• 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.

  • Koala Phone makes a smartphone even smarter for challenged users

    Josef and Tomáš Slavíček founded the Koala Phone app – a simplified Android phone interface that elders and others can control easily. Koala Phone won a prize at the Social Impact Award in Prague in 2014 – now the app is available in 24 languages and has a huge potential to help millions to better communicate with their families and friends.

    Is it true that people over 65 are too technophobic to bother with those “newfangled contraptions?” The reality is that elders are using smartphones to communicate with their families and friends, and many more would use them if they were easier to handle.

    Two brothers from the Czech Republic, Josef and Tomáš Slavíček, decided to challenge the elder stereotype with hard research. They looked at some basic demographic data that showed a sizeable, growing market of elderly smartphone owners. As the population ages, it is becoming increasingly tech savvy and demand will rise steadily.

    Finding a balance between usability and functionality

    The brothers also found out that “seniors, like our own grandma, are frustrated when it comes to actually using touchscreen smartphones and their numerous features,” explains Josef. “Some find it difficult to see the small icons, text and buttons; others are confused by labels, unfamiliar terms overwhelming options and the complicated interface.”

    Up till recently, the answer was a “senior phone” – a push-button device with large buttons and readout. But it’s embarrassing for many elders to buy or own such a device – it makes them feel old and feeble – and they lack functionality that many elders want: alarms, notifications, calendar, camera and photo-sharing. However, 80% of people over 50 think their smartphones have more features than they would ever use. Users are often overwhelmed and just give up.

    A launcher is launched

    The brothers developed an App called Koala Phone. Josef describes it as “an Android launcher with an easy to read and operate interface. The users can manage their contacts and write texts, as well as access the camera, calendar, alarm and flashlight without leaving the Koala interface.” The alert sounds and ringtones are louder than usual and the “buttons” vibrate when pushed. It also provides a simpler, usable way to access only those external apps that the user needs.

    To date, the free 7-day trial of Koala Phone has been downloaded more than 10,000 times, leading to 1300 purchases at $6 each. But if a elder can’t first find the app available on GooglePlay, how can he or she download and install it? “We are forming partnerships to have Koala preinstalled on Android devices,” Josef reassures us, adding that they also actively market the App to the families of seniors.

  • 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.’”

  • The Re-Cycling Community

    Most citybike-services follow a unique template: fixed bike-stands to pick up and return your bicycle, provided by municipial authorities, sponsored by corporations. A Czech bicycle-sharing project leaves the trodden path and adds a strong sense of community to the mix.

    Project Rekola unsurprisingly has strong ties into the Czech green community. Its founder, Filip Ježek, is chairman of an organisation connected to the Green Party. Newly hired CEO Pavlina Pacáková has worked for Greenpeace and for the Czech Green Party. Vitek Ježek, the third founder, co-owns a software company called Mangoweb that provides the mobile app to access Rekola-bicycles.

    Speaking about Rekola, Pacáková never calls it a citybike-ring, but a bike-sharing-community. “The idea is based on an earlier bike-sharing-system in Suchdol – a small district of Prague. Unfortunately, the founders back then suffered a total loss due to vandalism. Rekola keeps the community-aspect, but adds intelligent software and bike-locks.”

    The bicycles are refurbished citybikes painted in a flamboyant pink design. “High school-students help out renovating the bikes or look after the bikes that are in the city for very little money.” In terms of organisation, Rekola operates as an NGO. The workshops are open to everyone, and while visitors are asked to contribute their bicycles to the system they do not have to.

    Getting started

    Rekola has used crowdfunding via the Czech platform hithit.com and raised 150.000 Czech crowns (about 4.500 euros). This sum was doubled by the Vodafone Foundation, which is in the Czech Republic running a programme Technology for Society. The foundation also enabled the founders to visit similar projects abroad and it keeps supporting the project in various ways.

    But also with such a strong backing, none of the founders would disagree that Rekola is still a work in progress. Last year, they even experimented with a kind of franchise-system.

    Work in progress

    “From April 2015, we will start what is our third testing-phase,” announces Pacáková. 100 Rekola-bikes will then be available in Prague, 50 more in Brno, 10 in Olomouc and 20 in Pardubice and Hradec Králové. “It is the first bike-sharing-system working without fixed stations and relying on a community rather than one company running the system. We already have more than 1.000 registered users. Some of them are not even cyclists, but simply wanted to support the idea.”

    Social Impact Award

    Winning the Social Impact Award changed two things for the team. “First, being acknowledged like that was a huge boost in motivation for us. Immediately, our vision became bolder, we started thinking more internationally. Why not go to Barcelona or other cities where there is no working bike-sharing-system in place?” she recalls.

    “Second: The positive feedback we received convinced us further that it is the community-aspect that is most important about Rekola. We will never let go of the community principle.”

    What would you say to others like you?

    “Everyone kept telling the Ježek-brothers that a bike-sharing-system like this would never work,” recalls Pavlina Pacáková. “But they refused to listen. Even now, we often face resistance, for example when we try to convince politicians to let us build more and safer bike-stands. After many ‘no’s’, we often get a ‘yes’. So my advice to social entrepreneurs is this: Never give up!”

  • Successful Business creating a Better Life for Others

    Blitab is a tablet-computer specially designed for blind and visually impaired people. Although it is not yet on the market, it has already attracted a lot of attention and won an impressive number of international awards.

    How to make the world a better place for some 285 million people? Take a display of small physical bubbles forming Braille alphabet, add to it a so-called Perkins keyboard, which is a keyboard specially designed for typing Braille. Stir innovative technology and and accessible design into the mix, and voila: You have the invented first tactile tablet-computer for blind and visually impaired people.

    Kristina Tsvetanova, Slavi Slavev and Stanislav Slavev, co-founders of Blitab, have done exactly that and met with huge success. Their idea was born in Bulgaria in 2012, and the founders moved to Austria to turn it into reality. The company was finally established in August 2014. Blitab, with its potential to bring mobile computing  and digital experience to a group of people that was until now excluded from that kind of modern communication, should go on sale in 2016. It is now in the prototyping phase.

    Among the awards and grants the project already won are not only the Social Impact Award, but also many other Austrian, European and even one Mexican Award. Among those who hailed Blitab are also the Austrian Social Ministry and aid foundations for the blind.

    Who is Blitab for?

    According to the World Health Organization, there are 285 million people on the planet who are blind or visually impaired. Blitab says that 150 million people use the Braille alphabet and are potential primary customers for Blitab. “And there are secondary customers as well”, states Tsvetanova. “Think of offices which have blind and visually impaired people coming in as customers. With Blitab, you can hand them sales material to read or contracts to go through. And of course there are companies that employ blind or visually impaired persons.”

    As Tsvetanova and Slavev are well aware, their product can help improve the lives of their customers immensely. But of course they also have business success in mind, or, as Tsvetanova put it: “We think of ourselves as a hybrid social company – we are convinced of the global social impact of Blitab, but we also do it because we see in it the next successful business starting from Austria.”