Aula Future's inspiring journey to bridge the global green skills gap
In 2017, Genefer Baxter moved to Berlin from Pennsylvania to chase her dreams in the freelancing world. It was while working in Berlin's art scenes that she crossed paths with her future co-founder, Marco Locatelli.
In 2020, Genefer and Marco decided to experiment with creating an educational program that would take a project-based approach to learning innovation. As a result, Aula Future was founded.
In this interview, we discuss with Genefer the current projects and plans of Aula Future.
When did you realize you wanted to start a business focused on sustainability?
We had a few early collaborations with organizations that were integral to where we are now.
Our first partner was H&M beyond in Berlin where we explored the impact of artificial intelligence on the fashion industry. With five participants, we facilitated the development of a design project or an art piece around it.
Both the participants and client reported very positive feedback about the program and we felt like the value we’d provided with this model could develop into a business. Then we started experimenting with project-based programs for both high school and adult learners.
Our second client ended up being the Science Center in Philadelphia back in the U.S. They asked us to create a program for high school students to prepare them to compete in the Biodesign Challenge. We developed the curriculum and facilitated the students’ design projects, which they would present at the design competition.
This opened a whole new door for us and showed how biodesign could be applied to even bigger topics like sustainability and circularity.
We continued to develop educational programs around sustainability and biodesign and incorporated important approaches like regenerative design and systems thinking. And in just one year, we went from 15 students to 150 students.
Can you tell us where you are at the moment in terms of business?
We are currently building an e-learning platform where learners, aspiring designers, professionals, entrepreneurs, and anyone who wants to create an impactful project can learn green skills, as well as develop solutions alongside real companies. Our goal is to create a marketplace based on design challenges where learners and organizations can come together for sustainable innovation.
We provide valuable educational resources like e-courses, live webinars with experts, and 1-1 feedback sessions to help build a career in sustainable design.
In addition, our design competitions help participants apply all they’ve learned in a project that they pitch to a panel for an opportunity to gain internships, jobs, and funding opportunities to continue their projects. Design challenges will often be supported by and done in collaboration with an organization. For example, a university, NGO, or company that wants to carry out R&D and validate ideas that are both sustainable and affordable.
Collaborators have an advantage of attracting talent because participants dive deep into the issues the company is struggling with. Plus, they can brand themselves as an organization that is working to reduce their environmental impact.
We have recently launched our first online design challenge which kicks off in November this year. It will be around biomaterials as a potential solution for tackling the petroleum problem. “How can we replace petroleum-based products using bio-based products?”
This competition will serve essentially as our MVP to see how the business model works and if learners and companies are interested. From this experiment, we'll be able to improve and build from the feedback we receive. You can learn more about the free e-course and design challenge and register here.
Since the online platform is not live yet, how did you conduct the challenges so far?
In the earlier days, we facilitated our programs in person. We would go on-site, have a group of students, facilitate their projects, and give feedback. Now, we are moving this process online. Learners can participate in an e-learning setting where we have traditional educational video lessons.
However, we want to make the experience much more engaging by including additional resources such as live webinars, one-on-one sessions with experts, a project builder, office hours, feedback sessions, and meetings with facilitators to help with the conceptualization and design of the project. But the core idea, working on real challenges faced by the industry, still stands.
How do you pick the topics?
The topics of our design challenges at first are going to be very focused on building green skills. We think that society will need workers with these competencies in the near future, and more and more companies are looking for people who understand planet-centric design.
What's great about our platform, I believe, is that you can essentially take part in as many design challenges as you want and continue to build your portfolio around a variety of relevant topics with real companies, while simultaneously making a meaningful impact.
Additionally, what makes Aula Future special is the philosophy that we embed into our programs because we are trying to take a new approach to designing and building sustainable systems: We want to go beyond “net zero”, e.g.: I'm going to plant a hundred trees for every amount of CO2 that I'm emitting. We want to instead facilitate the creation of products, services, and systems that actually heal our planet and start to reverse the damage that we've been doing.
Why did you choose Berlin as your base?
I'm half-German and have family in Berlin. So, it made things a little easier for me to move here. We did briefly consider operating out of the U.S. At first, we felt that some of our biggest clients were in the States. However, soon after, we decided to remain in Berlin simply because we really enjoyed the city.
Also, we were accepted into an accelerator program with Impact Hub called Empower Now. This opportunity helped us to grow and expand our professional network, and we received tremendous support from mentors and like-minded founders. Now, Berlin isn’t just the place we prefer to live, it’s the place we eventually plan on registering Aula Future.
Can we talk about some of the challenges you faced in Germany?
Language is one of the challenges. I am working to improve my German, and hope to reach a good level at some point to take advantage of all that the Berlin startup world has to offer. I am also a Black woman who does not speak the native language, and feel that sometimes has been a barrier to us receiving certain opportunities.
Other challenges I would say are finding the right mentors and forming partnerships. With mentorship, I think the challenge comes from the fact that there's so much information out there when you're building a business, and everyone has an opinion of how you should operate. So, it’s difficult to find someone you not only trust but someone you also connect with.
And for building partnerships to develop and launch new design challenges on our platform, it’s very important that we collaborate with different organizations, companies, and universities. I think in the beginning it's quite hard to form these partnerships; it's a very chicken-and-egg situation. Partners expect you to be established. They don't necessarily trust you initially, and why should they? So, we are looking for our first big partner who believes in us, and I hope that this helps us build enough credibility to continue forming critical partnerships.
How did you convince your first customers that you are the person to plan those design challenges?
Even in the early days, we showed up to every opportunity with a strong value for excellence, and that helped us. We made sure that every project was polished and we arrived professionally, no matter how small the gig. I believe that the effort snowballed, and eventually, we were able to build up a portfolio and a little credibility.
The next component is the network. All the early opportunities that we got were from our network. So, I would recommend to those looking to get into entrepreneurship to attend events. Be willing to help others.
The third thing is just having the grit and the perseverance to not give up. And that's something we fight with almost every day. Because sometimes, there is a time when we ask ourselves, does this even make sense? Does anyone care? It's just having the perseverance, showing up professionally, and building the network. And I have faith that those ingredients, over time, will build success.
What are your next plans?
If all goes well, Aula Future will have an e-learning platform with a library of design challenges and learning resources. We will have a loyal community of learners and partners working together to make real change in society.
I would also love to see a physical space in the future where we can run workshops and in-person classes, and learners can build their projects in real life.
So, finally, do you have some suggestions for the people who are starting as a founder?
Build your network, go out, show up professionally, and bring excellence to everything you do. And I would also add, to never give up on your vision.
Visit previous interviews with other Green Initiatives.
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