Episode 8: Rama Chakaki

Of all the social entrepreneurs we've met, few have had as diverse and unique a career journey as Rama Chakaki. Truly a citizen of the world, Rama spent parts of her youth in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. She's run both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. She's pushed boundaries in technology and touched countless lives through uplifting multimedia and purpose-driven e-commerce. Rama joined Cause & Purpose to share stories from her life and career, lessons learned, and discuss her latest ventures, including edSeed, a nonprofit crowdfunding platform that gives young refugees the resources they need to succeed in school and provide their entire family a new chance at life outside of a refugee camp.

Rama Chakaki grew up in Saudi Arabia, where she spent the first 15 years of her life immersed in a multinational experience that prioritized community, exploration, and education. There was also a strong culture of altruism and philanthropy rooted in business, which would inspire Rama’s future, though she didn’t know it. After emigrating to America with her family and graduating college, her path led back to the Middle East as CEO of a for-profit company. She noticed that the altruistic business culture had shifted to focus purely on the bottom-line and not people. There was also a void where corporate social responsibility was concerned. At that moment, Rama began on a new path that started with volunteering on the weekends and led to the creation of two powerhouse nonprofits: the VIP Fund and edSeed.

One predominant social issue that led Rama to create the VIP Fund with her business partner was youth employment in the Middle East, or the lack thereof. There was a massive concentration of young people who wanted to work, but there were very few jobs that could absorb them into the job market.

The VIP Fund specifically as a youth venture philanthropy fund that would take investments from high net worth individuals who saw the same problems and wanted to solve them in the same ways she did. Those funds would be put toward a multitude of projects that would work with youth online to educate, mentor, and fund them through their higher education.

Most importantly, those projects would also get them involved in the job market, whether they want to work at an established business or launch a startup project. It was also important that the VIP Fund retained elements that made it relevant and comfortable to young people: experimentation, curiosity, and fun.

One of the main projects to come out of the VIP Fund, edSeed, is a crowdfunding platform to fund higher and continued education for refugee youth. It’s one of the biggest pain points for young people impacted by conflict in the region.

Take Syria, for example. Before the war, they had free university education for everyone. After the war broke out, 9 million refugees were displaced and pushed into neighboring countries, none of which had free university education.

“You had at least 450,000 Syrian students within the span of a couple of years without the ability to fund their university education. Some of them were midstream. Some of them were entering university. Some of them had maybe just one or two courses to finish a medical degree. You can imagine the impact of you not being able to pursue that.”

This generation of youth is supposed to financially sustain their entire community though. Yet, they have no access to education, and severely limited access to a network that can help them succeed. That’s where edSeed steps in. 

Rama started by tapping her personal network, running PR, and doing social media marketing. Soon after, she expanded the footprint of the organization by bringing in a community of donors to volunteer or bring in other network connections to help. 

“Those who have graduated are turning around and donating. Within the ranks, those who are more informed than others in certain areas are mentors and are mentoring others. And I mean, you feel the community coming together and growing.”

Currently, edSeed is still relatively young and focused on building relationships with partners who can take different pieces of the project and elevate them to new levels. But the next phase is coming soon, and it’s centered around automation and creating APIs so they can connect the crowdfunding platform to different tech companies. 

For Rama, this is only the start of a long career in social impact that promises to deliver serious results. Her next exciting project is in the AI world, and that’s as much as she can disclose at the moment. But be sure to come back and check out Cause & Purpose for an update from Rama on this front in the near future.

Key Questions and Takeaways:

If you see a social challenge that needs to be addressed, sometimes you are the best person to do so.

Trust in yourself, your partners, and your supporters is key to success.

A diverse range of experiences and perspectives can give you a new outlook on creative ways to overcome obstacles.

Don't be afraid to start small and scale your impact step by step.

Support

Rama

's Work:

Be sure to check out edSeed. There are some well-deserving students and future leaders on there who would love some support with their education.

Support edSeed

Episode Transcript:

MIKE SPEAR 

Welcome to “Cause & Purpose,” the show about leaders, innovators, and change agents, working on the front lines to solve some of the world’s greatest social challenges. 

I’m Mike Spear, and today’s guest is Rama Chakaki. Rama has spent her life and career building technology and media startups with real social impact in mind. Passionate about creating sustainable development opportunities for Arab youth, she currently heads up Chakaki Consulting and the VIP Fund. She’s the co-founder of edSeed and a partner at both AYA Animations, and Mint + Laurel. Rama has worked on some incredible projects over the course of her career. And has some amazing stories to share. 

Rama, you have such an incredible story. I’d like to begin where we start all these episodes: at the beginning. If you could, tell us a little about what life was like growing up in Saudi Arabia.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

I actually grew up until I finished high school in Saudi Arabia, so that was quite a different upbringing to then when I moved here at age 15 and continued. So growing up in Saudi, I lived in a compound where a lot of ex-pats lived from different places from the world. So it was a beautiful multinational experience. I went to an all girls Saudi private school, the first all-girls Saudi private school in the Eastern province. And it was quite a privileged upbringing, but a very different one from the summers I would spend here in the States on the East or West Coast. And so I had a real contrast between my summers and my school years. Growing up in Saudi, in the compound, I had my little Honda 50 motorcycle that I wrote around the compound. I had my skateboard. I was very much a tomboy trying to keep up with the neighborhood boys. And then at school it was a very traditional structured very similar to a Catholic girls school environment. And then we'd come here in the summers and it would be living like California young people, or East coast, we'd go berry picking. And you know, these other types of activities that, that summer camp students did here in California or on the East coast.


MIKE SPEAR 

What were your parents like? 


RAMA CHAKAKI 

So my mother was an explorer. She loved to take us everywhere around the world. And so I think by age 15 and a half, I'd been to all the continents except Australia. And I've been to many of the countries in Europe and the Middle East and Asia. And then my father was a very disciplined workaholic, and he has spent most of his time working, but when he wasn't working, he loved being outdoors in nature. From an ideology perspective, he was very altruistic and a giving man and believed that the most important thing is for us to serve others and not at all from a religious perspective, but from a human perspective. And that was one thing that was very prevalent in my upbringing, that he always dismissed nationalism, religion, all sorts of ideologies. And it was like, we're all humans and there's Earth and we care for it. And that's it.


MIKE SPEAR:  Rama was born in Syria and moved with her family to Saudi Arabia at age four, where she spent most of her middle school and high school years. Even at that time, Syria and Saudi Arabia were remarkably different places.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah. I mean, I think there was a difference in that Syria back then was much more, let's say modern, because of having been occupied by the French for awhile. Very progressive, very open society. And then Saudi was a lot more disciplined and more religious, I wouldn't say discipline, but more religious overtones and less exposure. But there were a significant number of ex-pats who were helping build the country. And we were lucky that we found ourselves in a community that had people from all over the world, and the compound environments in Saudi is very different than what happens outside on the streets. But there was a significant contrast in the freedoms in the culture, and I think, I think that's why mom made sure that we traveled every year and got the exposure that she felt she had when she was growing up.

So I have to say I have very fond memories growing up in Saudi because unlike the general perception of how women are treated differently, it's a whole different construct in that within the female community that we lived in, you had privileges that you didn't maybe here. Like we could stay up till 2:00 AM at friends’ houses and come home. And it was very safe and it, you know, it wasn't frowned upon that you, you did that. We had access to private beaches. And again, I have to say it was privileged environment, but seemed to me that there were more freedoms than what I had when I came to the States. Because here there was concern about safety, about, you know, as a child, you can’t just go off on your own. So, it's a very different set of freedoms and a different set of privileges and, and, and access. I learned to enjoy all of the different places that, that I was in, and I recognized the limitations as well. The rigidness of our school system, the lack of access to certain things that I had here at summer camp, things as simple as physical education was something that was done, but in private, in Saudi, and if the ministry of education was to come, we had to cancel those classes. So there, there was a huge contrast.


MIKE SPEAR: During Rama’s teenage years, the business and political situation in the Middle East began to change, and her family felt that it was important to relocate. They explored a variety of options, but chose to emigrate to the United States, where they felt they saw greater opportunity and freedom of expression. 


RAMA CHAKAKI 

And I remember when he [Rama's father] first brought us to the States, he took us on rallies and and protests. And he said, see, this is why you're here, because this is a privilege that you're not afforded to you elsewhere. So, super excited about becoming a US citizen.


MIKE SPEAR 

It's interesting that seeing protests were formative for you. I think, you know, for myself, those are some of my proudest moments of being an American is seeing protests go through public space. The first one that I was really aware of was, I was in Los Angeles at the time, and there were a bunch of people protesting for prisoner's rights and they were being protected by police. And I just thought that was such a special dynamic where you could voice dissent against specific people that were then protecting your ability to do that. This mix of experiences that, you know, the travel growing up in Syria, and then seeing some of these things in the US, how did that impact your choices for, for schooling and for a career path?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

It definitely affected me in that I saw this, this kind of utopia from seeing what I liked in Syria, what I liked in Saudi, what I liked in the U.S., and always aspired to have that kind of, you know, living standards and community around me. But it certainly didn't reflect on what I studied. My choice of study was, I wanted so much to be a doctor, but then didn't really know the path to get into med school in the States or couldn't commit to it. And so I ended up with engineering just because my English language skills weren't up to par and engineering was more numbers than anything else. And so, I became an engineer.


MIKE SPEAR: Rama’s engineering degree led to the opportunity to launch her first startup, a company called Keybridge that provided services to companies needing to outsource their data centers in the early years of the internet boom. The startup was seen as so valuable, they raised $60 million in early-stage investments. That led to a quick exit, and an opportunity to start a new company, building data centers in Dubai, where Rama discovered that despite people being very generous and philanthropic on a personal level, corporations didn’t always operate under a strong code of ethics.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

And I have to say like the Middle East business culture is rapidly changing. And so from year to year, these things progress, but traditionally people in the Middle East are very philanthropic and altruistic on a personal level. And actually, if I go back to the way things were in Syria in the very old days, let's say in the old souks—kind of what used to be a shopping mall back in the days—there was a common practice in the souk that if you got what you needed as a merchant for the day, you shut down to allow your neighbor to be able to get what they needed, you know, to get the sales. And the souks were divided into like, this is the perfumery area and this is the fabrics area. So you wanted to give your neighbor the opportunity to make money. But when the corporation came into the Middle East, that changed, it seemed to me like people left their sensibilities at the door when they got into the company and they didn't transfer that know-how or that culture into business. It became very single bottom-line driven. And so, while this is changing, generally you didn't see the corporate social responsibility and there were no B Corps when I lived there.


MIKE SPEAR 

Understanding that culture and then seeing how some of the larger corporations operated, when did you sort of have that light bulb moment where you're like, "I want to create a social business or follow a different path."?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

So already moving from the States back to the Middle East, you feel like at the time in the early 2000s, you were moving back in time, as far as the corporate structure. So while in the U S there are very clear established systems about employee rights and policies and procedures, it seemed like anything went in companies in Dubai. And so not even employee rights were clear. And so that was the first kind of light bulb of “this doesn't seem right.” But the second was, I was traveling back and forth between Dubai and Syria. And I saw there was, in the Lavant in general, the Palestinian territory, Syria, Lebanon, there's poverty, there are a lot of social challenges. And then Dubai is rich, but behind the scenes, there were social challenges. And I thought, "Right, OK, who's addressing that?" I began volunteering my weekends with some of the smaller charities and it's like, there's no way that there's no connection. There are no employees working or supporting any of these charities. So I was also feeling like, as a chief operating officer of this business, I've done everything. I've reached the top but there's a void. And I recognized that the void was bridging those two worlds for me, of doing the corporate citizenry, the kind of social responsibility parts that just weren't there.

So I created a program for our employees to volunteer. I did some partnerships with some of our partners who were willing to engage, but it was very light kind of social responsibility. So I decided I'd like to do a lot more of that, left this job, and then set up a company, called it Baraka Ventures. And the idea was to seed startups that had a social impact or measured themselves by more than the financial bottom line.


MIKE SPEAR: Baraka Ventures grew to the point where they were funding 20 or so projects, all aimed at shifting the culture and improving the quality of life in the Middle East.


RAMA CHAKAKI  

So one that I actually named after Baraka, which was called Baraka Bits, and Baraka Bits is a social publishing platform that delivered good news from the Middle East. It was my favorite because I, being a generalist, allowed me to get into all of these different types of businesses from a communications perspective. You know, we were the voice of everything that was happening that had a positive impact, whether it's a nonprofit, for-profit,  individual initiative, we reported on, on those activities through Baraka Bits.


MIKE SPEAR

There's a real need for something like that, especially in the Middle East.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah. And initially we were laughed at because they were like, "Who'd want to hear that?" But then a lot of young people flocked to the website and were really encouraged and inspired by it, which was aimed at them to begin with. And I think, over time, a lot of the mainstream media started programs that I think were inspired by Baraka Bits, because you can see now they're using the same language about positive journalism and began taking our programming as inspiration.


MIKE SPEAR: It was around this time that Rama moved with her family back to the United States, where she continued her work delivering uplifting content to Arabic-speaking youth—something that was in surprisingly short-supply—through a new company called AYA Animations.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah. So the idea came from the founder, Sara Sawaf, who’s a young Syrian living in Saudi and she has two little kids and was disheartened by the lack of programming that had any values in it. And so she was like, you know, the kids are exposed to violence. There's a lot of just fun programs, but there aren't any that are focused on manners and values. And so she wanted to create the series and had created a pilot before her and I met. When we met, she wanted to see if she can, with my help, scale this business. And I had had a similar experience when my kids were growing up in Dubai and may have mentioned that when we spoke. Showtime was one of the biggest television channels in Dubai.


I was struck by how their programming at the time that kids come home from school was super inappropriate. It's things that you would find on HBO late night in the States. And I spoke to one of their directors about that, and he said, “Well, our, our programming, we don't really care much for this region. It's for different time zones. It just happened to see it in this region." So they weren't even planning age-appropriate programming for that region. And so I did see the need and decided to partner with her to create this social impact venture in media.


MIKE SPEAR: AYA Animations has received some great feedback from parents so far about the benefits its having for their children, but they haven’t begun tracking their impact quantifiably yet, but they do have ambitious plans for expansion. AYA Animations is in the process of rolling out software tools and games to further their mission of providing educational and inspiring content for children throughout the middle east.  


I’d like to shift focus to talk about one of your most recent projects—the VIP Fund—a youth venture fund designed to help break the cycle of poverty by funding projects built for and by young people predominantly living as refugees, in order to help get them through higher education and on to successful careers.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

I was sitting at a meeting once with a Harvard research institution and they were talking about the youth bulge in the Middle East and how you predict and prevent challenges when you have a very large concentration of youth and very little jobs to absorb them in the job market. And it struck me as a very powerful statement that has a global impact. So the VIP Fund, I met with Jacqueline Novogratz who had set up the Acumen Fund earlier in Dubai and liked this idea of a venture philanthropy fund and thought, okay, I could see a lot of people get behind that if we started it.


So the VIP Fund is a youth venture philanthropy fund. We get investments from high net worth individuals who see the same problems we're seeing with youth and want to solve them in the same way that we solve them. We have programs under the VIP fund and projects or platforms. The programs are working with youth online to educate, to mentor, to fund them through their higher education areas, time period, and then help them into the job market, whether they want to work or start startup projects. 


MIKE SPEAR

And one of the main projects is edSeed?


RAMA CHAKAKI

Yes. So edSeed is a crowdfunding platform for refugee youth higher and continued education. So that's that's one of the biggest pain points for youth impacted by conflict. Take Syria as a good example. Syria before the war had free university education for all. War breaks out, you have 9 million refugees that get thrusted out to neighboring countries, none of which have free university education.


So you had at least 450,000 Syrian students within the span of a couple of years without the ability to fund their university education. Some of them were midstream. Some of them were entering university. Some of them had maybe just one or two courses to finish a medical degree. So you can imagine the impact of you not being able to pursue that. And yet this age group is the age group that can financially sustain their entire community. So we figured, OK, crowdfunding is a good way to go because you couldn't bring scholarship foundations fast enough to absorb the need.


MIKE SPEAR 

My first reaction when looking at edSeed, was why reinvent the wheel? Why not use like a GoFundMe or something, you know, one of the many crowdfunding platforms that are already out there? Can you talk a little bit about why you saw the need to create your own platform versus using what else was out there and talk about what the secret sauce of that is?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

So there were a number of element. The first and foremost is donors are worried about where their money's going, you know, Syria, stateless, lawless everything. So when they hear Syrian student, they think, well, I'm not going to give my money to someone who's in this lawless state. And most of the Syrian students who are refugees don't have bank accounts. So our platform, once you donate, the money goes through a student account to the educational institution. So the recipient is the educational institution. So as a donor, you're not worried about the financial integrity of your transaction. The second part is unlike GoFundMe, where you're just funding for a particular time period, students have four or five years of education sometimes. And so it's an ongoing experience, and we built in the backend this ability to create milestones in your education that a donor goes through.

You know, with GoFundMe, many of the organizations are crowdfunding on behalf of students. So, you know, an international rescue committee will say, give me the money and I'll pass it along., but there's like 40% overhead. With us, you're paying $5,000 to a student, $5,000 goes into the student bank account. So it's, it's a much more kind of transparent system. The last but not least is it allows us, because it's, it's an education platform, crowdfunding for education, to bring in other educational services to the students. So we have mentors plugged into the platform and education providers like Coursera and others.

MIKE SPEAR

There's a networking component to it, too, I think, right? Where they can make and speak with each other and then find, you know, mentors and folks like that. 


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yes. So as the platform grows, it's you know, unlike niche crowdfunding platforms that only crowdfund, our niche is education. So we're able to extend across the education lifecycle. So they get mentors, they get seed funders who are, you know, like family foundations that say, “We want to fund 10 medical students.” And so they give, you know, 10% for 10 medical students, and then the crowd funds the rest. So there are a lot of different services and support that they get out of the platform, including fellow fellowships and internships with businesses in their final years of studies.

MIKE SPEAR


How are you bringing these donors and mentors and the internship opportunities to the table? Are the students really searching for those themselves? Or is there a part of edSeed where you're actively trying to bring those folks into the table?

RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah ,part of edSeed is actively bringing in. I mean, you have to realize, the students have very small to no networks, most of them. Very few, maybe 10% of our students actually have a network. The rest came from either rural communities in Syria or just didn't have any connections. And I say Syria, but we have non-Syrian students as well. It started out with my network and then expanded through the community of donors that came in, who quickly realized, “Oh, I can also volunteer and I can do this and I can bring people.” And so it was a combination of my network, PR, and now social media marketing. On a weekly basis, we host tech talks, which are talks to inform our students who are aspiring to get technology degrees. We get speakers from the technology community to talk to them. And so I just go on my LinkedIn and I say, “I want someone to talk about robotics to this cohort of students.” You know, we get about 20 different people that say we would like to help. And then once that person helps once, they get into our system and get hooked and want to help more. 


MIKE SPEAR

That's great. Is it cashflow positive at this point? Or are you still fundraising for it?


RAMA CHAKAKI

It's cashflow positive in the sense that we have minimal overhead because most of the activities are being run by volunteers, and that's worked so far. As we find the need to employ people, we start employing from our beneficiaries and give them the opportunities before anyone else. But if you were to compare it to startups in the States where you have a full team, and then I would say, no.

MIKE SPEAR

Yeah. How do you think about, like with edSeed, it's a little bit different because it's a more organic growth pattern, it's more sustained thing, but how do you think about goal setting with some of these organizations, especially the financial goals and growth goals, but also on the impact side?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah, so the financial goals, once we stabilize the business, because with a social enterprise like this, the variables are really tricky. You're talking about a country that has sanctions. You're talking about challenges with import logistics, and you're talking about quality challenges because a lot of the artisans are in flux and on migration. So once you are able to fix all of those challenges, then you can start talking about scale. So, whereas, you know, scale for a social enterprise operating in the States, may be within the first year or two, here you may be talking about five years before you’re able to really scale. That means you have to have very conservative operations until you fix all of these issues. The second part is this trickiness of scale back home, because you're, you know, you want to impact as many artisans as possible, but that means you may have to partner with 10 or 20 different organizations because the risk factor of losing half of them while you're producing is quite high.

MIKE SPEAR

Really have to stay nimble. How do you have that conversation with funders? Because I know that can be difficult, right? If somebody puts money in, they want to see certain outcomes.


RAMA CHAKAKI

It is challenging. And I think that you start with funders that are closest to the cause, who will understand the variables. So most of our funders are gonna be expatriate investors from those countries that are saying, “Okay, I would have given a donation. This is a step up from donation. I may not see this return in the next coming years, but at least it's not just a wash completely.”


MIKE SPEAR

They are expecting a financial return at some stage.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah, they are. But they're, they're thinking, I'm inching my way to progress because they realize the complexity of the situation.  

MIKE SPEAR

You told me that the platform really planned, designed and built by the students themselves.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah. Which is a source of pride and joy. I mean, because you also, you're giving them experience that they can then take anywhere. So we, we kind of compromised on the growth speed by saying, you know, it's best if they learn how to do it and onboard their fellow students to help them grow it. So they are using technologies like AWS cloud and the latest kind of programming languages, but they're all experimenting. And so there's a clunkiness to the backend system that is constantly being worked on, but I see a tipping point coming where we just go from, okay, well, we're able to host hundreds of campaigns to then going into the thousands.


MIKE SPEAR 

How many are on there right now, give or take?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

There are 500, but not all active, obviously, at the same time.


MIKE SPEAR

Do you vet the students that are coming in, or is it kind of an open platform for anybody?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

It's an open platform. We have relationships with local organizations that are bringing in the students, if you will. And, and the, those organizations are quote-unquote vetting to make sure that there is a financial lead, and the universities also help us vet because they're sending students our way that are in the financial aid department.


MIKE SPEAR 

So I just want to shift gears a little bit here and talk more holistically about your perspective on your career and how you've looked at some of the businesses. You know, one of the things that stands out, for edSeed in particular, having the inspiration to fund education for this specific group, but then trusting the kids to design it and build it themselves. It seems like you must have a very clear ethos and values behind VIP Fund that sort of allows you to make those choices. Can you talk a little bit about what those are and how you develop them?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

So I started out the VIP fund with a business partner, Brian David, who was very deliberate in his approach. And I mean, it drove me nuts because it was taking too long by my standards, but now I'm very grateful and happy that we did. And, you know, we walked through the, the values and, and how we wanted this organization to grow and how, what we didn't want it to be. And I remember one particular extended conversation happened on the border between Jordan and Israel in the West Bank. It was an Israeli border where we had to spend about seven hours to be allowed entry, and then [we were] denied entry. And I was thinking during that time, like we were, we were discussing the values and there were specific examples of what engagements, like these are the things we are never going to do as an organization.


And it was first making sure that we have the elements that made it stay youthful, the experimentation, the curiosity, the fun, that will allow young people to feel comfortable and at home in it. And then second, this idea of keeping it virtual and making it go as slow as virtual needed to be for people to feel comfortable in that space. And I'm so glad we did that back then, in 2017, because today we would have been forced. All of the organizations that are working with these youth groups are forced to go virtual, whereas all of our programs and everything we did was purely online.


MIKE SPEAR 

I think it still takes some courage to, you have this idea for something that can be very complicated. A crowdfunding platform, there's a lot of considerations, you know, from every perspective. The customer journey, the product roadmap, you know, how the money flows, all of those things. It just strikes me as unique and special to trust that to someone who's a student.

RAMA CHAKAKI

Right. And you definitely don't just trust and let go, and they do everything. So there were, and still are, fail-safe mechanisms involved. One, from the get-go, we partnered with certain institutions that helped guide us. So, we pitched, I pitched, edSeed at MIT Solve and we were brought into the community as a solver for education. And so we always have them to go back to, and their network. And that's a massive network. The second is we got into the Duke business school incubator through one of our volunteers, and he gave us about five or six resources who were all graduate students in business and technology who were helping guide the students. So there's always this process of partnership between our students and people who are much more advanced and aware than they are. And I've remained involved with the students on process so that I think helped guide them

MIKE SPEAR 

I’m just incredibly impressed by it too, because you just, it creates this alignment where, you know, you're creating this thing that will help them, but then the process of creating it is also aligned with the goals of the organization itself, which is… 

RAMA CHAKAKI 

It's a living organism. 

MIKE SPEAR 

Yeah. But it's also something not every, you know, social-good organization gets to do, you know, finding level of coherence.


RAMA CHAKAKI

Yeah. And I think the other thing is we had good advisory from the crowdfunding space. The founder of LaunchGood, Chris, is a good friend and he's an advisor to us. And I call him often and get him to speak to our team and students. And, and I think it also has helped because I had helped run so many crowdfunding campaigns prior to setting up edSeed. So I'm familiar with the process and can guide the students through that.


MIKE SPEAR

During the MIT pitch, I noticed that you spoke a little bit about the role of, of education and fighting extremism. And it strikes me, you have this long history of investing, or working hands-on and projects that have an educational background. You know, what drives you most as like your personal “why?” Is it the education piece? Is it the fighting extremism side? What gets you excited?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

So, being a cross-cultural person, I mean, I identify as a human before I identify as American or Syrian or, and, and so that humanity aspect is what I see education bringing because it levels the playing field and gives democratic access to both the job market and advancements in technology. It is what is gravely missing. Like before education, I used to be focused on environmental challenges because I thought this is so important. But once the succession of tragedies happen in the Middle East with the Iraq war, the Syrian war, you all of a sudden saw an erosion of this middle class, people not having access to education. And you have millions of people who are uneducated, and you start seeing the gap between what they can do with their lives and what we can do with our lives.

And it's tragic when you go to a refugee camp and you see someone who's in their late teens or twenties, who has no hope whatsoever. And realize that well, without the education, that then becomes an employment or entrepreneurship opportunity, they're susceptible, they're vulnerable. I mean, it's not like they, people never wake up one day and say, you know what, I'm going to join ISIS, or I'm going to become, they don't do that at all. It's because they are forced to do that. They're desperate to do that. And that desperation comes because a mother needs surgery. And the only way they're going to get that money is by joining one of these crazy groups.

MIKE SPEAR 

Yeah. I think that doesn't get enough attention. I mean, it's so easy just to demonize everybody where, you know, if you're, if you're in a terrible situation, like many of these people are in camps or even just the towns they grew up in, to not be able to see that opportunity for themselves and to have it presented to them.

RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah. And I mean, refugee camps are large prison camps, essentially, because you're unable to work in the local economy. You can't get a job in the host country. There is no way out, nobody's trying to get you back and nobody's trying to assimilate you into the country. And so for all intents and purposes, you're just sitting there. And the term is “subsidized degradation.” You know, whatever skills you had are being degraded and eroded, and there's nowhere for you to go or nothing for you to do other than get that United Nations stipend to survive. And that stipend is what, $15 in a day or some crazy low number.


MIKE SPEAR 

Yeah. It would be impossible for an outside agency to really give opportunities to people when there's hundreds of thousands of people in a given camp, right? So it really has to come from the people themselves to a large part, but they don't have the benefit in their current situation that, you know, folks like you and I had, where we were exposed to all these different things and had the ability to self-start. With edSeed, and you know, how are you seeing that impact the folks that are there and what are some of the other things that are, you know, other good stories coming out of refugee camps that people have, have figured out ways to  transcend their circumstance?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

So, from our perspective, I mean, the eagerness of our students to participate in our online programming is a testament to how impactful it is. Once you give them that opening the world to the mentors and the talks and everything, you just see that not only are they super excited about it, but they're bringing all their friends to join. And the prospect of employment online is what's really also driving them because none of them want to just get a career and sit at home. So you definitely see that. What hasn't yet been figured out is the economic impact is like, OK, once you give them the degree, if they are within a camp, then how do they work and how do you get that money to them? That's a whole other area that hasn't yet been explored, but the impact is definitely felt. And, and you do see a transformation in the attitude, the emotional state, as well as the education level and you know, what they can do next.

MIKE SPEAR 

I know, edSeed is relatively new, at least in the scope of someone going through an educational program. Are you seeing success stories of folks that are involved with those or graduates of different programs? 


RAMA CHAKAKI 

So not all of our students obviously are in refugee camps. Some of them have been impacted by conflict but are in Germany or the States. So students are beginning to donate again. So those who have graduated are turning around and donating. Within the ranks, those who are more informed than others in certain areas are mentors and are mentoring others. And I mean, you just, you feel the community coming together and growing. One of the nice stories I love is that out of this small town of Syria, we had one student who started a campaign, succeeded, went to Germany. And while he was in an orientation of a new cohort, he realized that this young man’s older brother was a friend of his, in their hometown in Syria. And so you're rebuilding connections among people who had lost those connections because of the war.


MIKE SPEAR 

Wow. Are they, so when somebody graduates from a program, do they tend to stay local to wherever the university is? Or do they go back into the camps and work hands-on there? Or do you see any trends on that front?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

So, different locations operate differently. Like the Za'atari camp in Jordan, students have to get a permit to get out of the camp and then a permit to get back in. So when they're going to university, it's just for the day and back, and other places, they may just leave and take their families out of the camp with them. If they get employment elsewhere, especially like those with medical degrees who are given opportunities to come to the States or go to Europe, then their aim is to try and get their entire family out of the camp. And that's a good thing. We want that to happen. So it is a case by case basis. And it is a very complex situation because  camps are different depending on which host country they are hosted in. And some refugees are in camps, others aren't. So it's quite a varied situation.

MIKE SPEAR 

Yeah. What's next for edSeed? How do you see the program evolving from here?

RAMA CHAKAKI 

We're in a phase of building relationships with partners to take on different pieces of the pie. The next phase is automation and creating a set of APIs and being able to connect to different tech companies that are offering different parts of the solution. And that's a phase that I'm excited by because it's a new learning curve for those involved in building the platform. And so they're excited about it. And in parallel to that also looking at data and how they're creating a data infrastructure, so that maybe eventually it can be a self kind of learning platform through AI.


MIKE SPEAR

What would that open up, having that API available? What are examples of some of the things that will enable?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

So example for students who are looking to learn a language, and there are platforms like Duolingo that is allowing them, as easy as just sending students directly to Duolingo, instead of having a manual kind of process to do that. Maybe an API to an online system that helps them receive funds through cryptocurrencies or something like that. There's just endless possibilities of what we can do if we have that available.


MIKE SPEAR 

Sure. Well, that's important too, finding ways to, to bank the un-bankable, the disenfranchised, and crypto has a lot of potential there. Do you see that as a part of the platform in the future?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

I would love that. I mean, that was one of the first projects that my partner and I were working on when we set up the VIP Fund, but I was like, pick and choose where you can, where you can have impact and what the least resistance is going to be. But definitely, and if someone has a solution ready for that, then that'd be great.


MIKE SPEAR 

Okay. How so with all of the different things that you're involved in you know, through your career, but then, you know, just at the, like simultaneously, how do you balance it all? How do you, how do you balance being hands-on where you need to be versus taking more of a leadership strategic view?

RAMA CHAKAKI 

So I have to say first, I've learned a lot of painful lessons in my career early on, and those lessons have taught me to what degree I get involved, when I step back. And I think one of the biggest lessons was, take it easy. There is no rush. I'm not trying to come up with a unicorn. What I'm trying to do is solve a social challenge. And so movement building takes time. And if we're building a movement here and it's gonna take time, then that's fine. The second is finding ways to leverage the different skill sets. So early on, I realized there's a generation that knows how to do things wisely and the generation that knows how to do things technically. So teaming those up is key. So I always have seniors, people in their fifties to seventies, working with people in their twenties and thirties. The twenties and thirties are very digital-native, and savvy. And the seniors know the ins and outs of the societies that we're dealing with that are, you know, very hard to navigate. And through those partnerships, they make up good teams.

MIKE SPEAR

I've never heard anyone describe mentorship quite that way, but I think it makes a lot of sense. It's, it's a nice way to frame it. I learned, you know, from, from watching the video that your daughter produced that you have all these other interests and passions. It strikes me that, you know, someone who is as busy as you are career-wise could come across as very type-A, very rigid, very don't have time for anything, but you're sort of the opposite. You have this very sort of Zen sort of calm, demeanor about you. How do you navigate a very busy, high impact career path with things like self care and doing the things, having a well-rounded life, doing the things in your own life that are important to you?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah. So I think I'm sitting here looking at the ocean. I love being in nature. And so I found a little cottage that's close enough to the ocean and affordable where I could be in nature, and my breaks in the days, I walk out and go to the strand and walk and have work calls while I'm walking. So optimizing for that combined experience. There's a wonderful Ted talk by Alain de Botton about Atheism 2.0. And in that talk, he talks about how atheists should not discount religions. There's a lot to be learned from these social movements that have had a ground impact. And, and I, I watched that video and I thought, wow, this applies to any social entrepreneurship endeavor. And one of those things learned from social movements or religions is these repetitive practices that are done in nature. And so I thought if I can incorporate this into my work and evangelize this across the groups that I work with, then socializing for me is going out for a walk and talking about work while doing it. Then I don't have to go to a bar, go to a restaurant. I’ve got my social life done.

MIKE SPEAR 

Gotcha. You mentioned learning some painful lessons. What's an example of a mistake that was made that you learned from, or something that didn't go your way or just, you know, there, there are things that I think about in my past where it’s like, I just want that one back so I can do it differently. You know, what's what's an example of that, that we could learn from?

RAMA CHAKAKI 

Taking my time with partnership and choosing my partners carefully.  I think in the excitement of, ”I'm building a social business and it can make money and all that,” I glossed over the “take time with partnership,” because it is a marriage and the divorce is really painful. A divorce of a business is painful. So that's one area. The second is, even if you have money and you're creating a Baraka Ventures, leverage other people's money available outside. And if you can't sell it to others, then don't take all the risks with your own money. That's I think a second. And then the third is if things aren't clear for people, then you need to go back to the drawing board and make it clear. Don't assume if people don't understand, oh, they just don't get it. No, there's something unclear about what you're offering. Go back and clarify it until it's super clear to anyone who's going to be involved.


MIKE SPEAR

Yeah, no, I think that's an incredible lesson, especially as you talk about business pitches and things like that. If you can't articulate it clearly, it's usually an indication you just don't understand it well enough for yourselves.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Yeah. If I may, just one last one. I always used to be, I always tried to find excuses for why I'm a generalist and why I'm not a specialist. And because, in general, people want specialists and are looking for, “you've only done this and you're an expert at this.” Lately I've become more comfortable in being a generalist. And I read a book called “Range.” I don't know if you're familiar with it, but I was like, “Oh, this is me.” I'm so comfortable now in being this. That's a very useful skill for social entrepreneurs, because it means you can be resourceful if you have networks in different industries. And if you have interests in different domains, you're likely to be able to solve problems that other people may not be able to.


MIKE SPEAR 

Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. That's something I've struggled with, to be honest, you know, in my career is, I'm a generalist, too. And then the knock is, “Jack of all trades master of none,” right? But there is resourcefulness, there is the growth mindset of like, if I don't know how to do it, I can go learn. I'm glad it's served you well. How did you, outside of the book I guess, how did you sort of have that shift for yourself in your own mind? And also you mentioned earlier on not being so intentional about your career path early. It seems like you live life now with a great deal of intention. How did you make that change?

RAMA CHAKAKI 

Reflection, for sure, looking at what it is I've done right. And wrong. And every time there's a painful lesson, to try and understand why it was so painful and weed out the elements that made it painful. You know, I was telling a friend recently, I think if it's a saying or, that I really wish that our minds, bodies and souls were all mature at the same time. But it seems like our bodies mature and when you hit 40 then things start becoming clearer in your mind, or you start developing the patience to deal with things better. So some things are just a matter of maturity. And then there are people that are more fortunate than I am, who have much greater clarity when they're younger, but mine kind of evolved.


MIKE SPEAR

I'm still working on mine and I turned 40 this year in the year of COVID. So I might need a little bit slower. I'll be 41 before we're done with the virus, I think, but I noticed that you're involved with the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Is that an active project for you or no?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

I was involved in the bid and creating the book for the actual bid. So two of the chapters that I was involved in were how the bid would have an impact both regionally and globally, a social impact. And then the second part was how do you engage youth? And how do you make it sustainable?


MIKE SPEAR

Somebody like you, who's clearly a business leader and involved in social impact and interested in the social purpose stuff. Have you been able to influence, or I know there are a lot of concerns about that world cup with human rights, you know, with building the stadium and all that stuff. How are they navigating that know, how did you sort of address it?


RAMA CHAKAKI

It's such a complex challenge because there are so many variables in that we, as part of  our project was to highlight all of the impact positive and negative, and then recommend programs to mitigate the negative and to accelerate the positive. Once I did that, I was out of the group. I didn't continue to the execution part, but there were clear guidelines that were set for us. And there were a lot of concerns raised at very top levels of government, in Qatar about the sustainability implications and whether or not this was warranted, but there’s also interest by very large corporations and international governments in making it work because it creates money for those companies and countries that are involved. So it's a, it's a complex one to address, but I want to say that  I'm really happy looking at all the positive impact that came out of it, especially for marginalized and disadvantaged youth.


MIKE SPEAR 

What's next for you? Are you just full on edSeed and VIP Fund, like for the foreseeable future, or do you have other projects on the horizon that you're looking at?

RAMA CHAKAKI 

I have an exciting other project in the AI world that I can't disclose because it's not out there yet, but I will love to come back and talk about it when, if you are interested in that. But that part keeps me in touch with the technology world and disruptive technologies. And I'm always eager at looking at how we can leverage that for good, positive social impact.


MIKE SPEAR 

Awesome. Well, I'll definitely be excited to learn about that when you're ready to share more and would love to have you back on talk about, of course. So I understand from, from your daughter's videos, that you're an excellent chef. Where did that passion come from? And what's your favorite recipe to make and why?


RAMA CHAKAKI

Passion came from my watching my grandmother and aunts in Syria cook with so much fervor and love for cooking and aromas. And my favorite recipe is an olive scone that I make, a savory scone with a lot of different herbs and seeds in it. 

MIKE SPEAR 

Why were you drawn to that recipe in particular? 

RAMA CHAKAKI

Because it combines the flavors that I love and combines this idea of Eastern recipes and ingredients with the Western scone.

MIKE SPEAR

Other than what you're currently working on in terms of education and refugee support. What, you know, what do you think is the biggest social challenges? The challenge that humanity should be tackling right now?

RAMA CHAKAKI 

The disparities between rich and poor is just, it's frightening. And, and that's coupled refugees, which is coupled with climate refugees. So I go back to the climate and think that, you know, if not each and every one of us working on it, I don't know how the solution's going to come about.

MIKE SPEAR

But you think the root of it is that economic disparity


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Well, yes. Yes. And the ability for mega corporations to make decisions on behalf of humanity.


MIKE SPEAR

Yeah. When you're ready to retire, I suspect you'll probably never fully retire, but when you're ready to retire, you know, looking back on your career, what would you like to have accomplished?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

I think being able to have impacted enough youth positively that they can then have an effect on their communities. I don't know what those numbers are, to be honest, I can't tell you. But the first goal we set for edSeed was to be able to kind of shut down a refugee camp, even if it's not real physical shutdown, but that the numbers relate to shutting down a refugee camp. If I can do that, that'd be fantastic.


MIKE SPEAR

Anyone who's listening to this, how would you like them to support your work?


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Start out by visiting edSeed and volunteering or donating. And then the second is buy a product from Mint + Laurel. There's a lot of impact there.


MIKE SPEAR

Thank you, this has been great. I would love to talk to you for six more hours, but I’ll let you get back to real life. It’s been a pleasure.


RAMA CHAKAKI 

Likewise.


[MUSIC]


MIKE SPEAR: That’s our episode for today. Thank you for listening. And a big thank you to our guest Rama Chakaki. If you want to learn more to reach out and learn how to support our guests, visit CauseandPurpose.com. 


Our next guest is Becky Kekula, a motivational speaker and diversity and inclusion expert, who leads the Disability and Equality Index at Disability:IN. 


Cause & Purpose is a production of Moonshot.co. On behalf of myself, Rama, and our entire team, we thank you for listening, and look forward to speaking with you again soon.

END

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More about

Rama

:

Rama has been building tech and media startups with social impact for over 25 years. She's passionate about creating sustainable development opportunities for Arab youth. Currently, Rama runs Chakaki Consulting & The VIP fund. She's also the co-founder of edSeed, and a Partner at both AYA Animations & Mint + Laurel respectively.

Credits:

Cause & Purpose is a production of Moonshot.co
Postproduction by Lisa Gray of Sound Mind Productions
Original Music by Justin Klump of Podcast Music and Sound

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Episode 9: Becky Kekula from Disability:IN

Becky Kekula is a social change advocate, dynamic public speaker, and driving force behind the Disability Equality Index (DEI) from Disability:IN. A lifelong advocate for the rights and representation of people living with disabilities, Becky has covered many miles, touched many hearts, and has made a real impact on how people with disabilities are treated in the workplace. Becky joined Cause & Purpose to share her lived experiences, and talk about some of her struggles, successes, and failures from a life advocating for equal treatment for everyone.

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Episode 8: Rama Chakaki

Of all the social entrepreneurs we've met, few have had as diverse and unique a career journey as Rama Chakaki. Truly a citizen of the world, Rama spent parts of her youth in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. She's run both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. She's pushed boundaries in technology and touched countless lives through uplifting multimedia and purpose-driven e-commerce. Rama joined Cause & Purpose to share stories from her life and career, lessons learned, and discuss her latest ventures, including edSeed, a nonprofit crowdfunding platform that gives young refugees the resources they need to succeed in school and provide their entire family a new chance at life outside of a refugee camp.

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Episode 7: Maggie Doyne from BlinkNow

As a teenager growing up in New Jersey, Maggie Doyne looked ahead to a future already written - college, career, student loans - and realized there must be more out there. During a gap year spent traveling in Southeast Asia, Maggie came face to face with a reality starkly different than the one she had known growing up - a refugee crisis, children forced into hard labor, and families torn apart by the Nepalese civil war. Struck by a deep affinity for the Nepalese people, Maggie new she had to act. She pooled what little resources she had, and together with her cofounder, a local Nepali man named Top Malla, she founded BlinkNow, a nonprofit organization that runs a school, women's center, and children's home in Surkhet Nepal.

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Cause & Purpose Podcast

Moonshot.co is home to Cause & Purpose, a podcast about leaders in the social impact sector. Hear their stories, successes, failures, and lessons-learned from lives spent in the trenches, tackling the world’s most important challenges.

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