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Henry Keenan ’14 brings entrepreneurship to King’s through Startup With Purpose

The start of every new year is marked by the making of resolutions, pledges of self-improvement and determination to make that year one filled with purpose and meaning. What better way, then, for the junior class at King’s Academy to start the 2017-2018 academic year than by taking part in Startup with Purpose, a five-day entrepreneurship bootcamp organized by the University of California, Berkeley.

A non-profit organization founded by students from UC Berkeley in 2016, Startup with Purpose aims to promote entrepreneurship through collaboration between young entrepreneurs from around the world in the Middle East. The organization partnered with King’s Academy to host its inaugural entrepreneurial bootcamp in Jordan in January 2018.

King’s alumnus Henry Keenan ’14 came up with the idea of hosting the bootcamp at the school. Keenan is also a UC Berkeley alumnus, having majored in Middle Eastern studies, and is one of the founders of Startup with Purpose. The idea to found the organization, according to Keenan, came about after a tragic incident.

Each summer, a number of UC Berkeley students take part in a study-abroad course on European entrepreneurship and innovation in Nice, France. On July 14, 2016 three students participating in the course — including one UC Berkeley student — were killed during the Bastille Day terror attack along with 83 other people. Two other UC Berkeley students were also injured that day. Deeply affected by the incident, a group of students attending the course — including Keenan — decided that they didn’t want that tragedy to be the end of the story. The course had been abruptly interrupted, but for its duration the students had felt they had purpose. They came together afterwards with Professor Ken Singer, managing director of the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at UC Berkeley, to find a way to bring more purpose and opportunity to others in a way that would be most impactful, and came up with the idea for Startup with Purpose.

What the founders want to do, Keenan says, is to facilitate a student-led movement around the world by using entrepreneurship, teamwork and innovation to combat challenging social and economic problems. To Keenan, King’s Academy in Jordan was the perfect location in the Middle East, offering safety, stability and a welcoming community for everyone.

According to Singer, this was the first time that the university, which organizes many international partnerships and programs, had partnered with a boarding school in the Middle East, and the first time it had brought together such a diverse range of participants. The 210 participants — who represent nationalities from around the world — included both high school and university students either based in Jordan, or who had travelled from the United States and Chile to take part.

“I wanted to go someplace where we were going to get a really good cross-section of society,” says Singer.

“This was an interesting mix because you reach across the entire spectrum, from high school to college, from scholarship students to wealthy students, from Berkeley students to King’s students.”

During the bootcamp, participants were encouraged to form intellectually diverse teams to ideate, then build commercially scalable products. Some 13 mentors also took part, ranging from leading academics in the field of entrepreneurship from UC Berkeley, Stanford University and other top-tier institutions in the US, Europe and the Princess Sumaya University for Technology in Jordan, to regional and global business leaders. Drawing on their own extensive entrepreneurial experience, the mentors offered participants valuable advice and guidance, in addition to presenting lectures on various subjects.

“In this program you learn how to create and build things, so even if you aren’t going to be an entrepreneur, it’s a very useful skill to have,” says Avdeep Dhillon, a third-year political economy student at UC Berkeley. “Not only does it teach you how to create startups, but it teaches you to work with everyone on your team, how to communicate, resolve conflict, and how to be a leader and a follower. Those skills can be applied to every field in your life.”

“The coolest part is we were all so diverse,” she adds. “Even though we came from such different places we knew how to get along.”

For some of the university students, however, when they realized that they were going to be partnered with high school students from King’s they assumed the high schoolers would be less skilled and less committed. However, they soon learned not to underestimate their younger counterparts.

“I didn’t know I would be working with high school students until I got here, and I was so disappointed,” says

Saudi-national Jumana AlSawaf, a UC Berkeley student majoring in cognitive science. “Then I met my team mates, and I thought, gosh, these are some dedicated kids, and they have a lot of skills I did not have as a high school student. I learned not to underestimate anyone.”

“One of the best things I got out of the program is meeting the four kids on my team,” she continues. “They are very driven, very passionate. I would love to work with them again.” 

That interaction was one of the main aims of the program, says Singer, who wanted participants to keep their minds open to working with people who are very different.

“Differences are what matter in making things great,” he adds. “It is because we are different that we are stronger as a team, because you may have a skill that I don’t.”

For their part, the high school students appreciated having the opportunity to work with their college-aged counterparts, as they benefited from their technical skills while gaining valuable advice about college.

“My other team members are friends, so I’m familiar with how they work,” says Dario Pomar ’19 who was teamed up with AlSawaf and three fellow King’s students. “Working with someone you don’t know has been a really great experience. Jumana has a lot of knowledge that she added to our team.”

Throughout the week, the teams worked on developing ideas and companies, producing prototypes and developing two-minute “pitch” videos. Teams fiercely competed to be selected as one of the top 10 companies. On the final day, the top 10 presented their pitches to a panel of experts and venture capitalists, who closely questioned the teams to assess their preparedness and the viability of their businesses.

Finally, three winning startups were selected by the panel of experts. In first place was Hareer, an online platform to help Jordanian youth fill their free time productively with educational opportunities by streamlining the connection between students and service providers. In second place was the only startup that week to produce revenue, Victory @ King’s, a food truck concept. In third place was iPipe, which aims to reduce the amount of water wasted in Jordan by designing a water pipe that comes fitted with pressure sensors to identify the location of leaks.

While Startup with Purpose offered participants a week full of learning and challenges, it also proved to be a week of discovery; not only of new business and technology skills, but of just how much one person, and one team, can achieve when they set their minds to it. Many students began to realize that their career plans were changing in light of what they learned.

“Ultimately, our goal is not to spit out entrepreneurs, but to have entrepreneurship be a vehicle to learning about yourself and the things that you enjoy so you can make sure the career path you choose has more joy in it,” says Singer.

Offering King’s aspiring entrepreneurs some final advice, Singer says to seek out other entrepreneurs for support and encouragement, and to think of entrepreneurship as a game, as this approach would allow them some distance in order not to get emotional when they get rejections.

“Entrepreneurship is a frustrating series of no’s, and everyone, whether in Jordan or in Silicon Valley, faces this,” says Singer. “You can’t blame the environment for you not succeeding, you have to find a clever way to figure it out. Once in a while, you get a brilliant yes; the trick is to know that is the case, and not to be demoralized by the no’s when you get them.”

Beyond King’s catches up with Henry Keenan ’14

How does it feel to be back at King’s?

You forget how different the culture is at school; there are so many people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, it makes it special in that sense.  

Dr. John Austin took a pretty big chance on welcoming Startup with Purpose to campus; I wasn’t a model student or an inspiring freshman! I’m thankful for the opportunity he gave us.

What made you pitch Jordan for Startup with Purpose?

I had a particular interest in Jordan because of school, and I was studying the Middle East at UC Berkeley so I knew about the existing problems in Jordan such as refugees and the conflicts surrounding the country. I follow youth and unemployment issues, and I knew the serious problems that can come about as a result of lack of natural resources. What this program does is teach people how to create value without pulling stuff out of the ground. I saw this as an opportunity to come back because Jordan is the only country in the region where I think you could do something like this and find people who are really motivated.

What was your impression of Startup’s first bootcamp at King’s?

All the organizers and mentors have repeatedly said how impressed they are with the level of work they’ve been getting from King’s students. King’s students were more than meeting their expectations; they were really impressed by the ideas and the rate by which they were able to execute them in such a short period of time. 

How has Arabic Year at King’s influenced your life since graduation?

King’s really gave me a bit of perspective that I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else. When I went to UC Berkeley I was taking some Middle Eastern studies classes for fun and thought I should keep it going since I had spent a year here and learned some Arabic. That ended up becoming my major. Now I’m a bit too invested to go back! This summer, I ended up working in a venture capital firm in Amman (Dash Ventures). King’s has really opened a lot of doors for me in the region, and opportunities I would never even have thought of if I had never come here.