The success story of Croatian entrepreneurs Marin Smiljanic and Matej Ferencevic did not start in the business office. It all started in their high school class, in the capital Zagreb. This was around the time when Marin, four years older than Matej, became his mentor and shared his knowledge in subjects such as mathematics and computer science.
Over time, a bond developed between them that eventually led to the creation of their AI startup. Omnisearch in 2021, which has so far attracted more than $450,000 in funding. Omnisearch is an AI-powered search engine for online courses.
“Marin was my mentor in high school and he’s the main connection. And I think that idea was great: at this point, mentors still have free time and can teach people. So it’s quite a beneficial system – it’s like your teacher is also your friend, so there’s not much difference between your age, and there’s this feeling of authority that can also be respected.” , explains Matej to The Recursive.
“They were probably one of the best generations in terms of combining great algorithmic skills, but also real-world skills and a drive to develop real things. Because you’ll see a lot of smart people in other generations, but I think what sets them apart is that they wanted the industry experience and they were hungry for it,” Marin recalls with emotion from his years of mentoring.
Such a mentoring system has been in place in the country for 20 years. Later, Matej also took over and he also taught new generations. One particular observation he has made over the years is that the countries around Croatia have not yet implemented such a system.
“I always participate in all the programming competitions in Croatia and we also organized workshops where we brought people from our neighboring countries as well as from the former Yugoslavia. In fact, we discussed the different approaches we took, and it turned out that all other countries mainly rely on a handful of enthusiasts who keep this whole system apart,” says Matej.
For Croatia however, mentoring partnerships such as Marin and Matej’s have also contributed to the broader success of its education system and the creation of a pipeline of diverse, highly qualified talent.
“The high school I went to now has 1,600 students, around 75 percent of whom participate in extracurricular activities such as chess, chemistry, computer science, physics, history, etc.,” Matej emphasizes.
With measures like the introduction of IT in primary schools, this has had a huge effect on motivating students to be part of the IT industry. Additionally, under the guidance of more experienced mentors such as Marin and Matej, promising young entrepreneurs are able to develop their skills and learn how to navigate the challenges of starting a business.
Learn AI from a young age
Besides mentors, Croatian technology organizations and non-profits also contribute to the education of Croatian youth in different technology sectors. THE Croatian AI Association (CroAI) is one of them – made up of over 330 members and two main groups: community and education.
The organization’s educational program began a month ago in several high schools across the country, with students having the opportunity to learn about AI startups and various job opportunities in the industry.
“Our idea was to show children what we could do in Croatia. The project started a month ago and we reached all nine schools, more than 450 students, we had more than 20 teachers and we can say that the students are really enthusiastic. Most of them can’t even believe the success stories that come from Croatia, because they have never seen these stories in mainstream media,” said Martina Silov, Executive Director of CroAI, at The Recursive.
The feedback that CroAI has received from teachers at these schools has also been great: since it is not possible to keep modifying an existing curriculum to keep pace with changing technology, the best thing to do is then to help students. to hear and learn from experts in these sectors.
“Recent studies have shown that the program will need to be modified every six to eight months because technology is changing so quickly. But because you can’t change that so quickly and it doesn’t make sense, what you can do as a teacher is tell your students – okay, I can’t teach you to anymore go from that and I’m not an expert on everything. – but I can call on the best people in the business to give you a talk on the subject. And the idea that we had behind all this was to connect these tutors, mentors, so startup founders, project managers, managers, to the schools, and to create a sort of program of external activities, a case study,” Silov explains.
According to Silov, the program also aims to show students that there are many different positions in which they can be successful.
“They can be excellent engineers, product managers or just managers. You don’t have to be an engineer to work in tech, and that’s really crucial what we’re trying to tell these kids: you don’t have to be an engineer or a mathematician or something. like that. You can be a great product manager, you can be a great designer, you can be a great project manager. There are so many vacancies in the technology sector and to achieve all these goals, we can bring shine to you and show you that it is possible,” concludes Silov.