What I've Learned in the 20 Years Since I Accidentally Became an Inventor

What I've Learned in the 20 Years Since I Accidentally Became an Inventor

Karoli Hindriks
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Amidst all this global turmoil, my mom pointed out something I had not realized. This March was the 20th (!) anniversary of the day I got my first patent (utility model). Since it had turned out that at the age of sixteen I was the youngest official inventor in the Republic of Estonia, it was the Minister of Economy himself who gave me the certificate. It was a big event for me, my family, and for my small hometown Pärnu. I was beaming with pride!

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Becoming an inventor and entrepreneur was a result of completely random events that, like pieces of a puzzle, fell into place to form the bigger picture of my life...

… My school participated in the Junior Achievement Young Enterprise study program and making a student company was part of the curriculum.

… After I volunteered to count the votes for the company “President” (yes, that's what we called the CEO) elections, it turned out I had been elected.

… Thrilled about this opportunity and brainstorming for ideas, I noticed the ugly plastic reflector on my backpack and asked myself: what if reflectors—a necessary and now mandatory life-saving accessory during the dark months in my native Estonia—could look fashionable and cute so that more young people would want to wear them.

... My late dad, instead of dismissing it as silly, encouraged me to go to the patent office with what he thought was an interesting idea. I had no idea what a patent office was, but I did understand that my father believed in something that had emerged from my teenage brain.

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Talent had nothing to do with it, mind you. I’m probably the least talented person you’ll ever meet. You can ask my arts and crafts teacher, music teacher, chemistry teacher, biology teacher, gym teacher—you get where I’m going with this. But if there is one talent I do have, it’s resilience. A lot of that came from constant training. My first business venture started from that very student project and laid the foundation for a life journey that was all about adapting to change. While still in high school, I had to learn, on the fly, how to deal with questions like:

  • You get your first big order of 3000 reflectors but don't have the money for enough materials. Now what?
  • You start getting retail orders from across the country but have neither a car nor enough money for one. What do you do?
  • The printing company screws up an order of 10,000 reflectors. What’s the plan?
  • And so on, and so forth.

Since the day I invented that reflector and realized my ideas could make a difference, life has had me constantly training my change muscle. I may not like many of the challenges life throws at me, I’m still grateful for the person it’s made me.

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2019 was one of my most ground-breaking change years, both personally and professionally. From turning around my company twice (successfully the second time), to divorcing my best friend and father of my little daughter, 2019 made sure to keep the treadmill going at full speed, with me huffing and puffing away on it. When I summarized all my crazy 2019 milestones in a post here, all I could think was: “Everything is for our growth.” These words from my coach Ariane de Bonvoisin became my mantra throughout the past year.

I am telling you this because I believe today is an opportunity for humanity to train our change muscle. Change can be daunting and our first impulse is to long for the good old days. But when we get past the uncomfortable uncertainty, there is a chance to fix what doesn’t work. To build a new future.

I constantly remind my team at Jobbatical that something good will come out of this.

We can already see some of it happening. As an immigration and relocation platform, we have seen efforts from some of the immigration authorities to optimize and digitalize their processes. We ourselves have expanded our reach pretty much overnight, from a purely B2B platform to directly supporting foreign talent in navigating healthcare and other services in a strange country. Globally, we’re seeing how education systems are forced to modernize, ready or not. And as a mother and CEO, I have probably never spent as much time with my daughter—reading, cooking, playing, walking—as I have in the past month and a half.

None of this is meant to diminish the pain our society is feeling as a result of this crisis. The loss of life, the strain on healthcare and other essential workers, is all too real and close to home for most of us. So is the sudden loss of millions of jobs. People, businesses, and countries are facing unprecedented (how many times have you heard this word over the past couple of months?) difficulties.

But those of us with the privilege and opportunity owe it to each other and our youth to grow from this. We owe it to the next generations to empower them, to give them the strength and confidence to build a better world than we could.

Twenty years ago I invented a product that even today saves people’s lives. I did it because I was encouraged to believe that I could. The knowledge and know-how of sixteen-year-olds today is lightyears ahead of what I had back then. Just look at Greta Thunberg and the force behind her vision for the world! Imagine if all the world’s teenagers had the support in place to bring about the change they deserve. Not just from their parents, but from a world that can no longer turn a blind eye to the change that’s needed.

Our biggest responsibility today is not just to make sure each and every kid knows they can change the world. We need to hold ourselves accountable for amplifying their voices and making sure they have the systemic support they need to turn their energy and ideas into tangible change.

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