Empowering people through tech solutions
International business administration student Teodor Cătăniciu is the 21-year-old founder of two non-profit organisations that crowdsource tech solutions to address human problems. The international business administration student from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) speaks with RSM Outlook about coding boot camps for refugees, Silicon Valley, and a 10-dollar wheelchair.
Story by Imogen Moore
A conversation with Teodor Cătăniciu is startling for its almost total absence of verbal fillers like ‘um’ or ‘er.’ Even more interesting is that Cătăniciu seems completely unaware of this unusual trait. He’s too busy sharing his thoughts in the same way he does everything else: at breakneck speed, with passion, and a big dose of self-deprecating humour.
‘My father is a mathematician and my mother is a businesswoman, so of course I have no genes for sports,’ he says. Cătăniciu loves to make himself the punchline of a joke so it’s no surprise that he’s laughing when he says, ‘My Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu club uses me as an example of failure, really! I went to five competitions and was knocked out in the first couple of rounds every time.’
The fact that he became national champion in his sixth competition is shared later, almost as an after-thought. ‘No matter how much I sucked, I kept working at it. I might not be the best coder, the best business person, the best athlete, but I can out-work everybody!’ The ability to out-work everybody has served Cătăniciu well in his latest endeavour: Restart Network, a coding boot camp offered at no cost to documented asylum seekers in the Netherlands.
Cătăniciu has first-hand experience of coding boot camps. At 17, ‘the age when you stop asking permission to go to the bathroom and start answering the question “What are you going to do with your entire future?”’ he knew that he loved to solve problems, specifically using technology.
Although enrolled in a business school, the curriculum at the time wasn’t quite providing the hands-on experience that best suited him. ‘At that time I felt like school was not giving me a way to touch the world, to leave a dent. I’m now taking HR classes at RSM and can immediately use what I learn when interviewing applicants or staff for Restart.’
Solving real-world problems through code
Silicon Valley called to Cătăniciu, specifically a three-month coding boot camp where all participants spent 12 hours a day doing nothing but solving real-world problems through code. ‘I calculated that it would take seven years for someone earning an average salary in my country [Romania] to save US$10,000 for a boot camp like this. So I thought, why not offer it for free to people who can’t afford it?’
Small details like how to offer a US$10,000 education for free doesn’t faze Cătăniciu, who revels in having new obstacles to overcome. ‘When I was a child I loved to make films,’ he says. A dolly is a moving cart that you put a camera on. Then you can take a shot while following an actor. I couldn’t rent a dolly for US$300 but I could rent a wheelchair for US$10.’
And so Turing Society was born, a non-profit organisation offering boot camps, events and meet-ups to anyone interested in solving problems through tech. ‘It’s humbling to see what members of this society are doing. In Lithuania last year they had the prime minister show up to an event. It’s crazy! I always tell my students that my ceiling is their floor.’
Connecting refugees to the IT industry
Restart Network is a refinement of Turing Society’s concept, aimed specifically at asylum seekers. ‘There are 900,000 refugees in Europe, and the IT industry in Europe has a shortage of 1,000,000 workers. What if we could match some of those numbers together and to solve two big problems at the same time?’
Restart involves no traditional teaching, only identification and resolution of real problems. In other words, the things employers actually need. ‘Restart is crowdsourced, the industry drives the programme, and students really have the chance to learn from the brightest minds in the industry. One of our groups created a translation engine between Dutch and Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea. Google Translate doesn’t touch this language pairing so Eritrean refugees in the Netherlands have no easy way to translate Dutch. This is what we want to do, empower people to solve their own problems.’
Stop and think
Running Restart comes with its own challenges, big and small. From finding the space in which to teach with no working capital (neatly solved by literally knocking on doors and simply asking the right people) to helping students with families and jobs find the time for an intensive boot camp involving a lot of late nights and weekends working on group projects that can take time away from jobs or families. ‘Some people have little kids and some people have dogs. So we’re seeing if we can bring the kids and the dogs into class!’
So what’s next for this 21-year-old? ‘It’s important to stop and think, to make sure that you’re still going in the right direction. Start-ups are very founder-driven and I want Restart to get to a point where it is financially sustainable, where it doesn’t need me and I can put myself out of a job. Then I would like to take a couple of years off.’
Two years off, travelling perhaps, or lying in a hammock? ‘I think I’ll do an MBA.’