City walks with the homeless
To set the scene from the get-go: Huddled in a co-working space in Vienna, we are talking about the streets of Prague. How so? The story goes back about a year.
It was on a day in February 2012 when a group of three university students – Tereza, Ondřej, and Katarina, were on their way back from the opening of the local Social Impact Award event. They had decided to join and tune in to the entrepreneurial concepts of their peers, just so – out of curiosity. Little did they know that a few hours later, this would trigger an idea of their own. While waiting for the subway, they considered the possibility of touching on a somewhat sensitive issue: homelessness. Next thing they knew, they were looking for a way to employ homeless people as tour guides in Prague – Pragulic. While the concept, was not new to Europe (here are some offerings in London and Amsterdam), as they found out, they were the first to employ it in the CEE.
Raising an eyebrow
The co-founders: Tereza, Ondřej, and Katarina Photo credit: PragulicOn first thought, the project is a call for change – a call to strip down quite a few stereotypes, a rather ambitious endeavour. Yet, a look back at the initial concept poses the question of how much of this ambition is realistic and how much is naivety: Three students trying to make their city a better place by fostering contact with a marginalised social group. Even Tereza admits that when the media first found out about their project, one of them reported on it withscepticism. Eventually, however, it is about what you make out of this scepticism – do you give up or do you work past it. Tereza seems to have taken the latter to heart, as about a year after starting out, she is determined to get the most out of Investment Ready’s Academy.
“We’re currently in our first phase of business planning,” Tereza says, mentioning that a potential mystery investor (“I would tell you who they are, but you’re the press, so I can’t,” she adds humorously and leaves it at that) has expressed an interest in Pragulic. Humour aside, Tereza seems focused and not all too willing to share more than asked of her. She is the one to make sure that investors turn from potential to actual ones, so the Investment Ready Academy is her place to be.
“It is a great place to meet social entrepreneurs, and work in an inspiring environment under the guidance of professionals,” Tereza says. Some of the best take-aways she considers to be the consultancy sessions with both experts and peers and the opportunity to practice her pitch – “which I hate, but it’s necessary.” Tereza may not be your typical businessperson, as confirmed by her choice of university programme – Civil Sector studies. However, her earlier background in business influenced her decision to take on the challenge of business planning and investor seeking.
Working on “the streets of Prague”
Roaming the streets of Prague Photo credit: http://on.fb.me/10vM2JYAs in any new venture, starting out involves a significant investment of work, time, and resources, and a not-so-significant financial return. A major part of running Pragulic – the name is composedof “Prague” and the Czech word for “streets” – occurs on a voluntary basis. “We were granted a scholarship by the university in order to develop the project, but we need another source.”
Pragulic is currently run by a core team of four, in which Tereza and Ondřej are the co-founders, and CEO and Operational Manager, respectively. They also have a psychologist on board – Petra Novotná, and their newest member Jan Trybenekr offers support in business planning. Tereza admits that one of the toughest aspects of getting Pragulic going was mastering the act of working together. “We had to learn how to do things, but we also had to learn how to do them together.”
In addition, the startup works with 35 volunteer translators, who offer services in altogether nine languages, among which Japanese and Vietnamese. Perhaps most importantly, though, it employs five “homeless” people who do the guided tours – the current schedule offers five tours every week, the majority of which are on weekends.
Honza, one of Pragulic’s tour guides, in action Photo credit: http://on.fb.me/129v40xOn a side note, Tereza explains Pragulic’s take on the term “homeless”. “The people we work with are not homeless in the literal sense of the word,” she says. “They do have accommodation. We believe that you can’t really focus on work if you know you have no place to go to. What we look for in these people is experience. At one point in their lives they were homeless, and they know how that feels.” By reflecting on their past, they can offer the necessary insight into the city.
Now that teamwork is more of an asset rather than a challenge for the Pragulic team, it seems like the startup’s common goal is comprised of its members’ individual ones. As the CEO, Tereza would like to lead the project through strategic changes in order to build “a strong, respected, and financially sustainable organisation.” Jan, in turn, agrees with the need to build a sustainable business model, while Ondřej emphasises his wish to have as many customers as other commercial tour agencies. At the core of it all, however, seems to be the strive to fight stereotypes and change people’s perceptions of homelessness for the better.
Bearing in mind the topicality of the subject matter, the startup has managed to attract the attention of both locals and tourists. Especially with Prague being a major Central European tourist destination, the team hopes to be able to raise awareness of the reality called homelessness. Thus far, Pragulic has attracted significant media attention as well, which has helped the startup spread the word further and initiate a discourse on the topic.