Today’s Solutions: October 16, 2021

Ode visits KaosPilots–a remarkable business school in Denmark

Marco Visscher | October 2005 issue

Instead of writing papers for their business class, five Scandinavian students—all of them women—used a school assignment to do a good deed for fellow young people in Bosnia. They rented a small room in Sarajevo and set about restoring “some joy” to the city. They asked 600 young people to paint their hopes and dreams on a huge piece of canvas.

It appeared that what the youth in Sarajevo wanted most of all was a place to go and meet other kids. There had once been a youth centre in town, but it was shot to pieces in the war and never rebuilt. This was symbolic of local politics, according to Trine Valentin Munck, a student from Denmark working on the Sarajevo project. “Politicians have no time for young people,” Munck observed, “and yet they’re leaving the city in droves, because Sarajevo has nothing to offer them anymore.”

And then the five students hit on their big idea: they would rebuild the youth centre with money they made from selling products. Well-known Norwegian designers made T-shirts, bags and accessories out of the canvas the Sarajevo kids had painted, raising 50,000 euros (62,000 U.S. dollars). The media started paying attention to the project, and Nescafé, Pepsi, Holiday Inn, the Norwegian embassy and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s BH Telecom signed as sponsors. Together with local volunteers, the business students organized a music festival featuring some of the best bands in the Balkans. And just recently, they got permission to reconstruct the building.

Sound pretty adventurous for a school assignment? Well, these young women are students at the most exciting business school in the world. Even its name is unconventional—KaosPilots. Located in Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, KaosPilots is a three-year college for action-oriented revolutionaries—and that’s why class assignments, like the project in Sarajevo, are not confined within school walls.

At KaosPilots, young people (starting at 21) learn how to set up and carry out projects, sell their ideas, put together a business plan, stimulate creativity, work cooperatively, inspire others and themselves, take advantage of unexpected events, remain open to new ideas, bring mind and body into balance, and keep their heads cool and their hearts warm. They learn, in fact, how to realize their dreams.

KaosPilots receives financing from the Danish government and support from companies like the Tuborg and Carlsberg breweries, LEGO toys and Scandinavian Airlines, which throw their doors open to allow KaosPilot students an active role in marketing a new product or in leading an internal change process. On the reading lists you’ll find books by authors such as Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins (Natural Capitalism), Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies), and Neil Crofts (Authentic: How to Make a Living by Being Yourself). There are guest lectures by pioneering entrepreneurs and organizational experts like Anita Roddick, (founder of The Body Shop); Dee Hock (founder of the Visa credit card and The Chaordic Commons); and Margaret Wheatley (a holistic-organization development expert and co-founder of The Berkana Institute).

Add KaosPilots to your resume, and it signals to everyone in Scandinavia that you are creative, self-aware and disciplined.

KaosPilots, which offers credentials comparable to a bachelor’s degree, addresses needs that more-established business schools ignore. It sometimes seems that while the world economy has drastically changed, business education has stood still. While many companies are moving toward a new era—more global, more focused on making a social contribution, more open to democratic decision-making involving employees—most business professors have stayed stuck in traditional, even outdated, ways of thinking.

Uffe Elbaek, founder of KaosPilots, nods his head at this analysis. “I’ve started a lot of small businesses, but I’ve never felt like a businessman,” he says, once we’ve settled into one of the many cafés that grace Aarhus’ cozy old downtown. In his trendy athletic jacket, he doesn’t look like the 51-year-old school principal he is. “I’ve also set up a lot of non-profit organizations, but I never felt charitable,” Elbaek adds. “I worked for the government, but I never saw myself as a bureaucratic civil servant. And I know I’m not the only one. There are good reasons those three sectors have come under fire, from skeptical consumers and impatient investors and from suspicious donors and taxpayers who want to be sure their money isn’t being thrown around.”

These criticisms, according to Elbaek, do not show the worthlessness of the three sectors so much as an opportunity to start something new. “I see a new fourth sector arising in which the best of the other three comes together: organizations that can stay afloat on the free market, but that invest their profits in the community and want to be judged above all on their contribution to society. For this new sector of social entrepreneurship, KaosPilots is the ideal preparation.”

Marianne Kvaala Jenssen, a student from Norway, explains the school’s approach this way: “KaosPilots is totally different from other schools. Here you can do whatever you want. Nothing’s impossible, you get out what you put in: that’s the atmosphere. Yes, it’s inspiring, but it’s also the most difficult aspect of this school. Because if you aren’t making any progress, it means you’re the one who’s holding yourself back; you’re responsible for your own life.”

Walk through KaosPilots’ intimate building—with brightly coloured walls plastered with posters and newspaper clippings, Macs in every room, and a reception desk made from an old airplane wing—and you hear over and over how the school is fantastic but challenging. Many students have already studied elsewhere, but transferred to KaosPilots seeking an environment in which the flames of their enthusiasm are fanned. Each new student on the first day of school is given not an ID number but a stack of business cards with his or her name on them and a key to the building. The message is this: you are the school; you must do it yourself. And so students, too, are called KaosPilots.

The students are the first to criticize their college: The school’s management tends to go too far in testing students’ self-discipline; some guest lectures seem pointless and workshops can easily misfire; for an “intercultural educational institute” you’ll find an awful lot of white students; theory and ideas used at other business and management colleges are undervalued; the program is too full…but the students are also the first to underline that it’s up to them to do something about it, to change a boring lecture or an uninspiring meeting into a positive experience.

“KaosPilots are people who don’t look for work, but make their own.” Uffe Elbaek sounds resolute when he says this. Watching the transition from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy in the early ’90s, he decided education needed to be a more stimulating environment for enterprising spirits. Now that outsourcing not only affects blue collar jobs but also means shipping doctors’ and lawyers’ work to countries like India, the importance of nurturing people’s entrepreneurial spirits has only grown. “Where is the new work being created?” Elbaek asks. “That is the central question every modern society should be asking itself.”

The origins of the school go back to 1982, when Elbaek was a social worker on the payroll of the City of Aarhus. His job was to keep unemployed youth off the streets. He managed to create a spirited atmosphere when he was able to convince boys—it was mostly boys—to organize a street festival. If they did juggling, mime and clown acts, he suggested, the girls would finally notice them.

By the late ’80s, a series of small-scale social and cultural projects arose out of this youth scene that Elbaek had helped generate. A local cultural magazine appeared, as well as a dance club, a theatre, a bicycle-courier service, multimedia companies, and more festivals. Some projects were able to support themselves; for others, the kids found a subsidy or sponsor. In the course of executing their projects, they learned about financial management, bookkeeping, communications, team building and how to promote their ideas in both political circles and the media.

Few of these youth had pursued higher education—and most were skeptical that college would teach them things that would help them in the challenges they were facing on a daily basis. That’s when Elbaek decided to set up a college himself—KaosPilots, a locally rooted but internationally oriented business school, inspired not by the culture of golf clubs, as is the case with most business schools, but dance clubs.

Does it work? Well, that depends on how you look at it. Yes, there are many more applications than slots for students. Yes, the dropout rate is less than one in seven students. Yes, independent evaluations found virtually every ex-student was employed. And between 25 and 30 percent have started their own businesses, a much higher percentage than most of the world’s most-renowned business schools can claim.

Yet has the college actually achieved its aim, stated with such infectious bravura, of “changing the game” for education, organizations and society? Many of the companies started by students often remain small—predominantly one-person design, film production and event-planning businesses. To what extent does KaosPilots’ revolutionary thinking make an impact on society?

“More than you think,” Elbaek declares. During their course of study, KaosPilots spend time inside large and small organizations, and their energy creates a stir. In addition, each year the school produces a handful of new organizational advisors and counsellors, who inspire the business world with their refreshing approaches. “KaosPilots are streetwise and risk-taking,” Elbaek says. “And above all, they have social compassion and the inclination to adopt a helpful attitude toward the people they work with and for. You should never underestimate that influence.”

Ouafa Rian—a member of team 2, thus a 1994 graduate—says she believes KaosPilots has achieved a great deal in Scandinavia. Old organizations have been shaken up; new ones have been set up; people have been inspired. But ultimately, says Rian, it’s about the mindset. She has never interpreted the slogan “Change the game” as a call to rewrite the rules of play, but rather to disseminate the KaosPilots way of thinking. “It’s not so much the individual students and graduates who make the difference,” says Rian. “It’s the ideas and convictions that KaosPilots is based on: for example, never say ‘no,’ move others, and be moved; pay attention to happiness and beauty.”

Change is not stable, according to Rian, who is now leading an internal change process at the Bang & Olufson electronics company. “Change is a flow, so it’s important to prepare people and organizations for a new change that inevitably comes when the first wave has hit. And that’s what the KaosPilots mindset does: it opens you up so you welcome change, so you allow inspiration to come in.”

Marianne Stang was also on team 2, and four years ago, she became the first director of Learning Lab Denmark, a prestigious government-established laboratory for research on learning. “It turns out,” Stang says, “that students increasingly want teachers who also act as coaches, and they want more attention paid to real-world projects. These are two fundamental elements that are ingrained at KaosPilots, and they will eventually spread to other educational institutions.”

And now, after 14 years of being one of Scandinavia’s best-kept secrets, KaosPilots is aiming to break through internationally. Beginning this academic year—in which team 12 has “taken off,”in the jargon of the school, on its three-year “flight,” the official language has switched to English and students from Germany, England, Colombia and Mexico have been admitted. With outposts in San Francisco and Durban, South Africa, the school was already looking beyond the Scandinavian borders, but now there are concrete plans for setting up KaosPilots in other countries. In Norway and Sweden, bigger institutions recently began offering KaosPilot programs, and in the Netherlands an independent KaosPilot school is being set up.

But the dream goes much further. Uffe Elbaek dreams of having sister schools on every continent so students could commute back and forth to work on projects. “A great number of young people want to make a contribution to the world and do not know how. KaosPilots wants to be a bridge for them toward releasing their positive energy.” His eyes begin to sparkle. “That would be super-cool. What a party!”

More information: KaosPilots, Mejlgade 35, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark, telephone +45 8612 9522,, KaosPilot A-Z, an English-language collection of thoughts, anecdotes and essays about the school edited by Uffe Elbaek, is available for purchase on the Web site.

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