We launched the Queen Rania Award for Education Entrepreneurs as a first small step towards the long, but important, journey of catalyzing education entrepreneurship across the Arab world. We were very fortunate to receive over 800 applications to the competition. It was a very competitive field, with the most strong now with our expert judges for scoring.
Unfortunately, as much as we would’ve like to, we are simply unable to provide personalised feedback to all of the 800 applicants. As such, we tried to synthesize some of the key characteristics that made some applicants stand out more than others.
Here are five things that we consistently saw in the strongest applications -
One: they were purposefully responding to big education challenges and opportunities
Successful applicants were able to set out the nature and extent of the education challenge they were addressing using data and research, and then compellingly locate their response within that. It then became obvious why effectively addressing it mattered for the region’s future prosperity and well-being.
Two: they understood what makes for strong evidence of impact, and were appropriately modest about where they were in the evidence journey
Unfortunately, a much more common response was for applicants to equate business metrics (such as conversion or retention rates) with social impact (which for us is a change in what a learner knows, or can do.)
Frequently, the evidence provided was anecdotal, subjective, or really about satisfaction levels. It’s an inconvenient truth that a learner (or a parent) liking something does not mean that learning took place.
In our view, the implication is that the region needs to provide more well-designed support for education entrepreneurs around evidence generation. A good example of such a program is the EDUCATE programme in London.
Three: they understood the economics of their business, and how that translates at scale
The best applicants understood how their business generates cash flows that would allow them to sustain their work, and where their costs lie. They also knew how these would be affected as they scale.
Four: they had thought deeply about their scaling approach
Looking back at our notes, we realized that we had encountered a lot of great initiatives that were doing good in the world but had no path to scale (a clear requirement of the competition). For example, we are really pleased that the clubs, out-of-school workshops and summer camp experiences that are helping kids code, invent, make or learn English exist. They are all fulfilling a needed gap in the ecosystem.
However, the vast majority didn’t really have a thought through, let alone tested, way of scaling their impact. For example, they hadn’t really thought about how they could codify, franchise and quality assure their approach to allow others to deliver it.
To be clear, while the use of digital technology offers one response to the scaling question, there are others.
Five: there was an extraordinary team at the heart of the business
One of the surprising aspects of within many applications was just how little time and effort was spent describing the team behind the startup - and especially why they were well equipped to tackle that specific social challenge. On the other hand, with successful applicants the skills mix was outlined carefully in a way that made sense, and you could read into it a patient acquisition of what the business (and the learner) needed. Often, there was a substantial track record of relevant successes that made the reader confident that success at the next level of achievement was inevitable.
In conclusion, as you’d expect, we received some applications that simply did not meet the eligibility criteria. For example, they were primarily grant or philanthropy funded operations. If there was a commercial model, it wasn’t really core to their success.
We were also surprised that some obvious opportunities to improve learning didn’t show-up more. For instance, we would have expected to see more low-cost private school models, outcome focused kindergarten providers and scalable models of effective Teacher Professional Development. There is also the opportunity for more innovation in business models (e.g., payment by results models and income sharing agreements), and plenty of room for more uses of Artificial Intelligence technologies to improve outcomes (for example, by enabling new forms of assessment or providing intelligent support for teachers to help them better orchestrate learning).
We hope these reflections are helpful, and that they can help our applicants refine their thinking and their next pitch. Finally, we would just like to reiterate our humble gratitude to all the applicants that took the time to explain their work and why it matters.