By Emilie Munson
GREENWICH — After four years running his own $170 million hedge fund, Jonathan Starr decided it was time for a change of career — and continent.
The highly competitive business man jetted to Somaliland, a poor region in Northern Somalia, where, appalled by the state of local education, he proceeded to found an intensive boarding school that would set Somalian students on the path to becoming the next leaders and innovators of their country.
“If you inspire kids, they can do amazing things,” said Starr.
An American founding a school in needy country isn’t necessarily unique, but the success of Starr’s students is. Although most students enter his school in ninth grade with the reading and math skills of a third grader, Starr has sent 80 students on to the world’s top universities like Harvard University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Starr shared his story at The Nantucket Project Library in Greenwich this week. Through its yearly ideas festival on Nantucket, workshops around the country and short documentary films, The Nantucket Project gives spirited thinkers a platform to present their work.
“Here’s a hedge fund guy who found a higher purpose,” said Scott Williams, president of The Nantucket Project.
Even when he was founding Flagg Street Capital, the Cambridge, Mass.-based hedge fund he named after his elementary school, Starr was unsure finance was his true calling.
“I’m a very obsessive person; I didn’t love that that’s what I was obsessing about,” he said. “If I was going to be up at three in the morning — which I am up all too often at three in the morning — thinking about something, I didn’t want it to be about that.”
Starr wanted to connect with people more, so in 2008 he closed down his hedge fund. The 32-year-old had a Somalian uncle so he traveled to the African nation and soon found himself overcome with “Somaliland fever,” he said.
“Before I had finished my first two week trip there, I had committed: ‘You know what I am going to do for the most talented kids in the country. I’m gonna make the future leaders of the country,’” he said. “It just seemed like my best chance to do something special. That’s why I did it. It just seemed like the best single chance to do something really impactful.”
Somaliland is a region of Somalia, a Muslim nation in the “Horn of Africa,” that declared its independence in 1991 after the country’s brutal civil war. Somaliland is internationally unrecognized but has a stable government with peaceful elections, separate from Somalia’s administration. The Horn of Africa has struggled with famines and the radical Islamic terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, in recent years.
When Starr arrived, the state of education in Somalia was bleak. Most adults in the country were uneducated, and unemployment climbed over 75 percent. The few schools and universities available in the country were terrible, according to Starr.
Starr saw a need to educate Somalian children so that they could attend international universities and become the leaders and innovators who would return to their country with the skills to turn it around.
In 2009, Starr donated half a million dollars and collected a team of young Western teachers, many of whom lacked teaching degrees, to start the Abaarso School of Science and Technology. With 50 ninth graders enrolled, the co-educational boarding school was “bare bones” at first, Starr said, and many locals were suspicious of the foreign institution.
Many of Starr’s students were like Abaarso alumnus Abdirahim Mohamed, who has 28 siblings and half-siblings. Mohamed said before coming to Abaarso his primary school classes often had 120 children in them and were conducted under a tree. Most learning consisted of rote memorization, not critical thinking.
Starr attributes Abaarso’s success to the culture he infused in the school.
“When the students came to school, we convinced them that it was worth it for them to invest in their future,” he said. “We convinced them that it was worth it to put everything they had into making themselves better every day … We convinced them that the future of their country and their future depended on this, and it was true.”
The school gained attention when Mubarik Mohamoud, a student from a nomadic family in Abaarso’s first class who came to the school unable to speak any English, obtained a scholarship to Worcester Academy and put up remarkable grades, including a perfect 5 in AP Calculus. Before Abaarso, Mohamoud thought trucks crossing the Somaliland landscape were massive animals; he will graduate from MIT with an electrical engineering and computer science degree.
Starr said Mohamoud’s success at Worcester Academy was “critical” because it proved what Abaarso could do.
“Suddenly, the entire thing changed,” he said. Now, the school had 1,500 students applying for 50 spots.
Student Abdirahim Mohamed, who spoke Tuesday, said he applied to Abaarso because he heard that the school would get him into Harvard.
“Harvard was the only school I knew,” said Mohamed. “I was like, ‘I want to go to Harvard.’”
Tall and soft-spoken, Mohamed is now a freshman at Brown University where he studies economics and math.
Starr and Mohamed fielded questions from a crowd of 30 at the Nantucket Project Library.
The event, “It Takes a School: An American School in Somaliland,” was co-sponsored by the Global Citizens Initiative, an education nonprofit based in Greenwich that provides mentorship to talented high schoolers from around the world to turn their solutions to global problems into realities. Mohamed is one of about 75 students who has participated in the GCI program.
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