Centaur Stage Ep. 9: Teaching entrepreneurship to kids with Helen Al Uzaizi
Centaur Stage is a weekly video series where we explore bold ideas about the future of work and learning. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 2:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs is joined by some incredible guests to share insights, opinions, and perspectives about the future of how we work and learn.
In this episode, Helen Al Uzaizi shares why she believes in teaching youth about entrepreneurship and how we can integrate it into school curriculums or after-school programs. In the conversation with Marilyn, the two also explore how teaching entrepreneurship has changed as a result of remote learning and what entrepreneurship education means for the future of work and learning. Watch the full episode here.
About Helen Al Uzaizi
Helen Al Uzaizi is an established businesswoman and an active community member. With over 17 years of experience spanning marketing, non-profit management, and entrepreneurship, Helen has been supporting major brands, non-profit organizations, and startups across the region as a mentor, board member, and advisor.
She is a member of the Board of Trustees of PACES Charity working with Palestinian refugee children through sports, and an Advisor and Brand Ambassador for The Social Enterprise Project working on empowering Palestinian & Syrian refugee women.
Helen is the CEO of BizWorld UAE, Egypt, and Jordan, a social enterprise that teaches kids entrepreneurship skills.
She is also the Founder of Future Entrepreneurs, a platform that aims to empower youth entrepreneurs in the MENA. Most recently, she also took on the role of Director of Entrepreneurship & Youth Startup, Innovation & Social Impact with GEMS Education.
She was recently named one of the UAE’s 100 Smartest People and one of the 50 Most Influential Women in the Arab World. She was also a TedX Speaker on the topic of entrepreneurship education.
Helen studied Law & Government at the University of Manchester, UK, and completed her executive education at Columbia University. As a believer in lifelong learning, she is currently enrolled at the London School of Economics reading International Development.
On a personal level, Helen is a mother of 2, runner, triathlete, and adventurer who believes in making dreams come to life and that anything is possible.
Small businesses really are the backbone of the economy. In the US, in 2019, almost half (49.2%) of the private sector workforce is employed by small businesses, and for the last twenty years, small businesses have been responsible for creating two out of every three net new jobs (64%). The numbers in the UAE are similar. Some 400,000 SMEs already contribute over 60% of the non-oil economy and provide 86% of the private workforce.
Where entrepreneurship is regarded as the key driver of innovation and economic growth, it’s become increasingly important to teach young people and children some of the basic skills needed to run a business, whether it's financial literacy, public speaking, conflict resolution, or others.
How Helen started teaching entrepreneurship to children in schools
Helen starts by telling us about the story behind what she is doing, the programs she runs, and what she is trying to accomplish:
“When I first started back in 2016, the concept of youth entrepreneurship was very foreign. People thought that I was kind of embarking on a really ridiculous journey thinking, how do you teach entrepreneurship to kids as young as seven years old? And it took me quite a while to shift the mindset from, we're not trying to develop entrepreneurs, but we're trying to develop a mindset. If you look at the statistics and the data, most personal values are established when children are as young as seven and eight years old. If we're talking about developing a mindset, then that's when you need to start doing these different activities and projects to start building these personality traits, whether it's resilience, grit, negotiation, creativity, or other things like that. That's actually the foundation of what we do. I work with kids starting from as young as six and seven years old.
What use a project-based learning approach, to take them through the entrepreneurial cycle, and is this something that is foreign to them? Absolutely not. They're doing it anyway.
"When you look at the kids playing, they're playing and they're setting up markets, they're negotiating, they'll come to their parents and try to sell them fruits. All of these things are actually already part of the way that they do things. The only thing that we really do is give it a structure, give it a purpose, and give it an outcome."
Helen continues, "When children start playing, they're playing with some sort of an idea that they're going to go through a process, that they're going to have different people on teams and that they're going to have different jobs and roles. They have to think about the finances. The reason why this is so important is that if you look at any grade 1 class, 65% of the students are going to be working in jobs that don't exist today.
The value of teaching entrepreneurship to kids
"We're preparing them for a world that doesn't actually exist and that we don't yet really understand. Yes, of course, science is important, but that's all information that's becoming more and more available on Google, and what they really need are the skill sets. The skills that we look to embed in the curriculum, by integrating them into math, English, social studies training the teachers, are things like resilience, negotiation, grit, creativity. We're trying to embed the concept and the mindset of innovation. And the foundation of entrepreneurship is taking an idea and turning it into action. We give them the tools needed to do that."
Marilyn probed further asking Helen about how others responded to her push for entrepreneurship education, "What was the reception by educators and parents?" she asked.
“So, in the beginning, everyone thought, why don't you do it for an older age group? Because seven and eight-year-olds are too young. So I started writing articles about it and I worked with Entrepreneur Middle East magazine. I wrote a blog and I had a regular column explaining why it is important and trying to educate people. That was the first step," Helen responded.
"The schools started saying, it was awesome but that they already do this because sixth-grade teachers bring in a chocolate bar and melt it for kids to make cupcakes and sell them in a bake sale. While that is excellent, it's just one part of it. That's not the full spectrum, and the fact that schools were already doing something means that they believed in the value of entrepreneurship education. So I asked them how can I help make it even better?"
She continues, "And then there were the parents who were all for it. Parents loved it and I think they were the ones that became my ambassadors to schools because parents are hungry for something new and different. There is also the other end of the spectrum, which is the refugee camps and youth organizations. There, everyone thought I was completely out of my mind. They would say 'these kids don't even go to normal school. How are you going to expect them to actually do something extracurricular?' Because schools in refugee camps will not pay for something like this, I had to do it as an extracurricular weekend project. But they were the ones that were the most engaged, the ones where I saw the biggest change. I had a mother come on the last day crying saying how excited she was that her son was talking to his father about the plumbing business."
Sharing more about the perception of this type of education today, Helen adds, "But the schools are still very resistant. I'm going to have to say, and it's not because the schools don't want the change. It's because the teachers are already overwhelmed. They don't necessarily want to get trained on something else. Even if a school is a super progressive awesome school, there are just so many requirements from so many authorities that it makes it very difficult to be creative. The only way that I was able to navigate that is by actually training the teachers and positioning it as a training module for the teachers’ professional development. This is how you can enhance your existing curriculum rather than adding onto the load of teachers who are inundated with work with and grading, et cetera, and that has worked.”
Do kids have an advantage over adults when it comes to embracing entrepreneurship?
“This is what I tell everyone - kids are the most incredible sponges of information and they are phenomenal at actually taking information and translating it quickly. They don't have the barriers to entry that we do. They don't have all the complications that we have inflicted on ourselves, because they are just open."
Sharing a couple of examples of the young entrepreneurs she worked with, Helen says "I remember there was this one kid who was around 11 years old and he came up with this idea that we then actually funded and we got him a mentor to help him from the business community. The idea was a game exchange. One of the things that frustrated this young entrepreneur the most was that when he finished a game, he wanted to buy another one but, of course, his parents didn't want him to buy another one and he felt that there was nothing he could do with this game. So he set out to create a platform where he could exchange games with his friends? It was an incredible idea."
"I've got a kid that came up with this mask that was way before COVID to help laborers working in the heat. These kids come up with real-world solutions because they see the world through sparkling eyes that are full of hope, and it applies to the technical information and the way that they absorb it, but also to the negotiations, to fighting for what they believe in because they really don't give up. They're stubborn! They believe in their hearts that they can change the world. I think that is what makes me really excited about working with kids. They have positive energy and a belief that everything is possible."
Entrepreneurship education and the future of work
Marilyn reads an excerpt from a recent HBR article that touches on some of the mindsets entrepreneurs in today’s economy will need in order to thrive. It reads:
The current pandemic illustrates the importance of preparing entrepreneurs to face an increasingly complex, uncertain world. We must educate these future leaders to view the uncertainty of our unknowable future not as a problem to be solved, but rather as a reality to be embraced. After all, in the unknowable future, all leaders will need to be entrepreneurs: visionaries that can imagine, adapt, and act nimbly to address whatever challenges come their way. Schools should not delay in adopting new teaching philosophies that empower the next generation of entrepreneurs — as well as all business leaders — to meet these challenges.
She asks Helen, how enabling youth with entrepreneurial skills will help them better integrate into the future of work.
“One of the biggest shocks to the system in the UAE was on March 15th, when schools shut down and all of a sudden, no one was prepared. People didn't know how they would adapt, what systems would be used, or what the future would hold. The education system is one of the most rigid systems you can possibly imagine so if these systems adapted so quickly, there's nothing in the world that shouldn't be able to also adapt this fast.
"One thing I observed during the pandemic is that adaptation is the key to being an entrepreneur, because if you're not able to adapt and adjust and iterate and change over time, then you're going to lag behind."
So what does teaching entrepreneurship to kids look like?
Helen continues, "what we do with the kids is we put them in very difficult situations. Let me give you an example. They come up with an idea, they work as a team, and we have this whole, profit, and loss ledger. So they have to maintain their finances. They have to buy their material. They have to do all of that. Eventually, the project and the program are developed in such a way that they will run out of money because they have to pay salaries and rent and all of that stuff. When they do run out of money, they have to go to either an investor or a bank. We teach them about the different financial tools and means that they can use, they go to an investor."
"What I do is I will tell the investor, ask for 50% of their company and I'll tell the kids, don't give more than 30%, whatever you do. So we put them in that situation and they learn how to negotiate. They decide how they are going to discuss this. They appoint a speaker, who will fight for what, how much of their company will they give away. They even discuss governance and scenario planning; if the CEO comes up with a unilateral decision and he says, fine, I'm going to give you 50% because he wants the money. What does that mean for the rest of the team? They are put in a position that normally a seven-year-old would never be put in and they come out of that stronger. They fight and they argue a lot. I've even had boys come and say, why is the girl a CEO, I need to be the boss because I'm a boy. In the end, they actually understand that she's better at leading. These are eight-year-old, seven-year-old nine-year-old kids. Obviously, this develops as they go along, 15 and 16, et cetera.
We teach the basic foundations of the skills. Things like what makes a good leader? What do they need to be aware of when it comes to financing? What should they spend their money on? What are they going to spend on? They start to save money and make decisions about what to spend on based on target profits and they understand the difference between revenues and expenses. All these things give them strength of character. They're learning through play and through projects and I think that's the best way to learn for them.”
Talking about her own experience, Marilyn agrees saying, "I believe this will have more impact than we can even measure at the moment because if you learn how to understand finances at that age, then you can only become better at it, as you get older and are exposed to more situations and that's really incredible."
The future of school and university
Marilyn asked Helen about her thoughts on the current educational system. "A lot of people say that it's flawed and that it was designed in the industrial era and meant to fulfill a different kind of objective to what we think education should be doing today. There's currently a lot of talk around whether we should focus on individualized learning as opposed to group classroom level learning, or whether we should be integrating social impact or environmental sciences. Some schools are out there in nature and students learn about basic things that most of us wouldn't know to be able to survive in a forest for more than a day."
Sharing her opinion on this, Helen says, "This is extreme and some have gone a bit too far. Kids actually need some sort of structure. Whether we like to admit it or not, kids thrive in structure and that's why there's bedtime. To say that you want it all to be just outdoors is a bit too much but there are systems that are integrating more of this. One of my favorite educational systems is the IB system because it's about analyzing, taking concepts, material and digging deeper, and researching and learning for yourself. It prepares you for the world. They do a lot of sciences and math and things like that, but math is not necessarily about understanding calculus, it's understanding the thought process that you have to go through. Do I think that it all needs to be scrapped? No, I think it needs to just be adapted in a lot of schools. I think that there's a balance between this extreme.
The only time you can really change the education system is when the entire ecosystem changes. When universities change and when employment changes too.
"So until that changes and then the university process changes, you can't change the school system. There are kids that are getting homeschooled, but it's still within a structure and within a system and it has to be accredited because they can't go to university, they can't get jobs and work. They need to earn a living. It’s much bigger than just talking about the school itself. It's about the entire ecosystem that eventually might change. For now, I think all we can do is really adapt and think about what are the skills that are needed and kind of integrate them into what exists today.”
The effect of the pandemic
"When it comes to school and the pandemic," said Marilyn, "There was a lot of disruption, and it very hard on parents and women who have had to bear the brunt of it. Not having a safe place for the kids, from nine to five every day also meant one of the parents can't work. The data shows 1 in 5 women have exited the workplace this year because of the pandemic. On the positive side, the educational system had to learn some important things this year. Can you share what you observed?"
“There were a lot of learnings. Schools had to become creative and they usually aren't. Teachers had to become agile and adaptable and they're usually not. Teachers have traditionally always been the kind of people that go in with a teacher's manual and unit plans and daily tasks. It's always worked because they delivered great lessons, but the world is no longer like that. Teachers are struggling between having to manage distance learners while adapting the curriculum to adjust learners in classrooms? It's really daunting and overwhelming, but it's forced them to think outside of the box, more creatively, and also to delegate more and become facilitators, not necessarily teachers. These are all skills that teachers will take with them, wherever they go. Also, it gives students a bit more independence when it comes to how they think and how they work. I think it's been a really steep learning curve, but I think it has been quite positive."
She continues, "touching on what you were saying about women in the workforce, I have two kids, and they weren't sure whether they were going to go back to school or not. I have also had a nanny for 13 years who decided she wanted to go back home. I had to bring someone in at least part-time because otherwise I would have had to quit my job and quit working, which I can't do. So I think, definitely, it's been a shock to the system. It's made us rethink a lot of things, but it's also made us a lot more resilient and agile."
Agile methodology and kids
Marilyn then took a question from the audience related to agile that says “A lot of entrepreneurs face the reality of failure and while we're not teaching kids to be entrepreneurs, iteration is one of the mindsets that can soften the landing of failing. Do you host retrospectives with kids to reflect and share structured feedback with each other when things don't go as planned? If so, how do you teach them to iterate their ideas? Based on that feedback?”
Helen’s answer was: “We design these courses in such a way that kids are forced to fail at some point. It doesn't always have to be a failure in their product or in their project or their business idea but they may struggle with the team dynamics. We make sure that they are in very difficult team structures to learn how to deal with the challenges. We also make sure that they fail when it comes to money and that they do in fact run out of money. After every session, we discuss what worked, what didn't, and what could we have done better? By the end of the term, the way that they're talking about their failures and the things that they've struggled with is very different. At the beginning they're quite defensive, towards the end, they're open to suggestions and ideas."
One of the things that I struggle with when it comes to people coming up with programs and projects all the time. Every day, there's someone doing entrepreneurship or doing some sort of a project or program. There are weekends or it's one day, or it's a three-hour workshop and you can't change mindsets in a workshop unless it's embedded in the way that they are learning on a daily basis. This is why we train teachers and integrate them into subjects.
One last question...
Marilyn asked Helen the last question we ask all our guests. "Complete the sentence, the future of learning is...."
"The future of learning is agile," said Helen. "We just used that word and there's a reason for it. I think agility is foundational. I think that's what makes people successful, being able to adapt and change and really grow with time, I think is the key to everything.