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Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East

Stanford Social Innovation

From today’s historic civil wars in Egypt and Syria to protests raging in Turkey, turmoil in the Middle East is making front-page headlines every day. But in the midst of it all, a quieter revolution has begun to emerge, one that might ultimately do more to change the face of the region: the rise of entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs.

We have been raised to think of the Middle East as a region of turmoil and unrest, but locked in this narrative we have missed the profound changes driven by a new generation of entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs using technology to innovate and solve social problems and navigate the Arab world’s unique obstacles and opportunities. One example is INJAZ.

The following is an excerpt from the book.

The ten-year-old boy, nervous and shy, sat at the front of his classroom of 70 children. The instructor turned to him and asked, “Why are you here?”

He pushed his dark, oversized glasses back on his nose and whispered, “To be confident.”

The instructor smiled: “What? Louder.”

The boy’s voice rose to a conversational pitch. “To be confident.”

The instructor walked over to him: “Shout it out, please!”

The little boy shuddered a moment, but he was smiling. “To be confident!” he called out.

“Stand on your desk and shout even louder!” cajoled the instructor. The class laughed as the boy climbed up on his desk and shouted, “TO BE CONFIDENT!”

“There!” said the instructor, satisfied. “Now I know why you are here.” And the class cheered.

Soraya Salti saw herself in this moment in the Jordanian public school classroom she visited that day. The daughter of a Jordanian father and American mother, she also attended local schools. “I was a very shy person in class,” she remembered. “I never spoke out. No one ever pulled me out of my shell.” What, after all, would have been the point? While Jordan, like so many countries in the Middle East, has invested significantly in guaranteeing children access to schooling, the outcomes are mixed and confusing. The curriculum consists largely of rote memorization and preparation for standardized tests that are necessary to get into college or a government job. She shrugs, thinking about it: “But there is little emphasis on critical thinking, no connection to the issues of our communities, country, and region. Books are outdated and there is little interaction between teachers and kids. And we wonder why so many kids today are unemployable?”

Salti’s mother opened the first Save the Children office in Jordan in 1984. Save the Children worldwide had come into contact with supplemental education programs in the United States and elsewhere, like those created by a leading global nonprofit on workforce readiness called Junior Achievement. These classes not only emphasized enhanced academic skills for workforce preparation, but also self-awareness, requiring every child, from kindergarten through college, to speak their opinions.

In 2001, when Save the Children wanted to launch a version of Junior Achievement in Jordan, they asked Salti to be country director of what they called “INJAZ Jordan,” or Jordan Achievement. Holding her freshly minted MBA from Northwestern, Salti accepted, eager to return home and make an impact. She later would found a regional INJAZ office to spread the model across fourteen countries in the Middle East.

INJAZ was one of the earliest “private public partnerships,” as they are commonly called today. Salti and her mother started with a USAID grant that matched contributions from local businesses, and chose schools in conjunction with the Ministry of Education. Their goal was to hold additional classes at the end of each day to not only supplement education, but also to focus on job-related skills and to push kids to think about entrepreneurship and develop their own ideas. Their first volunteers were friends and family, and they soon began to recruit local business leaders and their staffs to mentor and train local youth in after-school programs.

Their first program held 300 students and ten volunteers. “In those days,” she notes, “There was nothing written on demographics or the dysfunctionality of schooling. There was no sense of urgency about the challenges, and even greater skepticism about bringing in people from the private sector—teachers and communities thought all this was not their business.”

It was slow going trying to win over every constituency—the private sector, the government, the schools, and the students themselves. “We constantly updated each group on what we were doing,” she recalls. “We then convinced teachers to stay after school and join us, offering them little incentives and gifts to do so.” Students loved it, and parents demanded it.

Their curriculum today focuses heavily on encouraging entrepreneurship, and classes are often held during school hours. Local entrepreneurs teach students as young as middle-school age how to create business plans and compete in local and regional competitions, as well as basic professional skills like effective communication, teamwork, résumé building, and financial literacy.

And it has grown to scale. INJAZ now exists in over 1,000 schools, spanning all economic demographics across the Middle East and North Africa. They have over 300,000 students enrolled in 2012 alone, and over 1.3 million alumni. They’ve even expanded to partner with entrepreneurship programs in over 140 universities.

The raw demographics, however, still keep Salti up at night. “We focused on entrepreneurship because the numbers require it,” she sighs. “There will be 100 million new people entering the work force by 2012, and another 135 million who are under age 15. It is very clear that traditional industry can’t grow fast enough to absorb all this—the youth will have to self-employ.” She believes that, whether they become entrepreneurs or not, kids who absorb the job-training skills of the INJAZ program—even the soft ones—will become change agents for new, greater opportunity. But she is also a realist. “We are 300,000 kids this year, and millions need what we offer in the Middle East.” She pauses for a long minute. “On some days the scale of the education challenge is daunting.”


I asked a highly regarded, young Yale education researcher, Nafez Dakkak, what technology can do to speed up education and skills in the Middle East. “It allows anyone to hack the culture,” he said. “Technology, however, can scale good ideas across the region. Break through the learned helplessness while seeding the belief that change can come from within, that we have what it takes to do this.” With the proper technology, at any age, people can see how others solve problems that may seem unsolvable. “You never really know how high the bar is, how much more you can do, until you see and engage in what is out there.”
Sorya Salti sees countless examples of the internet breaking down barriers during her company’s annual country and region-wide startup competitions. I attended their finalist presentations at the Four Seasons in Amman in the spring of 2012. In one room, booth after booth of high school students from fifteen countries displayed their ideas, ranging from using recycled materials for crafts to mobile apps that would connect communities looking for safe drinking water. Five or six young women, stunningly attired in colorful flowing gowns, made a slight clanging sound as they walked, decked out in their traditional jewelry. They were Yemeni high school juniors from a mid-sized town. They loved science and wanted to solve the problem of bringing electricity to nearby tent villages. Fire was a regular hazard, as residents burned candles for light. They decided to start a small solar energy business. I almost fell out of my chair when a judge asked them where they acquired the solar panels for their service. One young woman didn’t skip a beat: “We manufactured them ourselves. We went on YouTube and other sites on the web, read everything we could on how to build solar panels, and we built them.” They also developed smaller panels attached to umbrellas to power fans they had installed for people negotiating the summer sun.

They won the competition.

And they mark an entire new generation coming of age.

From Startup Rising by Christopher M. Schroeder. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Published in Stanford Social Innovation, August 2013.

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