Benje Williams, MBA ’13: Teaching Skills to Break the Cycle of Poverty in Pakistan

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Benje Williams, MBA ’13: Teaching Skills to Break the Cycle of Poverty in Pakistan

Conferring personal and professional polish with quality training, the 2013 Social Innovation Fellow’s Amal Academy gets students ready for careers.
July 17, 2013
Change wall at Stanford GSB

The educational system in Pakistan focuses on rote memorization and offers little to no training in professional and soft skills, meaning that students are leaving high school and college ill-equipped to meet the demands of the professional world.

This skills gap affects both aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be employees, and contributes to a youth underemployment and unemployment rate estimated to be as high as 35 percent. Thus the country’s educational deficits are perpetuating a cycle of poverty that affects millions of people.

Benje Williams, MBA ’13, has teamed with Kunal Chawla, MA ’13, to form Amal Academy in an effort to bridge the gap between the educational system and the needs of the job market in Pakistan. As one of the country’s first professional-skills enterprises, Amal is leveraging technology to help the disadvantaged find quality employment by providing training in communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, etiquette, and professionalism. The enterprise uses innovative pedagogy, quality teachers, and peer-to-peer and activity-based learning, hoping to achieve unprecedented impact and scale.

The Problem

Securing a quality job is one of the most powerful ways to alleviate poverty, especially for people in developing countries. In Pakistan, in particular, youth unemployment and underemployment is considered to be a major problem threatening the country. As much as 80 percent of the labor force resorts to working in “unofficial” jobs for which low wages, harsh working conditions, unreliable employment, and lack of health benefits are the norm.

Benje Williams, MBA ’13, 2013 Social Innovation Fellow

One major cause of underemployment in Pakistan is a substandard educational system. Half of Pakistani students drop out by the fifth grade, and only 5 percent of youths are educated beyond the high school level. Many parents pull their children out of school because they don’t believe education will lead anywhere.

Indeed, many of those who graduate from legitimate schools are woefully ill-prepared to meet the demands of the workplace. According to Williams, pedagogy based on rote memorization and learning from textbooks — rather than on developing critical thinking and interpersonal skills and providing practical tools — is at the root of the issue.

The Novel Idea

Nonprofit Amal Academy provides the training fundamental to a quality career, addressing the issues of substandard pedagogy and dropout rates and helping students at low-income institutions realize their professional dreams. The organization’s flagship offering is a three-month, 100-hour course in business and life skills, which runs as an after-school program in high schools and as an integrated class in universities.

Leveraging relevant curricula from organizations such as Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Initiative, Educate! in East Africa, and others, Amal’s program incorporates innovative pedagogy, including video-based lectures (which eventually will be viewable on mobile phones); activity-based learning, such as in-classroom exercises and role-playing; peer-to-peer learning activities; and experiences outside the classroom. Quality content is supported by the recruitment and training of top-quality teachers.

“Amal provides a new type of learning experience in Pakistan, which will result in students who are far more capable of meeting the demands of the job market, and thus more likely to be hired,” says Williams.

Our goal is to cultivate youths in Pakistan who are no longer vulnerable to the hopelessness and despair of under- and unemployment.
Benje Williams

The organization is working directly with universities and reputable nongovernmental-organization schools in Lahore, Pakistan, to integrate the course into high schools and colleges. Amal has also been working with large corporations to place program graduates there and provide training for their internal staffs. Williams and Chawla plan to eventually include entrepreneurship training in their offerings, in order to help catalyze job creation. If they are successful, they will have trained over half a million Pakistani youths within 10 years.

Amal, an Urdu word that means “action,” is a name inspired by famous Pakistani poet Muhammad Iqbal, who wrote, “The world is not something to be merely seen or known through concepts, but something to be made and remade by continuous action.”

Applying this philosophy to the academy, Williams says, “Our goal is to cultivate youths in Pakistan who are no longer vulnerable to the hopelessness and despair of under- and unemployment, but who are hopeful for tomorrow, equipped with the skills that will enable them to act upon their professional dreams and become the future leaders and creators of their communities.”

The Innovator

The drive to serve and give back has been embedded in Benje Williams since childhood. The second child of a European American mother and an African American physician father, he soon had eight more siblings –– all brought into the family from California’s adoption system.

“My parents felt that they had a responsibility to make a difference in the world and that adopting kids into their family was perhaps how they could most profoundly do that,” says Williams.

Williams searched throughout his adolescence for ways to make his own contribution. When his father took him to Kenya while he was an undergraduate business administration major at University of California, Berkeley, he began to find his path.

“Going to slum communities throughout Nairobi, I spoke with many people my age who had business ideas. Most of them were practical and relatively straightforward to implement, but I felt like they would likely remain just dreams unless these young folks could get a small amount of support,” Williams says.

The idea of helping youths in developing countries bring their career aspirations to fruition began to take root.

Williams’ journey eventually led him back to Kenya, where he worked with one of his best friends to help locals in Nairobi’s Mathare slums build and take ownership of an educational information technology resource center designed to economically empower the local community. He also lived in Pakistan for a year, working with Acumen Fund as a Global Fellow. Responsible for hiring and training marketing officers at a social enterprise in Lahore, he saw firsthand the gap between workforce preparation and business needs. Williams also worked with Acumen as a consultant and intern in India, Kenya, and New York; consulted for nonprofits and banks at PricewaterhouseCoopers; and worked on development projects for Dalberg Global Development Advisors in South Africa and for TechnoServe in Kenya.

Looking to develop ideas, resources, and a team in order to become a social entrepreneur in developing countries, Williams enrolled in the MBA program at Stanford GSB. While there, he met Chawla, an MA student at the Graduate School of Education. Chawla had taught sixth-grade science in India, helped build Google’s online education platform, and worked at an Acumen-funded education social enterprise in India.

“We realized how closely aligned our passions and values were, and decided to work on a project together,” says Williams.

Moving into the space of providing soft skills for employment seemed a natural fit for the two entrepreneurs. Although Pakistan’s educational and economic problems are huge and systemic, Williams and Chawla are confident that Amal Academy will make a difference.

“I used to be intimidated and almost frozen by the scope of the issue, but, as a mentor of mine says, it’s important to just start somewhere and let the work teach you,” Williams says. “Perfection is the enemy of progress. You just have to jump in and do it.”

Benje Williams received an MBA from Stanford GSB in 2013. That year, he was awarded Stanford GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship, which provides up to $180,000 in funding, along with advising and support, to graduating students who want to start a nonprofit venture that addresses a pressing social or environmental need during the year after graduation.

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