their endeavors. We give them a lot of practical tasks that become more and more difficult in nature. In some sense, the process looks like the TV show‚ ‘The Apprentice’. They sell cookies on the street, send a letter to a famous person to get a reply, create a viral video, and so on. Then, at some point, the facilitator will start to switch the discussions toward potential business opportunities and outline the way an entrepreneur thinks about them. Usually, really interesting business ideas begin springing out of students around that time. After this point, the dynamic shifts a bit. The mentor becomes their business advisor, helping with suggestions, contacts and advice while the students pursue their startup. At the end of the year, we organize a competition among all the clubs where they pitch the ideas to a panel of investors and businesspeople. This experience gives them opportunity to work on their presentation skills as well as their planning techniques. The winners go and visit Silicon Valley in California as a reward, which only further motivates them. In the past, two of our student teams got seed investment for their ventures.

SFL: Do you believe ‘soft skills’ are taught properly in traditional schools?

Goljar: Unfortunately, this is a big issue in the educational system, particularly here, in Eastern Europe. Schools in general are very academic. They put great emphasis on theory at the expense of teaching practical experiences. We want to complement this approach, as we believe the school system is not the enemy; instead we can achieve the best results when we partner up to teach both approaches in equal measure. Our students tell us this is what they like best about our program: they learn many things in school, but here they are able to put it all into practice within Ustvarjalnik.

SFL: How does team building factor into your program?

Goljar: We did not consciously include team building into our curriculum, but all of our activities are team-oriented. One thing that I notice, and is striking, is the fact that students from different teams are happy to help each other out despite the fact they compete for the end-of-year prize.

SFL: How many mentors participate within your program?

Goljar: We have a fantastic pool of 35 mentors, young entrepreneurs that come from the same region where they run the entrepreneurship clubs. We encourage them to take the roles of big brothers or sisters or friends that have business experience and are happy to share it to their younger peers. A fair amount of them are our alumni, who see that they have benefited from the program and now want to give that experience back to the next generation.

SFL: What have been some of the unexpected obstacles that your program has experienced?

Goljar: The biggest bottlenecks are the school principals. In Slovenia, people have a very negative view on entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. This comes from the years of the communist mentality where collectivism and egalitarianism was the norm and everything ‘private’ was frowned upon. In order to start the program at a school, the principal must sign off on this, and often times they tell us they will not allow business to deface their schools, because they teach humanist values that are incompatible with capitalism.

SFL: What have been some of the unexpected successes that your program has experienced?

Goljar: From the very start, we could tell we were doing something impactful. The difference between our students and the rest of the population is sometimes striking. But one thing that is most important for me, personally, is the fact that so many of our students have become our friends and they are now a part of Ustvarjalnik’s community. We have become much more than just an after-school program. Our students go to holidays together, have become friends, help each other with their endeavors. These ties will not go away and I expect in a few years, when they become successful, we will be an important and influential network.

SFL: How many start-ups have been created thus far?

Goljar: We have data for the last academic year: out of 89 participants, 15 startups were formed, two of which have gotten investments. This year, we have already seen 25 startups formed, but the program is not over yet.

SFL: What types of start-up business have been created through your program?

Goljar: There really is no single type or rule. IT, services, technical, design‚ etc. One thing that is surprising is the high level of ventures that want to do social good: charities or social enterprises. More than 15% are in this category.

SFL: What levels of success have the start-ups achieved?

Goljar: We want the startups to achieve a product-market fit and earn at least one euro within our program. In 2013, two startups got seed investment and both are still active, and the combined annual revenue of all of them is just shy of 16.000euro. Some might say this is not much, but we are talking about teenagers. We need to stress that this is still, first and foremost, a learning experience for them. I can’t wait to see what happens with them when they are a bit older. I expect them to be very, very successful.

SFL: Did you reach your $15,500 contribution goal to attend the Unreasonable Institute?

Goljar: The organizers of the Institute were kind enough to provide us with a fundraising platform that allowed us to accept contributions that would cover our costs of travel and accommodation while we visit Boulder, CO. Without this opportunity we would have had to pay for all the costs ourselves, something we were already preparing for when we applied. We were overwhelmed and humbled by the generosity of all the contributors that donated us over 50% of all the costs. This really helps us, as we invest all the profits back into the organization and our programs for the youth.

SFL: Describe how you plan to work with the Unreasonable Institute?

Goljar: We hope Unreasonable Institute will help us to scale our initiative globally. We are looking forward to meeting the mentors whose books and articles we read in the past. We hope to gain invaluable contacts to improve our program, and we expect to attract investment that will help us to spread and reach the goal of positively impacting the lives of a million people.

SFL: What are your plans beyond today?

Goljar: We hope to expand through a franchise model into 4-5 geographies in the next few years.

SFL: How can people assist your program in reaching more students?

Goljar: Everyone that feels he or she can contribute or would like to start a chapter of our entrepreneurship club in their local school will soon be able to do so. We will publish all the guidelines and materials soon. If you want to be notified when we make these available, you should email me at

2020 Update: Ustvarjalnik is active and growing today.