Wrap your head around this: Almost a fifth of the people who voted in the presidential elections were between the ages of 18 and 29. Now more than ever, millennials are voicing their opinions on unemployment rates, affordable college loans, women’s health care, and marriage equality. Young people are without a doubt, an important demographic, not just in next four years, but also in the coming generations.
Two Harvard University graduates understand the high potential of young people. Mariam Melikadze and Daan Harmsen started a not-for-profit organization called International Summer School on Leadership in 2010 to teach much-needed leadership skills to youth. Based in Tbilisi, Georgia, ISS strives to educate post-Soviet leaders with a 10-day program. With a mixture of hands-on activities and lectures, students are able to build their teamwork, decision-making, and leadership skills.
ISS’ success would be nowhere without its founders’ passion for cultivating young leaders from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and the Philippines. In an interview with Melikadze, I was able to find out a little more about how ISS came to be, the need for the program, and she even provided advice for young people seeking to start a similar venture.
Lena Kheir (LK): How did you and Daan meet?
Mariam Melikadze (MM): Daan and I met in an introductory calculus class in college. We bonded over late-night problem sets, midnight snacks and our mutual interest in international development.
LK: What inspired you to start ISS?
MM: Both of us were interested in international development and education. We didn’t want to wait until graduation to pursue our passion and were thinking of ways to couple school with work on a real-life project. We started to seek out resources and formed a partnership with the Free University of Tbilisi (the main sponsor for ISS). From then on, it all sort of came together. But it took a couple of iterations for the vision of the organization to crystallise.
LK: Do you think you've grown as leaders since you started ISS? If not what did you learn from the experience?
MM: It is ironic that we are running a leadership program, but when we started out I knew next to nothing about the topic. I only had an awareness there was a need for it in Georgia. Over the years, our instructors have been an invaluable resource and I think we have learned just as much from them as our students. I’ve learned a lot about teamwork, cooperation, communication, but I am sure this is only a very small portion of what I need to know.
LK: Why does Georgia need a program like yours?
MM: Currently, Georgia is at a very interesting point in its development. Both the government and the people are becoming very Western-oriented: we want to integrate with Europe, liberalize and grow our economy, modernize our education system. But at the same time the mentality left over from the Soviet period makes this process quite painful. There are basic soft-skills (e.g. teamwork, communication, facilitation, organization etc.) that are fundamentally entrenched in the Western culture and education system, but are completely lacking in Georgia. I think these skills are essential to have if our transformation is to be a success.
LK: What has ISS achieved thus far?
MM: Thus far, we have organized three ten-day summer schools in Georgia. Our alumni base includes around 240 participants, with students from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and the Philippines. On September 23, for the first time, we launched our supplementary full-year leadership program for a select group of students. In the future, we hope to be better integrate the summer school with the full-year program. We are also looking to expand to other countries in the region, with Azerbaijan and Armenia being top targets.
LK: What advice do you have for young people who want to start a similar venture?
MM: Two things. First, it is important to choose a project that is close to your heart. You will spend many hours doing grunt work that might not lead to anything and passion for the cause definitely helps during such times. Second, try to seek out mentors who are similarly passionate about the vision of the venture. Daan and I have been extremely lucky in finding such individuals and it is due to their commitment and support that our project has taken off at all.