After Yulya and Lena Stefnyak, twin eighth-graders participated this summer in the first Belarusian school of social entrepreneurship for teenagers «SEI Youth: My First Business», organized by ODB Brussels and Belarusian Youth Public Union "New Faces", their behaviour in interviews resembles that of real business ladies, not of ordinary schoolgirls.
These are open-hearted, sincere girls with a twinkle in the eye, who really want to improve accessibility for people with disability.
Both Lena and Yulya have cerebral palsy, and Yulya can only move around in a wheelchair. That is why they came to this project with a long-cherished dream, which they were hoping to realize with support from coaches and mentors. The dream was to create accessibility for people with disabilities and non-standard body parameters (for example, stout or short people): modular radio controlled and adjustable furniture.
Yulya (in the centre) and Lena Stefnyak (third on the right in the second row) among graduates of "SEI Youth: My First Business"
Olga Viktorovna Stefnyak, Yulya and Lena's mother: "When the girls told me they wanted to take part in the school of social entrepreneurship, I was quite shocked for a while, as I could not imagine how they could spend a whole week without me - before that, we used to do everything together. We contacted the organizers, and it turned out that there was no accessible environment for a wheelchair used at the school. However, the organizers found a way to accommodate our needs: they found two volunteers to help Yulya. All in all, the girls were fine on their own, they were happy to have been selected for the project and come closer to their dream".
Olga Viktorovna Stefnyak, Yulya and Lena's mother
Inventing a bicycle
Yulya and Lena, along with their mother Olga Viktorovna, had to face seemingly impossible challenges from a very early age. Olga Viktorovna describes how Yulya, then aged four, wanted to get a bike. But no bicycles for a child with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair were available. They had to develop unique drawings and contact Minsk "Motovelo" plant, who manufactured a three-wheeled bicycle. Prototype for this model was later used for others.
It was probably due to having to invent usable items that the girls got the idea to manufacture convenient functional furniture that could be easily adjusted to the needs of wheelchair users and other people in need of special environments. After training in the social entrepreneurship school, the girls put off their ambitious plans to develop a whole set of furniture for home and focused on an adjustable-height kitchen table with a cooktop.
Yulya: "Lena and I like to cook a lot. We can cook pasta or eggs, I can make great pancakes. However, Lena normally uses the kitchen, and I have my own small cooker, which is not very convenient in use: we keep it on a coffee table, and it has too many wires, so it is difficult to move things from the cooker to the table".
From a 3D model to action
Lena says that the most difficult period started right after the summer school finished, when they already had a ready-made project. They travelled to every furniture store in Minsk, but each of them refused to make furniture according to the design sketch: no one wanted to take on a completely new project, suggesting the girls order something from the ready-made furniture already on offer.
3D model of a radio controlled table with a cooktop
However, there was one shop that agreed to try on condition they managed to find suitable fixtures. It seemed that the victory was close and they found their partner. But after a while, the girls received a long rejection letter from this company.
Yulya: "This was the most difficult time. Having been rejected so many times, we lost our rose-coloured glasses and understood that, even though an idea might be an excellent and a very needed one, we will not be able to do it without partners. We even started to tell out mother that this may be because we are still at school. We need to first graduate from school and university and then enter the adult and challenging world of entrepreneurship with our innovative ideas. But mum supported us and said that the best time to act is now. We decided to promote our project on the social media to try to get support from people who will be able to implement our ideas, so that we could get the first experimental sample".
The power of social media
From one friend on social networks to another, Yulya and Lena met their partner, Aleksander Sorokin, who is an engineer at Vizor Games, an IT company. He is a member of "Hackerspace" workshop club, where he designs various models as his hobby. When the girls described their project to Aleksander, he decided that he will only gain from this cooperation.
Aleksander Sorokin: "I thought the idea was interesting, so at the moment we are at the approval and design stage. We are looking for fixtures and metal profiles. Soon, we will be ordering everything, and we can start assembly. It is still difficult to predict how the work will go, as the model is still an experimental one. I’d like to believe that we will be able to finalize it in 3-6 months."
Yulya Stefnyak and Aleksander Sorokin
It seemed that the young entrepreneurs were in luck again and everything was going well. But the next challenge was to find funds for the prototype. Here was where Aleksander helped again. His colleagues from Vizor Games IT learned about the project and collected necessary funds to start work. One obstacle still remains: they need to find a small production room to assemble the prototype – about 10-15 square meters.
At the moment, it is safe to say that the team has been formed and they are actively working to procure components and search for premises suitable for work. Hopefully, soon Yulya will be able to personally taste this unique-for-Belarus prototype: to understand what is good and what still needs work.
Where to adopt experience?
Yulya and Lena did careful research, including a study of many English-language websites from different countries, because such furniture is not produced not just in Belarus, but in the whole of the former Soviet Union. One has to be guided by the experience of Western European countries, but it is still difficult to find drawings online in the public domain.
Lena: "This kind of furniture is produced in Sweden. They have a large manufacturing company - Granberg plant. They do not publish drawings on the website, but the production is an open one, so anyone can visit the plant and see personally how it works. We would really like to visit the plant and adopt this necessary and valuable experience". The girls are looking for sponsors to organize this trip for a team of four people.
Yulya: "We are now making certain steps in this direction, because we have to take the trip as a whole team, but at the moment we have no money to do this. We have already looked for cheap flights from Vilnius, but in order for the trip to be held, we still need money. We are looking for partners or sponsors, we are open for any suggestions, because this is a unique experience which will help us understand prospects of the project and choose the right direction to steadily move forward."
While their classmates fail to understand the girls' activity, they are pursuing their goal. In future, when the experimental model is tested and production begins, they plan to set up a website about this furniture. The website will have public domain drawings and models for download, so this forum may help them find even more like-minded people and ensure accessibility for people with disabilities and other special needs no only outside their homes, but also inside it.
Text by: Valerya Nikalaychyk
The material was prepared within the framework of the "Social Entrepreneurship Incubator", implemented by ODB Brussels in partnership with TNU Network University (Netherlands), Belarusian Youth Public Union "New Faces" and International Civil Association "Union of Belarusian of the world “Motherland", with support from the European Union.