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Episode
11

Elena Sinel

Founder of Acorn Aspirations

Ep
11

Inspiring Young People To Solve The World's Problems With Technology - Elena Sinel of Acorn Aspirations

Oct 12, 2018
With
Elena Sinel
36:54

Inspiring Young People To Solve The World's Problems With Technology - Elena Sinel of Acorn Aspirations

Elena Sinel, Founder of Acorn Aspirations and Teens in AI Accelerator talks to me about her journey of starting the company and inspiring young people across the globe to get involved in creating the soltutions to the world's problems through technology.

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[00:21] Maiko: In today's episode, I'm joined by Elena Sinel, founder of Acorn Aspirations and teens in AI accelerator, who's on a mission to help young people learn the skills they need to be the change makers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. The initiative is supported by some of the biggest technology companies, you have Facebook, Microsoft Stripe, behind you and speaking at your events, and you run programs and hackathons that connect young people with industry leaders and technologists and teach them about technology and how they can use it. Thanks for joining me on Impact Hustlers.

 

[00:51] Elena: Thank you for having me.

 

[00:52] Maiko: Thanks very much for coming here. And I'll kick off with the first question, what got you to start Acorn Aspirations? Is there any gap, you think, in terms of the educational system, in terms of teaching about technology? Or. what was it that drove you into it?

 

[01:05] Elena: So, I set up Acorn, when I was in the middle of my master's degree in conflict, security and development, it was a war studies department at King's College London. And I was planning to go back to my international development career, which is something I was doing prior to setting up Acorn and I thought, "well, my mission is to change the world for the better. And what is a better way of doing this, if not work for the UN or World Bank or international organizations?". By the time I finished my degree, I was so disappointed with the entire corruption in the world of international relations and in international development, that I felt like, there is something more I can achieve. And that more has to come from me. And I started just pondering upon what is really my life purpose, and what am I good at? What value can I bring to the world? 

 

[02:01] Elena: And I felt like the answer was actually right in front of me, I saw-- I was watching my daughter coming home every day, learning to pass an exam, using the sort of the educational system that was set up in the 19th century. And when we came to settle in the UK, I thought, "well, UK has the best educational system ever. I want my daughter to be brought up in the best educational system, give her the best future", because I'm originally from Uzbekistan, the education I had was Soviet, which I thought was very, very rigid and rough learning and everything, and I thought England surely is the best place. And I just-- primary school was amazing. She was doing a lot of activities, it was all very holistic, that holistic approach and project-based learning. And then something happened in secondary school when I just lost my daughter, where every time I would ask you, "okay, let's go and do something this weekend". And she would say, "Oh, no, but I have my exams. You know, I have to start now thinking about my GCC exams". That was year seven, when she only just entered secondary school. 

 

[03:03] Elena: And I just realized that she was almost prepped and brainwashed into thinking that, okay, those exams will be in year 11. So, she's literally just taking her exams. But, the preparation was from the moment she entered the secondary school. And I felt "Wow, okay, there is more to life than just preparing for exams". And I thought, "Okay, I need to do something about it". I started taking her to hackathons and networking events, I said, "let me show you how things really are because we're in London. And so, there is technology everywhere. Let me just introduce you to a different part of life". I took her to product hunt hackathon, in 2015. I don't know whether you were part of this or whether you remember, it was a very well, sort of, you know, everybody knew about product hunt at that time. And the hackathon was looking for change makers and people who will really change the world, in one way or another. So, it had a social good element to it, and I thought, "I'm going to take my daughter to that one". 

 

[04:03] Elena: So, we went, and we got my daughter to pitch her idea. And I can't remember what exactly it was. But, she somehow did in front of the crowd, she has never seen before, I thought, wow, that's brave". Her idea didn't really get picked. But she ended up working with a different team, and I ended up working with a different team as well. So, we were hacking in different teams completely, was very competitive. My team got through to the second round and won some prize, a contract, I think it was a technology prize. We had some very, very good developers on our team and her team didn't win, then she was telling me, "Oh, Mommy, your team won, mine lost", and she hated me for a month and months afterwards. But the question she kept asking me, "when is the next one? I want to go there again, I want to learn how to code. I want to learn how to do this design thinking and marketers search". And I thought to myself, "wow, this is interesting, two days, that's all it took to inspire my daughter into tech, by showing her that technology is really there to change the world". 

 

[05:02] Elena: So, I thought that was cool. And I started looking online and thought, "oh, surely there must be something like that for teenagers". And there was nothing, we're still talking 2015. And I thought, "Okay, well, there is nothing, I'm going to do a pilot project". And I applied for a very small grant from Unlimited, it was literally 500 pounds. And I thought, "okay, that will cover the cost of food". I couldn't find the venue almost until last moment, I had so many people that I approached, and at that time, nobody knew me. I was just me, myself, and I and people are very, sort of suspicious. You know, this woman wants to run a hackathon for 70 teenagers, you know, why should we? Who is she? And suddenly I got an email from Sarah, from Unruly. And she asked me, ", are you still looking for a place for a venue? Because if you I can help you". I said, "Yes, definitely. I've got my hackathon running in three weeks, and I still don't have a venue". And so, Sarah immediately put me in touch with Rebekah Brooks' office. And so, we had a very first hackathon at News International.

 

[06:02] Elena: So, I had the most incredible developers and entrepreneurs and marketeers and design thinkers that came to support this cause. And the judges were Nita Patel and Mike Butcher and Nancy Fechner, and so many incredible people, Will King from King of Shapes, they all came because they wanted to support the cause, and see what teenagers can really do within two days. Yes, it was amazing. We had about 17 teams of teenagers, and they were all solving various problems. related to them. related to others. But it was just incredible to see that drive, that thirst for something new and the thirst for wanting to solve a real problem. So, I thought, "okay, that's like me down. One event is, that was great. But that's just not me". It was, well, it was just so tiring to organize that one because it was just me myself, and I, with just a couple of volunteers. It was draining, I think I also made a mistake walking on heels. So, I couldn't feel my feet for two days afterwards.

 

[07:06] Elena: Yeah, but I thought, "Okay, that's it". There was no business model, how can I possibly monetize it? And then people have started reaching out and they said, "Look, Elena, this is like nobody has ever done this before. This is was something very special in that piece, you have to carry on. Because these young people, they really need somewhere like that, where they could come and explore different careers, different technologies, and really learn from the best". And I said, "okay, but I have to figure out what the business model will be because I have to pay my bills as well and all that". But I took a risk. And for the first three years, I ran all events completely for free. It was a high cost. But as long as somebody opened the doors and paid for food, and volunteers would come along and help, then that was it. And I was really developing and iterating on the concept because I wanted to see what really drives young people to change the world. How can we create that mindset and reinforce it into them that you don't need to go to university and have many, many jobs before you actually decide? 

 

[08:06] Elena: Actually, there are problems to solve, and I am in a good position and I can solve them. All I need is you know, to know how to identify those problems and find the solution through various frameworks that we eventually introduced. So, it was just really came, about very naturally in that organic way, where there was a lot of interest and demand. And right now, I'm in the position where corporates and companies reach out to me asking me, "Can we work with you? Because we know you have something very special to offer, you have a lot of young people who are very unique and different to what the school system is able to produce". And I'm finding a lot of the kids that we've worked with, we've worked with over 1500 kids now, which is really exciting. And every single one of them, understands design thinking, understands market research, understands that there are problems to solve, and they are not there to be the followers, they're there to lead and create the future they want to see. So, it's a very powerful experience. And it's something I'm proud of, and we are moving in the right direction I know that. 

 

[09:08] Maiko: More recently you launched a program called teens in AI, obviously AI is all over the place, and you hear about it everywhere. There’re some estimates that it's going to destroy up to 800 million jobs, that you really go from a few hundred million to 800 million. What approach do you take to teach teenagers that are growing up and getting kind of, starting to think about what do I want to do in the world? What approach do you take about teaching them about AI and how they can use it for good?

 

[09:35] Elena: So, to begin with, we didn't really focus on AI, we focused on technologies, full stop. And again, that was just me playing with lots of technologies, virtual reality, augmented reality, apps, we tried everything, and I thought there was something missing for me. And then one of the teenagers pointed me in the direction of artificial intelligence. And I thought, "I don't know much about it, from a technology perspective, nor from anything else". And I thought I'll just literally dive in, throw myself in into it and find out more. And so, we ran our very first AI hackathon in June 2017. We had that hackathon, hosted by Jesus Amai. And we even had Sophia AI who was on the panel, judging with David Hanson. So, it was a really cool event. It was inspired by a teenager at the time who was going through severe depression. And he was also an AI enthusiast. And so, he sort of, pointed me in the direction of AI, and at the same time, I wanted to give him that role to shape AI within, you know, Acorn Aspirations and see where it goes. 

 

[10:35] Elena: And that event was so phenomenal. I was quite worried, I thought well AI, you know, there are such deep technologists to understand and to learn about, can they really do anything? But I was really surprised teenagers, even as the youngest 12,13 have played with IBM, Watson and TensorFlow and lots of other stuff that I didn't expect them to pick up just so quickly. And they did, it was incredible. And then I thought, "Okay, well, maybe it's time to focus on something that really is going to make a difference". And there was so much data available. And we decided, "Okay, maybe we will launch teens in AI as a movement, as an especial initiative of Acorn Aspiration and see where that takes us.". And so, I started writing a series of events from Alexa boot camp to just let's explore AI. And I think it was a Twitter conversation that I got myself involved into somehow, by just somebody asking me about whether there are any teenagers who understand and can-do AI.

 

[11:34] Elena:  And it was a conversation that was led by a group from ICU, United Nations AI for good global summit, who I think asked, you know, you've got this panel for young people, but there are no young people on that panel, you know, can you find young people talk who can talk about AI? And then somebody asked me, or maybe Elena can help. And I said, "Yeah, how can I help? Can I?". And they immediately called me, not very often does UN call you just like that, and said, "Elena, we've just learned you're doing these amazing things with teens and artificial intelligence. Can we have you here at the UN talking about it?". I said, "Yeah, of course I can". "Can you bring a teenager with you?". I said, "Yes, I can. definitely bring a few teenagers if you want, but definitely one I can bring". And so, I took a Sarah with me. And Sarah and I were doing a talk at the UN about how we can inspire young people into AI and why this is really important. So, the angle for me is always, how can we solve problems? How can we teach young people to solve problems?

 

[12:35] Elena: And AI was a really cool medium to do this. Because it's very popular, it's very in, and young people are really fascinated by the topic. And so, it obviously was a very successful event and talk that we did in the UN, everybody really loved it. And we had so much interest since the UN, from so many different countries, ranging from Japan to South Africa to the Netherlands, asking how can we bring teens in AI into our country? How can we use it as a medium to empower young people to change the world? And it's a fantastic technology to learn about. So, we're having a lot of conversations right now even and straight after we got invited to the EU to do a plenary talk and lead a co-working group and again, the EU was wondering, in the same way, how can we disrupt education? This is really how education should be, young people need to understand how technology is changing the world, but also how they can be part of that change and how they can create that change.

 

[13:29] Elena: And so, it was just suddenly everybody started listening to what I had to say, I had to say this for many years that, "it's not so much the technology gap that we have, but it's the thinking skills gap. And we really need to do something about education in general, we have to change it in a way where learning doesn't only happen from teacher to the student and in a very linear way. But, actually learning happens when a lot of people passionate about specific projects or problems get together to solve them. And this is the best way to learn". 

 

[13:58] Maiko: Can you talk us through some of the problems that the teams that join your accelerator or some of the hackathons, what are the problems that they are solving in those events?

 

[14:07] Elena: Interestingly, education. So, we even had an interface hackathon last December, where the entire hackathon was devoted to education, and every single team and there were teenagers from Jewish communities hacking with teenagers from Christian communities and Muslim communities. So, it was an interfaith hackathon, I have never done this hackathon before. Normally, I don't really focus on communities, because in London, we have so many communities. All our hackathons are very diverse. But then somebody said, "Why don't we do the interfaith one? And we'll bring traditional kids from very traditional communities". So, we had girls wearing a burka, and boys with keypads, so, I thought, "okay, that's interesting, let's just see what kind of problems they will solve". The challenge or, overarching challenge was education. But, every single one of the teenagers had so much to say about how unhappy they are about education. So, whether the challenge is education or not, sometimes we keep it open, a lot of the teenagers are concerned about the fact that education nowadays is so irrelevant to what's really happening outside of the education in the real world. 

 

[15:10] Elena: And a lot of them are really stressed by all the pressures from the peers, from the teachers, who keep telling them you know, "you don't pass those GCC's, your life is screwed, that's it, your life is over, so, you have to get those A levels or, you know, you have to get those A's and B's, if there's anything below that, that's it". This is pretty much what my daughter was told. And I have to tell her, "you know, grades don't define you, just breathe in, and, you know, you'll be fine". But a lot of them are so stressed and so worried. And then they come out of school, and they realize, "my goodness, you know, actually, there is-- it is so much more different to what we were learning, why was I spending all this time learning about the depth of, you know, algebra and geography? Where really, I don't even know how this applies to what is happening right now". And, you know, even when it comes to tech, I think the most they learn is Visual Basic, and Python, but anything else, it's really down to teenagers and parents to find courses, like what we run at Acorn Aspirations or somewhere else, to introduce them to novel approaches.

 

[16:10] Elena: So, I suppose the USP with us is we don't only teach technology, but we also teach entrepreneurship skills and design thinking. And with the accelerator taking place, we will even be teaching AI ethics, because it's really important for me, that young people understand all about biases and potential, you know, problems that they may input not even thinking about it, you know, just due to their own prejudice, or biases. And I want to make sure that we tackle those problems very early on, because with AI, the kind of models that we'll be developing are so complex that doing this, when that product is out is-- could be too late. So, we need to tackle it early on. So, we're introducing ethics at this stage when we're going to be tackling design thinking as well. So, the first three days we'll be spending, at BBC working with our design thinking team, who's coming all the way from Salford just to spend three days with teenagers. 

 

[17:05] Elena: And at the same time, we'll have Alejandra Salcedo who is, you know, chairman of the AI ethics Institute, who will come and do the workshop with teenagers, demystifying ethics and explaining to them the importance of ethics and why we need to account for that early on at the very early stages of product development. So, it's yeah, it's really, really exciting. And we've had more than hundred applications from teenagers who are so keen to get their hands-on AI. And actually, everything that they've told me so far, the reason why they want to be part of the program is because it has that social good aspect to it, that they really want to change the world. So, it's really encouraging. They have such high empathy levels, they really care about what's happening in England right now, in light of Brexit, what's happening with refugees in Syria, what's happening, you know, in America with Trump, they have so many opinions and things to say, and there is no reason why we shouldn't be hearing those out and seeing how they would approach problems in the real world.

 

[18:04] Maiko: What are the participants doing after the accelerator, are all of them wanting to become entrepreneurs? Or going to program? Or what do you see? How do your participants also change what they aspire to?

 

[18:16] Elena: It's different. I mean, after the accelerator, we definitely have a top prize sponsored by MasterCard. So, a team of teenagers will go to San Francisco, in October, to launch teens in AI in San Francisco, which is really exciting. So, the teenagers will fly with me, we'll be running a hackathon there for girls, it will be girls in AI hackathon to encourage more girls into AI. And so, the winning team will be part of that experience. But at the same time, that will have a chance to see the Silicon Valley and MasterCard is creating this incredibly exciting program for them. Hopefully, we'll even get to see Stanford, I don't know, we'll see. But a lot of the teenagers will also have some work experience or internship opportunities offered by the corporates that are supporting the program, many of them want to set up their own businesses. So, they really want to see those projects through. And that's why we're offering, you know, a mentoring afterwards as well, because we really do want those products to come alive. Some of them, in previous years, some of them did get launched and others didn't.

 

[19:16] Elena: But I think the continuity is something we've always missed, because we're such a small team, that it's always hard for us to ensure that continuity, but right now ,we have grown as well, in impact, in influence, and a lot of people really have reached out to us to ask us, "can we support this? How can we help?". And so, many teenagers either want to freelance, we have teenagers who are already freelance, and some startups know about it. So, every now and then I get an email, "Elena, do you have a whiz kid who can do this front page or back end or what not?". And we always refer them to teenagers and teenagers have a chance to earn money, which is fantastic. But then a lot of other teenagers, particularly with AI, they are researchers, they really want to get into research. So, they see themselves working for companies like DeepMind, on benevolent AI, so they want to pursue their studies at universities. So, they're doing this program because they want to enhance their application for university. And yet, others, they're doing this because, you know, they want to develop leadership skills and other skills like communication skills. 

 

[20:16] Elena: And it's again, something schools really don't teach, how do they work, how to work in teams, which is a unique skill in itself, because team players are needed everywhere. And yet the schools, when you work in teams, it's cheating, right? So, they are encouraged to work for themselves. So, there are so many deficiencies in the educational system that parents have noticed. And you know, we see, and parents are encouraging their teenagers to join the program, and experience a real, sort of life, of an entrepreneur. So, they will work for 10 days in teams of four, we're going to use Google Sprint all the way, we've modified it for 10 days, we will aim to develop an MVP by day five, and then the second week will be spent on iterating and improving the product. We will also have a chance to visit Roborace, we will go all the way to Oxfordshire to see robberies and talk about autonomous driving and AI behind it. And we will even have some workshops in AI in data science. We'll have Microsoft doing a workshop introducing teenagers to Microsoft AI tools. 

 

[21:19] Elena: A lot of the teenagers already are familiar with a lot of Google sort of tools that they play with TensorFlow. They will be developing in Python, some of them will be touching on some other tools like IBM Watson, but the technologies are diverse and wide range. And we always remain technology agnostic, even when Microsoft sponsors our events, we always want to make sure Microsoft knows that we're not going to force Microsoft tools on young people, we want young people to have a wide range of tools to choose from. So, it's up to them, whether they want to use Microsoft or IBM or Google or whatnot. So, it's really exciting. And they will have a chance to work with some incredible, you know, entrepreneurs who will come and inspire them. PhD students from universities will mentor them. design thinkers from BBC who will also help shape those briefs. And the entire piece this time is linked with the BBC conference. taking place on the third of September called flourishing in the age of AI. 

 

[22:20] Elena: So, it will be really exciting again, to see our teenagers on stages, pitching and also talking about AI. So, we already had that experience at Kogack's, we had a youth panel called you know, AI shaping the world, who's going to shape AI? And we had four young people talking about ethics and robotics. And you know, will robots really take my jobs? And it's all on YouTube, and you can just see how confident they are. And, you know, there is no question you cannot ask them that you would ask an adult, they have their own opinions. And even now, when I'm asked to go and speak in conferences, I will say, "I'm happy to come and speak on your panel. But I really would love one of my teenagers to join me as well". And most of the times, you know, conference organizers are very happy to include them, and I think this is something new, but I really want conferences to take notice of the fact that young people are the ones that will change the world. And they really need to be part of those conferences. 

 

[23:20] Elena: So, whenever Microsoft or MasterCard or anyone else organize the conference, I will say, "okay, you want me there? I'm happy to come and speak. But please include teenagers, because they are the future, they need to be inspired. They need to be part of those panels, you need to hear them. And they are, you know, phenomenal. And they will be the ones to change the world.".

 

[23:36] Maiko: I'd be interested in a bit more in your journey as well. You mentioned before you actually ran the first two years without being paid for it at all.

 

[Cross talk]

 

[23:46] Maiko: What were the hardest challenges you had to overcome, and how does it work now? How do you build a sustainable education?

 

[23:52] Elena: Yeah, it's really hard. It was very hard. I think, I'm from an ex-Soviet country, Uzbekistan originally. So, I was probably brought up in a way thinking money is not a good thing to have. Or to, you know, the socialist mentality is very different from the capitalist mentality. And so, I thought education should be free for all. But I had to obviously bear the cost. And it was really hard because I have two teenage-- two kids, one of them is a teenager, one of them is turning five next week. So, it was mostly, you know, my savings, and it was really hard to sort of create that balance. And now, I'm thinking, "Okay, well, now suddenly, things have taken the course that they should have taken a while ago, perhaps", we've had really, really positive conversations just recently with MasterCard with Microsoft with JPMorgan. So, we know things will go in a much better direction than they were before. And so now, I'm thinking, "okay, maybe now's the time that I have to start paying myself a salary", because really, I have to put my family as my priority. 

 

[24:57] Elena: And also start valuing myself better, but for a while, I think it probably was that lack of confidence. And just wondering, you know, should I really be as a nonprofit? Or, can this really be a profit-making company? Or, can I at least pay myself and other of my team members salary? So, so far, I've been paying everyone a salary, not myself, just wanting to make sure it goes the direction I want it to go. But right now, there is a lot of interest not only from corporates, but also from different governments who want me to go into consultancy there. And that's-- now I'm in a position to afford to pay myself a salary and others that are supporting this initiative, which is wonderful. But yes, but it was quite challenging. I suppose I was really driven by my passion, to change the world, and I wasn't putting everything else, you know, as my priority. My mission was, how can I make this work? How can I empower teenagers in this country, but also in other countries?

 

[25:58] Elena: Because I've always had an international background, I always thought if I ever put my name to any cause, it will always be International. So, it will never be only Tanzania in the UK. But, right now we have interest in-- from San Francisco, also South Africa, also Shanghai, also Japan, and so many other countries, even Brunei that have-- we've had a conversation with the government of Brunei, literally last Monday. And they've asked how can we bring you over here? And you could show us how it's done. So, I think right now, people have taken notice, finally, and people understand the value of that program for the young people and for the younger generations. And I'm always asked, "Why don't you work with the university students?". And I always say, "it's interesting, but it's too late", for me, engaging university students is already too late, because they already have been boxed into thinking in a specific way, even 16 to 18-year old's are very difficult to work with, because they have already been framed and programmed by the school, by the system by the structure. 

 

[27:00] Elena: Whereas 12 to 8, to 16-year old's, they are still agents, as I see them, and they really are still, you know, they respond to being shaped in the way that we really need in this society. They haven't really been brainwashed, yet, they're still free in their soul and in their heart. And I really love enjoying, I really love working with 12 to 16 year old's, because they are the ones that I feel still have that passion and that creativity that you haven't, you know, killed yet, hopefully, because I feel this educational system really somehow managed to diminish that creativity, curiosity, ability to ask questions, and so. I really love working with that age group more than anything else. So. a lot of the times when I also go to university, they really need it. Yeah, everyone needs it, full stop. But, for me, university, you know, students, they already have got their own other concerns, like, “where is my rent going to come from?”

 

[28:00] Elena: How am I going to find a job that is x, y and z, whereas young kids, they are there without having any of those problems in back of their mind. And if you throw any problem at them, they have the most incredible solutions that they can come up with. And that's just refreshing. And so, I always encourage even the corporates that come to talk to me and say, "oh, we're only interested in 16 to 18, because it's closer to recruitment age. And that's why we're interested", I always try to explain to them, "that's great. But, you're missing out on the fact that there are some younger generation that would benefit from engaging with you earlier on, and it's an opportunity for you to influence them, and also have your brand in front of them". So, for me, it's a no brainer. So, I always encourage corporates to even looking to younger ages, because age 12, 13, they already know how to do TensorFlow, IBM Watson, everything, and why not take those young people who are already passionate, and work with them and try to engage them into your programs early on?

 

[29:00] Elena: So that, when it comes to them choosing which brand do I want to go? They don't just say, "I want to work for Google and Apple". But they could say, "Actually, I've heard of Microsoft, I've heard of MasterCard, I want to work there because, MasterCard sent me to San Francisco. Because I won that competition, I had the most incredible time at the teens in AI accelerator. And the brands I've seen were MasterCard, Microsoft and BBC. So, I know that they are the ones that have taken the time to work with me, and help me develop the skills I lacked, and why shouldn't I work with them?". You know?

 

[29:32] Maiko: And your current model is very much a for profit model or are you set up a non-profit model?

 

[29:36] Elena: No, we are set up as a limited company by shares. But everything we've earned so far, has been reinvested. Just earn, salaries, hiring people who could help us drive this. But, what we do is we, right now we're sort of still playing with our model. And what we're doing right now is a one on one model where kids from private schools pay, and the kids from deprived backgrounds and states calls and particularly kids on free school meals, who would not have those opportunities at all, and who probably won't even afford to go to universities, they have a chance to attend for free. So, we now have got kids from for instance, Eton College, O'Hara college or other private schools who pay and they are not part of the program because they can pay, but they are incredibly, incredibly right. In fact, I've spoken to one parent from Eton College, and he said, "you know, you know, I really appreciate you started working with private schools", because he knows that my stance for a long time for three years was not going to work with private schools, I'm only going to work with state schools.

 

[30:38] Elena: But I struggled, because state schools just can't pay, and parents can't afford to pay, and I thought, "Okay, well either burn out, or will lose all my savings and go bankrupt. And I don't know what will happen. But somehow, I need to find that medium, you know, some model that really work. Because corporates take some time six to nine months to close the deal. So, how can I survive in the meantime?". And so, the answer came to me, he said, "You know what? When it comes to education, when it comes to technology skills, in particular, or thinking skills", he said, "they're all deprived. And it doesn't matter whether they come from a private school or from a state school, they're all deprived in that respect". And I thought to myself, "actually, I have had kids from private schools, girls in particular, who completely lack confidence, who really don't even know the basics of HTML, CSS". And I'm-- and I thought to myself, "maybe he's right, let's see what happens.". And I reached out to Eton College and other colleges and said, "Look, we have this incredible program. It's free. It's open to everyone. But the model is such that kids from private schools will pay, and kids from deprived communities will come for free".

 

[31:43] Elena: And I've had a lot of success, actually, you know, selling this concept to private schools, they're kind of said, "We don't care, we want our kids to have the best opportunities. So, if there is a program that offers something completely new and unique, which you are, why not?", so they shared all the information. And we had a few kids from Eton College and from other private schools who came, they were incredibly bright, in cognitive and math skills. And I just mixed them with kids also equally bright, from state schools, and it was incredible. I'm the only person who really knows where kids come from. So, we mix now, not only, you know, diversity in ethnic or, you know, other backgrounds, but actually income, as well. So, there are kids from private schools who hack with kids from state schools, kids who are home-schooled, kids from deprived backgrounds. And I find they work incredibly well together, boys and girls. And the richness and the outcome, the richer the diversity, I find the better the outcome. 

 

[32:44] Elena: So, I think that was-- became an answer to suddenly to the problems and financial sustainability was really tackled in that way. So, I felt, "Okay, so, six months ago, I was thinking to myself, should I find a job? A real job, or should I persevere and really, really, you know, find that thing, find a way to sustain myself and my team?". And, it just came. So, right now it's mixed. So, we have some of it from the private schools, you know, kids that go to private school that pay, that subsidizes the places for kids from deprived backgrounds. But then, also we have some interest from corporates, we also have some interest from accelerators, even have reached out and the startups. So, it's very mixed. And hopefully now we're on the right track where we can really expand across the UK, but also globally. So, for me, the impact was always I always wanted to see that impact happen globally, not only the UK. So, it's really exciting times.

 

[33:42] Maiko: If you'll think about the next 10 years, what's the type of world you're trying to create with Acorn Aspirations?

 

[33:47] Elena: In 10 years, we will have inspired many teenagers across the globe, how to change the world through technologies, we will definitely connect a lot of young people because through the love of technology, and AI, so, we are developing to that end, a platform that will actually do exactly that. So, the focus will be AI machine learning and data science, in addition to that human centered AI as well and entrepreneurship skills. But, we want to see young people from San Francisco being connected to young people in Shanghai, being connected to young people from South Africa. And at the same time, them having an opportunity to connect to mentors. For instance, MasterCard's AI specialists are based in San Francisco, not in London, where-- so in my mind, why shouldn't they be able to mentor kids in London or kids in South Africa? So, it's a no brainer. So, we're developing something very exciting right now, that hopefully will do exactly that, connect young people. And for me, personally, I'm sort of at that stage where I can be really based anywhere in the world running this. 

 

[34:48] Elena: And I want to, sort of be free to travel any part of the world to set up things in AI or Acorn Aspirations, anywhere I go, really, and work with any government that's open to those changes in education. Because for me, I'm in the business to disrupt education, first and foremost, to empower young people to understand that they are in a fantastic position to create the change they want to see. And the problems in South Africa will be different from the problems in London, different from the problems in Shanghai, different from problems in America, in parts of America. And so, I see, the vision I have is young people embracing that challenge, embracing technologies, embracing opportunities that those technologies bring, using AI and data science and lots of other technologies available to them, because there is no reason why they can't intertwine and intersect, you know, if you are in AI as well if this is what they want to do, but really out there, changing the world for the better. 

 

[35:46] Elena: And knowing that despite their age, despite where they are, they could be anywhere in the world, they still have that chance to change the world and make an impact on the world in their local communities or even globally. That is what I want to happen.

 

[36:00] Maiko: I wish you all the best for that journey. And thanks very much for joining today.

 

[36:04] Elena: Thank you so much for having me, Maiko. Thank you.

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