Meet our graduates: Theresa Oberstrass

Theresa Oberstrass is from Germany and is based in the town of Lüneburg. Theresa participated in the EIT Climate-KIC programme the Journey in 2018 and has just completed a Master’s degree in Sustainability Science.

The title of her MA thesis was Pedagogy in Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Innovation: Exploring the education program by EIT-Climate KIC during the Journey 2018 from participants’ perspectives.

Hi, Theresa! What first led you to participate in the Journey in 2018?

It was my interest in sustainability that led me to apply for the programme, but not in an academic sense. For my Bachelors degree I studied Business Administration so I thought that the Journey looked like a really cool mix of sustainability values – in this case, climate change – but with an entrepreneurial side too. I had hoped to combine my two studies and it worked out really well. 

What were the main takeaways of the Journey experience for you?

The most intriguing thing I took from the Journey was seeing so many bright minds come together. 

I was in a shorter programme, we had two weeks in Cyprus and one week in Bulgaria with a one-week warmup online, so we really only had two weeks to develop an idea and business. 

Seeing all these people come together from all different kinds of backgrounds, not knowing each other but developing such smart ideas in such a short period of time, was really inspiring. It’s amazing what can happen and what can come out of it if you put people together in a room who are willing to talk about a certain issue and then you facilitate the process really well. 

This was what led me to write my MA thesis. I’m super intrigued by creative processes and I was looking for something creative to write about when the Journey came to mind. I thought, wait, that was an amazing process — why don’t I look at that from an academic perspective? I then investigated the education process from the perspective of sustainable entrepreneurial education and made it case-based on the Journey programme. I’m really interested in taking sustainability values and teaching methods and combining them in this new area of sustainable education. It’s a new mix, but a really great mix. I saw a perfect example of this with the Journey, which is why I wrote my thesis around the experience. 

What learnings from your thesis research can you share with any future facilitators or coaches out there? 

The most important learning for me was the need to actually understand what the participant is going through. Normal key performance indicators are really measurable — for example how many people go on to fund their own businesses.

But I think what is more important is the transformation of the personality themselves. It’s so important that people really learn they can fund a business, or learn they can work together with like-minded people, or learn that they need to work with people in order to create a business. Keeping the personal development of each individual in mind when you’re designing an experience is critical. 

Right now during these kinds of processes it’s about what you’re talking about, the head dimension of learning, and pure facts and knowledge. Then you might get some tools, so there’s a hands dimension so some practicality in there.

But there’s also the emotional perspective, which is what I focused my research on. Talking about the Journey specifically, you get locked in a room with 40 people you don’t know and you have to be creative for three weeks straight. This is a really stressful thing! Everyone I interviewed for my thesis said after the Journey they slept for three days straight. It was so exhausting, but it was such a great experience. People will go above and beyond, but there is an emotional strain that comes with it. To be able to properly leverage the learnings you need to consider emotions when designing such a programme. So I did my research on the head, hands and heart model and tried to understand what participants were going through in each dimension.

How did your own Journey experience differ from your expectations?

The way it was advertised when I applied for the programme was that the Journey educated you to become an entrepreneur so you could begin your own start-up. This has changed now – and I really appreciate the development in the programme and the way it has broadened in the last couple of years – but at the time I thought, well I’ll go for three weeks and by the end I’ll have a team and a start-up and it’ll be ‘go time’! 

“I came out of the Journey learning that – big surprise – I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur”

Instead, I came out of the Journey learning that – big surprise – I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. This was really unexpected as I’d always thought I’d be self-employed at some point. But actually I came out thinking in fact I want to be the background; I like being the person facilitating and coaching. That was the biggest learning for me, that I didn’t need to be the one who started the business. The main learning was not my involvement in my project, but instead connecting with people and seeing creativity at work.

How do you see yourself utilising this experience and your research in the future?

I was super inspired by our coaches for the Journey, so as well as writing my thesis on the experience I’ve also become a coach myself. Professionally I’d like to work on something in innovation, but in this role of getting different people together and seeing how to best mix the knowledge and qualities in the room. 

So much education happens outside university. Everyone thinks about a higher education and they think about university. And yes, university was helpful for me to get a basic understanding of climate change and other sustainability issues. But everything I really value and the things I’m most passionate about, I learned outside mainstream university courses and in other projects like the Journey. 

This uncovered such a great passion and since then I’ve done so much to develop this area. I see a lot of potential in extra-curricular learning activities. There’s such a deep satisfaction in going to work with a group for a weekend, and suddenly their passion becomes true or they know how to achieve their goals. Enabling them to do what they know to do and love to do, it’s just the greatest feeling.