Since 2007, Afghanistan’s co-educational skateboarding school Skateistan has been engaging and educating growing numbers of urban youth. Back at UTS, one savvy business lecturer has rolled Skateistan’s need for a marketing strategy into his classroom, achieving positive results both here and overseas.
When Melbourne local and keen skateboarder Oliver Percovich arrived in Kabul in 2007, he didn’t know he’d end up founding Afghanistan’s first skateboarding school: Skateistan.
After starting with €1000 and three skateboards, the not-for-profit organisation now provides education to 350 girls and boys between the ages of five and 17. For every hour of skateboarding completed, one hour of English and computer classes is also done – a routine the Afghan students have enthusiastically embraced.
“I met Oliver about four years ago at a music festival,” says Lecturer of Strategy and Marketing Jochen Schweitzer. “But it was only at the beginning of last year when we were on a cycling tour in New Zealand that the idea for collaboration with the UTS:Business School was born.
“At that point in time, Skateistan had grown into a small NGO with land given to them by the Afghan National Olympic Committee and funding predominantly from Scandinavian embassies to build a skate park. Oliver realised he’d be running into problems soon if he were unable to find a sustainable way of getting money into the organisation other than from donations.”
Schweitzer proposed using the organisation as a case study for his postgraduate Marketing Strategy class. The idea would give students the option to work on different pre-defined issues such as alternative funding models, brand management, communication strategies and possible partnerships.
Percovich agreed. “It's simply a very valuable resource that we can tap into. I had initial discussions with Jochen about it before and I thought it was a great idea, so when he then approached me with a concrete plan I was excited.”
“I asked students to look at the strengths of Skateistan and write a six-page report with recommendations,” says Schweitzer. “They had to look at where the organisation could improve, comparing it to other NGOs and companies around the world who have successful business models.”
In the group report, students had to demonstrate their understanding and use of relevant strategic marketing research, processes and tools. Their recommendations had to be supported by supplementary findings from market research and analysis.
“Oliver wanted to build a social business and start releasing products to generate new sources of income,” says Schweitzer. “They were already selling t-shirts, but he wanted to figure out what other products make sense for Skateistan.”
Percovich was also interested in finding out how Skateistan could use social media to attract more supporters. “They have about 16 000 followers on Facebook now, which is great for a small NGO in Kabul, but they want to get to 100 000,” says Schweitzer.
“How can they get there? What do they have to do to get attention? There’s also a lot of work to be done around their web presence and the way they engage with various stakeholders. So there were many interesting issues for my marketing students to work on.”
Suzie Hollott is one of the postgraduate business students from Schweitzer’s class last year. She says being presented with a real firm, one that required assistance, made the subject feel more worthwhile.
“Skateistan had some imperative strategic issues that needed to be resolved. Our group was very conscious of the fact that unlike other case studies, Oliver probably had limited resources and little access to marketing professionals.
“We tried to remain realistic about what could be achieved and chose recommendations that were easy to understand and could even be implemented by Oliver single handedly if need be.”
Schweitzer agrees the success of using Skateistan as a project was seeing increased student engagement.
“It was very different to their usual engagement levels on generic text book business cases, which I think are not the best way to go. Real cases are harder to coordinate, but it’s a lot more interesting to teach and study something that’s actually happening.”
Already the students’ work is being put to good use.
Percovich says, “We used parts of the different reports to feed to our pro bono consultants to incorporate into an overall business sustainability plan for Skateistan.
“Some of the best ideas were ways of using the internet as a marketing tool. The youth are very keyed in with using internet platforms for marketing, so the UTS students had great ideas that we'll look into implementing in the future for promoting our cause.”
With Schweitzer running the Skateistan project again this semester in his postgraduate Business Project class, the academic says he’s looking to find an equally challenging organisation for his students to work on next semester.
He says it’s just one example of the innovative teaching being undertaken at UTS. Schweitzer is one in a group of five UTS staff members pushing for a teaching approach that uses design thinking to tackle tangible problems for organisations and society.
Recently, he, Senior Lecturers in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building Julie Jupp and Joanne Jakovich, and the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology’s Lecturer Nathan Kirchner, and Senior Lecturer Wayne Brookes returned from visiting Stanford University’s d.school, where this mode of teaching is applied.
“Design thinking is about the creative processes you go through in solving real problems. While students have the necessary discipline knowledge, they often lack the ability to come up with a creative, new solution that hasn’t been covered in a textbook before.
“There’s no one best solution – there are many. That’s why I think we need more of this kind of education – where the ability to think beyond the obvious is encouraged.”