Kristina Babina and her startup TotUP believe it’s time for the education system to embrace innovation. A leading entrepreneur and educator, Kristina sheds light on her journey and TotUP’s unique approach to shaping young minds.
Hi Kristina! What led you to become an entrepreneur?
Hi! I was actually born into a family of entrepreneurs, so from a young age, it was pretty clear to me that I would eventually pursue something on my own.
I was also a very hyperactive child. From preschool to university, the teaching methods did not suit my learning style. It wasn’t that the subjects were challenging, but the teaching format was just not engaging. I needed something more dynamic, more hands-on.
When I was about 19 or 20, I wanted to create a space where children could feel like themselves. During my master’s, I focused on preschool education and compared it across countries like China, Japan, the USA, Canada, and the UK. This opened my eyes to the gaps in Switzerland’s early education system. The concept of early childhood education wasn’t as integrated as it should be here.
I wanted to help children explore their interests and not just conform to a standard education model. Every child is unique, and we must discover their potential early to guide them towards their natural interest. This vision eventually led to the start of TotUp.
Can you walk us through the creation and development of TotUp?
Absolutely. With my learnings from my master’s studies, I began working with preschool education professionals to shape TotUP’s methodologies. Our approach, refined over six years of testing, is based on the idea that you can detect a child’s natural interest by the age of five.
I wanted to help children explore their interests and not just conform to a standard education model.Kristina Babina
After five, children begin developing the concept of friendship and the ability to adapt to the outside world. It’s why they’ll take up activities because of their friends. This is often misidentified as genuine interest, and many kids drop out of the activity at a later stage because they don’t have a natural interest. We need to differentiate between talent and interest because skills can be worked on if there’s interest. But you can’t push a child to be interested.
You describe TotUP as a ‘universe designed for children and families’. What makes TotUP different from traditional education?
The idea of a designed universe comes from the fact that we tailor learning to fit each child’s interest. Our observation method is built on 8 Intelligences, each assessed through diverse activities in our program. We rely on pure observations, allowing children to explore varied educational approaches.
For example, if a child consistently engages with music and exhibits a flair for sound-related activities across various sessions—be it music, yoga, dance, or art—we’ll have a music professional observe them further.
Our team of three to five members analyses these observations to ensure objectivity. If a natural inclination towards musical intelligence emerges, we suggest music-related after-school activities and encourage the child’s future school to incorporate music during difficult transitions. Distinct intelligences can surface in seemingly unrelated activities.
This comprehensive observation requires a minimum of ten months in our structure (between 18 months and 5 years old) with at least three days per week of attendance, guaranteeing adequate exposure. We provide parents with a detailed report on all eight intelligences, recommendations for after-school activities, and guidance for teachers.
Our programme also focuses on sustainability and responsible consumption. Our sustainable art exhibitions, for example, provide kids with hands-on experience in recycling and resourcefulness. They begin to understand, very practically, why taking care of the planet is essential.
Ultimately, we aim to shape well-rounded, responsible people who are both academically capable and socially and environmentally conscious.
Are topics of money and wealth something the education system needs to address early?
Certainly. At the preschool level discussing money can be complex. However, in later years, we have a program that includes workshop activities and provides knowledge about practical matters, such as banking, expenses and more.
There’s much to learn about money and banking, as well as the associated life skills. For example, reading contracts thoroughly, understanding terms and making informed decisions. Many individuals lack knowledge about practical money matters like deductions from their salaries or the fine print in contracts, which leads to avoidable problems. We aim to create a class that addresses these gaps.
What challenges did you face on your entrepreneurial journey?
Well, starting a business in Switzerland is quite complex. The good news is that you have more stability once you’ve established your business, compared to other countries.
When you prove your competence to the administration and market influencers, word-of-mouth and reputation become crucial for longevity. However, the initial phase is challenging. I started at 27, which was difficult because there were still biases against women entrepreneurs.
Ultimately, we aim to shape well-rounded, responsible people who are both academically capable and socially and environmentally conscious.Kristina Babina
Also, the Swiss market is fragmented by cantons, making it challenging to develop a business across different cantons. Each canton has varying regulations, laws, and administration behaviours. It’s like entering a new country every time.
Additionally, Switzerland’s high cost of employing people forces businesses to diversify or create multiple structures to cut costs and use economies of scale.
How could the system be improved to support entrepreneurs better?
In Switzerland, we invest a lot in sectors that already have support, like high-tech startups and pharmaceuticals. We should support them, but we shouldn’t forget about small and medium companies improving society. In our case, more daycare facilities could directly lead to more women in the workforce.
When I started TotUP, there was a narrative that private-sector daycares were unnecessary. There were about 3500 kids on the waiting list for daycares at the time, and now six years later, it’s still the same. Meanwhile, we’ve opened two daycares that have served over 700 families in Geneva.
The private sector is capable of more creativity, flexibility and rapidity. Instead of opposing them, the public sector should collaborate towards common goals, using their strengths to solve problems today, not just in the distant future.
Apart from that, I’d say access to money should be easier for independent individuals and small companies through banks, private investors, and the government. Legislation and administration must be more flexible and perhaps allow trial periods or support for new ideas.
What’s next for you and TotUP?
Despite the changing regulations, I want to continue my work in the Canton of Geneva. We’re exploring new projects in the Canton of Vaud and the Canton of Neuchâtel.
The most important project of this year is finalising our pedagogical approach and our franchise proposal. We are ready to open daycares and support others in opening daycares.
We’re moving towards larger and smaller daycare centres in various communities. The goal in three years is to have a broader presence, not just in big cities but also in other markets.
What advice would you give to a child who wants to become an entrepreneur?
I would say chase your dreams passionately, even if they seem unconventional. Belief and hard work often lead to success, even with failures.
Also, don’t compare yourself to others. On social media, there will always be people who offer shortcuts and say that you don’t need to study, work, or do anything. That’s not at all true. All the successful people I know are those who work hard consistently.
I’d like to request all entrepreneurs to document and share their real work lives on social media so that younger generations can see what it takes to succeed.
How do you define wealth beyond money?
I’m not the person who will tell you that money is not important. I think everyone has the right to money and financial security. But real wealth extends beyond money. It’s about making a difference in the lives of others and society as a whole.
At the preschool level discussing money can be complex. However, in later years, we have a program that includes workshop activities and provides knowledge about practical matters, such as banking, expenses and more.Kristina Babina
In my work, I see the impact on children, parents, and communities, and that’s where the true value lies. Encouraging others to engage in meaningful work and contribute positively to the world is essential to wealth.
Thank you, Kristina!
If you’re ready to be inspired by someone who -like Kristina Babina- boldly pursued their dreams, we recommend reading “Niels Rodin: From banking director to the citrus life.“