Karim Abouelnaga is an ivy-league educated, inner-city public school graduate. He received over $300,000 in scholarships to make his education possible. He Founded Practice Makes Perfect, writes for Entrepreneur, is an Echoing Green Fellow and Global Shaper, and at 23 was named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in Education.
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Worst Entrepreneur moment
- Karim hired a FULL-TIME employee for his company that never received the necessary funding. He let down a person who trusted in him completely, and it crushed his Entrepreneurial soul.
Entrepreneur AH-HA Moment
- Karim had a 55% graduation rate at his High School. Horrendous. THESE are the opportunities to be on the lookout for, Fire Nation!
What has you FIRED up?
- The MASSIVE market in summer school – it’s a billion dollar industry.
Small Business Resource
- Sparknotes: Study guides and discussion forums offered on various academic subjects. Literature section includes brief analyses of characters, themes and plots.
- Asana: Run your day, your team, and your company with Asana—from everywhere you work.
Best Business Book
- The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist
- Practice Makes Perfect: Practice Makes Perfect is a summer enrichment program with a proven near-peer model that supports students in grades K-8.
- Karim’s email
Karim Abouelnaga: Let’s make it happen.
John: Yes. Karim is an Ivy League educated inner city public school graduate. He received over $300,000.00 in scholarships to make his education possible. He founded Practice Makes Perfect, writes for Entrepreneur and is an echoing green fellow in Global Shaper and at 23 was named a Forbes 30 under 30 list in education. Karim, take a minute and share with Fire Nation what’s going on in your world right now.
Karim Abouelnaga: Well, John, I’m spending most of my time actually building a national summer school replacement model. So I learned about the achievement gap when I first got to college, didn’t really know what it was. There was a scholarship tied to it and so I did my research and learned a lot about the disparities that were affecting low income kids who grew up in situations like me. I was a rugged individualist growing up and sort of thought that kids who worked harder were the ones who were gonna make it. And the ones who didn’t were the ones who weren’t.
And then I started learning about all of this research and knowledge out there and realized that there were some things that prevented kids from succeeding. Within the achievement gap there’s probably 1,000 reasons why it existed but research showed that two-thirds of this 500 billion dollar problem can be directly attributed to unequal summer learning opportunities. And our summer school system is broken so we’re redesigning it and building it to make it more fun, exciting and engaging for kids to ultimately narrow the achievement gap.
John: Man, I love it. I mean, let’s be honest. There’s a lot of things that are broken in the education world. There’s also a lot of things that are amazing about the education world. Just like in everything in life there’s pros and cons. But it’s awesome, Karim, to see someone like yourself with the energy, the youth, the experience, all combined to be doing something really cool. And we’re gonna dive more into that on Fire Nation because Karim has quite the journey to share despite not being some 60, 70-year-old entrepreneur.
And to kinda get to know Karim a little bit better, we’re gonna dive right into what I love calling the one-minute mindset where, Karim, I’m gonna ask you five questions. They’re gonna be five insights into your mind, my Friend, to really share with Fire Nation what makes you you. Take about a minuteish to answer these questions, the first one being ideally, what do the first 80 minutes of your day look like?
Karim Abouelnaga: For me I jump into the gym and I have my toughest, hardest workouts in the mornings. I’m also a triathlete. I love the Sprint Distance Triathlons. I actually got into it to start fundraising for my organization but have now been in this routine where I hit the gym and I push myself to my physical limits. And it makes the mental challenges throughout the day a lot easier to bear when you know you’ve gotten the hardest part out of the way.
John: I’m all about that. I mean, the first thing I do on Fire Nation – you know this – I don’t shy away from sharing my morning power walk. It’s been a ritual of mine for some time now. And it’s just – it’s important. It gets that oxygen in the body to get that blood flowing. And Karim, I mean, you do it. So many successful entrepreneurs, that’s one of the first things that they do. But despite that, what would you say your biggest weakness as an entrepreneur is?
Karim Abouelnaga: I’m a first-time entrepreneur and I make some mistakes that sometimes I wish I didn’t make. If you’re a second time entrepreneur, sometimes you have that hindsight. I spent some time in financial services in undergrad and people asked me if that experience was really relevant? And I remember thinking back to what the challenges were to being a successful entrepreneur, and it’s things like attracting top talent, raising money, being able to pitch and sell an idea.
And honestly, a lot of those things you don’t learn until you’re actually doing them. And so being 23 and running a company for the first time, I would say, definitely not having experience on my side would be my biggest weakness.
John: Yeah. In the Army, we call that on-the-job training. I remember getting to my first duty assignment and them just pointing at a tank and saying, “Lieutenant, jump on and figure out how to drive that thing.” And I’m like, “Are you serious?” Karim, what is your biggest strength as an entrepreneur?
Karim Abouelnaga: I think also coming with my age I’m not afraid to ask for help. And I’m also not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. I think one of the things that I’ve done really well is I write about the challenges and the triumphs in my work.
Oftentimes, they’ll see that other entrepreneurs are struggling with something or they have a challenge or they’ve had a failure. And they don’t share it. And it winds up sitting on them and they carry that weight for a really long time until they have no other option but to share it. I’m very proactive when a mistake is made or a failure happens. And I put it out there. I put it in writing. I share it with my investors. I share it with my board members. I share it with my team.
And it allows me to lift that weight off my back and allow me to focus on fixing those mistakes or the setbacks that we’ve sort of had, so pretty much allowing me to get rid of those tough things. And it allows me to focus on improving them.
John: Carrying that weight. Fire Nation, I love that phrase. I really hope you picked up on that because that’s what we do when we keep things inside. We carry that weight with us. And that’s all taking up our bandwidth. That’s clogging up our mind and our bandwidth by just keeping all that inside. But if you share it, if you put it out there in the universe, No. 1, it’s just liberating. It’s freeing. But No. 2, it’s insane to think and it’s crazy to see what gets attracted to you in the form of solutions when you do that.
Now, Karim, you have some good habits, even at 23 years old. I remember some bad habits that I had for sure, but what’s a habit that you wish you had?
Karim Abouelnaga: Honestly, I wish I did a better job staying in touch with some of my friends. I think time becomes one of those precious things that you wind up sometimes underestimating how much of it you have. And then, for me it’s just been falling out of touch with a lot of people who I thought I was really good friends with in college and even in high school. So if there was one thing I can build into my daily schedule it would be checking in with one or two people and allow me to be better intact with everyone else that I would talk to.
John: Yeah. And sometimes it’s just small steps. I mean, it’s just having that repeating calendar where it says, “Reach out to one friend today and just say hi.” And it takes you a couple minutes and you make that happen. And that can really just be the start of a habit, as Charles Duhigg says, that kind of consistency can turn into a habit that can really pay big dividends down the line.
Now, Karim, you have a lot of things going on right now that we’re going to be talking about coming up in the future of this interview. But what’s one thing that has you most fired up right now?
Karim Abouelnaga: So about a month ago I did the math behind the problem that we’re sort of solving, so they say it’s this 300 billion dollar problem. Summer’s about 200 billion dollars of a piece of it. On a city-by-city basis, we’re significantly underinvesting in summer. And it’s because the summer school systems are broken.
New York City, for example, is spending about 45 million dollars a year. We should be spending closer to 1.4 billion dollars per year, just given the number of students that need to be put in summer programming or get some sort of summer enrichment. The reality is that we’re not gonna raise that money philanthropically every single year. So from that perspective, it’s shown me that philanthropy isn’t the answer to the problems that we’re addressing.
But that number is about 5 percent of a 26 billion dollar education budget, so really showing that there is a new system in place that works. And the design actually drives outcomes will allow us to one day change culture and behavior to solve this problem. And literally, when you’re talking about a large part of the achievement gap here in terms of building a new system, we’re at the forefront of that. And that, to me, has me going knowing that in a couple of years we could actually put an end to such a large part of the problem that we’re facing in public education.
John: I love how you ran the numbers. Fire Nation, take a step back. Put some time in your calendar to block off and to actually look at your industry, your niche, your thing as a whole and run your own numbers. Get excited about that because it’s really cool to see that big picture and to see that small piece of the pie that you currently have but what that pie looks like. And that helps you going forward.
So great advice, Karim. Excited for you, my Friends. And now we’re gonna move into what I call the story phase because, Karim, I want to get to know you more as an entrepreneur. Now, you’ve had a journey as an entrepreneur, shorter than some, longer than others. But I want you to take us to what you would consider your worst entrepreneurial moment. Karim, I want to be there with you in this moment in time. Tell us that story.
Karim Abouelnaga: So I gave this a lot of thought because, as any entrepreneur knows, you have several setbacks and several failures. I want to say my worst moment had to have been right after I graduated. A, there was poor planning in that I had a full time offer that I turned down. And I was thinking about different companies that I could potentially be working for.
And when I ultimately decided that I was gonna not take the offer, I sort of jumped off, graduated. We didn’t have any money in the bank account. I was thinking about it as an option to sort of work full time or not. My whole thinking at the time was we’re gonna run another great summer program. We’re gonna get in the New York Times. And then, people are just gonna start throwing money at us.
It didn’t happen that way and then ultimately had a very positive meeting with a foundation. They were saying that I should be cautiously optimistic after the ask. I ultimately decided to take the full time offer that they had made in terms of hiring someone and that cautiously optimistic remark turned out to pan out in a negative manner. So I hired someone, gave them a full time salary and then the foundation didn’t come through with a full commitment. And when I say my stomach turned inside out, it literally turned inside out in that moment.
That was probably one of my worst experiences in terms of thinking about how things couldn’t get any better or worse in that moment. Now I’ve officially hired my first person. They’re relying on us for their living.
And I think that puts an extra burden on you when you’re trying to build a business and things aren’t as great as they could have been when you’re starting. So that extra pressure, it definitely made it one of those really bad decisions. And I knew going forward that I needed better commitments and that a cautiously optimistic may not necessarily pan out all the time.
So yeah, I mean, it’s one of those moments where you grow up really quickly knowing that now you’re no longer just responsible for your payroll but someone else’s. And you can’t take a halfhearted commitment as a full commitment and then get someone else to put their entire job or livelihood on the line for it. So when you talk about turning up the pressure it was in that moment. Luckily for us, there were a few conversations that happened after that sort of made the situation a lot better. And I learned a lot from that experience alone.
So talk about being out of school, not knowing what you’re doing, making a commitment to someone else based on a halfhearted commitment you got from someone else and then having them rely on you was definitely one of the most difficult moments I’ve had as an entrepreneur.
John: Fire Nation, you know why we love telling the story of the worst entrepreneurial moment because you’re listening to Karim. He’s energetic. He’s smart. He has great things going on. And we’re like, man, is this guy – does just everything he touch turn to gold? And that’s never the case for any entrepreneur, no matter what it seems like from the outside looking in or no matter what it looks like when you’re looking at their current story.
So Karim, thanks for sharing that because I know for Fire Nation it’s big for us, the listeners, to hear that, man, did you ever struggle. Man, was that a horrible moment. But guess what? You could have quit. You could have never started that back up again. You could have just gone and lost yourself in corporate America, become another number that made a couple hundred thousand dollars a year and lived a quote, unquote nice life.
But you didn’t. You knew there was something bigger. You knew there was something better. And you’re making a dent in this world. And Fire Nation, that dent can still happen after even a moment like that, even after a massive failure.
And Karim, I want you to tell another story. This one’s gonna be focused on an aha moment, an epiphany, a lightbulb that you’ve had at some point in your journey. Karim, you have a lot of these moments coming up. You’ve already had a lot of these aha moments. But what’s one that you think will resonate with Fire Nation? Take us to that moment in time and tell us that story.
Karim Abouelnaga: Well, I guess I’ll also go back to senior year of college with this. I decided that I was gonna turn down my full time offers, but again, like wasn’t 100 percent sure if this was what I was supposed to be doing. And I remember thinking about the industry that I was in in Education but then also looking at the landscape. And I looked at the backgrounds of some of our most admirable Education reformers, people like Wendy Cop, Arnie Duncan, Diane Ravage and was like wow, these are all some really incredible people.
Because when you’re running something in Education everyone’s always gonna ask you why not someone else? Right? Or why are you the right person to be doing this? And I had to come to terms with what the answer was to that question.
And honestly, after looking at all of their backgrounds, realized that despite the fact that they were running these educational initiatives and leading some of the biggest education reform initiatives in our country, not one of them had ever been to or through an inner city public school. One of the largest at risk populations within education and none of the people who had gone through – to or through those school systems had been the ones driving the change in that area.
And I remember thinking to myself that my upbringing in many ways had been a blessing in disguise. Right? I went to a really crappy high school, had a 55 percent graduation rate. Most of the kids who went to my high school didn’t graduate or when they did graduate they didn’t go on to four-year schools and in that moment realized that having had that firsthand experience was gonna differentiate me because I’d also been blessed with this elite education now and can articulate a lot of the systemic issues I saw.
So much of the education reform up until that point had been driven from a sympathetic perspective. Let’s go help these poor black and Latino kids instead of an empathetic one where we sort of say, “I understand what they’re going through and I know the potential that they have. And let’s go drive that out.”
So in that moment felt like if nothing else I could add a unique perspective to the discussion around education reform. And I knew that what I was doing with my education non-profit was my calling. And I was gonna use that as a stepping stone to be able to create larger change.
John: Fire Nation, look for those voids in your life. Look for those pain points that people are having around you that you know because you’re living it or you’re seeing it firsthand. I mean, a 55 percent graduation rate is horrendous. And Karim saw that, and he said, “Man, there is a massive need for change here. Somebody needs to affect that change.” And to steel a quote from Gandhi, Fire Nation, why not be that change that you want to see in the world.
Now, Karim, turn this to our listeners, Fire Nation, who are entrepreneurs, wantrepreneurs, small business owners, what’s a clear lesson that you learned from this experience that you want to just translate for our listeners? What do you want our listeners, Fire Nation, to take away?
Karim Abouelnaga: So whenever someone asks me whether or not they should be starting a company or they should be working on their next thing, I always tell them to ask themselves these six questions. It’s really three questions, but the variation on it makes it six. Why are you the right person to be doing this? Why is this important? And then why is this important to you?
And then ask yourself those same three questions with the ending of now. So why are you the right person to be doing this now? Why is this important now? And then, why is this important to you right now? There is no right or wrong answer to any of those questions, which is something I thought about for a really long time. But if you’re able to answer those questions for yourself and come to terms with the outcomes, you’re gonna speak with greater conviction. And conviction is what separates whether or not you’re actually able to commute – to effectively sell your idea or sell your preposition to someone.
And ultimately, you need to have that level of conviction and the only way you’re gonna get to that is by being very thoughtful about answering those questions for yourself and knowing what the answers to those questions are.
Others will doubt you. And it’s your job to remove that doubt when you’re asking them for support or you’re trying to bring them onto your team or you’re trying to impact change or build a new company.
John: Wow. Fire Nation, I got a little shivers when I was hearing those six questions and now let me just break them down for you again. Why are you the right person to be doing this? Why is this important? And why is this important to you?
And then, of course, four, five and six you’re adding now to the end of this. Now, we’ll have this on the show notes page at EOFire.com as well as everything else we’re talking about.
And Karim, I am not letting you go yet, my Friend, because we are about to enter the lightning rounds. But before we do, let’s take a minute to thank our sponsors.
Karim, welcome to the lightning round, where you get to share incredible resources in mind-blowing answers. Sound like a plan?
Karim Abouelnaga: Absolutely.
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Karim Abouelnaga: I grew up poor. I had a mentor tell me that Jayzee says that you can’t help the poor if you’re one of them. And so, not having those resources or a real support network at home like some of my friends, that was one of the obstacles that I sort of saw holding me back. But I gave it thought and I remember looking around and thinking that the poor were actually the ones most equipped to help themselves because they sort of understood their problems. And once you have a viable solution, the opportunities and the resources are out there. And you just have to go and get them.
John: You can’t help the poor if you’re one of them. I mean, Fire Nation, I want to turn this a little bit and just say you are obligated if you have the knowledge, the skills, if you have something to share with the world you are obligated to share that because that’s how you’re gonna start to make your difference.
And Karim, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Karim Abouelnaga: So I was interviewing for an internship when I was 17 and the guy asked me what the secret was to any successful business. And he made me guess for five minutes before he gave me the answer. And I remember him saying that the secret isn’t the marketing. It’s not the profitability. It’s not the customers. It was the business model, the business model being the set of processes that ultimately show how you derive revenue but also how you replicate and grow your business.
And I remember in that moment that being one of the most mind-boggling realizations I’ve ever had. And his example was why do you think a business like McDonald’s is so successful? It’s because they can literally give someone a book anywhere in the US and have them run a successful franchise. And as I was thinking about how we were building our business, I thought about all of those pieces of scalability, replication, resources and locality and being able to leverage those things to build a really strong business model. The secret to any successful business is your business model.
John: So throw in a couple of your first responses to him.
Karim Abouelnaga: I said the marketing. I said having great customers. I said the entrepreneur being really hard working. And all of those he just sat there, laughed and nodded.
John: Karim, what’s a personal habit that you do have that you believe contributes to your success?
Karim Abouelnaga: I’m an avid reader now, as funny as that sounds. I went through elementary and middle school and maybe read all of two books, even in high school. Spark Notes was my best friend. And I’m now like having gone through high school and college just read for fun. I read to find things out that I may not know. I read in search of skills and learning about other people’s journeys and really being proactive about things that I think I’m gonna need before I actually need them.
So it’s a good habit to get into, and I’ve actually learned a lot more in just finding things that I enjoy reading and learning about than I have through all the mandatory readings I’ve had assigned through my entire schooling.
John: Now, do you have an internet resource, like an Evernote that I can share with our listeners?
Karim Abouelnaga: I think Asana is – it’s a web and mobile application that my team has been using. It was actually founded by a few Facebook cofounders but it allows you to work with your team without using email, essentially. And it’s been a great communication platform for us. And it’s free when you’re starting out I think up to like ten or 15 on your team. So it’s been an incredible resource for us as we’ve been growing and building our content and organization.
John: So you love Spark Notes and you love reading. So what would be one book and only one if you could recommend it for our listeners? What would that one book be and why?
Karim Abouelnaga: So I read this book a little bit over a year ago. It’s called The Soul of Money. It’s by Lynn Twist. I think it fundamentally changed my relationship with money and how I saw fundraising, both a for profit and a non-profit context. I think too many times we overthink what the value or the power behind money is.
And sometimes is we don’t think about how it’s just a tool and a tool that we can use to bring about the things that we want to see in our lives or to live out the missions that we have set for ourselves. And it will fundamentally redefine the way you think about money and the way you fundraise and ask people to support the work that you’re doing. And it’s ultimately allowing you to tie their personal interests and the things they’re looking for in life to be able to share that mutual benefit on your journey. So I highly recommend it.
John: Well, Fire Nation, I know that you love audio, so I teamed up with Audible, and if you haven’t already you can get an amazing audiobook for free at EOFireBook.com. And Karim, this next question’s the last of the lightning round, but it’s a doozy. Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world, identical to Earth but you knew no one. You still have all the experience and knowledge you currently have. Your food and shelter, taken care of. But all you have is a laptop and $500.00. What would you do in the next seven days?
Karim Abouelnaga: This is probably one of the toughest questions I have ever been asked. And I know for me, I thought about it several times and I think my gut instincts was that I’d probably go out and buy a cheap suit. I’d put together a resume and I’d start applying for jobs, as funny as it sounds, because I’m an entrepreneur now. It would allow me to take some time and rebuild my network until I come up with a new idea to radically transform the world. My network for me now has been my saving grace, not just from a fundraising and resource perspective but in terms of having a support network, which I think is critical for any entrepreneur.
Having people that you can just talk to or bounce ideas off of to refine your business or finding mentors who can help guide you is incredibly important. There is no such thing as someone doing it alone. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to all of the people who sort of stepped in and made the work that I’m doing possible.
So for me, it would be getting a job until I am able to build my new network in this new world and have that support system that I’ll need to ultimately build something meaningful and valuable for the world I’d be living in.
John: That’s what it’s all about, Karim. It’s what you, the entrepreneur, my guest, would actually answer. I want your gut instinct because that’s what makes this question unique and the answers unique.
And Karim, I want to end today on fire with you sharing one parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you. Then we’ll say good-bye.
Karim Abouelnaga: One parting piece of guidance is find mentors. In anything that you do, I remember sitting there with my mentee who was just entering his freshman year of college after I graduated, and I was giving this kid all of the answers to the next four years of school.
And I remember struggling out of school not knowing where to go or what to do next with my company. And I had this epiphany where I thought to myself like why not find someone who’s done exactly what I’ve done already so they can give me the answers like I was giving to my mentee at the time? So find mentors who’ve sort of gone through your journey and try to get them to come on board with what you’re doing.
And in terms of reaching me, easily accessible via email. It’s just Karim, K-A-R-I-M, at practicemakesperfect.org. But you can also follow me on Twitter at Karim Abouelnaga or find me on Linked In.
John: Fire Nation, don’t be afraid to be an apprentice. Find people who are where you want to be. Go to them. See how you can add value to their lives to learn from them. Powerful stuff. And you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and you’ve been hanging out with Karim and J. L. Dee today. So keep up the heat and you can head over to EOFire.com. Just type Karim, K-A-R-I-M, in the search bar. His show notes page will pop right up. We’ll also have everything we’ve been talking about on that show notes page at EOFire.com. Or just email Karim directly, Karim@practicemakesperfect.org.
Fire Nation, take advantage of these opportunities. And Karim, thank you, my Friend, for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that, we salute you. And we’ll catch you on the flip side.
Karim Abouelnaga: Thank you, John. Take care.
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