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Workshop for Change

Inside a converted Berlin brewery unfolds the story of two change agents, a struggle between tradition and possibility, and one actionable vision: To craft an entirely new form of German education.

They drafted their personal manifesto on board an emotional roller coaster.

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Seven years ago, Christian Schulte and Ralph Naumann were fed up with the rigid curriculum of traditional German institutions, disillusioned by prospects of a traditional corporate job, inspired by a student organization of free thinkers, and empowered by the enterprise of each other. The mental ride was long, frenzied, even volatile, but in the end it led them to a powerful endeavor: To pioneer a German entrepreneurial school and implement a groundbreaking educational philosophy in their native land.

The harbinger and herald of Schulte and Naumann’s progressive mindset, The Pioneer Workshop — a non-profit educational organization for entrepreneurs — is scheduled to open its doors this October with an inaugural class of 30 students. Aged 20 to 32, the workshop’s recruits will embark on a three-year entrepreneurial program in a most nontraditional classroom — rented space in a converted Berlin brewery. Those students, though not yet enrolled, will likely share Schulte and Naumann’s passion for the unconventional, unpaved career path.

“We want young pioneers — people who dream of starting their own companies,” Schulte says. “Most likely, they haven’t developed the skills or confidence to act on that dream just yet. They may lack the great idea for a startup but they still want to be leaders, entrepreneurs, and doers who make a meaningful impact on society.”

Pioneer Workshop does not intend to compete with or replace German universities but complement them. The need for a practical approach to education, based on a team-oriented, in-the-trenches, entrepreneurial curriculum was apparent to Schulte and Naumann even as young students in the German school system. By the time they reached business management classes at the university level, the necessity for such a program became painfully clear.

“Professors never encouraged us to think for ourselves,” says Schulte, 29. “We just repeated what they had thought for us, failing to challenge ideas and produce our own creative solutions to problems. We didn’t even consider real-world problems. We just learned about business theories in lectures and seminars, then regurgitated those abstract ideas on the exam.” Naumann, 28, calls that curriculum “storehouse knowledge,” a mental file of opinions amassed from professors’ lectures. In stark contrast, he looks for academic models and inspiration in other areas of study, namely the sciences, where students are encouraged to discuss ideas with their professors because the classes are small and conducive to open dialogue.

Two years ago, at the culmination of their university studies, Schulte and Naumann kicked into high gear years of casual brainstorming. They began to hone a seemingly pie-in-the-sky idea into a plausible innovation, a compelling strategic plan. The source of their inspiration was AIESEC, the world’s largest student organization and real-world training ground for future leaders, change agents, and entrepreneurs who learn by spending honest time in the community, translating personal ideas into practice, and realizing once unrealized dreams.

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An international model of working change agents, AIESEC has motivated Schulte and Naumman to recruit a global student body that can feed off its own diversity and enthusiasm. AIESEC also encouraged Schulte and Naumann to build and promote a three-year academic program designed to infuse its students with entrepreneurial skills and acumen, a resourceful business network, and a lifelong commitment to accepting personal responsibility for their lives and humanity. That proposal alone is a progressive — and curiously provocative — divergence from traditional German academia.

“The current education system teaches students to succeed by organizing life in terms of what they should do to get ahead, rather than what they want to do,” Schulte says. “But they fail to learn a vital lesson: Learning how to explore, identify, then seek out what’s deeply important to them.”

For all of those reasons, Pioneer Workshop’s learning won’t be confined to the classroom. An important part of the off-site curriculum will consist of “traineeships” or internships at companies in various countries. And professors won’t be professors in the conventional sense. They will represent a cross-section of community leaders, business experts, philosophers, free agents, policy makers, and social activists who will compose a network of resources and expert instruction based on the specific skills and interests of students. This unique — and distinctly un-German — learning concept will allow students to study what they want, providing a strikingly tailored education that requires their input and sense of initiative. Adjunct professors, or “learning coaches,” will join in to guide ad-hoc discussion groups, give lectures, oversee projects, and serve as mentors. Theoretically, students interested in Web branding for a marketing project will call upon the expertise of a professional online advertiser who has volunteered to teach a weeklong seminar on the subject. And while the program can’t grant a formal degree at the end of three years, it can provide a resourceful business network for launching startups, forging partnerships, landing great jobs, even promoting social responsibility.

While they pounded out the conceptual logistics of the Pioneer Workshop, Schulte and Naumann sought advice and affirmation from a network of business leaders, government officials, educators, colleagues, and friends. Like most risky ventures, the Pioneer Workshop relied heavily on a close circle of confidantes who encouraged Schulte and Naumann to move forward with their change effort for the sake of the German educational system. Others gradually rallied around the new learning platform as the idea materialized.

Although fundraising efforts started in August, and still have a long way to go, the two-man team is fiercely optimistic about securing all necessary funds in time. Schulte and Naumann hope to secure funding from the European Union through a new campaign designed to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in European countries by funding initiatives under an umbrella budget of about $1.5 billion. Schulte has roughly budgeted $2 million for the next three years, and is resolute about securing those funds before the Pioneer Workshop opens its doors next fall. If they cannot acquire $2 million, Schulte and Naumann say they will postpone the program’s official start date.

Critics and change resisters in Germany’s traditional economy represent the most formative obstacle wedged against Pioneer Workshop and its funding. And the toughest foe remains the theoretical and scientific slant of German education. Because academia favors hard science, the majority of educational funding is piped into that curriculum. But Schulte and Nauman say actions speak louder than theories — and their ability to secure funding from the private sector and recruit an inaugural class will forecast the future success of the Pioneer Workshop.

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In some ways, recruiting 30 students by October next year signifies an even bigger hurdle than fundraising. Germans aren’t inclined to take risks, Schulte says, yet the pioneer program cannot thrive without gamblers. Grooming young people to take risks starts with self-confidence, a basic foundation that most German students severely lack because of the “storehouse knowledge” approach to education, Naumann says. He claims that storehouse knowledge stifles not only personal growth but individual vision as well. And, more importantly, he aims to change a thing or two.

“We want people to realize their potential and broaden their sense of possibility,” Naumann says. “When you have the chance to meet your borderlines, then move beyond them, you’re much more aware and confident about what you can and cannot do. Only then can you really determine personal risk.”

Return to Profiles in Change

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