by Ali Raza Khan
I have been pursuing a revolutionary idea for over 21 years – youth as a solution, not as a problem. I have seen through my work that when young people are encouraged and not looked down upon, positive change occurs in the lives of everyone. I have demonstrated again and again that when young people are provided structured opportunities, they show the ability to transform themselves from victims to leaders, from at-risk to at-strength, from sheltered to a shaper of society, and from service seekers to service providers.
During these many years, I have tested several ideas of working with young people successfully. Recently, I experimented with an idea that points to a new understanding of the entrepreneurial potential of the marginalized youth of this country.
I did this experiment with the most neglected, destitute, marginalized, and half-educated youth studying in the state-owned charity-based technical institutions in the Punjab province of Pakistan. I chose to test the idea with students of the technical institutions because they and their families are seriously struggling financially. They are living with little or no access to the basic amenities of life. What I wanted to prove is that these young people, despite living in the poorest families or neighborhoods and having very little or no education, can still turn their lives around if they are valued and trusted as equal partners in development.
It is not poverty, lack of education, or support that is blocking their progress, it is the paradigm, the collection of values, in which they live that creates the stumbling blocks in their progress. These young people
are as gifted as any young people living in high or middle-income families.
I engaged 5,950 young people, both boys and girls, of 79 vocational technical institutions operating under the Punjab Vocational Training Council in a four-week Enterprise Development Competition. These institutions were nominated by the senior management of the Punjab Vocational Training Council after we sought an expression of interest from them. It was not compulsory for any institution to participate in the competition. The institutions were given the free will to decide whether they wanted to participate in the four-week competition. Twenty-two institutions were selected from the Southern Punjab, 32 from the Northern Punjab, and 25 from the Central Punjab.
Before engaging the young people in the four-week competition, I conducted a few workshops with the principals and teachers of the 79 technical institutions to build an ecosystem enabling young people to test their ideas freely. Young people were organized in small teams of 5 members. A total of 1,190 youth teams participated in the competition. 407 teams participated from the south, 466 teams from the north, and 317 teams from Central Punjab took part in the Emerging Entrepreneurship Competition.
Out of 1,190 teams, 523 teams were comprised of female youth, and 667 teams were comprised of male youth.
Each team was given a grant of Rs.2500, approximately US$25, on the condition that if the young people were able to generate a profit, it would be donated to YES, and in the case of a loss, YES alone would bear it. I designed this model because of the strong resistance from the parents and teachers to our offer of providing small loans without interest to young people, as they thought that the young people would not be able to pay back even a small amount of the loan if there was a loss in the business. They were of the viewpoint that, since young people have not received any formal training of enterprise development before, and they have no previous experience with running an enterprise,
it would be virtually impossible for young people to start and run a business for four weeks successfully. Thus, I designed the idea in a manner to give a free hand to young people to do whatever they wanted to do without the fear of failure.
My organization invested US$34,900. After the completion of the competition, not to my surprise, the young people were able to generate a profit of US$29,000. The young people carried out a wide range of need-based projects in their communities and provided services to over 60,000 people of all ages.
Their projects included, but were not limited to: health and first aid projects; skill development projects; peace-building projects; handicraft projects; sports projects; cosmetic projects; child care projects; female empowerment projects; jewelry projects; information technology projects; and grocery selling projects. The top three teams, based on the triple bottom line of profit, positive social impact, and environmental stewardship, received cash awards and public encouragement. The top three winning teams earned US$1,026 (male youth team), US$1,021 (female youth team), and US$869 (female youth team) profit in four weeks, respectively.
The male youth winning team provided electrical appliance services to the people of their communities. They adopted a very aggressive field approach to reach out to masses. They mentioned during the award ceremony of the competition that the major reason for their success was the support and encouragement provided by their teacher. The first runner-up female youth team provided designing and stitching services to local industries. The female youth team mentioned that they decided to reach out to local industries instead of private customers. They established partnerships with more than 5 local industries in a short period of time. The second runner-up female youth team provided information technology training to the girls of “Madaris” at their institutions. The female youth team mentioned that they reached out to well-established “Madaris” and offered their services to equip the female students with computer education.
Out of 1,190 teams, 926 youth teams were able to generate a profit, while 130 teams stood with no profit and no loss, and 134 teams suffered a loss. Overall, 75% of male participating teams were successful in running a profitable business, and 81% of female participating teams were able to gather profits. Morever, a higher percentage of male teams experienced losses in comparison to female teams. 13.9% of male youth teams suffered loss, while 7.8% of female youth teams suffered loss. When the reason for these losses was investigated, it was found out that the dominating factor was the lack or complete absence of support from their teachers and parents.
The top-performing, or most entrepreneurial, region of the Punjab was south. Only 11 youth teams out of 407 youth teams suffered a loss. Overall, it generated 99% profit. It is important to note that Southern Punjab is under discussion and spotlighted for all the wrong reasons, including terrorism in recent times. This experiment further highlights the need and urgency to reach out to our marginalized youth and provide them with a better and more productive pathway to development.
My project proved the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1: We must not expect less of any young person. We should not consider marginalized young people as having no talents or abilities. Young people living in low-income communities possess enormous latent entrepreneurial potential, as much as is possessed by the young people who are educated and living in high-income communities.
Hypothesis 2: There is no pre-condition to becoming an entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur. The only thing which is required to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of young people is the support and encouragement of adults or youth-serving institutions. I learned that young people can succeed if they have a functional institution but a dysfunctional family. Young people can also succeed if they have a functional family but a dysfunctional institution. But young people are unlikely to succeed if they have both dysfunctional families and dysfunctional institutions.
Hypothesis 3: The outcome of the project reveals that education is not enough, skill is not enough, and financial assistance is not enough to become an entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur. It is the application of heart-and-mind intelligence that exceeds all other intelligence to become an entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur. Heart-and-mind intelligence flourishes in a culture of respect, love, and trust.
Hypothesis 4: The project seriously challenged and questioned the way in which entrepreneurship education is currently offered at colleges and universities based on the rational oriented educational system, which does not promote creativity, self-determination, or problem-solving abilities. The result of this project revealed that entrepreneurship can’t just be taught as an intellectual discipline — it must be experienced. To become an entrepreneur, students need opportunities to experience the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur, including experiencing both success and failure.
Hypothesis 5: The project proved the fact that all young people can be changemakers if they are provided with the support and encouragement they need. Their success and failure depend on the paradigm in which young people live and operate. Degrees or skills do not control results, effectiveness, and productivity. When we change the paradigm of young people, we can change the results.
Hypothesis 6: The project has shown that a vast majority of young people are living their lives in a very restricted physical, intellectual, social, and moral circle of their potential being. They either do not explore their entrepreneurial potential or are not given the space to explore their talents and natural abilities.
According to the students, this competition has stimulated their innovative spirit and entrepreneurial desire. This project changed the lives
and thought processes of many young students ready to enter their professional adult lives.
According to many female students, one of the most salient features of this competition was learning how to interact with customers and sell the product. Furthermore, a vast majority of the young people mentioned that, unexpectedly, the competition also taught them how a small amount of investment can help them generate multi-fold profits, alongside benefitting society in a positive manner. The youth were very happy with us for bringing such a competition to their institutes, as it taught them the nuts and bolts of conducting a business; something they could not have learned during their coursework.
At the end of the competition, YES organized an award ceremony to appreciate and acknowledge the contributions of the top-performing students, faculty members, principals, and regional heads. All the students, teachers, and principals who participated in the competition were given certificates of appreciation. The highest profit-making student team of the entire competition was given a cash reward of Rs. 100,000 (US$1000). The highest profit-making team of the winning Vocational Training Institute was also given a cash reward of Rs. 100,000 (US$1000). In addition to that, the teacher and principal of the winning VTI were also given a cash reward of Rs. 100,000 each.
by Thomas Jakel
The encounter I had in February of 2017 with Ali Raza Khan is one of these encounters that I believe was supposed to happen, and I want to tell you how it came about.
Shortly after I started my entrepreneurial journey as a 23-year-old, fresh out of college, I realized that there was an entire world out there that had thus far been completely hidden to me: The world of entrepreneurial endeavor. A world in which you decide how far you can go and how you contribute to your community. A world in which you decide when you get out of bed, how much you earn, and which ideas are translated into physical reality.
As obvious as this may seem to the veteran entrepreneur, it was exciting news to me.
Also, I learned that social entrepreneurs use the vehicle of business to create economic value AND tackle social and ecological challenges. Again, this was big for me, and a revolutionary idea. And as soon as I built my first company with my co-founder, automated the business by hiring a management team, and taken half a year off to celebrate my newfound freedom, I thought that more young people should know about this opportunity “hidden” in plain sight.
Formal education is not the be-all and end-all goal that it is made out to be.
You don’t have to be a busy worker bee all your life, realizing someone else’s dream instead of implementing your own ideas.
Everyone has the necessary toolkit to create and think.
And anyone can design their life in the way they want to, and become a changemaker and creator. As soon as we DECIDE, BELIEVE THAT WE CAN, and SET THE INTENTION that we ARE going to walk the path, success is already ours. If we trust the river, knowing that eventually we will learn and succeed in our efforts, that is exactly what is going to happen.
Why did no one ever talk about this in school? Why hadn’t it even been mentioned in my business administration degree at college? And why is it that the only thing I ever heard about growing up was: “Be good at school, get a degree, and then get a job. Work all your life. Retire. Die.” Tainted with the underlying message that if you are not good at getting acceptable grades, you’ll be condemned to a life in poverty, relying on welfare or underpaid jobs. What an enticing outlook.
Why wasn’t there a single mention that our ideas have value if we trust in our God-given ability to manifest them in the material world? To be changemakers?
And finally, why were we trained — systematically trained — to look to others for solutions to problems instead of creating practical solutions in the real world to problems and challenges, be they social, economic, spiritual or ecological?
From these contemplations came my desire to either change the education system or establish a parallel system, allowing young people to have the same entrepreneurial experiences that I did. We started hosting workshops and conferences that encouraged young people to start a business. Looking back, I barely knew what I was doing, but
still, several “successful” businesses came forth from our workshops. However, a real change in the education system was nowhere in sight. Our model just wasn’t the right one, considering the size of the challenge.
Additionally, the vision that I shared with my team members wasn’t well-aligned. But my interest in the topic and the nagging feeling that it wasn’t right to leave all these young people growing up in the dark about their opportunities, their latent potential, and their changemaking skills kept me investigating.
At first, my research approach was very haphazard; asking friends from different countries about projects on the ground that were trying to help young people start their changemaking journey. When my random searches and interviews didn’t give me a clearer idea of where to get involved, I started ordering books about social entrepreneurship, hoping to find inspiration in them. And inspiration I found.
Although I never actually got to the real reading of the books, there was a book that made a big difference. Actually, that is imprecise. The foreword of the book is what made all the difference to me.
In it, Bill Drayton, the founder of the international Ashoka Network, wrote about a social entrepreneur from Pakistan named Ali Raza Khan who is changing thousands of young people’s lives by telling them that they CAN. That they were born great and that they have all it takes to become changemakers. But not only that — he challenges them to start businesses and, unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of these kids that are regarded as “difficult cases” by the government succeed with flying colors, earning profits and challenging everyone’s belief system about what young people are capable of if they are trusted enough and are met with high expectations. Wow.
After reading the foreword, I knew that I had to get in touch with Ali.
I sent him an email asking him for a video interview. His staff got back to me asking me for the interview questions, and said that he would deliver them in writing, as he was in Singapore at the time. I managed to postpone sending in the questions for about a week. Then I got an email from Ali, personally letting me know that he was back from Singapore and that he would be open to doing the interview at any time. We arranged the interview and got on the call for about an hour.
If you could have seen my face during that interview! I was brimming with inspiration.
Here, it seemed, I had finally found someone who had hacked the system and identified a systematic approach that helped young people start their changemaking journey. And he didn’t do it by throwing money at the problem, building big infrastructure, setting up tech incubators, bringing on board investors, or looking for “fledgling potential” and all these other approaches that are nice, but are no scalable model to reach the hundreds of millions of young people at the “bottom of the pyramid” who need this experience and encouragement the most.
Not only did it seem that Ali had come across a workable, scalable model to give young people a practical entrepreneurship and changemaking experience, but he also managed to have stellar success rates AND have the majority of the kids and youth earning a profit on their projects. AND, on top of that, he manages to facilitate this experience within two to five weeks. This was insane.
I had more questions on my mind than we both had time for during the interview. So, I asked him whether I could go visit him in Pakistan and see the project for myself. I wanted to see every detail of how Ali’s organization worked. “Sure, be my guest,” he said. So, I booked my ticket to Pakistan on New Year’s Eve 2016, and got the opportunity to accompany Ali for almost two weeks to different universities and vocational training institutes in the Punjab, speaking with hundreds of students, dozens of teachers and professors, and taking a bunch of random selfies with the students who wanted a picture with the
brown-skinned German man that had come to see their enterprises. The trip was not only inspiring and fun, but also heartwarming, as I heard the stories of some of the students. I could literally pick up on how much this short experience had already changed their lives, their self-esteem, and their prospects for the future. At times, I had tears of gratitude in my eyes, for what I saw was way beyond what I could have hoped for. If it takes only two to five weeks to massively change a young person’s life, mindset, and prospects for the future, and you even earn a return on the investment while facilitating them with the experience, why weren’t more institutions and edupreneurs doing this?
The projects, and the results from the projects, in terms of monetary return and social impact, often blew my mind. Think about it: This was only the very first, minuscule, entrepreneurial experience that these youngsters had. Yet, it made a huge difference in their consciousness and how they saw themselves. Young girls who had never spoken to strangers had learned how to sell their products. Kids from poor families made a profit in two to five weeks that was beyond what many of their parents would earn in several months. And, as I have observed in myself and others: Once a changemaker, always a changemaker. This is a primary shift from victim mode to creator mode, and is likely to pay social dividends again and again, not only for the lives of these young boys and girls, but also for their communities, their country, and, finally, for all of humankind.
Imagine what will happen if this kind of experience is facilitated not only to the tens of thousands of young people that YES Network has reached thus far, but to the hundreds of millions of young people growing up all over the world. What if we could awaken all their latent potential? What if we allowed everyone to become citizens in constructive action? What if we all had practical experience using our natural capabilities of imagination, creativity, and empathy to create social and economic value? Not only as “passive” labor, but as changemakers, regardless of whether we are working for someone else or building our own businesses.
So, to make a long story short: I hope you will find the stories of the young people of Pakistan and the story of Ali’s journey as encouraging and inspiring as I did when I first heard about them.
And I hope that even if all you do is read this foreword, you are now convinced that the youth is a huge, untapped goldmine, in terms of their size as a population and their untapped potential to create value and solutions for themselves and all of us.
I hope that getting an entrepreneurial and changemaker experience early in life will not be the exception, but the absolute standard, and that you will be a part of this development as a changemaker in your own right.
Ali Raza Khan & Thomas Jakel
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