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Bridging East and West to Foster Entrepreneurial Spirit Among Students in Europe: Piotr Wołejsza

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Piotr Wołejsza, Project Manager of the More Entrepreneurial Life at European Schools (MELES), an Erasmus+ funded initiative, got a taste of the University of Luxembourg Incubator, as well as Luxembourg at large on a recent visit. Silicon Luxembourg had the chance to ask him a few questions. Check out what this Stanford-educated Polish native thinks of the Grand Duchy below!
(Featured Image: Dr Piotr Wołejsza / Image Credit © Wydzial Informatyki Politechnika Bialostocka)
Tell us a little more about the More Entrepreneurial Life at European Schools (MELES) initiative.

The program is run by a network of universities from four European countries (Poland, Germany, Greece and Portugal). It aims to bring creativity and soft leadership skills to technical universities. Today, we see an overwhelming focus on hard sciences and the hard skills needed to succeed in them, which leaves many soft skills forgotten. Given that employers consider soft skills as essential to success, we saw a need to work on this traditional curriculum.

“The MELES initiative is working to solve this problem using team-building, leadership, public speaking, and design-thinking.”

The problem is that students come out with degrees and knowledge, but no idea how to put that knowledge into action with other people. I’ve seen it time and again at Polish and other European universities.

The MELES initiative is working to solve this problem using team-building, leadership, public speaking, and design-thinking. As you can probably guess, we started with creativity as a foundational principle.

Being a part of the MELES program doesn’t mean students have to start a company. Soft skills are needed in just about any professional life. But if students do want to start a company, they will have a really hard time without soft skills.

If students are really interested in starting company, there is an advanced MELES course available at the master’s level. In addition to the creative, soft-skill oriented curriculum of MELES, this master’s level MELES 2.0 program provides students with Individual coaching.

When a team of researchers and/or students approaches us with an idea, MELES evaluates what they need—whether it be networking, coaching, or refinement of concept. The MELES 2.0 professional coaching is pure Socratic coaching—we just ask the hard questions that force the team to find an answer. We call this ABC: Academic Business Coaching.

We ran the MELES program from 2014-17, and MELES 2.0 has been going since September 2017 to the present, ABC MELES 2.0, and we expect to deliver all our outputs by May 2020.

“I was very impressed by the University of Luxembourg Incubator’s speed of development. The university is so young, yet already so well-ranked. That has obviously trickled down into the incubator.”

You recently visited Luxembourg’s own University Incubator. Did you discover any strong points? Places for improvement?

Yes! I was very impressed by the University of Luxembourg Incubator’s speed of development. The university is so young, yet already so well-ranked. That has obviously trickled down into the incubator. In just six months, it has already hosted projects that became real startups and connected students from around the world into the Luxembourgish professional community.

I think what stood out to me most was the range of targeted student body. It’s literally directed to the whole university—all students.

I also took a particular liking to the three pillars: inspire (for those who aren’t yet ready to build, similar to what we work on with MELES), develop (which I consider to be an integral result of the MELES 2.0 coaching), and venture (which is, I suppose, what all entrepreneurs want).

I was only there for two hours of our 4-day trip, so I don’t have any critiques to give!

What did you think of the campus? People from the outside often love or hate the contemporary architecture.

Belval was fantastic. The combination between the old factories and new buildings was great. Both my family and I loved it!

“Well, I have a startup, which was established in 2013 (Sup4Nav LLC). Going through the process, I know how hard it is to do. At that point in time there were not many spinoffs. Everything was organic.”

What about Luxembourg as a whole?

Well, we took a river cruise on the Mosel, and we went to Schengen, the Vianden Castle, and the beautiful, small town of Esch-sur-Sûre. Public transportation is very well developed—for a very low price you can go anywhere.

What’s most bizarre is how fast you can move between cultures. In 20 minutes, I can reach France walking through Germany (in the case of Schengen).

In sum, we really enjoyed our stay!

What brought you to lead the MELES effort?

Well, I have a startup, which was established in 2013 (Sup4Nav LLC). Going through the process, I know how hard it is to do. At that point in time there were not many spinoffs. Everything was organic.

After experiencing the difficulties of paperwork, proofing the concept, and the overall challenging nature of leading, as well as seeing many projects dwindle out, I realized there was a need to help recently graduated entrepreneurs.

In essence, I guess it was inspiration that sort of bubbled to the surface from personal experience.

“My goal is to gather different experiences from different countries in conveying soft skills and entrepreneurial spirit to students and bring it all together. We believe that cooperation between these cultures is key to growth.”

What inspired the choice of Portugal, Greece, Poland and Germany as the base four countries?

We would like to have geographic impact that stretches across the different areas in Europe. We are all from Europe, but we are not the same. Cultures vary wildly.

As it is, we’ve got the West, the East, and the South. We would like to move north as well, perhaps incorporating a Scandinavian country into the program.

My goal is to gather different experiences from different countries in conveying soft skills and entrepreneurial spirit to students and bring it all together. We believe that cooperation between these cultures is key to growth.

What are your main pedagogic techniques?

I mentioned this briefly above. We have two different programs: MELES and MELES 2.0.

“We lead students to find the way. Together, the MELES and MELES 2.0 programs give students critical knowledge into the non-academic side of running a business, as well as the soft skills to do so.”

MELES focuses on creativity techniques. We use, for example, the design-thinking method, general lectures and exercises, and outdoor excursions to do leadership and team-building games. In fact, the output for MELES was an eBook, which includes 45 hours of teaching work, with teachers’ additional comments behind each PowerPoint slide.

MELES 2.0 is obviously more intensive, as it is geared towards the master’s level. Our Academic Business Coaching method is designed to spur thought in students. They don’t just need the knowledge and experience we can provide, but powerful questions that make them think.

Often referred to as the Socratic method, this is the same way philosophy and legal courses are sometimes taught. The process is tough, but it brings students to a new level of critical reasoning.

In the end, we lead students to find the way. Together, the MELES and MELES 2.0 programs give students critical knowledge into the non-academic side of running a business, as well as the soft skills to do so.

Where do you see the program in 5 years?

For MELES specifically, I’m not quite sure. I hope, however, that at each department in European Universities there will be someone like an ABC academic coach—a person to whom everyone can come for advice and questions regarding projects or business development.

The MELES team truly believes that this will facilitate research and student development and is the key to bringing university projects to life. We invite universities interested in participating to our initiatives to contact us at: p.wolejsza@am.szczecin.pl.

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