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How I Found Great Chocolate in Brussels and Glimpsed the Flame of Hope


I found myself in a bit of an awkward situation when I had to explain to my friends why I would be flying to Brussels this week. Sure, I knew the official answer. I have been selected as one of the 25 members of the ”Young Advisors Expert Group on implementation of the Digital Agenda for Europe” (yeah, I had to copy-paste that). I suppose it looks nice on my CV. And I will be visiting the capital of the European Union for the first time.

While I was looking forward to the trip, I didn’t really have a clear idea on what to expect. There was some strange paperwork I had to fill in, some very formal documents sent around that say a lot and yet nothing at all at the same time. It started to look a bit better when they created a Twitter list of YAG members. I admit I also felt a bit intimidated by some pretty impressive CVs from my fellow group members. What do I possibly have to offer? I don’t even pay as much attention to politics as I should, because I get frustrated about the endless talking and too little meaningful action. Discussing important issues is all well and good, but if you don’t follow it up with concrete actions, it’s just a nice hobby suitable for lazy Summer evening on a terrace, with a glass of fine wine in your hand. I know, I know, big political decisions are hard and should not be made lightly. But hard doesn’t mean impossible.

My first YAG meeting

Most doubts I had quickly disappeared once I actually met the other members of the YAG group, some members of DG Connect and (my new hero) Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda. We kicked off the meeting by touching upon some common concerns, such as obstacles faced by startups, the inefficiency of our school to prepare kids for a digital future (and present), the lack of a single digital market and so on. But, also encouraged by Paul André Baran, the Romanian Digital Champion, we quickly agreed that we shouldn’t spend too much time complaining about things we all know to be wrong, but rather switch to proposing solutions. Of course, there’s not much actual power you have as an external advisor. But we can bring a fresh perspective to the table, one not yet spoiled by the bubble of big institutions.

Neelie Kroes
Photo by Jordan Hatch
Diversity is key to finding innovative solutions. And I was pleasantly surprised to see how open the whole DG Connect team was to listening to what we had to say. They asked us to be frank and we embraced the opportunity wholeheartedly. What do we have to lose by speaking our minds? Nothing, but a lot to gain. I also loved the fact that they kept encouraging us, as a group, to get together and come up with practical propositions for the EU related to the Digital Agenda. Sure, the road to action is a long one and maybe even covered with wild plants, but it’s good to know it exists.

We can’t afford to wait for the big guys to save the world

But perhaps an even more important lesson of the day was learning about all the wonderful initiatives across Europe all of us YAGs are involved in. The B4RN network from Lancashire (UK), who teaches anyone interested, especially women, how to fuse fiber optics and thus deliver fast broadband to rural, commercially uninteresting, areas. DIY for the digital age, “easier than knitting,” says Chris Condor, one of the founders, who is acting as an observer to our little merry band and has more youthful spirit than some people a third her age. And she carries fiber optic cables in her purse, how awesome is that?

Then there’s Zen Digital Europe, originally from Brussels, which promotes STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) among young girls. YAG member Mercedes, who was involved with this initiative and many others, is also wonderfully passionate about bringing more women in IT. Then Telerik in Bulgaria, an internationally successful enterprise software company, which established their own academy to provide practical IT training for people with little or no programming background - not surprisingly, it turns out such an initiative can also be great recruiting tool. All sorts of innovative competitions for schools in Lithuania. And the list goes on. (Side note: the more I look around, the more wonderful women I see having a big impact in their local communities. We just need to learn to speak up more loudly and often!)

All those initiatives are just the tip of the iceberg. But it gives me hope. The more we share ideas like this, the more we can achieve, bottom-up, without any big funding that drowns in bureaucracy. In that sense, the meeting was a great platform for exchanging good practices. And there’s of course another important group, the Digital Champions, that are playing for the same team.

My own catalyst for action

Come to think of it, I might never have gotten involved with Rails Girls, the super fun and engaging web programming workshop for women that I have organized twice now in Ljubljana, if it weren’t for Linda Liukas, the co-founder of the initiative and Digital Champion of Finland. She encouraged Aleš Špetič, our own Digital Champion, to bring Rails Girls to Slovenia, and he in turn challenged me to get involved. I am not sure if I would have had the guts to do it on my own otherwise. I had almost no experience with organizing events, but when faced with a direct challenge that could help solve an issue that was already bugging me, saying no wasn’t an option.

As it turns out, organizing Rails Girls was probably the most meaningful thing I’ve done so far, with the support of various individuals and companies, of course. My husband tells me I switch to my excited voice when I talk about Rails Girls. But I needed a little nudge and I can now tell you first hand it’s not as scary as it seems from the other side, especially if you have a supportive environment - and that’s another thing you can’t really know unless you try. I am just blown away by the support for Rails Girls from coaches, the girls themselves, the Faculty of Computer and Information Science in Ljubljana, the startups involved in the Silicon Gardens community. Actually, our only weakness is sponsorship money.

Rolling up my sleeves even more

So, while I am still not entirely sure what being a young EC expert means, I am already seeing a lot of value in sharing ideas with a diverse group of people from all over Europe. And I will try my best to play my part in the sharing network. Take the experience I had in Brussels back with me to Ljubljana, borrow best practices from other EU countries, try to export the best practices we create here. Our YAG (“yag” apparently means fire in Gypsy language) group has already come up with some interesting ideas in the Facebook group we created right after our first meeting and I think we’re all excited about meeting again, in one way or another. My wish is that the next meeting will also involve whiteboards, colorful sticky notes and, ultimately, concrete proposals for action. And great Belgium chocolate, of course.

We might not be super heroes, but I am thinking we might just be still young and eager enough to come up with crazy ideas nobody told us were impossible. I also don’t pretend we’re the only eligible candidates to represent our countries. I know there are many other people under the age of 35 around Europe with great ideas, and I’m also hoping to meet you guys and gals (if you happen to stumble upon this blog post, give me a shout!). Being a member of YAG certainly looks nice on my CV, but I also see it as a responsibility towards all the hard working and creative young people from Slovenia and other EU countries that weren’t at the table with us (yet).

What can one person do? A lot, with the right village

I’ve seen how girls’ eyes light up when they create their first web app, I’ve seen how excited coaches are to be sharing their knowledge at our Rails Girls workshops. All completely voluntarily. That is tangible change. And maybe, just maybe, if we all join our forces, we can create even more positive change in our local communities. I know the political and economical situation is anything but rosy in most part of Europe, which is definitely also true for our little paradise below the Alps. Yeah, it sucks to be young and looking for employment in quickly disappearing fields. It’s going to suck for quite a while, I’m afraid. And to be honest, I don’t have much hope that our politicians have what it takes to make everything good again (even though we recently got our first female PM), I’ll be really happy if I’m proven wrong, but while we wait, it’s even more important to get involved when you see opportunity for change. Even if it seems like just a little one, like teaching a couple of girls to code.

It’s not easy giving a big piece of yourself to a cause, more often than not for free, that’s for sure. But on my trip to Brussels I learned that I am not alone. And that there are some cool people with actual power that are willing to listen if we make enough positively oriented noise downstairs. Let’s get a party started then, not just by walking the streets, but by finding solutions, creating our own little pilots that can be scaled across the continent.





Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2013/03/how-i-found-great-chocolate-in-brussels.html