A report published by the Institute of International Education revealed that in 2016, the number of Middle East students travelling to study to universities in the United States increased by almost 5%, when compared with the previous year. This is just one indication of the interest in overseas higher education showcased by students in this region, and with MENA companies often citing inadequate skills among talent as major impediments to business growth, this trend is a healthy sign- but it comes with its own set of hurdles. After all, it’s rarely (if ever) an easy task to get into these schools, and MENA students need to be prepared and guided to make the best out of their learning opportunities abroad- and that’s what Education Basket’s founders set out to do with their enterprise. Started by long-time friends Jessica Naimé and Mylène El Fakhry, who were formerly a journalist and financial consultant respectively, the duo picked Qatar to launch Education Basket. “Qatar, with its 2030 vision dedicated to transforming a commodity reliant market into a knowledge-based economy, seemed like the perfect place to kickstart [our] regional project,” explains El Fakhry.
Launched in Doha in 2013, Education Basket today has operations across the GCC, with offices in Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt, and its founders believe that the company’s structure today has “successfully progressed from a startup to a medium-sized company.” Explaining the full suite of services provided by the education consultancy, El Fakhry says, “Academic orientation is at the core of our business, and every case is unique, so the advice we give when it comes to choosing a major, university or country for higher education is customized depending on the student’s current grades, requirements from the course, career plans and budget.” Irrespective of the level of education (undergraduate, post graduate etc.), the enterprise presents students with global course options, in line with their specifications and credentials.
Speaking about why the company picked Qatar for its inception, El Fakhry is thankful to Qatar’s emphasis on becoming an educational hub, and the government “allocating its second largest budget to education.” She adds that the country’s initiatives like Education City, and the World Innovation Summit for Education under the umbrella of Qatar Foundation have all helped boost their business, and “allowed us to operate profitably since day one.” As for subsequent expansion decisions, “the intrinsic thirst of Lebanese people for academic advancement” prompted the entry into Lebanon, and the company has now even centralized their support functions (finance, marketing, administration) in Beirut, owing to the city’s bustling startup ecosystem. While Kuwaitis’ history of foraying into foreign education led to setting up an office in Kuwait, Education Basket is now also venturing into the region’s largest market- Egypt. “We have already started a due diligence process in two new markets, one in the GCC (for Q4 2017) and another in North Africa (for Q2 2018),” adds El Fakhry.
Despite such high ambitions, the founders have been cautious and selective when it comes to raising funds for growth. The decision has been driven primarily by “the ability of the partner [investor]” to help them expand with their expertise and network. “After careful consideration, we decided to join forces with Eurotech [in January 2016], a 17-year-old Kuwait-based corporate training company with a very rich network of clients across the region and offices in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia and London,” says El Fakhry. Considering the nature of business, references and relationships play a key role in scaling such a venture, and Education Basket has been quick to realize this. “Our numbers helped us sign our first agreements with education partners in the United Kingdom,” says El Fakhry. “Just like students, partners who appreciated our work also referred us to other institutions, and instead of us approaching potential universities for agreements, we started being approached by them directly.”
With business fundamentals working in its favor, Education Basket has thus been successful in providing counseling for over 1500 students across the region, and claims to have placed over 600 of them in institutions based in the US, Canada, the UK, the EU, Russia, the UAE, and other countries. While the team admits that 2016 has been a tough year for GCC-based education businesses, Education Basket has seen revenue grow at an average 30% rate since their launch. As for the future, El Fakhry notes various external factors that serve as a positive influence for their growth story. An increase in the recognition of the advantages of an international education experience, coupled with the improved focus on human capital development by the region’s governments, simplified global mobility, and access to institutional financing options for students, have all placed the spotlight on higher education, and these are expected to “have positive outcomes on the region, if channeled through a clear plan.” Education Basket believes this is where they come in, and for those just out of school, feeling overwhelmed with the options facing them, the company has just one thing to say to you: “Get in touch!”
Mylène El Fakhry, co-founder and Executive Director, Education Basket
What are a few key challenges you anticipate or already face in scaling up your business?
“[First], protectionist regulations governing “for-profit” educational businesses, and [second], optimizing existing resources to fulfill ambitious projects.”
In your experience of running Education Basket, what are a few preferred vocations or courses that are in top demand today among MENA’s youth?
“Medicine, engineering and law degrees are still very popular amongst high school students looking into education abroad. However, with the GCC’s different visions to be implemented in the coming decades, the trend is about to change. Some Gulf nations are trying to shift towards more service-oriented economies, and humanities as well as social sciences are starting to trend amongst master students. Students tend to look for education excellence when they invest in higher education abroad. The outcome would be obtaining a degree from a recognized institution across the region in order to land a job when they come back. For others, studying abroad sometimes could be seeking a new adventure, opening up to other cultures and experience new ways of life. Finally, others seek more affordable university options abroad.”
What are your top five tips for an entrepreneur to start a business in MENA?
“[Firstly], data is key but not visible to the naked eye, be ready to dig for it. [Second], cut costs on everything except salaries and legal advice. [Third], gut feeling and ambition are useless without a solid business plan. [Fourth], when hiring, think: trust, competence and resourcefulness (in that order). [Finally], make sure the expectations of your investor(s) are aligned with the nature and pace of your business model.”