Could you tell us a little bit about your venture?
Verena: Our social enterprise is based in Germany and is called “Retirement Heroes” (in German: HeldenimRuhestand, or HiRuS) and its aim is to help people transition successfully from their working life to active retirement. Essentially, we are a service provider for companies and act as an intermediary between soon-to-be retired employees and voluntary and community organisations. By encouraging the employees to take up volunteering, we are giving those aged 60 and over a meaningful opportunity to utilise their talents and expertise for a greater good.
According to estimates, by 2030, over 20 million people in Germany will be retired. Among them, there will be many “young-at-hearts” who still feel curious about life and are way too energetic to stay at home. We want to make sure that we use this potential. Our approach is to contact the 60+ generation while they are still working and suggest volunteering opportunities that match their personality and interests. We will take these people on a little journey in which they have to think about some vital questions for their future: “Who do you want to be when you are retired? Which dreams do you have? And to what extent do you want to continue taking part in communal life?”
How did the opportunity to pursue the venture come about?
Nils:Verena and I met during the Balloon Kenya summer 2013 programme. However, it wasn’t until June 2014 that we actually met again for a three-day meeting in a youth hostel near Frankfurt, Germany. The purpose of the meeting was to get a group of friends together and discuss issues that we felt were problematic in our society. On the first day, we drove to the nearby villages and randomly interviewed people in the street to identify 100+ social problems. In the evening of the same day, we agreed that “ageing” was one of the most pressing issues in our society and this is a problem affecting younger generations as well. On the second day of our meeting, we tried to identify possible solutions. This was a very tiresome process as we had to be honest to ourselves with respect to our (limited) resources, time, strengths and weaknesses. Shortly before midnight, we finally found a solution – the HiRus idea was born. The next day, we quickly drew up an action plan and then all travelled back to our respective homes in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and London. We were really exhausted but also quite enthusiastic about what was yet to come.
Do you feel that anything in particular that you learnt from Balloon affected your decision to pursue your own venture?
Verena: The Balloon Kenya programme definitely played a big role in founding our own social enterprise. What I enjoyed most about my time in Nakuru was that from the first day we were encouraged to think outside the box and interact with the local community. I remember that one of our first activities was to speak to the locals and “identify 100 problems”. That was truly a great way of starting the programme because it set the tone for the following six weeks. As Balloon Kenya fellows, we were there to take action, to plan, test, fail, refine, and the start the whole circle again. We were there to motivate people and empower them to believe in their own business ideas. More often than not this little bit of extra support and faith is all our local entrepreneurs needed to jump into action and start their projects.
All in all, it was a fantastic programme. I remember speaking to Douglas Cochrane, one of the Balloon Kenya founders, on my last day in Kenya, and he asked me: “What are the key lessons you are taking away from this?” And I said something like: “The key lesson I am taking away from this is that the best moment to start realising your dream is now.” And I believe this is true. If we have a dream or a good business idea, we should not wait until tomorrow, we should not wait until we finish college, get married, or find a sponsor. If we are really passionate about something, we need to start now.
You recently won one of the biggest enterprise awards in Germany, what was that like?
Nils: On 12 October 2014, we won a German enterprise award called Gründer-Garage (“Founders’ Garage”), receiving amongst others €20,000 and a trip to California to visit the Google and 3M headquarters. We never thought we would make it that far because all in all over 800 business ideas were submitted and more than 2,000 people participated in the contest. When we decided to submit our idea, we just thought it would be a great opportunity to make a business plan and presentation and receive some valuable feedback. The fact that our social enterprise idea won the award shows that we are witnessing a historical moment in the business world because companies are increasingly taking a proactive role in changing the world’s biggest problems of tomorrow. The judges praised us for strengthening the exchange of knowledge and opinions between different generations and taking responsibility for constructing a more socially cohesive society.
You are a group of 11 people who all live in different cities. Tell us a little bit more about your team and the challenges of working collaboratively from the distance.
Verena: Our team is made up of 11 friends, aged 22 to 34 years old. Some of us got to know each other back at university whilst others met during various stays abroad. One of our greatest strength is that everyone brings a uniquely different set of skills and subject knowledge to the table. Our team comprises psychologists, human right activists, PhD candidates, human resources managers, lawyers, journalists and entrepreneurs.
What holds us together is that we agreed from the start that the approach should make good use of all of our individual talents whilst at the same time having an impact on the wider community. It is one of these now-or-never things. We are all still at the beginning of our professional careers, we don’t have a huge number of social commitments tying us down and hence have the necessary time and flexibility to work on a social project. We all live in different cities which is a challenge in terms of how we coordinate and structure our work. However, we have found a good solution to working collaboratively online. We are using a free online tool called Loomio which allows us to have a very effective collaboration and decision-making process. I would definitely recommend it to everyone!
What are the next steps for the “Retirement Heroes” project?
Nils: Four months ago, we were just a group of friends who decided to do some good for our society. Now we won one of the biggest enterprise awards in Germany and have €20,000 in our bank account. However, that does not mean that we can relax now because, in fact, we are still at the very beginning. At the moment, we are looking for a suitable company to do our first pilot project. We have designed a powerful and engaging workshop and prepared a scientific questionnaire to identify the specific needs and interests of the employees. Winning the award has given us a lot of (unexpected) publicity so we are just trying to utilise this attention as best as possible. We have given ourselves an important promise and that is to focus on our main goal – helping people to transition successfully from a working life to an active retirement. Everything else is just a “Nebenkriegsschauplatz” (literally: a secondary theatre of war).
What advice would you give to others who are thinking about starting their own social enterprise?
Verena: I would tell them to not wait and start now! If we can do it, you can pull it off too! Be authentic. Build a great team. Demonstrate determination and integrity. And always remember that actions speak louder than words. For anyone who is interested, you can get in touch with us on: www.helden-im-ruhestand.de.
Verena Brahler and Nils Eiteneyer, Balloon Fellows 2013