Building the School of the Future in the UAE - Interview with Dr. Saleh AlHashemi

Nafez Dakkak

Dr. Saleh AlHashemi serves as CEO of Algorythma and Managing Director of Krypto Labs. Prior to this role, Dr. Saleh was the CEO of Alef Education in Abu Dhabi for almost 2 years where he leads a team of more than 300 leading technology and education experts that continue to pioneer a new model for education going forward. Alef Education also recently launched a collaboration with the widely-known Harlem Children’s Zone in the United States focused on closing the achievement gap between poor children and their more financially well-off peers.

Dr. AlHashemi sat down with QRF for a short interview to share the lessons learnt from his wide-ranging journey and why he believes Alef Education has been able to make progress where others have not. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

QRF: Thank you Dr. Saleh for your time with us today. Perhaps you can start with telling us about the exciting work you are doing at Algorythma and how that led to the launch of Alef Education?

SA: I’ve built my career on asking the question “how can we do more with the constraints we have?” - trying to always push the boundaries and limits we are facing. Algorythma is an embodiment of an attempt to answer that question. It is a warehouse for products and ideas that have to fit at least one specific criteria: touching over 1 billion lives. We spend a lot of time on ideation and research to ensure that we understand the problem clearly and in a structured manner. We believe that phase is very important as it helps us better understand the pain points from which we can unleash the necessary innovation. We effectively come up with the idea first and then build the team around it.

Alef Education is actually the result of one of these ideation exercises that started over 3 years ago. We started very small - with only 8 students - because we wanted to make sure we took a human-centered design approach that allowed us to really understand the pain points. We grew from there to 1 school and finally to the 15 schools we are serving today.

 

QRF: What do you think Alef Education does differently?

SA: It’s important to realize that education hasn’t really been touched by technology yet. We are starting to see some promising efforts - but there isn’t the fundamental transformation you see in the other sectors. I realize that might sound like common knowledge - but I don’t believe it’s repeated enough or at least internalized. It’s also important to state the obvious again and say that you can learn without technology. The main problem statement that technology helps you answer is how do you ensure everybody within a fragmented system gets access to a good education that prepares them for the 21st century? How do you do that when you do not have a good supply of teachers in most education systems around the world?

At Alef Education, we started with the science of learning and the fundamentals of neuroscience - a starting place that many educational reformers forget about. We then did whatever it took to integrate these lessons into our product. With Alef Education, we really tried to create a user-friendly platform that ensures students remain engaged, while ensuring that the solution provides a comprehensive measure of educational attainment in the classroom. We’ve then iterated on that to make sure the experience is scalable.

 

QRF: It’s not often that Western education systems adopt educational innovations - at least not in modern and recent times. How have you managed to get the Harlem Children’s Zone to use your product?

SA: It was a fairly simple process - as is often the case when two organizations are mission-aligned. We were very honest and transparent with the Harlem Children’s Zone’s leadership team on the problem we were trying to solve with Alef Education and how we believed it could help them get closer to their goal of “bridging the gap”. Essentially, we took account of all relevant stakeholders and were very transparent with them.

 

QRF: With our competition, we are trying to encourage more regional education entrepreneurship. In that vein, we are trying to understand if education startups face unique challenges, and how best they should balance between profit and mission?

SA: In my mind, when it comes to the basics (team, product, marketing, operations) startups are startups at the end of the day. You cannot ignore the fundamentals - and you do that at your own peril as an entrepreneur or investor. An education startup without a strong offering and the right team cannot succeed like any other startup. However, I do believe that especially in our region, education startups need to be more patient as it takes longer to validate your product market fit and often longer than other sectors to raise the needed funds.

Finally, when it comes to balancing profit and mission, I’m a firm believer that regardless of the sector you are in, profit should be a by-product. If you find yourself prioritizing profit over serving your customers, you should know that your tenure is short-lived.

 

QRF: It’s great to end on a note that emphasizes the importance of being mission driven. Thank you Dr. Saleh for your time with us. We wish you and Alef Education great success.