Boring lectures held in huge auditoriums where everyone is checking their mobile phones and planning the great escape? Forget about that. Experiential learning or learning by doing is the way forward in education. And TAMK’s Proakatemia, a student-orientated environment, masters the concept pretty well through its nonconventional teaching and learning approaches. The student is the one to discover the theoretical part and hands-on teamwork, how to combine the two and how to balance them. Nonetheless, he is not alone in this adventurous journey. A team of fellow students and an experienced coach is the best type of assistance he will ever need.
Tanja Verho is one of Proakatemia’s coaches whose vision is to develop future entrepreneurs and really good workers. To inspire her team of students to find their motivation and drive in achieving their goals. To find their own path in life. She does that by asking lots of questions which are not always comfortable. Those questions though, invite to self-evaluation. And it is well-known that self-evaluation leads to lasting change.
Tanja, please introduce me to the coaching and learning approaches used in Proakatemia.
At Proakatemia, we have a four-hour training session with our team twice a week. There is a specific theme for each session and we prefer that people don’t use their mobile phones, nor laptops during that time. We are learning by dialogue. We discuss projects, business models and organizations, leadership and teamwork. Students read a lot of professional books about marketing and communications, leadership and management along with economical and financial aspects. Later on, they have to write essays on some of the models and techniques they found interesting and want to test on their own companies. If it works, then that’s great. If it doesn’t, they still learned something new.
They can also attend seminars and webinars, listen to TED talks and read academic articles. The main way though, is through project work. Doing projects for their own companies with real customers who pay them.
We recently had a training session about product conceptualization, their own company products and services and since my background is in service design and design thinking, I gave them some insights in a five-minute speech. No longer than that. This is a different kind of learning and studying style because the coach’s role is not to give out theory and prepare the training session, but to assist the students in revealing the answers to their questions.
When is the right time for the coach to step in?
Students have to learn to be patient and to listen so they can prevent their first reactions from igniting into them. When they feel stuck, then it’s my time to ask questions. “Why do you think this is going this way?”, “What scares you?”, “What would be the best way to move forward and solve this issue?” and so on.
Most of the time, we already have the answers but we are scared and unsure about ourselves and how to further proceed. When students discover the answers by themselves, it’s more motivating and empowering, rather than me providing them.
That’s a great way to learn but I’m certain it brings up some challenges too. Which are the main ones?
I personally see challenges as possibilities to learn. Of course, there has to be chemistry in a team. Realizing you don’t like someone who’s part of your team should give you a place to reflect upon your own attitude and how to deal with it. As coaches, we are supporting them in solving those kind of issues and talk about what bothers them. One of our roles is to challenge everyone in the team to work together. Problems usually occur when there’s a lack of communication.
Chemistry is one thing and there are lazy people every now and then. If they don’t show up to our mandatory sessions and they are not actively involved in projects and teamwork, we question their motifs. When motivation is an issue, those people are in the wrong place. It’s not easy for them to admit that because they feel like giving up. However, there is a sense of relief that comes with that realization and knowing that you can do something different elsewhere.
Selling is another challenge for most people. When you’re talking about companies and entrepreneurship, you need to sell your products and services. Money talk and selling your own skills and expertise are difficulties to Finnish people. Nowadays, it’s much easier to do that because we have the knowledge for it and atmosphere in Finland has changed in the past years. Students coming to Proakatemia are open-minded and have the desire to improve and change their mindsets.
Is your team involved in any interesting projects nowadays? Any particular achievements you’re proud of?
There are sixteen students in my team of which two are doing a three-month exchange. Some members of my team are involved in a sports and business conference taking place next year, in January. Others are producing advertising videos for companies (Alma Media, for example) and writing articles for different events too. They participate in volunteer projects for the community when needed.
Some of the recent past projects included three cafeterias opened in the Tampere area and the whole team was working there. It was their own project and altogether, the turnover was between 60,000€ and 70,000€. Which is not bad, considering they are still student entrepreneurs.
You graduated from Proakatemia ten years ago and now you’re back in a different role. What made you return?
When I look back, I’ve always been the teacher type. I like interacting with people and I think everyone is a learner. I ask the right questions and help people figure out the answers by themselves. Something magical happens when a person is able to learn and change her attitude for the best. That’s huge for me.
I remember Proakatemia as a fascinating place during my studies. I was a junior coach at the time. After graduation, I did marketing, service design and even established a sign language translating service, where I learned a lot about human behavior and what motivates people to do certain things. But my dream was always to return to Proakatemia when I’ll have something to give back.
Now I have the experience I can relate to and share it with my students. As a coach, I’m happy if my students found their direction in life and know where they’re heading to after graduation. I think they have succeeded. They are building their characters and we are supporting them. I believe that every coach in Proakatemia shares the same vision.
Most educational institutions are struggling to keep a track of their graduates. How do you know if your students have succeeded or not after they left Proakatemia?
We still have meetings after they graduate to see what they’re doing. If someone feels lost, we can have a development discussion and help him regain direction and focus.
Proakatemia is built on trust. That’s one of the most important values we have here. In the first year, a student learns about teamwork and has to trust its colleagues, co-owners and coach. I know all of my sixteen students. They’re all different and some of them share things about their personal lives with me. They know they can talk to me about anything. It’s all about trust and knowing that someone cares about you and is there to support you.
Is that a realistic and achievable goal within a larger group?
I think it can work if you divide the group into smaller pieces and establish relationships based on trust.
You’ve been an entrepreneur for more than ten years now. Is there such thing as a recipe of a successful entrepreneur?
It has a lot to do with failures. You have to learn about them and have the courage to make mistakes. If you ask me about my failures, I can’t even remember them. I made so many. I always reflect upon them afterwards because the second time is always coming and I have to be prepared.
If you have the courage and the attitude to trust the entire process of entrepreneurship, you’ll find your way and be successful.
When I look at our students, they are doing things. Of course, they are thinkers also, but overall a good combination of doers and thinkers. You need them both.
Text: Andruta Ilie
Photo: Harri Hinkka