How to rethink the game- Interviewing Cristina Riesen
How to rethink the game- Interviewing Cristina Riesen
We met Cristina two years ago, when she was exploring the entrepreneurial environement, on the steep part of the learning curve, a mom whose children were learning themselves how to walk. She used to speak to us about the importance of perseverance and the openness towards new, about the fact that an idea by itself is not that much worth. In the meantime, nothing’s new and yet everything is new: Cristina is successfully bringing entrepreneurship, teaching and family life together.
House of Romanians in Switzerland: We Are Play Lab is your current entrepreneurial project: a community for innovation design, whose purpose is to accelerate the change in education. What does this basically mean?
Cristina Riesen: The idea behind is quite simple: learning in the 21st century means more than assimilating explicit knowledge. One can face an uncertain future only with specific character traits (curiosity, courage, leadership etc.) and skills (creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking). We are trying to find innovative solutions to integrate this non-curricular education in communities around the world, to minimize the costs of such interventions, to accelerate the integration of this type of education into everyday life. Staying impassive leads to frustration. There are already researched and well analyzed solutions that can be optimized and implemented.
...I wanted this fresh start, a complete dettachment from any comfort zone.
H.R.S.: You believe that education takes place even afterschool.
Cristina: Exactly. Children spend a lot of time outside classes, with their families, in the community, at playgrounds. By paying attention to what cities are teaching the children, to what happens in playgrounds, we can find solutions, we can give everyone the chance for education. I realized this fact with my children, discussing with EdTech researchers, having contact with other women and mothers with background in technology and natural sciences, and this is how the idea of the Foundation emerged. Although at that time I was in a "comfortable" position at Evernote as General Manager Europe, Middle East and Africa and I was extremely passionate about my work, I wanted this fresh start, a complete dettachment from any comfort zone.
H.R.S.: Such a project involves knowledge from different fields. You have a very diverse team, beyond age and nationality: there are people with expertise in innovation, digitization, A.I., but also people with know-how in education and social sciences. How did you brought the team together?
Cristina: The growth was purely organic, I met all the people in the Foundation’s board under various circumstances before, and then the joining came naturally: we are united by the same vision and the desire to do something beyond a commercial purpose. I can say that I am the team entrepreneur, the other members having expertise in education science, the design of the learning process or experience as community builders.
We have just begun and we’ve already seen how important it is that the solution is adapted.
H.R.S.: How does such an innovative education solution look like?
Cristina: One of our projects is Parkopolis, addressed to 3-6 and 7-12 year olds. It includes activities focused on models, numerical and spatial skills, encouraging computational thinking, collaboration, creativity and collaboration. For example, the child practices difficult mathematical concepts such as fractions using a reinvented dice, which makes them to move from space 5 to space 81/4. Likewise, a specially created game creates logical reasoning combining executive functions with the skills of attention, memory and flexibility. In August we had the pilot project in 10 camps for Robotics, Programming and Entrepreneurship at the Technical University of Lausanne, at Innovation Park Dübendorf and at Loreto School in Zug.
Prof. Dr. Kathy Hirsch, the initiator of this project, is currently coordinating Parkopolis in the U.S.. We have just begun and we’ve already seen how important it is that the solution is adapted.
H.R.S.: There are no magical, universally valid solutions?
Cristina (laughing): No. Everything grows through the community’s feedback. You cannot come up with predetermined solutions, no one will adopt them. Such projects are developing through a permanent contribution from both sides: the community proposes something, we come up with solutions to optimize or reduce costs, and as more obstacles arise, we adapt.
The mentor learns as much as the mentee
H.R.S.: You are also active in the academic world as a member of the strategic development office at ETH Zurich. What does that mean?
Cristina: My work in this team is at the beginning. The structure is newly set up, so far we are outlining goals and possible solutions. Such an university, perceived as elitist, can definetely offer an environment that fosters networking and creativity, and has to be a nursery in terms of entrepreneurship.
H.R.S.: You are a mentor at the Kickstart Accelerator for young entrepreneurs and a teacher at Stride, a self-titled "un"school, a program for leadership in entrepreneurship. You have some other "kids" you take care of, so to say. When does the student become a teacher? How do you experience this environment?
Cristina: The mentor learns as much as the mentee, that's the funny part. It is a relationship where giving and receiving happen on both sides. This role comes naturally to me: I learned a lot when I was working in start-ups in environments like Sillicon Valley and I knew I want to give something back. Many people start on the road of entrepreneurship with a romantic view: you are flexible, you are about to move mountains and your idea is everything you believe in. However, as you move forward, you realize that this thing is not for everyone, that you need mental endurance. Sometimes getting advice from someone who was in your situation can make a difference. An advice, since solutions are not universal.
H.R.S.: Do you have a special story as a mentor?
Cristina: This year I became a mentor for EdTech in the Kickstart Accelerator. Last year I was in the vertical for Future & Emerging Technologies (since the community is structured in several verticals, including Healthcare, FinTech, Smart Cities). My mentees were a start-up in Barcelona: U-SMART TOYS. They are dealing with the design and the production of interactive playgrounds that respond to children's touches. I’ve found real friends there, whom with I share the vision of changing the world. This collaboration has been the icing on the cake, it’s given me a fantastic personal satisfaction.
H.R.S.: A take-home message?
Cristina: There are extraordinary people in all countries and in all social layers, there is no need for titles, diplomas, nor references. There’s enough to learn in the most unexpected places, if we are open towards it.
Interviewed by Livia Balacescu
Zürich, November 2017