Michał Tarnowski: Central Europe as a Niche for Social Entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurship can be a successful business and positive change to society. It is a great idea for startup models in CE. Are entrepreneurs able to help solve social issues? How civil service can be made a space where young people can thrive and use their talents for great social impact is discussed by the Aspen Leadership Award awardee Michał Tarnowski in an interview with AR publishing editor Jenda Žáček.

Jenda Žáček: You are involved in the start-up, edu-tech and NGO scene in Warsaw with a specific focus on civic education. How do you view the young Polish generation’s interest in democracy, public affairs and things around them?

Michał Tarnowski: I truly think this is a very interesting question, because one of the debates –when we talk about what is happening to democracy– is also how the problems resonate with youth and if young people are involved in these discussions at all. There is an interesting paradox that can be observed in Poland. There is, on the one hand, a rise of various initiatives that are run by youth touching upon social and public matters, which is great. On the other hand, if you look at the data, you do not see a significant shift in the political engagement of youth. This is puzzling because you have many more leaders and many more people personally involved, but in the context of the entire society you do not see the same process.

How do you feel about it? Is there social change ahead?

It is great that there is a young generation of people that want to get involved, but I do not believe that this is sufficient to drive social change. Having leaders and educating them – as for example Aspen Institute does – is great, but for their ideas to resonate with people you need a larger audience. So while there are interesting things taking place when it comes to political engagement and public interest by youth, the trend is not clear and I am a bit worried.

But I guess you have an idea how we might handle this…

One of the things we are doing as a civic knowledge academy is trying to tackle this problem, because it starts at the schools. You have civic education, which is this obligatory subject about civic knowledge and it should encompass both the explanation of how our state works but also encompass civic education. This subject is quite often not interesting for students and it does not fulfill its role of educating citizens.

This one subject probably will not shift this topic in general. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to incorporate the topic of civic education and democracy transversally in the entire educational system?

There are definitely tools that you could use to teach these matters, not only in classrooms but also for example in how schools operate. It is apparent at times that schools undertake this idea of becoming a democratic school and actually taking this seriously; they are becoming democratic in a meaningful way. They gather all sides and all stakeholders, so you have parents, teachers, school management and students all working together with certain committees, holding assemblies, discussing school matters and actually agreeing on school matters in a democratic way. I believe this is a great way to promote certain values of democratic behavior. 

And further…

I also believe that the way schools should work is to be structured in a way that inspires people to develop an interest in civic education and independently foster this interest, so they can, for example, follow this field as a career path or even just learn more. I also think that it is just as important to get people into mathematics.

It is just as important to have a place, a lesson, a time, where students can become inspired to learn more about the country they live in and about the political system they operate in.

In the larger scheme of things, I would try to structure the way we educate students so it is less oppressive and more focused on inspiring them. If students can grow inspired and become interested in the public sphere and politics it is a great role for schools to play.

Well, that’s the mission of Akademia Wiedzy Obywatelskiej which you founded, right?

We in fact see the topic of civic service creating the public policy or professional functioning of a state, which is something that is rarely mentioned in public debates. Second, these topics are not at all understood by the audience. As a result, citizens do not demand change with regards to these issues, because these issues are not perceived as important to them. Our primary goal is to change this, to work for better civil service and the understanding that civil service is an important thing. 

How will you do this?

We try to change the grand scheme of things that we are facing, we try to identify different areas in which we can attempt this change and then we find appropriate tools for working in these areas. We also believe that if we want to promote civil service as a space where young people can thrive and can use their talents for a great social cause with huge social impact, civil service also needs to be transformed. It has to be a place that provides these people with a pleasant environment. Although we are currently facing a situation where we can promote civil service as part of a whole system and as a potentially very interesting place for an employee, the way it is managed and the way it employs people is very old-school and tends to frighten young people and put them off. So, we are trying to change this step by step – by constructing an internship program that will work in a way that understands young people’s needs and provides a bridge between those interested in doing things in the public sphere and institutions with the biggest impact.

At the Civic Bootcamps you get young people together and meet politicians to talk in person and discuss things. Do you think that such a place could somehow bridge the fragmentation of society?

Not necessarily to be honest. I think there are other ways to do it and this is not the best way to tackle polarization. There are some parts of the bootcamp that allow it and some parts that do not. On the one hand, I think that we have somehow struggled to attain a good balance of applicants from different sides of the political spectrum, because of the way we function in these bubbles—not only on social media but also in terms of the institutions we cooperate with and rely on when promoting the application. It was a challenge for us to ensure that the representation of ideas among the participants was even. So, to make a meaningful change we have to strive next year to achieve a much more even distribution of ideas between the participants, because mostly we have people with liberal views, but the representation of people with conservative ideas was low. We are focused on civil service, because one of the ways to bridge the polarization is to find some common topics that we can agree on and discuss. It is apparent that when we talk to politicians in Poland, the mission of civil service resonates with both sides. We managed to successfully invite people from all sides and people generally understand this idea and found it worthy, so I find this thinking and talking about civil service to be quite an interesting topic to bridge the gap and get people together.

Do you find it difficult to run an NGO in Poland, compared to running your business or social entrepreneurship?

I find running both – for-profit organizations and NGOs – relatively easy in Poland in a sense that I find both society and the broader establishment quite open to new ideas. For the last two years, we have received a great deal of trust from the people in organizations that have been around for quite a long time and we have been able to build relationships with experienced institutions such as EFC Foundation (Roman Czernecki Educational Foundation). I also think, however, that we are capitalizing on a trend of hundreds and hundreds of young people who are extremely active and want to make a change and who are looking for vehicles to make this change come about. In our civic knowledge academy, we did not even push for recruiting new people, because we don’t have the management capacity. Despite this fact, our teams have grown a great deal and every week we have someone new contacting us if they could join us, not just by participating in an event but by co-creating it in a team.

Speaking of social entrepreneurship, was Steve Jobs a social entrepreneur? Since he was loved by millions and also hated by millions, his actions pushed society towards changes. So was he in your eyes a social entrepreneur?

Well, I cannot be sure, because I am interested in what kind of equilibrium and what kind of situation he was facing and was trying to change. I understand that his area of change was that people can use computers and can have access to technology with the goal of earning money through selling the technology in an accessible way. I do realize that the social impact of having access to technology which he had was truly great and he has definitely done a great deal of good for society. Although it may be a side effect, being a social entrepreneur is also a certain mindset.

Being honest about what kind of curve you are maximizing with your activity and the fact that you have managed to do something beneficial for society, while maximizing the profit curve, is amazing and great from the social perspective.

I realize there are a lot of counter-arguments from the social perspective. Part of social entrepreneurship is who you are and what you want to do and what kind of curve you are maximizing. Based on this understanding, I would not view Steve Jobs as a social entrepreneur, but would instead perceive him as a very successful entrepreneur who managed to have this great innovation that had this enormous impact on society.

Sometimes social entrepreneurship can be seen as just a fancy way of labeling a normal business or maybe a kind of greenwashing.

It can very often be masked this way and is similar to CSR in a sense that, yes, we want to be socially responsible and have good PR in line with what people are currently thinking. It is a good challenge for what you are asking now, because if you want to foster business organizations built on the idea of social entrepreneurship there is scope and there might be a temptation for many people to lose the social part of the project at some point. One of the explanations behind this is operational – we have set up an organization where we want to foster goals – a business goal and a social goal. Then you use external funding—be it from a VC, be it your own money, be it from an angel investor and imagine you are starting to scale. You might be facing these choices—we are employing a new person, so what is going to be their main area of focus? Will they be more involved in a team growing more on the business side or in a team working on our social aspects? This person is going to cost your company and you have to decide how you are going to spend these costs and which goal you want to foster. I think quite a few organizations might start giving up at this point and I believe this is a choice we will be facing in the future.

To me, a good understanding – not in an academic way but in more of a personal way – of social entrepreneurship and the values I attach to are something that need to remain your guiding light.

Either you stick to them, and you are serious about it or just at some point it is not going to happen. 

Is social entrepreneurship a way forward in Central Europe? How do you picture this process?

A number of regions and countries are looking for types of activities that could define them and obviously one of the biggest things that lots of countries, regions and cities are striving for right now is the great promise of a unicorn—of a one billion dollar start-up. Everyone would love to have a unicorn and countries are comparing themselves with other countries who have raised many unicorns, which has become such a huge symbol. Lots of decision makers, lots of institutions and the public have bought into this narrative. For some reason it is very important to produce as a society an entrepreneur that can construct a startup getting two hundred million dollars from some California based VC and they then get an evaluation of one billion and everyone thinks that this is splendid.

Sounds like you don’t like unicorns…

I usually try to challenge this idea. If something is broadly acknowledged then something is probably wrong or at least there is a challenge to be made. We have to think about how we want to define our region in the sense of what kind of success stories we want to have. This is probably more of a dream than a specific goal as of now, but shifting the attention may be slightly different from purely business oriented dreams. Central Europe is the region of social entrepreneurs, people that care about society, which is widely known as a place where social entrepreneurs can thrive, where there is a lot of knowledge and where people can foster these ideas.

Can you imagine a space where heavy industry is replaced by social entrepreneurship in Central Europe?

No, no. That would be just stupid. The smaller countries might find it useful every now and then to, as opposed to dominating the whole market on a whole sphere, find their own niche. I am not trying to suggest that we get rid of coal and replace it with ten young social entrepreneurs. If we look at different areas of how business develops or trends develop around the world, the startup scene is of course large, it receives a great deal of attention and people get very excited.

What I am trying to suggest for Central Europe is that it is quite reasonable to find a niche to position ourselves as leaders and specialists in a sub-area of the whole startup world.

You can have a discussion as to whether it is better to be a world center of gov-tech or maybe we should be the leaders of green technologies, of biotech. My argument would be, because I believe that social entrepreneurship is a great idea, that it should be applied to startup models because they allow for a lot of pivoting, a lot of restructuring of business models and a lot of experimenting. This could be one of the things we as a region could promote and focus on.

Do you see this just as a niche we as Central Europe could use or do you see special kind of skills or a historical context as to why we, as Central Europe, should be good in social entrepreneurship?

In countries where there is less trust of decentralized institutions in which we tend to organize things with some skepticism towards central institutions, the idea of mutual and self-help is something that could resonate with people. Paradoxically, the lack of trust toward central institutions which I am trying to change, could be used for the benefit of promoting social entrepreneurship: the ones that could help solve the social issues are the entrepreneurs themselves.

How should the national states foster social entrepreneurship?

One thing is channeling money towards the projects. Lots of projects rely on the funding either directly from central and state intuitions or indirectly from the EU. I do know that this kind of funding is always very structured—it is all very formal, based on very strict guidelines. You have all different steps and levels of state organizations that funding has to go through and there are always tons of documents. You need to fulfill very specific requirements.

There is a major threat. Once you start looking for social entrepreneurship ideas and you start funding them, you end up having hundreds of people that suddenly become social entrepreneurs. The truth is the idea does not resonate with them, it is just a way of getting money for their business and I don’t think the state institutions have the capacity to do the right screening. 

And education?

Apart from this, there would definitely be some educational work to be done earlier as if you are trying to incubate these sorts of ideas and supporting social entrepreneurship ideas, favoring them in the stage of early incubation, which is something that could be promising in the short term. This is the stage of development of a new startup, of a new company in which you can have some influence; on the way they think about it and also you can evaluate the ideas and see if people are genuine about their social goals. The infrastructure is in place either way because most of the countries have this understanding that we have a dream and that we want to have a unicorn. It is not as if we are building a whole new infrastructure from scratch, but it is a change in our paradigm of thinking.

A year ago you were granted the Aspen Central Europe Leadership Award, what does it mean to you?

In full honesty the award really pushed me into rethinking my style of leadership and me as a leader. I was a bit overwhelmed when I realized the gravity of the award. I took it seriously and it was taken seriously by my friends. I had a bit of imposter syndrome. It gave me a big burst of confidence and then it gave me a big burst in actually doing my work better.

When speaking of leadership—how do you perceive it? How do you apply leadership to yourself and your colleagues?

I think a great deal about trust between me and my coworkers and co-leaders. Everything I have done so far was done with my co-leaders, out of all my projects which I haven’t led anything entirely solo—be it business projects or NGOs. I always co-lead it with some friends and these relationships, based on profound trust, made it possible. Working and talking about trust is always transparent, because I can see significant change between working in an environment that very much revolves around trust and working in an environment where talking about trust was not really present. I see a significant difference when it comes to how we communicate with each other and how openly we communicate. I genuinely try to take a great deal of responsibility for my team and ensure they trust me and rely on me. Then it becomes difficult because I think a lot about how they feel in the company and if their tasks meet their expectations. This is especially the case in an NGO where no one gets paid, and there is a great deal of expectation management. It is also a bit easier, we all work for a mission we believe in and make sure everyone understands it.

Jenda Žáček

is a freelance brand strategist—consultant, lecturer, and communicator. He helps others with development & company strategy, campaigns, communications & PR, political marketing and NGOs. He joined the Aspen Institute in 2016 and was responsible for overall communications and the rebranding in 2017. Now he is the Publishing Editor of the Aspen Review and led the magazine redesign.

In the past, Jenda served as Spokesperson of Junák—Czech Scouting, Head of PR department and Spokesperson of the Czech Ministry of Agriculture or the Head of Communication and Spokesperson at the Czech Green Party. Today he is freelance. Jenda is active in the topics of communication studies and media ownership. He graduated from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University in Prague in marketing communication & public relations, and media studies.

Michał Tarnowski

describes himself as an entrepreneur both in the business and in the nonprofit organisations world. He worked on improving access to higher education as the director of Project Access Poland – an NGO that provides pro bono educational consulting to Polish high school students from underprivileged backgrounds. He co-founded two educational platforms: Nativated.com and Nauczeni.pl. He is currently developing Akademia Wiedzy Obywatelskiej (AWO)–an NGO which aims at transforming civic education in Poland. His team is running a nationwide project “WOS Masterclass” within which they invite top Polish politicians, academics and public sector professionals to act as teachers and prepare online classes for teenagers, which they distribute among over 500 schools. The NGO also organises the Civil Bootcamp–an event for 40 high school students aimed at raising future value-driven leaders in the public sector.

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