Jurģis Kalniņš is the founder of Safe Space, a non-profit startup based out of Riga, Latvia. Kalniņš studied Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire (UWEC). In this interview, Jurģis reflects on his time in Wisconsin and how his education helped him shape his startup.
The concept for Safe Space originated in 2019 during his time at UWEC and was founded November 26, 2019 in his home country.
“Our main objective is to unite all marginalized groups in Latvia, promoting a wider societal understanding of issues related to the socially vulnerable. With the socially vulnerable we understand groups such as women, those with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, ethnic minorities, etc.”
What gave you the idea for your business?
When comparing different opinion polls as well as legalities regarding the situation of many socially and economically vulnerable groups within Latvia and elsewhere (mainly the European Union, and the US) there’s a striking lack of legal protections and a low level of empathy towards them (e.g., ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, etc.) in Latvia. As being part of the LGBTQ+ community myself – it hurts knowing that Latvia could do better. Seeing the situation in UWEC – the level of tolerance, and respect towards historically marginalized groups – was especially eye-opening.
What skills are needed to do your job?
Patience. The nongovernmental sector is relatively slow in my opinion. It takes time to prepare a project proposal, find partners, and request finances. And what’s worse – you may get rejected. And that approximately accounts for 6 months. But at least then I can sleep peacefully knowing that I’d tried.
Being articulate. This is a big one as well. To push an idea through you must have a good command of Latvian/English. You have to sell it properly. This is more important in the nongovernmental sector than the business sector, because in non-profits you have to convince many more stakeholders (e.g. through holding meetings, voting, convincing other members) than in any business where the owner is solely accountable to their investors.
Approachability. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. Since the non-profit sector financially relies on the public, we have to present ourselves as open, welcoming and approachable. In return we get to create a community, and establish long-term relationships, thus ensuring stability.
How has Covid-19 affected Safe Space?
This year has been pretty rough since Latvia (and the EU as such) has imposed very strict Covid-19 measures – we cannot organize workshops, cannot meet people, etc. This has helped my colleagues and I step out of our comfort zones and change how we approach these questions. Usually we make interactive videos (e.g. Privilege Walk) and organize discussions in schools, universities, etc. But this year motivated us to try new things, hence right now we are almost done developing a website where people within 7 different EU countries will be able to measure their level of tolerance towards different marginalized groups (see implicit associations test).
In your opinion, what is the best thing about running Safe Space?
One of the best things definitely is the fact that I get to do something that I love. This applies to everything – coming up with ideas, brainstorming, being unapologetic about failing, learning new things, adapting.
In contrast, what is the hardest thing about organizing Safe Space?
The hardest part is definitely paperwork and the bureaucracy. Since this is all new to me, I’m very scared not to mess up anything. Especially at the end of the year when all the accounting and financing needs to be rounded up
What advice do you have for college students who want to work in business?
Find a niche. Be as specific as possible. Otherwise, it’s going to get messy sooner rather than later.
To be a successful startup, it is not a requirement to be from Silicon Valley and the coasts and Kalniņš is a great example of how education of entrepreneurship in the Midwest can reach the lives of people throughout the world.