Maria Pokrovskaya co-founded started Artclever in 2016 in Portland, Ore., to make architecture and interior design courses available around the globe. Six years later, Artclever is an awards-winning EdTech startup and international community for more than 100K creative professionals worldwide.
Maria Pokrovskaya is a guest professor at the COMPOSTELA Arquitectura, Galicia, Spain, a member of the international research program Moving Boundaries and is active in various other professional organizations.
Her passion for architecture transformed motivated her to help as many people as possible to learn about design. In March 2022 she launched an initiative to support our colleges in Eastern Europe with creative career opportunities remotely and receive hundreds of offers from companies from the US, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, and Brazil. We asked Maria Pokrovskaya about her rough childhood, overcoming the barriers she faced to education, and her work now.
You’ve been on your own and supporting yourself since your early teen years. Nobody would want that, or would wish it on anyone, yet people often learn valuable lessons from such hardship. What did you derive from those early struggles?
If I could choose, of course, I would prefer to have parents and their full care. However, at the age of 11, the loss of my parents was simply my reality. I had nothing to compare with it, so it seemed normal to me.
Growing up as an orphan, I saw the life stories of guys like me, who, for various reasons, had no support, no dreams and ambitions, and did not value themselves or their lives. I was lucky to have the love and care of my grandparents, younger brother, and other relatives. But my conscience did not allow me to live at their expense, so I started to earn money at the age of 14. Until I was 17, I was the only one among my peers working. The main lesson I learned is that only you are responsible for what you have and what you do not have. If I can’t afford a new gadget, that’s my choice. If I want it, I have to work for it. I didn’t have much time to party, which was good. But, I must admit, I had to skip studying for the sake of work sometimes, which was bad.
Working has developed my empathy, communications skills, and self-confidence. I met professionals from different fields, and without realizing it, I had started networking.
You studied architecture on a scholarship. Where did you study, and how did you earn a scholarship given your early circumstances?
In Russia, children with the same status as I and with a high entry exams score can be exempted from tuition fees. But when I entered the University, all those places were taken and they could not provide me with a scholarship. They told me with a sneer that they would only accept me if the Minister of Education personally allocated one more place to this University, which was the country’s leading architecture school. I took this joke as advice and, on the same day, went to the Ministry of Education.
I came up with a short pitch about my dream for a better future. After six hours of waiting, the minister agreed to see me for three minutes. I told him in a few words about myself and my dream. He seemed to realize that I was not treated fairly and arranged a spot for me tuition-free. All the employees of the University were shocked! Some classmates still don’t believe this story, but it went exactly like that. After that, I was 100 percent confident that I was on the right path.
When you graduated from university after eight years of study, were you fully prepared to begin your professional career?
This is a question to the point! After eight years of studying, I was disappointed. The education I was receiving was not relevant, not exciting, and most importantly, it was outdated. With all due respect to the professors, who invested a lot of energy in us, the system itself is built in such a way that we study a huge number of disciplines using materials and programs that were created decades ago.
In addition, students have no connection with the actual practice of engineers, architects and designers, nor is much attention paid to the philosophy that forms the basis of the profession. Architecture is a complex profession, as it exists at the intersection of art, the humanities and the technical sciences. But when students enroll, they trust the program like a step-by-step guide, so that they become successful in what they love.
While dealing with the woes of the educational system, propaedeutics captured me more than the problems of the industry itself.
You started Artclever in 2016. What problem were you trying to solve, and for whom?
And of course, education should be accessible. We, as a platform, don’t tend to replace the academic format, but intend to make it more attractive and effective through greater integration into practical professional tasks and a remote employment internship service. Our partners — educational institutions and teachers — expand the geographic reach and the number of their students, saving resources and increasing income. Distance learning makes it possible to reduce the costs of the institution per student by at least 40%, so that reduces the cost of education accordingly.
Alternative training formats allow students to try out a profession with minimal risk (for example, two months of training would cost $350). Also, they can change activities by obtaining specific technical skills. For example, one could master a graphics program and become a home decorator, 3D-visualizer, animator or digital designer, filling out a portfolio while working at the same time.
You launched WeHire in February 2022. Was that in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine? What is the goal of WeHire?
As I mentioned, Artclever has students and partners from various countries, including Ukraine. Our team is international and has worked remotely since the very beginning. I personally began receiving dozens of messages a day with questions about work.
Many people involved have lost their source of income. My co-founder and husband, Daniil Voronin, and I were looking for an opportunity to help, and I came up with the idea to make a simple and accessible online document where everyone can leave a suggestion and hire remotely or with relocation. Since our expertise is in the creative industries, we know that for creative professionals such as architect, director, screenwriter, interior designer, ceramic artist, etc., it is more difficult to find an offer than it is for, say, developers – normally, people get hired in specific locations and by referral. We focused on such offers. In the first days, I shared the document within my network and received responses from large companies, such as Nike and EPAM. They announced open positions and received applications. People from different countries started offering jobs.
Is there anything you want to mention that I haven’t asked about?
Art speaks all languages, and cultural cooperation makes us, no matter our societal background, more united, sensitive and respectful of each other. It starts with education. We are responsible for what we are able to share and get, and for how we can make cross-cultural exchange work. It’s crucial to participate in humanitarian causes and to save and develop the heritage of humanity.