Build it anyway:

Emerging thoughts on creating systemic change

Over the past 2–3 months, I’ve been nearly consumed with a very heavy question: are we doing enough at Amal Academy? Yes, our Career Prep Fellowship has helped over 90% of our fellows get quality jobs — increasing their family income by over 130% — but does the work we are doing fundamentally fix a problem in the education system (i.e. are we actually closing a gap or just building a bridge)?

Over the past few weeks, I had a chance to explore this with a number of entrepreneurs, mentors and friends I couldn’t respect more, and I’m learning how delicate this question really is. More specifically, I’m learning that fixating too much on disrupting the system might actually have a paralyzing effect. That maybe there is a delicate balance between focusing on systems change and just building something that might eventually have the chance of changing the system.

During a conversation with Jacqueline last week, she shared a story about when she was 3 years into Acumen, asking a lot of really hard and similar questions about if they were doing enough to change poverty. The response from her mentor, however, was much like the poem above: “build it anyway.” She told Jacqueline that once you have a platform, you can use it for anything. But until you have credibility, you don’t really have the voice you need.

And of course, J’s advice to us was very similar:

Once you have a platform, once you can say that I have trained 5,000 kids that all have jobs, have a character that they share, believe in lifelong learning and in changing Pakistan, then you have the credibility and influence. (Paraphrased)

She also shared the example of Wendy Kopp (Teach for America Founder/CEO), who gave an incredibly beautiful interview with Jacqueline earlier that morning:

Wendy has a platform.

And I’m not sure the US education system is even possible to change, in the short term.

But has she changed the world? There is no doubt in my mind. (Paraphrased)

In response, Chris Anderson shared something similar:

It’s a trap to go into the existential crisis of how do I change the system. It’s paralyzing and won’t allow you to go one way or the other… You’ve figured out something that makes a difference. Build on that. (Paraphrased)

Seth Godin and our friends at Mulago Foundation shared similar thoughts: focus on the change that you can bring about now and figure out how to accelerate systems change once you’ve built something beautiful and “kick ass.”

Will that be enough though? I still don’t know. But I’m also learning that perhaps that is the wrong question to ask. When I shared some of these thoughts with my dear friends Jawad and Bavidra, Bavidra responded by sharing an idea that was presented to his group of Acumen Fellows in India:

The question isn’t what problem do you want to solve, but how do you want to spend the next 40 years of your life.

Are you okay knowing that you won’t solve the problem, but, if you are successful, you are going to shift the needle in a meaningful way.

Or, in Jacqueline’s words, referencing Joannes Neper:

Perhaps we will not complete the work that we are here to do. That’s why it takes faith. That’s why it takes strength. That’s why it takes love.

Can the education system in Pakistan ever reach it’s full potential? I still believe that it can. Will Amal Academy be the one to do that? Fortunately, the answer is no: this will undoubtedly take a massive collaborative revolution, in which Amal can — lord willing — play a big role. In order to get there, however, we need to focus (for the time being) on building a platform that matters, that is self sustainable, and that can reach thousands of more people in our beloved community.

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @understory cofounder | nature novel in progress

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