When Oliver Percovich moved from Australia to Kabul in 2007 he had no idea how much the city would change his life.
In a bid to explore his new surroundings Alex would skateboard around the city centre. It wasn’t long until the street-working kids started to follow him around asking for rides. That was the lightbulb moment.
In 2008, Oliver founded Skateistan, a grassroots ‘Sport for Development’ project in Kabul. Since then it has won numerous awards and launched around the world. We caught up with Oliver to find out more.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
The young girls working on the streets of Kabul. I wanted to connect them to the rest of the world through skateboarding.
Describe what your company does.
We empower children and youth through skateboarding and education. We have built skate schools in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa that have a skatepark as well as classroom spaces. The hook of skateboarding allows us to reach children that have never gone to school and we provide them with a quality education.
Why do you think your company has been successful?
It is an innovative idea to use skateboarding to attract our target audience, the poorest street working children in the world, into education. Skateboarding is fun so it works. We have also empowered our staff to make decisions that make sense to them, so we use a top-down as well as a bottom-up approach. Our workers on the coalface often can make decisions concerning their work much better than management so we always try to listen to them. Every employee is encouraged to innovate so we have social entrepreneurs at every level of the organisation.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
We made skateboarding the largest sport for girls in Afghanistan. Our school in Mazar-e-sharif in northern Afghanistan has the largest concentration of female skateboarders anywhere in the world. Nowhere else do 400 girls skate every week.
What has been your biggest challenge?
In 2012 we lost 4 staff and students in a suicide attack in Kabul. The environment we work in is very dangerous, however, the work is very important.
What is your team structure like?
We have around 80 full-time employees across 4 main departments – programs, development, finance/HR and communications. Coordinating levels are executive, director, manager and officer. We aim to only have national staff in the countries we operate in. For example, all 50 staff in Afghanistan are Afghans.
What traits do you look for in new hires?
We look for flexible, smart, results focussed people. Each hire should be able to do something better than their manager! We also try to make the teams as diverse in skills and attributes as possible.
What advice would you give to someone starting a business?
You have to convince yourself that it is the best idea in the world. If you use this approach it will be easier to keep on going when times are tough and it also works to bring in money. In short, you have to be passionate about it or it simply won’t work.
How do you measure success?
In the number of girls that are accessing quality education for the first time.
What’s your ultimate ambition?
To have Skate Schools on every continent and 1 million girls in school for the first time.
How can companies nurture a more diverse team?
Firstly, you always need to pick people that are different to yourself. Examine what your strengths and weaknesses are and hire people that can do the things you aren’t good at doing.
Policies can also work. At Skateistan we have a policy of equal staff numbers for females and males. Additionally, each of the parts of your team should be regularly informed about what the other parts are doing so everyone values their colleagues work properly.
What’s the one thing you wish people knew about your business?
How incredibly happy the children are in our programs. It changes their lives.
What does the future hold for your company?
We are very interested in establishing Skate Schools in locations where there are lots of Syrian refugees.