Entrepreneurship Education Is Key To The Success Of MENA Economies Today's youth is more connected than ever, and they will be entering an increasingly shifting economy that our education system needs to prepare them for proactively.
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Over the last decade, I have conducted entrepreneurship education workshops for young students across the MENA region. Implementing this first-of-its-kind program for elementary and middle school students didn't come without its fair share of challenges. Still, governments, schools, and parents began to see and understand the value of instilling the entrepreneurial mindset and skills in youth, regardless of the career path they end up pursuing. Overcoming inherent societal biases against risk-taking entrepreneurs, after working with over 25,000 students on entrepreneurship experiences, this experience has imparted some valuable insights that I would like to share to help guide our education system to meet the needs of the future economy. Here are three:
1. Arab youth are hungry for practical, immediate application of their education
Almost 85% of Arab youth are concerned about the quality of education in their country (83% in GCC, 84% in North Africa, and 81% in the Levant), according to the latest ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey.
A robust education infrastructure is a significant investment, with many governments around the region recognizing that it is the cornerstone of a competitive, productive workforce and the basis of a capable entrepreneurial class in a strong economy. However, with fast-moving technology, an innovation landscape that is outpacing learning, and students who are directly connected to these changes, what students want to learn isn't always being taught at their schools. Learning about the technology and the world that is unfolding in front of them (artificial intelligence, internet of things, data, 3D printing, renewable energy, and more), and how they can pioneer these fields through an entrepreneurial mindset is essential and practical for the students we are educating today. The students I have had the privilege to teach entrepreneurial and life skills to had these technologies on their radar, and were hungry to learn more about them. However, this isn't to say we need to replace the core curriculum at schools- instead, we need to expand and build on it to include innovation skills. Education systems need to tackle emerging technologies to prime our youth's minds to start thinking about how they can further drive these innovations. Adding classes that take what youth learn in math, physics, or in the arts, and apply it to real-world scenarios they are experiencing now can turn our education system into an innovative platform that instills an entrepreneurial mindset. Moreover, education becomes proactive, which graduates individuals capable of dealing with the changes in the world around them- a key trait of successful entrepreneurs.
2. Arab youth are not seeing local opportunities, through no fault of their own
According to the latest ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey, youth are looking forward most to finishing their education, but emigration is still top of mind for nearly half of them. Starting a business came in sixth place after pursuing something they are passionate about, starting a family, and emigrating to a new country.
Suppose countries want to prevent the brain drain that still plagues the region, and jumpstart the number of new startups. In that case, the education system as well as the business infrastructure need to be mature, attractive, and in sync to create a steady supply of capable youth who enter the workforce as entrepreneurs, and can can be successful enough to be job creators, and hire their young peers. Countries all over the region are overhauling their infrastructures to make them more entrepreneurially focused with economic incentives, programs, funds, accelerators, and incubators. However, there is a missing link in this chain, and it is when students are completing their education, and about to enter the economy. Many of the students who have gone through our programs weren't even considering starting a business until after they had completed our courses. The entrepreneurial path isn't yet institutionalized or part of the culture in the region.
While it is growing as more successful role models and examples come to light, there isn't a critical mass to generate momentum for a sustainably innovative economy of the future. In the StartupBlink ranking of countries with the most startups (based on quantity, quality, and business and economic indicators), no MENA region country appears on the list. Institutionalizing entrepreneurship education is one way to bridge this gap, and change the culture in our region. Showing youth that entrepreneurship is a viable option will lead to a healthier economy with more enterprising youth. Even if they don't want to pursue the startup path, youth will at least have the important life skills to be effective members of the workforce, regardless of their chosen path. This is a win-win scenario that school systems need to adopt as soon as possible.
3. Youth want room to be creative- beyond the arts and humanities
Focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) doesn't mean leaving creativity behind, or relegating it to an art or literature class. On the contrary, for STEM programs to be successful, embedding critical thinking and creativity into these fields is a crucial part of a successful, empowering education system.
Creativity is one of the top takeaways from students in the entrepreneurship courses we have implemented over the years. Over and over again, my students point to creativity and critical thinking as one of the most important skills they gained from the program. There is a real hunger for youth to practice creativity to solve complex tasks; it makes them feel empowered, because they are not just repeating information, but using their abilities to overcome problems.
At its heart, entrepreneurship education is life skills education, focusing on the all-important ones of creativity, critical thinking, and curiosity. These traits can be applied across many fields, and add depth to young people's education. These skills focus on teaching students how to think, not what to think, which is what the future economy will require. These entrepreneurial skills are irreplaceable in a world where automation and artificial intelligence will either replace or fundamentally alter specific jobs. These skills can also motivate young entrepreneurs to develop new applications for these technologies, impacting local and international economies.
Our youth are telling us what they need, and we should listen as educators, lawmakers, and ecosystem players. Today's youth is more connected than ever, and they will be entering an increasingly shifting economy that our education system needs to prepare them for proactively.