• Empowering children through sports

    Croatian project Allegria aims to make sport accessible to children from low income families. Read here about how a strong-willed Croatian set out to improve the life of her community.

    With a serious dose of determination and lots of good will, the one-time European Taekwondo champion and aspiring social entrepreneur Mateja Pančelat (25) made it all the way to the finals of the Social Impact Award in Zagreb last year. Even though her idea of using sport to empower underprivileged children wasn’t awarded a prize, the setback hasn’t affected her faith in her project or her convictions.

    Inspired by her own roots

    Growing up in a rural village, Mateja Pančelat had no access to sport till she turned 15, when she finally started to train in Taekwondo. “My parents had a tough life working in agriculture and had neither money nor time to enroll me in the sport course I wanted,” she laments. With passion and relentless effort, she nevertheless earned her black belt and won an international competition in 2009, a path that forged her character and conviction.

    Through her experience, Mateja came to believe that sport nurtures a positive mind-set by teaching children to be self-confident and persistent. “My goal is to use sport as a ‘remedy’ for underprivileged children, especially those in rural areas, to help them grow up in better conditions and give them equal chances in life” she says.

    Venturing into entrepreneurship

    The idea of connecting social entrepreneurship with sport came to Mateja during workshops at Impact HUB Zagreb, where she learned about the first Croatian Social Impact Award competition. “We didn’t have such student competitions in Croatia and social entrepreneurship isn’t very popular here yet, so it was a big learning opportunity,” she explains.

    After extensively researching legal matters related to the sensitive topic of poverty, Mateja pitched her concept of Allegria – an organisation that would organise sport camps for tourists and corporate workout packages in order to subsidise athletic training for rural children. Her idea got to the finals, but did not convince the jury in the end. “I did the whole project all by myself and I think this was bad idea: my SIA journey taught me that having a team is a better way to develop a plan,” she concedes.

    Pursuing her goal

    After graduating in sport management at the University of Zagreb last summer, Mateja is now conducting research with the Red Cross and local schools about children in need. She is still eager to realise her project. “People praised my idea and I received a lot of positive comments, especially because the situation in Croatia is on a downward slope, so there is a lot of work to be done,” she says. “We need to become more aware of others in our community, it will help to improve the quality of our lives,” she concludes.

  • Ke kořenům – To the Roots

    Prague-based Ke kořenům (“To the Roots”) took third place at the Czech Social Impact Awards in 2014. The founding team’s goal is to disrupt the traditional business of arranging funerals in their native country.

    Traditional burials waste natural resources. Not only is valuable real estate devoted to cemeteries, which have no useful secondary function, but millions of trees and tons of metal are used to create caskets and mountains of concrete for the crypts – all to give survivors the illusion that their departed loved ones will never be forgotten.

    A crisis of funeral rituals and death taboo

    If that weren’t enough reason to create a business devoted to alternative eco-burials – a trend that started in the UK in the mid-1990s – there are other social reasons why To the Roots’ three founders launched their enterprise. “What Czech funeral homes offer hasn’t changed in 10-15 years and people are no longer interested in organising funerals,” believes Monika Suchánska, who, like her cofounders Blanka Dobešová and Alžběta Živá, is in her mid-twenties. “We’d like to solve this crisis by giving people an alternative.” To the Roots’ not only offers ecological funerals (by burying ash remains in tree roots at a natural burial ground) but also counsels the dying and their families about how to organise such unique funerals.

    Blanka was personally inspired, “when my grandpa was dying in the hospital, he felt very lonely and my family couldn’t talk with him about what he was going through. Everyone involved suffered. I saw first-hand that death is such a taboo topic in our society.”

    Getting it together at SIA

    Blanka and Alžběta studied at the Masaryk University in Brno (environmental studies and social work, respectively) and became interested in ecological burials. When the Prague cemeteries bureau decided to establish the country’s first natural woodland burial ground, the two friends were introduced to Monika, who had studied anthropology.

    The trio found out about the Social Impact Awards in Prague and felt this would be an ideal way to develop their idea. “We didn’t think it would be possible to win,” says Monika. “There was a lot of strong competition. But our topic is very unique and we knew that people need us.”

    Blanka adds, “At first, we had problems communicating our offer – what exactly we wanted to do and for whom. We got a lot of support from Kristýna Bartoš and Roman Bojko at the Impact Hub Prague. The communication was very friendly and they explained what’s important to clarify.”

    Monika recalls, “We got so much help from so many people through the program,” including an assigned mentor from Price Waterhouse Coopers. “It did just what it promised to: accelerate the process of becoming a business. We attended workshops at the Impact Hub Prague about online marketing and for refining our ‘elevator pitch’ and practiced a lot.” It paid off, literally, when they reached the finals and won a 3000 euros award.

    Leveraging the prize

    The resulting media attention helped their fundraising efforts last fall. “We’ve raised about 66 thousand koruna on HitHit [a Czech crowdfunding platform] and the Vodaphone foundation contributed 49 thousand koruna” – a total of about 4000 euros.

    The team will soon be an official NGO. “Now we have a very clear offer, a visual identity, a physical office space of our own. In two months we hope to open the first natural burial ground in the Czech Republic: the ‘Wood of Memories.’”