It is now over 18 years that I have been pursuing a revolutionary idea- Youth as a Solution, not as a Problem. I have seen through my work that when young people are encouraged and not looked down positive change occurs in the lives of everyone. I have demonstrated again and again that when young people are provided structured opportunities they show the ability to transform themselves from victims to leaders, from at-risk to at-strength, from sheltered to shaper of the society and from service seekers to service providers.
During these many years, I have tested several ideas of working with young people successfully. Recently, I have experimented a new idea that points to a new understanding of the entrepreneurial potential of marginalized youth of the country. I did this experiment with the most neglected, destitute, marginalized and half educated youth studying in the state-owned charity-based technical institutions based in the Punjab province of the Pakistan. I preferred to test the idea with the students of the technical institutions because they and their families are seriously struggling financially. They are living with little or no access to basic amenities of life. What I wanted to prove that these young people despite of living in the poorest families or neighborhoods and having very little or no education can still turn around their lives if they are valued and trusted as equal partners in development. It is not poverty, lack of education and support that is blocking their progress, it is the paradigm (collection of values) in which they live creates stumbling block in their progress. These young people are as much gifted as young people living in high or middle income families.
I engaged 5950 young people (boys and girls) of 79 vocational technical institutions operating under the Punjab Vocational Training Council in four weeks Enterprise Development Competition. These institutions were nominated by the senior management of Punjab Vocational Training Council after seeking expression of interest from them. It was not compulsory for any institution to participate in the competition. The institutions were given a free will to decide about their participation in the four weeks competition. Twenty two institutions were selected from the Southern Punjab, 32 from the Northern Punjab and 25 from the Central Punjab. Before engaging the young people in four weeks competition, I conducted a few workshops with the teachers of the 79 technical institutions to build an ecosystem enabling to facilitate young people to test their ideas freely. Young people were organized in small teams of 5 members. A total of 1190 youth teams participated in the competition. 407 teams participated from south, 466 teams from north and 317 teams took part in Emerging Entrepreneurship Competition from Central Punjab.
Out of 1190 teams, 523 teams were comprised of female youth and 667 teams were comprised of male youth. Each team was given a grant of Rs.2500 (US$25) on the condition that whatever will turn out, profit or loss, my organization will take it. I designed this model because of the strong resistance of the parents and teachers to provide small loan without interest facility to young people as they thought that young people would not be able to pay back even a small amount of loan in case of loss in the business. They were of the view that since young people have not received any formal training of enterprise development before and have no previous experience of running an enterprise therefore it would be virtually impossible for young people to start and run a business for four weeks successfully. I designed the idea in a manner to give a free hand to young people to do whatever they wanted to do without a fear of failure.
My organization invested US$34900. After four weeks not to my surprise the amount was almost doubled as the youth teams made a profit of US$29,000. Young people carried out a wide range of need-based projects in their communities and provided services to over 60,000 people of all ages. Their projects included but not limited to health and first aid projects, skill development projects, peace building projects, handicraft projects, sports projects, cosmetic project, child care projects, women empowerment projects, jewelry projects, information technology projects, grocery selling projects, etc. The top three teams based on the triple bottom line of profit, positive social impact and environmental stewardship received cash awards and public encouragement. The top three winning teams earned US$1026 (male youth team), US$1021 (female youth team) and US$869 (female youth team) profit in four weeks respectively.
The male youth winning team provided electrical appliances services to the people of their communities. They adopted a very aggressive field approach to reach out to masses. They mentioned during the award ceremony of the competition that the major reason for their success was the support and encouragement provided by their teacher. The first runner up female youth team provided designing and stitching services to local industries. The female youth team mentioned that they decided to reach out to local industries instead of customers. They established partnerships with more than 5 local industries in a short period of time. The second runner up female youth team provided information technology training to the girls of ‘Madaris’ at their institutions. The female youth team mentioned that they reached out to well-established ‘Madaris’ and offered their services to equip the female students with computer education.
Out of 1190 teams, 926 youth teams were able to generate profit while 130 teams stood with no profit and no loss and 134 teams suffered loss. Overall, 75% of male participating teams were successful in running a profitable business and 81% of female participating teams were able to gather profits. More so, a higher percentage of male teams experienced losses as compared to female teams. 13.9% of male youth teams suffered loss while 7.8% of the female youth teams suffered loss. When the reason for loss was investigated from the losing youth teams it was found out that the dominating factor was the lack or absence of support from the teachers and the parents.
The top performing or most entrepreneurial region of the Punjab was south. Only 11 youth teams, out of 407 youth teams suffered a loss. Overall, it generated 99% profit. It is important to note that Southern Punjab is under discussion and spotlighted for all wrong reasons including terrorism in recent times. This experiment further highlights the fact about the need and urgency of reaching out marginalized youth to provide them a better and productive pathway to development.
My project proved the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 1: We must not expect less of any young person. We should not consider marginalized young people having no talents or abilities. Young people living in low income communities possess enormous latent entrepreneurial potential as possessed by the young people who are educated and living in high income communities.
Hypothesis 2: There is no pre-condition to become an entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur. The only thing which is required to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of young people is the support and encouragement by the adults or youth-serving institutions. I learnt that young people can succeed if they have a functional institution but dysfunctional family, young people can also succeed if they have functional family but dysfunctional institution but young people cannot succeed if they have dysfunctional families and dysfunctional institutions.
Hypothesis 3: The outcome of the project also reveals that education is not enough, skill is not enough and financial assistance is not enough to become an entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur. It is the application of heart and mind intelligence that exceeds all other intelligence to become an entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur. Heart and mind intelligence flourishes in a culture of respect, love and trust.
Hypothesis 4: The project seriously challenged and questioned the way in which entrepreneurship education is currently offered at colleges and universities based on the rational oriented educational system which does not promote creativity, self-determination and problem solving abilities. The result of project revealed that entrepreneurship can’t just be taught as an intellectual discipline — it has to be experienced. To become an entrepreneur, students need opportunities to experience the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur, including experiencing success and failure.
Hypothesis 5: The project proved the fact that all young people could be changemakers if they are provided the support and encouragement. The success and failure depends on the paradigm in which young people live and operate. The degrees or skills do not control results, effectiveness and productivity. When we change the paradigm of young people we can change the results.
Hypothesis 6: The project has shown that a vast majority of young people are living their lives in a very restricted physical, intellectual, social and moral circle of their potential being. They either do not explore their entrepreneurial potential or are not given space to explore their talents and natural abilities.
According to students, this competition has stimulated students’ innovative spirit and entrepreneurial desire. The project changed the lives and way of thinking of many young students ready to enter their professional lives. According to many female students, one of the most salient features of this competition was learning how to interact with customers and to sell the product. Furthermore, a vast majority of the young people mentioned that unexpectedly the competition also taught them how a small amount of investment can help them to generate multifold profits alongside benefitting the society in a positive manner. The youth was very happy for bringing such a competition to their institutes as it taught them the nuts and bolts of conducting a business; something they could not have learned during their coursework.
At the end of the competition, YES organized an award ceremony to appreciate and acknowledge the contributions of the top performing students, faculty members, principals and regional heads. All the students, teachers and principals who participated in the competition were given certificates of appreciation. The highest profit making student team of the entire competition was given a cash reward of Rs. 100,000 (US$ 1000). The highest profit making team of the winning Vocational Training Institute was also given cash reward of Rs. 100,000 (US$ 1000). In addition to that, the teacher and principal of the winning VTI were also given cash reward of Rs. 100,000 each.
At Competition Level: After the roaring success of the competition, we brought minor changes in the terms and conditions of the current year competition. YES is sharing 30% profit with the student teams in case of loss in any student-led enterprise, YES will bear it alone. We have successfully completed the project in the central region where the results are very identical in terms of the social and economic value creation by the students. Next year, we are planning to bring the profit sharing ratio to 50:50.
At Country and Global Level:
Traditional examinations should be replaced by an enterprise project in the social sector such as organizing a campaign on education, health, environment thus offering value to the community.
Existing youth internship programs should be replaced with youth engagement programs. Under internship programs, young people be provided opportunities to get employment experience. It would be better if we encourage and provide resources (internship stipend) to young people to establish a community-based social enterprise.
Billions of dollars are being spent on poverty reduction programs by providing nominal stipends to families without making any concerted effort to unleash enormous entrepreneurial spirit present in human beings. The result is that despite spending these enormous funds on poverty reduction or alleviation programs people are unable to come out of poverty. These programs have further promoted a sense of dependency and sluggishness.
I cannot understand people, organizations and donor agencies who work with youth and seem to refuse to surrender their long-held traditional views of working with young people. We could go so much further ahead if we had changed our thinking and understood that marginalized youth can do more than just crime and violence. The youth-serving organizations have developed every kind of curriculum and hired and engaged trained specialist to stem the tide but without success. This long held status quo is hurting the marginalized youth the most. A complete overhaul is required in thinking, designing and practices. We need new thinking as our old thinking has failed us miserably. Time is ripe for a new idea which provides an alternative vision of what is desirable and possible- a vision which may truly reflect what is missing and needed. It is time to broaden responses and options. We must provide at-least one opportunity to every young person to explore his/her entrepreneurial potential. We must move away from crisis reduction programs to strength based programs. We have a gold mine of talents in the shape of young people in Pakistan. They need not only education and skills but also an opportunity to discover the champion in them. We must find new ways to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit across the board that includes marginalized youth. The most important question today is not what we can do for the youth of the world, it should be what youth can do for themselves and for Pakistan. We have to be more innovative and thoughtful in our approach to engage marginalized youth and avoid sending the message that we only care about them when you cause harm to others.
About the Author
Ali Raza Khan has dedicated himself to promote ‘Youth as a Solution’ in the society. Ali is taking both direct and institutional change approach to foster a culture of youth-led development and social innovation. Ali is the founder of Youth Engagement Services (YES) Network Pakistan. His organization facilitates thousands of children and young people to begin their entrepreneurial journey each year through its projects. Idea testing in the field of youth engagement is his craft.
For more information about his work please visit: www.yesnetworkpakistan.org