Crazy Kids

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

June 22, 2014

I have had a 30-year career in STEM and, by quite a bit, am the old man at iNERDE. Old, only, in experience, as competitive sports and yoga have kept me in shape and mentally supple. Thirty years is a lot of experience and after finally tiring of chasing that pot of gold in tech I decided it was time to start using my knowledge to give back.

Just as I had made that decision, along came Mohamed and Rakib, young African immigrants starting careers in the sciences and burning with the desire to give young people in the part of the world they had come from the kind of opportunity they had in the US. They were working on a crazy plan to stimulate STEM opportunity in Africa by triggering a virtuous cycle of supply and demand though education for kids in the critical age group of 9-12. This is the window in which kids are either turned on or turned off by STEM for the rest of their lives.

They had come up with the idea of working with local schools to create STEM summer camps, thereby not only reaching the kids but also training the teachers, propagating the effects of the camp into the school year and reaching into the school systems and a larger group of students.

Mohamed insisted on creating a social enterprise, not a “charity”, following an aggressive business plan like any start-up. The plan included a strategy for growing their “entry market” and expanding scope and scale of operations once they had achieved market dominance. The pilot summer camp would be replicated in many countries, curriculum packaged and eventually “franchised” throughout Africa with iNERDE providing mentorship and organizational support to schools running their own programs. The objective was no less than to become a key player in a revolution in education throughout Africa. In the ultimate phase iNERDE will go from the revolution in education to the revolution in opportunity. With a cadre of iNERDE “graduates”, and feet both in North America and Africa, iNERDE will be positioned to be a catalyst for African STEM entrepreneurship and to help forge mutually beneficial international partnerships.

Crazy kids with big dreams!

I have participated in a lot of start-ups and my gut told me these guys were the real deal. Mohamed has the leadership mojo, Rakib, the ability to turn ideas into detailed plans. They had already assembled a team of dedicated and amazing volunteers, more crazy kids, started a crowdfunding campaign, put up quite a decent website, launched all the social media stuff, incorporated, applied for non-profit status, honed core messages, and, above all, developed curriculum and put partnerships in place to hold the pilot STEM summer camp in Mali. Clearly, these guys are going to succeed big at something, someday … but what about today, could the iNERDE business plan work? Is Africa ready for this?

I have learned over the years that long-term success is most often more about positioning yourself to be able to take advantage of the inevitable than a specific invention or innovation. “Being at the right place at the right time” is one part of it, but there is really much more. Without the innovative mindset needed to adapt and shape emerging opportunity it is useless to be at the right place at the right time.

iNERDE is positioned in the right place, just ahead of the curve, right where a start-up wants to be. Radical development in Africa is inevitable because of irresistable pressure from without and from within. In a world as profoundly interconnected and interdependent as ours is today the economic imbalance between Africa and the other continents is … unproductive. Under the economic system that gave rise to colonalism, the powerful profited from holding human development in Africa back. In a global knowledge economy human underdevelopment in Africa is lost opportunity. Investment is flowing into Africa today and is ready to turn into a flood. As another consequence of our interconnected world, Africans have a greater ability than at any time in history to act on their aspirations. They are organizing at the grassroots level to resist and overcome those forces that would deny them the means to create a better life, and these actions are having a powerful impact.

Yes, Africa is in the early stages of radical development, but why is iNERDE focused on STEM education? Aren’t there other, basic, things more important right now like healthcare or clean water? The fact is that every problem, at its core, is a problem of education and confidence in one’s ability to solve problems. Technology, STEM, provides the tools to solve problems with understanding, cheaply and efficiently, and on a large-scale. Creating good infrastructure in Africa is not unattainable; we have seen many countries build a modern infrastructure nearly from scratch in one to two decades in the last fifty years.

In fact, African infrastructure has improved enormously over the last decade, bringing vast improvements in the “classic” African problems like water supply and healthcare. African countries are now focused on developing a broader manufacturing base or even the creation of high tech centers like Kenya’s Konza Techno City. What is needed is people with the technical knowledge and enough confidence in the future to dream and act on an ambitious scale.

STEM education is about much more than building infrastructure, it is the key to enabling truly transformative economic growth. The fact is that despite some of the highest growth rates in the world, Africa is starting with a large deficit and, combined with population growth, merely strong economic expansion is projected to leave most of Africa far behind the rest of the world in the coming 30 years. The equation is not, however, fixed, and growth does not have to be linear. We live in a remarkable time where the greater part of wealth creation comes from knowledge, not material. A scientific idea can result in an abundant source of energy that could not even be imagined a decade earlier, a computer program can efficiently organize an economic activity increasing productivity ten thousand fold. As Africans are enabled and empowered to participate in the knowledge economy through STEM education the rules of the game of economic growth will change. Radical development in a single generation, with a whole lot of will, is a real possibility.

As I write this iNERDE is turning our beliefs into a reality, it is now week 3 of our very first STEM summer camp in Mali. The joy of learning and the ability of our 9 and 10-year old kids to absorb and put to use STEM concepts is breathtaking. Crazy kids. This experience so strongly confirms for us what we knew, that the only thing that really held back African young people from transforming their world was the opportunity to learn. And that opportunity is here, right now. Our crazy kids are going to amaze the world.