KaosPilots earn their wings in unconventional programme

Entrepreneurial programme in Aarhus gets students ready for the real world

Working your tail off for a title with the word ‘chaos’ in it, may not sound like a good move, but that’s the quest 35 entrepreneurs embark upon in Aarhus each year. The (mostly young) hopefuls arrive for the three-year programme hoping to earn their wings as KaosPilots (Chaos Pilots).

The idea is that students steer a path through chaos to become leaders, entrepreneurs and captains of industry. Some 40 percent of KaosPilots go on to establish their own businesses.

The school was founded in 1991 by Uffe Elbæk, the current minister of culture, citing as its mission “to be the best school for the world”. After wading through rafts of clichés and slogans on their website, you might feel inclined to shrug it all off as nonsense, but there’s something undeniably earnest about the school’s endeavours.

Between 90 and 200 people apply each year, 70 take part in the three-day selection process and just 35 gain places in the course, which is taught in English. From then on, nothing but real life will do according to Christer Windeløv-Lidzelius, the headteacher of KaosPilots since 2006.

“We don’t simulate. Companies use what we do and produce; they’re real clients that pay money or in kind,” he said. “Our students create their own projects and companies. You have to make the student believe in their own abilities, so on your first day at school you start working on an assignment that feels overwhelming.”
Originally from Sweden and an entrepreneur himself, Windeløv-Lidzelius is keen to emphasise that the teachers in the school all have real-life experience.

“You can have great professors at universities but very often they’ve never been leaders or entrepreneurs,” he said. “We try to balance that, all our teachers are role models.”

But does the conventional world of international business, where a blue rather than grey suit is considered risqué, take KaosPilots seriously?

“In the Scandinavian countries, a lot of companies know and respect what we do. In a country where we are less known it could be more difficult,” admitted Windeløv-Lidzelius. “But our students are good at adapting. If they want to work in a financial institution in London, they’ll adapt.”

That was the spirit that made Andy Sontag, a 24-year-old from the American state of Ohio, shift his ambitions from an MBA programme at the University of California Berkley and set his sights on Aarhus.

“I watched a video of Uffe Elbæk and he inspired me,” Sontag said. “I also remember jumping out of my chair when I read the school’s mission – ‘to be the best school for the world’. I think it’s such a noble mission. I don’t see why I should suffer through an MBA when I can have fun the whole way through being educated and then still get a really good job.”

While EU student fees are funded by the Ministry of Education, as a non-EU student Sontag faces a 314,000 kroner price tag for the three-year programme and will be needing lucrative employment to pay off his debts. Is he worried about whether the credential of the KaosPilots programme will stand up against a more mainstream school?

“I recently had a realisation,” he said. “I’m in no way worried about getting my dream job. The work here has given me the ability to seek out employers and create my own job. Before I came here I had a clear vision of what I wanted to achieve, now I have a hundred things that draw me. I’m just about to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, where I’ll be creating a strategic business plan for an innovation and design hub.”

Windeløv-Lidzelius, meanwhile, is also setting his sights further afield and a branch of KaosPilots is being set up in Switzerland.

“My hope is that we’ll grow and we’re experimenting with not only delivering our three-year programme but also doing trainings and other courses for companies, giving us a larger customer base,” Windeløv-Lidzelius said. “It’s important to keep track of what’s important – we produce some of the world’s greatest graduates, the enterprising leaders that the world really needs.”

And who are these fledgling figureheads? The student body remains largely Scandinavian but, according to Windeløv-Lidzelius, they come from diverse backgrounds.

“We have successful entrepreneurs, artists, a former Air Force pilot….it’s their ambition that unites them, not their background,” he said. “There’s a difference between reality and idealism. Our students may find it harder to get jobs than they did ten years ago, but a lot of our students create jobs within companies that didn’t exist before they worked with them. Some create jobs as entrepreneurs. This confidence is important and it’s vital that our students believe that the future can be better than the present.”

With some 95 percent of their alumni working, employment is clearly not an issue for newly qualified KaosPilots. The independent think tank Mondag Morgen proclaimed that “ideas and education” were the basic skills for tomorrow’s labour market, adding ominously “the Danish education system does not reward innovators.”

Could a little bit of Kaos be the key?

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