Pitcairn Update, January 2016
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Jonathan Starr was the opening keynote speaker at the annual Pitcairn Family Wealth & Investment Forum in November 2015. Here is Jonathan’s story.
“Without education, there’s so little hope, but with education, everything can change.” That’s the experience of Jonathan Starr, a successful hedge fund manager who now serves as headmaster of the groundbreaking Abaarso School in Somaliland. “The UN considers Somaliland one of the most broken countries in the world and it has been that way for 25 years, “explains Mr. Starr, “but looking out 15 or 20 years from now, we see Abaarso alumni filling leadership roles throughout their country and one of our students will probably be president. This gives me hope.”
When Mr. Starr asked himself how he could make a contribution to the world, he realized he was in a fortunate position – he could put all options on the table. After visiting his uncle’s homeland, Somaliland, and seeing its struggles firsthand, he decided to move there and start a school.
Abaarso School’s early days were marked by accusations of corrupting children and flouting Islam. That all changed when Abaarso students began to be accepted in top US high schools and colleges, including Oberlin, Harvard and MIT. Parents wanted their children to have this opportunity.
Mr. Starr attributes the school’s success to a culture built on three principles – tenacity, reasoning, and integrity. “Tenacity is the motor that pushes you over obstacles, reasoning is the steering wheel and without integrity, everything else is meaningless,” explains Mr. Starr. “Our students spend double the normal time in school each day, are expected to do hours of studying and other work outside the classroom, and must quickly adapt to teachers who speak only English. That builds tenacity. But how could we instill integrity when students had never even been taught not to cheat? Abaarso School has strong punishments for cheating and incorporates discipline and integrity into all aspects of life. In addition, Abaarso students regularly tutor at nearby orphanages, helping kids even worse off than they are. Our students really learned the value of giving back when kids they worked with were later able to enroll in Abaarso.”
Though students in the Abaarso School pursue their own dreams whether that be teaching, medicine, engineering, or accounting, they share a common dream of coming back to be future leaders of their homeland. “Our whole movement is for students to study abroad and then help the country back home, because education is the best hope for Somaliland.”
Practical Advice for Creating ChangeNot everyone is in a position like Mr. Starr – having so many options to do something special in the world. However, for those who have means and motivation to bring about change, Mr. Starr offers a few practical suggestions from his own experiences.
- Determine whether what you want to do is actually possible. Before committing to a charitable operation, be sure the stated mission is achievable.
- Look at specific solutions. Recognize that a solution for a problem in inner city Philadelphia is not the same as the solution for that same problem in Somalia or even in rural areas of the US.
- Consider the assets and liabilities of the given situation. In Somalia, the education system was so completely broken that there was no way to make it work for students. The Abaarso School’s only option was to make students good enough to be accepted into American colleges.
- Be adaptive. It is extremely rare that the execution of a plan goes off exactly as intended. There will be failures. For example, Mr. Starr planned to take students from the local university and pair them with foreign teachers so the local teacher would eventually be able to take over classes. It didn’t work because the school’s ninth graders were soon equally or better educated than the apprentice teachers.
- Culture makes the difference whether it’s a non-profit, a corporation, or a philanthropic undertaking. Abaarso School’s culture of tenacity, reasoning, and integrity is integral to its success.