A sisterhood without borders: an Estonian leadership programme on its way to being worldwide

Superheroes is a growth-mindset-driven entrepreneurship programme for girls aged 13-17 – it gives young girls the opportunity to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality through creating different startups in teams of five; Estonian World found out more about this new formula.

What do you do nowadays when you want to create a startup, yet aren’t sure how? What are the odds of creating a successful startup from the scratch, when you’re a teenage girl? Where do you get the experience, if there is almost no place where to get it from?

These are the ideas that may run through many of young girls’ minds, who wish to do great things, yet don’t know where to begin. A smart way could be to learn from the masters themselves, but what are the odds of finding a good female icon who is interested in the same topic as you, when only 1/3 of the businesspeople are women?

Finding the soft spots of society

The Estonian entrepreneur, Eva Ponomarjov, stumbled onto similar thoughts, wondering why she was seeing so little women in today’s business field. Weren’t they ambitious enough? Did they believe that all they were capable of was portraying the stereotypes society had held over women’s heads centuries ago? She wondered if men and women could create a family and raise children as partners, why couldn’t they do the same in business or politics.

Ponomarjov put the idea to rest, until she found out her daughter faced similar problems. She wished to set up a lemonade stand with her friends but didn’t know from where to begin. Through guiding her daughter and her friends in this path, Ponomarjov found what it took to be an aspiring businesswoman.

Eva Ponomarjov (in the middle) with Superheroes participants in London in May 2019.

She understood that, although she could help her daughter and her friends, there might be some other girls out there who need guidance in the business world. After getting the first-hand experience of what a starting entrepreneur needs, something magical collided in her thoughts. For some time, she had been wanting to make something meaningful with her own hands and this was her opportunity. Thus, Superheroes was born.

Testing leadership and creativity

Superheroes started out as an entrepreneurship and leadership programme for young girls in 2016. It was based on helping driven girls find the entrepreneurial skills they needed to be successful in the future, and to this day, the programme fulfils its purpose.

The initiative has had three different seasons so far and is on its way to its fourth season. Every season consists of different workshops where the participants learn about different aspects of life, not only about how to start a business but also how to manage finances, how to work in teams and many more.

Superheroes’ participants learn about different aspects of life.

Superheroes starts with the application process in the beginning of the autumn. The girls who apply must answer a series of questions that test their leadership and creativity skills. From the many application forms the Superheroes team usually receives, only 50 participants are chosen.

Ten teams are then formed that start off with five girls in each. The participants meet their new friends and teammates during the first workshops and that’s where the fun begins – the creation of their projects.

During the four months of the programme, the participants get to test themselves in different situations that their project leads them to.

Solving problems close to their hearts

One topic that stands particularly strong is environmental protection – whether through creating alternatives to plastic bags or straws or thinking of something else.

For example, an idea called SISU bag stood out with its grit and passion for the environmental problems we face today. It is a startup that is set on replacing small plastic and polyester bags in stores with fabric bags – made in Estonia, as it happens – minimising the ecological footprint. 

SISU bag.

“When we met each other for the first time, we noticed immediately that we all cared about the environment and reducing plastic pollution. We eventually chose the SISU bag proposal because it was the clearest idea and it seemed achievable in the upcoming four months with our skills’ level, yet it would have impact on the world,” Kertu Birgit Anton, one of SISU bag’s team members, told Estonian World. “Today we have launched our first product and sold over 100 bags. We have grown our social media audience and reached out to retail sellers.”

The Superheroes team behind SISU bag.

Anton added that they also offered employment for people with special needs – SISU collaborated with a care centre in Põlvamaa, where the inhabitants sew the bags.

International participants

Superheroes differs as an initiative due to its international variety. Besides some of the international speakers originating from abroad, many of the participants don’t come from Estonian families either.

Since the programme is held in English, everybody who speaks English and are in the right age range, can apply. Most of the participating girls are from Estonian and Russian families, but for example, there have been some girls from Canadian families as well.

Therefore, while working with a teammate who comes from another cultural space, you can learn about different cultures without even realising it. This also helps Estonian and Russian youngsters integrate, because although they might be living in the same country, a lot of young people keep to their own cultural space due to the language barrier that keeps them from socialising with each other.

A continuous path for the girls

After the programme ends, the girls can apply to be a volunteer to help other participants in the future – or in other words, to be a “big sister”. “Big sisters” have many opportunities how to help – some can give feedback; others can plan events. They can also be communicators and answer the questions some of the participants, mentors or inspirational speakers may have – there’s a task for everyone.

“I have become so much more confident, I have become better at teamwork, time management and so much more thanks to Superheroes. I have met so many awesome people in the last few years that otherwise, I wouldn’t have met,” Katarina Raud, one of the “big sisters” and among the first participants in the programme, told Estonian World. “I really appreciate the fact that I can be a part of this amazing community and to see those new projects coming to life and be there for new Superheroes and support them on this journey.”

Superheroes’ participants at Lift99, a co-working space in Tallinn.

According to Mark Brewster, one of the mentors, Superheroes really helps young ladies develop their confidence. “As a mentor, it was incredible watching the shyness melt away as the programme went on – and seeing the girls really become more determined and confident with what they were doing as time went on and they could see results of their actions. I think this will be extremely valuable in their future,” he said.

Organisation without borders

Although Superheroes started out as a project, a few years later it proudly accepted the title of “organisation”. Eva Ponomarjov said the organisation had big plans that could be exported overseas.

The Superheroes’ team has already made a few steps towards that goal and have held small events outside of Estonia. They’ve held a masterclass in Vilnius, Lithuania, and are soon planning to do the same in Helsinki, Finland.

Superheroes.

There are also people who are interested in importing the initiative to their homeland, as opposed to only hosting a masterclass – so far, the interest has come from Portugal, Singapore, Japan and Lebanon.

Compared with many other entrepreneurship programmes for youngsters, Superheroes also differs in that it isn’t set on teaching only leadership skills, but also how to take care of each other. The initiators hope creating a sisterhood without borders is a winning formula in today’s world.

Cover: Superheroes’ participants in Tallinn’s Telliskivi Creative City. Images courtesy of Superheroes.