MITTR Innovators U-35: Rafał Flis brings students together to work on social challenges

By October 10, 2016
Keywords : Smart city, education, Europe
Rafal Flis

This young Polish innovator, the co-founder of the Social Wolves platform, who was named ‘Social Innovator 2016’ at the recent MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 Awards for Poland, believes in teamwork and the power of the crowd in helping to resolve some of the social challenges facing the world today.

An entrepreneur?

When he said “Stay hungry, stay foolish”, Steve Jobs may or may not have realised that he had just come out with a watchword that would inspire generations of entrepreneurs to come. One of those who does seem to have been inspired is Rafał Flis, a young Pole who co-founded Social Wolves and was named ‘Social Innovator of 2016’ for Poland by MIT Technology Review at a ceremony in Warsaw this summer. Rafał has not copied Jobs’ exhortation word for word as the Social Wolves slogan is “Be hungry, yet responsible” – something to show the older generation that young folks have plenty of drive but that they already have their eye on the legacy they will hand on in the future. On stage at the Warsaw Spire building, where the Awards event took place, the young man introduced his team: “We’re the Social Wolves generation – brilliant young people who want to use their skills to change the world around them … for the better.” Together with two partners, he has created what he calls the ‘Airbnb of education’: an online training platform that enables high school and university students to work in teams to address some of the challenges facing society. To date, over 18,000 young people have worked on 850 projects via the platform.

The innovation? 

The idea for Social Wolves came to Rafał Flis and his co-founders Paula Bruszewska and Marcin Bruszewski, when they started going to their first job interviews: “We were very surprised that no-one asked us about our studies, but they asked a lot about our real-life experiences in real working situations. And we realised that ‘social’ projects could teach us a lot, because they require you to add emotional intelligence to the other main 21st century skills.”  That was how Social Wolves came into being. They started off by running workshops for young people in Warsaw and then, gradually, the platform grew from there. “That proves that this is the right way to innovate,” says Rafał in evangelical entrepreneur mode, explaining: “It was a side project for us. Running a social project alongside your day job is the best way to find your own idea for a startup. It’s a good way of driving change.” Then, in 2014, they all decided to hand in their resignations to their respective companies and concentrate on Social Wolves. For Rafał Flis, it was the blossoming of a process that was by no means a matter of chance. He reveals: “I had always dreamed of being an entrepreneur. When I was younger, I even once wrote a letter to Education Minister telling him that we ought to change the education system so as to enable students to work together in teams!” It is clear that this idealistic entrepreneur believes strongly in the power of the community to change the world.

And what impact is this having?

He explains with great enthusiasm what being a Social Wolf means to the teenagers who have registered on the platform: It’s exciting for them to be able to choose social issues that they would like to solve. It’s their own decision, they don’t need their parents or their teachers to decide for them. So they feel they have control over a small fragment of reality, that they can have an impact on real people in the real world. It’s so important for young people who are tired of being regarded as children. And all this, this power and influence, is only possible when you work in a team,” he underlined. You really sense his feeling of joy and excitement at having launched an entrepreneurial adventure that is working well.

So what’s the next step?

His title of ‘Social Innovator of 2016’ should help the team to expand the Social Wolves platform going forward. Firstly, with new audiences – Social Wolves intends to open up to young professional people “who, after a few years at work, have become bored” – and then beyond the borders of Poland. Rafał has an ambition which shows his self-confidence but is also quite refreshing: “I want to boost our credentials in the United States. If we want to approach Barack Obama, we’ll certainly need the right credentials!” In addition to the ‘cachet’ of being one of the MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35, actually joining the worldwide community created by MIT Technology Review is a real opportunity whose value does not escape Rafał. ”Today I’ve discovered some extra opportunities and I’m overwhelmed. I’ve met all these great people. They’re a lot better than we are, they can inspire us, and we can work with them,” he enthused. If you want to innovate, there is definitely is strength in numbers.

By Philothée Gaymard

On the MIT TR U-35 Poland Awards, see also:

[Portrait of an Innovator] Patrycja Wizińska-Socha is working to improve pregnancy care via telehealth

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