There’s still time to apply to the University of Helsinki’s pre-incubator for solutions in society, communities, law, and education, SÄRÖ/FRACTURE. To encourage those last social changemakers still sitting on the fence, we interviewed programme alumni and doctoral student in early childhood education Natalia Stalchenko on a sunny September morning. Together with team members Anton Stalchenko, a master’s student in security studies, and marketing expert Alona Hapey, Stalchenko is in the process of founding WWA, an accessible and multilingual early childhood education centre with a special focus on children of refugee and immigrant backgrounds. Despite the early morning time slot chosen for the interview, Stalchenko is cheerful and brimmed with excitement to talk about the project.
“What encouraged me to apply was the programme’s description of how it helps with the very first steps of entrepreneurship. Our idea was very much in its early stages—it was a passion, a vision without any kind of concrete action plan behind it,” Stalchenko explains and laughs. “It took some courage, of course, to start thinking of myself as an entrepreneur, because I’d established this image of myself as a researcher. But, nevertheless, the programme helped us to get started!”
Stalchenko feels better equipped to enact change in her field of expertise now that she has both research and entrepreneurship harnessed for her use as tools. She goes on to tell that since 2022, Finland has accepted over 80,000 refugees, around 55,000 of which are from Ukraine. Most of them are mothers with preschool-aged children and as of now, the Helsinki metropolitan has no daycares offering services in Ukrainian: “As an education specialist, I know how important it is to support children's mother tongues and to preserve their cultural heritage. What’s also important is to help these children adapt to the Finnish society and have a smooth transition to school life. Early childhood is such a crucial time for healthy socio-emotional growth,” Stalchenko explains. In the long run, Stalchenko hopes to see WWA doing its part in promoting inclusivity in societies and accepting people from different backgrounds: “I want us to live and learn together. That, in a sense, is our global goal,” she remarks. WWA aims to support Ukrainian refugee families to begin with, but the team hopes to expand their work to cater to an even more diverse range of languages and cultures in the future.
Stalchenko says that SÄRÖ/FRACTURE helped the team conceptualise and specify the idea behind their solution. On the other hand, they’ve also been able to broaden their outlook of the issue, through for instance conducting research about the solution’s customer base and their needs: “We’ve sent a survey to our potential customers asking them for their opinions and feedback. Through that, we’ve been able to add certain aspects to our solution, like flexibility in service hours. We really want to target the needs of the people who’d be using our services,” Stalchenko underlines.
Another thing that Stalchenko makes sure to emphasise is the programme’s strong support system for its participants: “I do think the best thing about the programme was the support. Not just the support from the organisers and the experts, but also the peer support from all the other beginner entrepreneurs. There was this amazing atmosphere of figuring things out together. In other words, we didn’t only acquire practical tools for furthering our projects, but also motivation to act upon them. And I feel like the community had an important role in motivating us,” Stalchenko smiles.
Stalchenko is pleased with the strides that the team’s solution took over the course of the programme. Perhaps even more so, however, she’s proud that they gained the courage to act upon the idea in the first place. The most valuable lesson learned for Stalchenko was that no-one needs to work alone with a project of this kind: “I think the most important thing I've learned is to just be brave. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. There are so many people who want to support you and guide you in your journey,” she says.
Since the end of the programme, the team has continued with their research and the process of contacting different foundations and possible stakeholders. They decided to continue their progress in our 6-month continuation programme TREMOR, designed for those who want additional support in developing their solutions: “We're happy and thankful for getting to continue our work in TREMOR. It’s allowed us to pick up where we left off with SÄRÖ/FRACTURE. While we’ve made some steps, our project is far from being ready. We are open to improving our idea and value any feedback that would bring us closer to making this dream daycare a reality. We’re continuing to learn, still!” Stalchenko says enthusiastically.
The WWA team’s attitude towards their project is certainly one to admire. “You don’t have to have a perfectly structured idea ready before you can start acting on it. Just believe in yourself. Believe in what you're doing. Of course, your idea needs to be well thought, but also know that it doesn’t need to be perfect for you to start making a difference in the world,” Stalchenko says.
The application period to the third round of SÄRÖ/FRACTURE kicking off later this autumn, is closing today, 27 September!