Zeina Saab is a Lebanese-American entrepreneur and infatigable connector with tremendous passion to empower underprivileged youth in the Arab world. The Nawaya network, which she founded in Beirut Lebanon, makes it happen by focusing on unlocking young people’s hidden potential and turning them into changemakers. From coding bootcamps to entrepreneurship programmes with refugees, gender focused workshops to ImpactLabs programmes in conflict areas, the Nawaya Network brings life to young people's vibrant aspirations. Read our interview with Zeina and grab a few tips along the way!
Ogunte: What do you do differently around young people’s talents?
Zeina Saab: We recognize that underprivileged youth often lack opportunities to flourish in life due to insurmountable obstacles that stand in their way. They lack mentors and people to guide them, they lack funding to take classes that could inspire them, and they are disconnected from important networks. This leaves them angry, frustrated, and vulnerable to engage in crime, violence, and drugs. For young women, some may drop out of school, or choose not to pursue higher education or a career, and may get married early and have many children, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Many development organizations offer various programs such as vocational training, but these are often uninspiring and lack quality training, thus youth either drop out or fail to find work after the training ends. There is no long-term impact.
What we are doing is we are asking young people: “what are you good at? What is your strength? What are you talented in? What are you passionate about?” And whatever they answer, we try to find them the resources they need in order to improve their skills or generate an income using that skill.
We have found that when youth are given the opportunity to pursue something they are passionate about, it changes everything. They become inspired, invigorated, and motivated, and have a renewed sense of purpose in life and greater self-confidence. Suddenly they become ambitious and start setting goals for themselves, and start to view themselves differently. This approach helps keep at-risk youth on the right track in life and keeps them from falling through the cracks.
Start small, stay focused, build on success stories
Ogunte: What do you know now that you wished you had known from the beginning?
Zeina Saab: I wish I had known to start really small rather than try to do too many things at once. I recall setting up Nawaya back in 2011 and 2012, and having so many exciting ideas, and trying to do them all. For example, our online platform was supposed to be this really easy-to-use tool to connect youth to resources, but there were so many options on the site that it was confusing to users and difficult for our very small team to manage, so we never really got to use the platform in the way we had envisioned.
In addition, we had different components of the NGO that we were trying to launch, one of which was our mentorship program, which in the US is an entire NGO on its own. We were trying to launch that as one program within our already small NGO. Upon doing that, we got sidetracked and started focusing on that rather than the core mission of Nawaya, which was talent development.
So – if I could go back and do it again, I would start really, really small, focus on our core mission, get success stories, and build off of that. But no regrets at all. I learned a lot over the past few years, and Nawaya is still here and stronger than ever, so I value those lessons as I am more capable of managing the NGO now that I experienced those challenges in the past.
Explore the value of having a co-founder
Ogunte: If you had to start all over again, what ideal conversation would you rather have with a mentor?
Zeina Saab: I would have liked to have a conversation with a mentor about the importance of having a co-founder. I began Nawaya on my own, without knowing what it would become and having to make decisions nearly entirely on my own. I would consult with close friends and family to get their thoughts but ultimately the decision was mine. Perhaps if I had a co-founder whom I could have tossed ideas back and forth with, we could have avoided certain mistakes or been more focused or effective earlier on. In addition, it would have been great to have someone who could complement my skillset, perhaps adding value in areas that I am not strong in and vice versa. Now, if an entrepreneur approaches me and asks for advice, this is always something I advise them on.
Ogunte: How do you close the gender gap in your day-to-day activities?
Zeina Saab: In our coding bootcamp program, we launched our pilot round in March with one female and eight male students. The female later dropped out for family reasons. We have begun recruiting students for our next round, and to our surprise, we are not only getting a much larger number of female applicants, but they are much stronger than the male applicants this time around. After seeing the low numbers of female applicants last time, we made sure to reach out to female networks and encourage them to spread the word to young female programmers. It takes a lot of effort but we know the talent exists within the female population but due to certain obstacles they do not always come forward. Similarly in our entrepreneurship program with refugees, we recognize that some girls may be discouraged from enrolling in our training. As a result, our social workers make it a point to speak with their parents and husbands and try to understand their concerns. We have catered our program to ensure they enroll – for example we have based our training in their neighborhoods so there is no transportation issue, and also are open to creating a morning session for girls only. We figure that if they could at least attend our training, they could become empowered and we could discuss gender issues with them and hope that they emerge more confident and more determined to address their disempowerment at home. With our training program, women earn a daily stipend and have the chance to start their own small enterprise, so in this way they become more valued and respected members of their household and as a result perspectives towards them could end up changing with time.
Ogunte: How is your eagerness to be involved as a social entrepreneur stem from what happened in your early years?
Zeina Saab: I never imagined I would start my own NGO or become a social entrepreneur. My dream was always to work with the UN. Fortunately, I got to do that. I was a consultant for the UNFPA here in Lebanon whereby I had to visit a number of villages throughout the country and assess the impact of a gender empowerment program on its beneficiaries. I enjoyed my time interacting with the women from all parts of Lebanon, but then I felt that I had gained enough insight and wanted to experience something new. So I decided I wanted to see what happens on the other side, at HQ. So I was able to get a consultancy with UNFPA in New York in 2010, and worked on youth empowerment there for one year. Except that I wasn’t happy. Within just a few months, I got to be really bored and uninspired. The work I was doing was not stimulating and I felt extremely disconnected from the field. I also began to question the effectiveness of our work while seeing so much money being poured into workshops and conferences and publications.
I became disillusioned and felt that I could no longer be satisfied wasting away in a cubicle from 9am – 5pm while I was still at my prime in my mid-20. I still recall working on a proposal/concept note for Nawaya while sitting at my desk at the UN and remembering how excited I was to be working on something of my own. So a few months later I packed up and headed back to Lebanon to start Nawaya, and I have never been happier.
Ogunte: Do you have a couple of success stories your own people have experienced through Nawaya, that we can share with our audience?
Zeina Saab: My favorite success story recently came full circle. In 2009, I randomly met a 14-year-old girl in a village in Lebanon, She showed me beautiful sketches of dresses she had drawn, and I knew that with the right support, she could become an amazing fashion designer… And that’s how The Nawaya Network began. In 2012, after establishing the NGO, we went back to find her, to tell her that an NGO now existed because of her, and offered to enroll her in a fashion academy. She began at Creative Space Beirut, and one year later, enrolled at CAMM Fashion Academy.
For the past four years, her skills have flourished. Every sketch she made was more incredible than the one before. Not only have her fashion skills blossomed, but she has grown into such an independent, responsible, and professional young lady.
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