Meet The CEO Of The $1.1 Billion Startup Reforming Education In The Arab World

The new CEO of one of the world’s largest education foundations — its size puts it in the same league as the Gates Foundation’s commitment to education — faces these two realities:

First, the Middle East has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. There’s a big mismatch between the skills graduates have and the needs of employers.

And second, and even more dire: conflict in the region has forced 13 million children out of school, according to a 2015 UNICEF report. Overall, in the region, 80% of the children who are out of school are out of school because of the conflict.

“We are going to be tackling the challenges that the Arab world faces very much systemically,” says Jalbout, the first CEO of the Dubai-based Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education. “We are going to be using technology to accelerate that reform process. And access to education for some populations is a huge issue.”

The Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education has pledged to donate $1.1 billion over 10 years to education in the Arab world. By way of comparison, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent $5 billion on U.S. schools from 2000 to 2015. Al Ghurair, one of the scions of a prominent Dubai business family, has a net worth of $5 billion, according to the Forbes list.

The foundation is making an investment in STEM, offering 15,000 scholarships to underserved students up to age 30 to attend four universities in the region. Jalbout, previously the founding CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation. said the foundation intends to expand the program to enable students to attend universities elsewhere in the world, too. The four universities are American University of Sharjah and Khalifa University, the American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo.

It’s also looking for academic institutions that will help it develop programs to support those students as they move through tertiarty degrees. Jalbout is very aware of a problem that I’ve also heard education thinkers and university board members in the United States talk about for decades: the questions of soft skills and class structures that keep even smart kids from succeeding when they arrive at competitive schools.

It’s also opening the door for academic institutions to submit grant proposals for innovative partnerships that will help it reach those underserved populations — including refugees. That probably means tech platforms and creating a lot of online content, though the Foundation will need to work to make sure that online education is accredited, Jalbout said.

The foundation will likely help fuel the tech entrepreneurship movement in the region. There’s long been a connection between education reform and entrepreneurship: in a region without enough jobs, creating them yourself is one solution.

Iniatives such as INJAZ, a Jordan-based nonprofits that, according to its web site, reaches more than 100,000 students a year; entrepreneurship training is a major part of its efforts.

Worries about the decline in the price of oil are also spurring education reform. Real reform, however, probably involves a shift in mindset of the people in power, from viewing young people as a problem to viewing them as an asset.

“Like oil producers who refine their product to increase the value, countries should see their young people as assets, whose value can increase with education,” said Ahmed El Alfi, the founder of Cairo’s GrEEK Campus, a giant technology incubator, speaking at an Atlantic Council conference a few months ago. Alfi started an education company, Nafham, that provides free crowdsourced K-12 Arabic language content online. It’s useful in part because students can access it from home. With one of the youngest populations in the world, Egypt is struggling to cope with the number of students in its education system: some private business colleges can literally have thousands of students enrolled in a single class.

The Middle East is not alone with the high rate of youth unemployment: Individual countries in Eastern Europe have even higher rates. In Greece, for instance, 50% of men ages 15-24 are looking for work but can’t find it. And in most other places in the world, including the United States, young people are unemployed at higher rates than the rest of the workforce. Worldwide, economic growth is not keeping up with population growth.

Along with the foundation’s priorities and the role of technology, Jalbout and I talked about the question of gender equality in the Middle East, and what she expected her hardest challenges would be.

On the biggest challenge: “I know we’re going to have many, many deserving young people apply, and we’re not going to be able to help all of them,” said Jalbout. “It’s still modest (amount) against the massive need.”

On gender equality: “It’s partly about empowerment, but there are so few jobs being created in the first place. Young men aren’t getting the jobs; young women have a harder time. … but in many parts of the region, when you ask young women about their intentions to work, they intend to do so. When they enter the marriage stage they start dropping out.”

She said she was hopeful, though, based on more fluid working arrangements that are beginning to appear in the region, such as a work-at-home program by Saudi Arabian airlines.

On a side note, the video on the Foundation’s web site is fascinating for how it portrays the evolution of Abdulla Al Ghurair’s thinking on whether to be public about his philanthropy. When I was interviewing Arif Naqvi for a story about the Abaaj Group, which also covered his philanthropy, we talked about the tradition in the Muslim faith that keeps philanthropy private.

Jalbout pointed out that institutional philanthropy is required to take on the challenges that face the Arab world — and institutional philanthropy, like any other business or profession, almost requires being public. “We’re going to be very open about lessons learned,” she said. “We can’t afford to leave hundreds of thousands or millions of kids out of school.”Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

Elizabeth MacBride: Co-author with venture capitalist Seth Levine of The New Builders and founder of Times of Entrepreneurship, I write about turning points in the lives of entrepreneurs and their companies.

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