Three Ialoveni girls took second prize nationally in the 2018 Diamond Challenge Moldova competition for young entrepreneurs. I mentored the team, which produced a Facebook site to help teenagers learn about careers. The video is also on YouTube.
Forget the upcoming Super Bowl. What I am super-excited about right now is whether the three teenagers you see here will win the final round of Diamond Challenge Moldova on Saturday.
That’s Elizabet on the left, Lucia and Victor. They are three of the most talented and inspiring young people I have ever met — anywhere. I’ve been mentoring their team and will be cheering for them as they vie for the top prize in Moldova’s showcase for aspiring entrepreneurs.
If they win, they will receive $1,000 and a chance to compete in April at the international Diamond Challenge for High School Entrepreneurs in Delaware.
I’ve been meeting with Team BUK regularly for several months, helping them develop and refine their business plan. However, they came up with the ideas and have done all of the work — lots and lots of work. Like the five other finalists in their category, they will now deliver their final pitch in English before a team of judges. They and the other teams attended a training sesson two weeks ago where I described how to do this effectively. All of the teams were impressive and it was fun to work with them.
I’m not discussing our team’s business idea or pitch strategy until after the finals. For now, I ask you to join me in sending good wishes in their direction. That’s what two Duke students, Kiara and Sydney, did with my former colleague Sonja Foust several weeks ago when they unexpectedly sent me this special version of The Week at Duke in 60 Seconds, which I helped to create. Play it to the end for their surprise for Lucia, Elizabet and Victor. It’s been a joy to work with the three of them, no matter how the competition turns out. (The video is also at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj5zHX_S7CY.)
The students you see in this post represent Moldova’s brightest hopes for the future.
They are optimistic in a country where many people are pessimistic. They want to start businesses and help others. They are overflowing with great ideas, and they are brave enough to present them on a stage in front of a group of judges — in English.
They are the finalists in this year’s Diamond Challenge Moldova, a competition for high school students interested in becoming entrepreneurs. On Jan. 28, seven student teams will vie to be named the best “social venture,” and six others will compete for the best business idea. Both winning teams will receive $1,000 and a chance to compete in April at the international Diamond Challenge for High School Entrepreneurs competition in Delaware.
On Sunday, I led a workshop to help the teams sharpen their public speaking skills and pitches. Joining me were several other Peace Corps volunteers who have been mentoring teams, helping to select the finalists and organizing the competition as a whole. I have been mentoring one of the teams myself and will be cheering for them in the finals.
Nearly 2,000 students from around the world have participated in Diamond Challenge since it launched in 2012. Moldovan students have done very well in the competition, with two teams making it to the finals last year. Do It For Bunica won the $10,000 grand prize in the social venture competition with its project to connect expatriate Moldovan workers with teenagers back home who can help care for their aging parents.
Another Moldovan team won the social impact prize a year earlier with its idea of producing clothing with reflective thread that can be seen by seen at night by cars driving along dangerous country roads.
Both of those earlier teams gave excellent pitches, which I showed on Sunday, helping the current students learn the best ways of persuading judges, investors or others. My other sources ranged from the television show “Shark Tank” to President Obama to Guy Kawasaki, the renown Silicon Valley entrepreneur. The students will be making their own final pitches before a new group of Moldovan and American judges at the Dreamups Innovation Campus, the local entrepreneurship center about which I’ve written previously.
Peronally, if someone had asked me when I was in high school to speak publicly in a foreign language, I would have been terrified. That’s why I also showed this hilarious video with Steve Martin, to help the students relax. I’ll post again after the finals to tell you how their presentations turned out. Based on what I saw at the workshop, I expect them to be terrific.
Staring at laptops adorned with stickers, sipping coffee, tapping their sneakers, the young people who gathered for a talk from a visiting technology journalist Thursday evening looked like they might be at Durham’s American Underground or some other entrepreneurial hub in the United States. They nodded when the host said “awesome” and “cool.” They laughed at a joke about Pokémon Go.
But they weren’t in Durham, much less Silicon Valley. They were in Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, a country whose economy is struggling and whose people often voice skepticism about the possibility of making a change in the world.
Almost all in their 20s and 30s, they gathered to hear Andrii Degeler offer advice on how to promote their startup businesses to reporters. Degeler, a Ukrainian native who now lives in Amsterdam, reports on the Central and East European tech scene for The Next Web and publishes a newsletter about the region.
“Salaries are much lower in Moldova,” he noted, saying this has the potential to provide “more freedom to experiment” to international companies that recruit Moldovan talent. The meeting’s host, Sergiu Matei, cautioned, however, that local entrepreneurs will succeed only if they are willing to fail, an idea familiar to U.S. startups but challenging in a post-Soviet nation where many people are risk-averse.
Matei joined Degeler on the stage, both in armchairs, one wearing shorts, the other a black T shirt. A projected slide behind them showed the event’s sponsors — local companies, media partners, the U.S. government and others.
Chisinau’s Dreamups Innovation Campus organized the event. Founded only in March, the group calls itself “a community where young entrepreneurs learn, share ideas and launch global companies.” It hosts networking events, pitching sessions and discussions with mentors. It runs a startup accelerator program and helps sponsor local events such as Startup Grind Chisinau. Its website features quotes from Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and others.
Matei, 29, helped launch several companies when he lived in California’s Bay Area, returning to Chisinau to be with his family and work with the local office of a London-based language translation company. He also wanted to “give back to my community” by sharing his expertise with young Moldovans interested in starting their own companies. About 3,000 people have already participated in Dreamups activities, he says.
Back when I was in Durham, I interacted with the thriving local startup scene, which I helped publicize through articles such as these. Durham’s entrepreneurs face many challenges but these now seem small compared to the ones in Moldova, where venture capital is scarce, collaborators are few and the entire system can seem stacked against a bright young person with a great idea. Yet here was an entire room of them on Thursday evening, determined to make an impact. It was impressive.
I hope to write again about Dreamups and some other programs here that are promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, especially among girls and women. Peace Corps is working with two of these, Diamond Vision and Technovation. If you’re interested in this topic, I hope you’ll share a comment or words of encouragement here with Sergiu and the others. I’m sure they’d appreciate it. Perhaps someone might even want to send them some stickers for their laptops? That would be cool, possibly even awesome.