At the age of just 23, Ondřej Kania has already established a successful agency that sends Czechs students to prestigious boarding schools in the United States and Canada and opened a private high-school in Prague. The young entrepreneur, who himself studied in the United States because he was dissatisfied with the Czech education system, has other plans in the works. In September, he is set to open the very first American high-school in central Europe. When I met with Ondřej Kania, I asked him how he came to set up a school at an age when most of his peers are still studying themselves:
“We meet literally hundreds and hundreds of families from all around the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary and they basically have a similar problem with the Czech education system. One thing is the structure, where the system gives students no choice what they want to study.
“The second thing is the way of teaching, which is very old-fashioned. In the digital age, where every four-year old kid can use an i-pad better than his or her parents, most schools teachers still stand in front of the blackboard with children writing down what they are saying.
“Most of the people we were meeting did not have the money to afford boarding schools, which is the type of schools that we work with in our agency.
“So we decided to establish a school and bring the educational methods from the United States and Canada to the Czech Republic and it doesn’t have to cost 30 or 40,000 dollars. So this is what happened and are already at the end of the first semester.”
What was your own experience with Czech schools? How did you do at school as a child?
“I was a problematic kid. I did what I wanted to do. I used to play this video game called World of Warcraft, which you play with people from all around the world. I started my own guild and had some 120 people in the team, so it was my first role as a manager, in a way. So this is what I did before and after school.
“And then I went to school and I didn’t like math, physics or chemistry. I needed special attention which I never received and I had to have after-school lessons. In the eighth grade I was failing in physics and math and though I was stupid so it was like a vicious circle.”
So this was the moment when you decided you wanted to study in the United States.
“Basically I was trying to find a way to get out of the Czech Republic. Ever since I was eleven or twelve I used to watch David Letterman and other talk shows and I simply fell in love with the United States.
“My family couldn’t even afford a flight ticket, but I believed there was a way to get there. So I had that incredible American positivity in myself even though I had never been to the United States before.”
So how did you eventually manage to get to the US?
“Well I read a blog post on the internet from a girl who received a partial scholarship at some boarding school in California. So I found a list of some 400 boarding schools in the US and Canada and sent an e-mail to every single one of them. I basically wrote: Here I am, I have no money, can you take me for free?
“The funny thing is that I was accepted to a school in Vermont called Linden Institute and all I had to pay was 4,000 dollars. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the money. And now, we are actually opening a sister school of Linden Institute in Prague as their partner.
“In the end I found a small private Christian boarding school in upstate of New York, close to Albany. I sent them an email and they decided they would give me a chance. I received a full scholarship which usually means you don’t have to study and don’t have to worry about anything.
I found eventually that I had to do some work aside. I was selling cookies all around the state of New York, which was an incredible school in terms of business skills and salesmanship.
“I finished the eleventh and twelfth grade there and have a high school diploma from there and it was the last school I ever attended and will ever attend, I think.”
Did the American school meet your expectations?
“I had no expectations at all, to be honest with you. I just wanted to get out. I didn’t really know where I was going. It wasn’t a prestigious school. It was a school run which was run for about 50 years by a couple of people who tried to provide high-quality education even for students who couldn’t afford to pay 40 or 50 thousand dollars a year.
“We were a small school so we didn’t have that many subjects to choose from but we worked with technology a lot. I had regular subjects divided in different levels, so in maths I was in a lower level, because I never liked math, but with history and civics I had a higher level. It was great that I could on things I enjoyed and I could spend time studying them.”
You have already said this was the last school you ever planned to attend, but have you actually considered staying in the US after you finished high school?
“I did. The high-school I attended had a great basketball team and I got some offers to play at some pretty good schools, but I started to read a lot about business and economy and through our founder I had an opportunity to spend a week with a rich and successful entrepreneur who had a chain of thirty or forty charter high school in the US.
“We agreed that I would try to come there for the summer and be his assistant, so with that in mind, I declined offers from universities. But I later found out that I won’t be able to work in Atlanta, because I didn’t get a work permit.
“So what I was left with was to wait for a year before going to a university. But in the meantime, we started our business in the Czech Republic and there was no reason to come back.”
And that business was a company organizing exchange programmes for Czech and Slovak students in the United States.
“We started only with Czech students. We send them to the best boarding schools across the United States. The concept of boarding schools is to have an environment which would find interest and passion of students and take it to the levels they couldn’t ever achieve by themselves and to be accepted by the best universities.
“It was a very specific segment which no-one ever offered on our market. I also had the advantage of going to the boarding school myself so I knew a lot of people there.
“No, after four years of existence, we have placed there more than a hundred students from our region. They pay on average about 35,000 to 40, 000 dollars for their annual tuition fee, so we make pretty good business out of it.
“We are also the only company in Central Europe which organizes boarding school fairs. So from these activities, which grow every year by 100 or 200 percent in terms of revenue and profits, we are able to invest in other activities - our schools.”
So can you tell me a little bit about the school that you have already established, in terms of its educational principles.
“What we want to do, and it will take a few years before the teachers master it, is to provide the students with the same amount of information and knowledge, but through different processes. Through process which would not require just reading and memorizing, but which would require increase ability to work within a team, to solve problems, to be creative, to research.
“This approach is called project based learning and that’s what we are trying to introduce here. So that’s what we are trying to do but it is a long-term process, considering the fact that school is one of the most conservative environments in the world.”