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Breaking the Mold: How Teenovator Prepares Teenagers for Life Beyond School

Zornitsa Mitkova, managing director of Teenovator adressing teenagers during Demo Day
Image credit: Zornitsa Mitkova, the Managing Director of Teenovator says the program acts like a bridge between the startup ecosystem, the business community, and high schools. 
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We all know someone like Alex – a graduating high school student with a big smile and a thirst for knowledge, who had spent his teenage years within the familiar walls of one of the few schools in town. However, as graduation day approaches, it becomes clear that something crucial is missing: Alex is not prepared to navigate the complexities of the real world.

In a rapidly changing and competitive world, equipping young people with the skills and mindset needed to succeed has become critical. Recognizing this need, the Teenovator program in Bulgaria has emerged as a transformative force, fostering entrepreneurial thinking and providing practical training to empower the next generation of innovators and leaders.

The Teenovator program serves as a crucial link, connecting professionals from various fields with high school students eager to explore the world of entrepreneurship. Founded in 2018 as a  pilot initiative in four Sofia schools, the program has now expanded to include participants from 30 different Bulgarian cities.

Right now, Teenovator is holding its fifth season which is about to culminate with the Final Competition on May 20th. Nearly 600 high school entrepreneurs, organized in 80 teams, will pitch the business projects they have been working on for the past nine months together with their mentors. 

For the past 5 years, Teenovator has ignited the entrepreneurial spark in 1.6K students and has managed to attract the support of nearly 200 mentors. 

In a conversation with Zornitsa Mitkova, the Managing Director of Teenovator, we gained valuable insights into the program’s mission and impact and explored why extracurricular programs are such a valuable addition to formal school education. 

“My background as a communications and PR expert and my nature are devoted to connecting the dots between different target groups and spheres of society. What really attracted me to the Teenovator mission is the opportunity to connect one very sensitive target group – namely Bulgarian teenagers, with people from various business spheres who are shaping our society. Teenovator is something that mirrors my values and personal mission,” Zornitsa explains. 

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Practical education for real-world success

“Entrepreneurial education is actually part of the curriculum of some Bulgarian high schools. And even though it is more theoretical, it is a great way to ignite the students’ interest in developing their own businesses. Teenovator, however, is something that could not be put in school. This program is built to be happening outside of the formal classroom because it is meant to be practical, experimental, and challenging,” she says. 

Teenovator goes beyond traditional education by focusing on practical training to complement formal schooling. Recognizing that the conventional education system may fall short in preparing students for the challenges they will face post-graduation, Teenovator fills this gap by offering practical knowledge, real-world experience, and networking opportunities that schools often overlook. By connecting students with the business community through mentors, the program opens their horizons and helps them realize their potential.

“To me, Teenovator is not only an educational program, but more of a practical program. The traditional education system at school cannot give teenagers enough knowledge and experience for what awaits them after school. High school students currently need to build their professional and social networks a lot earlier than the Millennial generation had to. In addition, they also need to shape their vision for future career development horizons a lot earlier. By offering them contact with the business community through their mentors, we help them identify what the business market really offers,” Zornitsa adds. 

Building a bridge between today’s leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs

“We have built a strong community of professionals supporting the program such as lecturers, speakers, and workshop facilitators, including the Bulgarian football star Dimitar Berbatov, and Prof. Martin Vechev, the architect of The Institute for Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence and Technology (INSAIT), who will be a special guest speaker at the Teenovtor Demo Day,” Zornitsa tells us.  

To bridge the gap between young talent and established leaders, the program not only offers guidance on various entrepreneurial aspects but also provides students with networking opportunities.

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How Teenovator instills personal responsibility?

When asked about the most important skill or mindset young people need to develop as successful entrepreneurs, Zornitsa highlighted personal responsibility. Teenovator emphasizes this crucial skill by assigning specific roles to students within teams, mimicking real-life startup dynamics. By holding students accountable for their contributions and showcasing the impact of their work on the team’s overall performance, Teenovator nurtures personal responsibility and resilience.

“I have recognized that young people lack this essential skill because in school they can go without having homework and nothing serious happens. In Teenovator every step of the journey is important. We don’t aim to make our participants become good at everything but instead, we want them to specialize and embrace their role within their teams. It is such a joy to observe how this empowers them,” Zornitsa shares. 

Teenovator has already left a positive mark on the Bulgarian entrepreneurship landscape, with success stories of alumni making a real impact in their communities. Edubots, a team that developed educational robotics packages, secured angel investment. Another inspiring example is IcePro, a protein ice cream business that won the third season of the Teenovator program and entered the accelerator program of Vitosha Venture Partners. 

Collaboration and growth for a stronger ecosystem

Teenovator recognizes the importance of collaboration in creating a robust ecosystem of support for young people. The program acts as a bridge between the startup ecosystem, the business community, and high schools. 

Looking ahead, Teenovator envisions expanding its impact to smaller Bulgarian cities. The program aims to establish local chapters and clubs across the country, engaging “shakers and makers” who can become mentors and facilitate growth in their communities.

“In addition, we are aiming to have our curriculum vetted by an international university or institution which is related to entrepreneurship. We would also like to partner with organizations for physical activity, sports, and mental health, as well as to start working more closely with parents and provide increased training to our mentors,” Zornitsa concludes.

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With aspirations to reach 1,200 participants in year six and 10,000 participants by its tenth anniversary, Teenovator aims to reach more and more Bulgarian teenagers and engage them in the business and social world through the power of entrepreneurship.

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Elena is an Innovation Reporter at The Recursive, an online media dedicated to the emerging tech and startup ecosystems in Southeast Europe. She is keen on sharing the innovation stories that shape the regional ecosystem and has a great interest in fintech, IoT, and biotech startups. Elena is currently finishing her Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration and Political Science at the American University in Bulgaria.