The First Blended School in Egypt - Interview with Seif Abu Zeid

Nafez Dakkak

Seif is the CEO of Mavericks, “the first blended school in Egypt” and sat down with the team at QRF to share his story and lessons learned for other education entrepreneurs

Please note that the interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

QRF: Thank you for being here with us. We are excited to learn about your journey. Can you tell us about yourself.

SA: I started my education in political science with a strong interest in empowerment - which was effectively my gateway to education. Early in my career I founded a company focused on skill development and training. The startup failed but I learned a lot and moved to Cisco Systems to work as an account executive focused on education clients. In late 2011, I was inspired like many youth to give back to the community and worked as part of a team to launch Tahrir Academy as one of the first digital learning platform for Egyptian youth. Due to different circumstances we had to wind down Tahrir Academy in 2015; however, the experience left me inspired and energized to continue my pursuit of empowering others. I enrolled in an education policy masters at the American University of Cairo. It’s during my graduate studies that I got inspired to launch Mavericks as the first blended learning school in  Egypt. My co-founders and I wanted Mavericks to be built on the philosophy of respecting the uniqueness of each child - or as is more popularly known as “personalized learning”.

QRF: Please tell us more about Mavericks. What makes the school special?

SA: Mavericks is a school management company with a unique philosophy and a comprehensive model. There are many factors that make Mavericks special. First off, we avoid the “cookie-cutter” approach in education which is based on the belief that all kids are the same. We believe that education needs to respect the individual differences between students. We want learners to achieve the same learning outcomes but recognize that they might take different paths to get there. Second, we are heavily focused on personalizing learning of English and Math - realizing that these are key pain points for parents in Egypt. Third, we have a school culture built on empowering teachers. Fourth, we are strong believers in project based learning and employ it regularly throughout the curriculum. Finally, we have our own in-house LMS inspired by other global providers like Alt School and Summit Public Schools.

QRF: That is a great overview of what makes Mavericks tick. It seems like you’ve spent a lot of time planning this journey. Lately, there have been a lot of discussions about if education as an industry is unique requiring a completely different approach than other sectors (where for example technology has been fundamentally disruptive). From your perspective, are education startups different?

SA: Education startups are fundamentally different than those in other sectors. The fascination with rapid scale - and associated hockey stick graphs - doesn’t  translate well in education. Your end users are learners - and in many cases at a critical stage in their life. You need to follow a more patient model that’s focused on R&D, followed by breakthroughs. The drug development industry is a good parallel. An important lesson for education entrepreneurs is that education consumers (and the larger ecosystem) are characteristically more risk-averse. People that embrace change in almost all aspects of their life, prefer to stick to “what already works” when it comes to their learning or especially that of their change. I believe this is why incremental change is still a big part of education entrepreneurship.

QRF: That is a very interesting perspective and the analogy to drug discovery is particularly salient. To follow up on that point, what do you think is the best way for education entrepreneurs to find product-market fit?

SA: I’m all for lean methodologies when it’s possible, but as discussed you are more often than not dealing with children as an education entrepreneur. Furthermore, education is a very complex process, so it’s important to underscore the value of experience and learning from educators in the field. There are two models I would suggest for validating product-market-fit in education:

  • Prototype your offering within a less risky environment or model e.g. test a blended or personalized learning approach in after-school programs that aren’t high-stakes.

  • Focus on the “must-haves” first, those where you know there is a high-demand in the market. There is acknowledged risk here around lack of differentiation.

QRF: We really appreciate your time with us today. We have one last question for you. Most education entrepreneurs enter the space with the goal of creating a positive impact in addition to healthy returns. How do you balance mission and profit at Mavericks?

SA: To be completely frank, it’s hard to create that balance. We haven’t really been able to fully crack it yet. Critically, it’s very hard to find impact-driven investors in the Arab region. Also investors don’t particularly understand the education space. You need to spend time educating both consumers and investors. There are also structural factors that need a long-term investment time-horizon to change. At present, the cost of education increases linearly as a child grows. However, if your goal is to create self-driven lifelong learners it should actually decrease with time. You invest in early years education to give them the right skills and mindset and reap the educational and financial rewards later on (e.g. in lower cost per student). Self-directed learners should be easier and cheaper to educate.We are actually fortunate to be working with corporate investors who have been in the industry for almost 30 years and this has helped us on countless fronts with this challenge.

As I said, we haven’t fully cracked it yet, but are confident that we will get there eventually.

QRF: What recommendations or thoughts do you have for improving the state of educational innovation and entrepreneurship in the MENA region?  

SA: That is a very interesting question and probably requires a book to address! However, if I was going to try to keep it brief, I’d make three suggestions. First, as discussed we know that the learning process is complicated and that is difficult to change “the system”. As such, we need “innovation zones” with their own legal frameworks so we can experiment more easily. A practical example here is the outdated Egyptian legislation around the specific dimensions of class sizes. These measurements assume a very traditional classroom where students are facing the teacher (and hence cannot be to far away). We run a blended learning model that doesn’t fit within such a rigid framework.

Second, I believe it’s critical for the public sector to see itself as an enabler and facilitator as opposed to an executioner.  Finally, we need special funding mechanisms for creative solutions.

QRF: Thank you Seif for your time. It was a pleasure speaking to you. We learned a lot and are confident other entrepreneurs will find this insightful.

SA: Pleasure was all mine. Thank you for your interest in the Mavericks journey.