Interview with Junior Achievement mentor: On Estonia's student companies
In a written interview given to ERR News, veteran Junior Achievement student mentor Madis Vodja, a Tallinn native who was most recently mentor to Junior Achievement Estonia's 2016 winning student company Spoony, provided insight into what Junior Achievement is, what the program's mentors do, how Estonian student companies can compete for national and European titles as well as a bit of advice for aspiring student or small business-owners in Estonia.
What is Junior Achievement Europe? Have we seen or heard of their handiwork or work influenced by it?
Junior Achievement Europe is part of a worldwide organization called Junior Achievement, which was founded in the US in 1919; from there it has spread all over the world. The member organizations in Europe organize economics and entrepreneurship education in schools in their respective countries and hold different competitions together. The best-known program is the student company program, but there are several others as well, spanning all school levels.
Estonian companies have been very successful in the European competitions, and some have also carried on activities after completing the program. For instance, the Valemivihik ("Formula Copybook") is a direct descendant of a student company that produced similar notebooks. From recent years, the Three Little Pigs continue to organize science shows for younger children as well.
In recent years, there have been at least five companies each spring who have taken their ideas and experiences straight to the business world. More common, however, is that alumni of the student company program start their own businesses a few years later with a completely different idea.
Are any Junior Achievement alumni famous in Estonia today?
Karoli Hindriks, now at the head of Jobbatical, a worldwide labor exchange portal, ran her own reflector business for ten years. Current Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas and Minister of Health and Labor Jevgeni Ossinovski are also both alumni of Junior Achievement programs.
How did you get involved in becoming a Junior Achievement mentor? What does the job entail?
You can become a mentor for student companies after finishing training with Junior Achievement Estonia; this is to ensure that all companies adhere to all the rules set forth for them. The mentor's role varies considerably: with some companies you only meet with the students maybe once a month and share your own experiences with them; others need more guidance. The job basically involves making sure that the students are kept on the right path. This does not mean that they are not allowed to make mistakes! Rather, it is so that they don't get into trouble navigating the business world alone and without guidance.
How are student companies chosen on the national level — does Junior Achievement Estonia seek them, or do they seek Junior Achievement Estonia?
Usually Junior Achievement Estonia-certified teachers let their students know about the programs. Every year, however, there are a few companies that contact JA directly and seek mentors in order to participate in the student company program.
What does the annual cycle of Junior Achievement Europe's Company of the Year Competition (CoYC) look like?
Each year, hundreds of student companies are formed all over Estonia; last year that number was 299. These companies produce their products or offer their services, participate in trade fairs, market themselves, find other selling opportunities, apply for certificates if necessary and do another hundred little things that a real company would do. Of these companies, around 50 try to make it to the final competition — but you can be very successful in your company and choose not to compete!
From those 50 or so companies, around 20 are chosen, based on their annual reports, to compete in the final competition. All in all, they must compete in four categories: a ten-page annual report, a four-minute onstage presentation, a sales pitch at their company stand as well as a panel interview. The jury, which consists of Estonian businesspeople, then chooses the country's best student company, which is granted the honor of representing Estonia at European competitions. For that one company, some of the hardest work yet lays ahead: they must be ready to explain every minute detail of their company to an international jury.
Does the market in Estonia offer any distinct advantages to its student companies?
Estonia's small size has very distinct pros and cons. On one hand, it is easy to develop a country-wide network for your product or service. It is also easy to directly access the decision-makers and owners of real companies. On the other hand, the market is limited and at some point you will have to look outside of it if you want to grow. It is an ideal place to start a small company if you consider it a testing ground — you can try out new products, marketing campaigns and sales strategies here without the financial peril of a bigger market.
Do you have any particular advice for aspiring small business-owners based on what you've seen with JA?
It doesn't matter if you are at the head of a large corporation or a small startup: be professional, be punctual, be precise! People will appreciate it. At the same time, have fun! Starting a company is not easy but it can be very rewarding. Do not forget why you are doing it!
Following up on this year's Company of the Year Competition in Lucerne, how did Estonian student company Spoony do, and are they still in business?
Spoony was excellent! It was not only the most professional and businesslike student company in Estonia this year, but in my opinion in all of Europe as well — and I've seen a lot of competitions. Unfortunately, the judges put more emphasis on innovation than actual performance this year — it is usually the other way around — and awarded the win to Danish company SubReader instead. Still, after a very successful year financially, Spoony is continuing to operate as an LLC, and I am confident that their sweets will be around for years to come.