Story & Purpose

Fostering Excellence in the Arab World—and Beyond

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When you think of a role model, who do you think of? For many youth in the MENA region, they struggle to picture positive role models that reflect their own backgrounds and culture—leaving some of them isolated, alienated, and vulnerable to criminal and extremist recruitment. That’s one of the reasons why, two years ago, Hamza Chraibi founded Arab Excellence. Here, Mr. Chraibi, founder and current president of Arab Excellence, describes the inspiration, development, and future trajectory of the organization’s skills-based empowerment programming for youth in the Arab world and beyond.

I grew up in Morocco, and I was very confident about my country, my culture, about the Arab culture in general. When I went to Europe to complete my studies, though, I realized that many people in other countries had other conceptions about the region. Due to what’s happening in the region, many confuse Arab with Islam, and Islam with terrorism, and it really bothered me on a personal level.

“This younger generation has lost hope and don’t believe in the system anymore.”

Meanwhile, when I was back home, my mom—who was a teacher at a school for underprivileged kids—used to tell me that the kids don’t want to come to school anymore, they don’t believe in the system. And it’s not something only in Morocco, it’s something quite global. This younger generation has lost hope and doesn’t believe in this system anymore. They think that if they are born in an underprivileged area, they won’t be able to achieve any kind of excellence. In order to achieve excellence and become successful, they assume, you need to be privileged and go abroad.

In the first year, I ended up meeting amazing achievers from the region who started from scratch—entrepreneurs, thinkers, CEOs, artists. Some were very famous, some were not. Quickly I realized two things: the role models really valued such an initiative, and they believed that this could create a movement in the region for the youth. The second thing is that when I started testing this approach and doing some events and workshops for the underprivileged youth, I realized that these messages of positive role models and hope had an impact on the students. But I didn’t know how to make it concrete.

I was joined by a team of great leaders and experts from different backgrounds to build this common vision. We spent many months thinking and interviewing various people and groups to figure out how to bring Arab Excellence from an inspirational project into real empowerment. How could we leverage these powers of positive role models and actually have a concrete impact on the life of the youth, in terms of education and employment? We looked at many new programs in California, South Korea, India, and Norway, among others, but there was no existing model based on role models in another country. With TED for example, you go to TED talk, you listen, and you get inspired, but it’s only inspiration. On the other hand, many groups deliver concrete empowerment through skills-based training, but they lack this inspirational and role-modeling element that gives a real push.

“We found that universities had a need for programming that bridged this gap between inspiration and empowerment—so we decided to create it.”

Meanwhile, while talking to and assessing specific schools, universities, and educational institutions, we found that these institutions had a need for programming that bridged this gap between inspiration and empowerment—so we decided to create it. First, it was leadership-focused, leveraging in an explicit way the stories of positive role models that have made it before, to help students first get some confidence and believe in themselves. The second step was to deliver specific tools to help students go from their dream to an action plan—to make it happen with specific tools like diagnostics, mind maps, road maps, and so on. Based on this formula, we did a bootcamp for the students of INSEAD as well for students in public schools in Morocco.

The results were mind-blowing. We saw the students going from “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life” to “This is exactly what I’m going do, this is how I’m going achieve it, this is my vision, this is my plan.” Using role models can have a huge impact on the new generation. Now we’re working with other universities, high schools, and educators to build programs for them. The programs include skill sessions—emotional skills, communication skills, networking skills—as well as mentorship. We’ve been replicating these programs for different groups, especially for the underprivileged schools that need it very much.

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“We focus more on the story and the journey rather than the end point… When we show them that there are people who grew up in a desert, or a slum, who managed to make it, then young people open up their eyes and they start believing in themselves.”

Now Arab Excellence is becoming a real movement that includes international private companies, universities, schools, foundations, and role models as well as governments. It is going to take time, but I believe that we need to involve a whole ecosystem to be able to impact in a large scale.