Close the Opportunity Gap through high-impact programs before, during, and outside of school hours.
Karim Abouelnaga is CEO of Practice Makes Perfect, a company he founded when he was 18 years old. Practice Makes Perfect partners with K-12 schools to help narrow the opportunity gap.
Karim is a TED Fellow and Echoing Green Fellow. At 23, he was named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in education, and at 24 was named to Magic Johnson’s 32 under 32 list. In 2016, he was ranked in the top 3 most influential young entrepreneurs under 25 globally. Karim’s TED Talk was named one of the 9 Most Inspiring Talks of 2017.
Karim has gathered his lessons learned in a powerful new book, The Purpose-Driven Social Entrepreneur. A full transcript of the conversation can be found below.
Karim Abouelnaga Interview Transcript
Karim Abouelnaga: Hi, my name is Karim Abouelnaga, and I’m the founder and CEO of Practice Makes Perfect.
Tony Loyd: What is Practice Makes Perfect.
Karim Abouelnaga: Practice Makes Perfect is a Public Benefit Corporation that partners with K-12 schools to narrow the opportunity gap.
Tony Loyd: I like that phrase opportunity gaps. So, a lot of people say achievement gap. Why do you say opportunity gap?
Karim Abouelnaga: Because we actually don’t think it’s on the students. And it’s not a gap in a student’s ability or potential. It really is an opportunity gap. And I think it goes back to that famous quote where we talk about talent is universal, but the opportunity is not. And really we’re trying to make opportunity universal.
Practice Makes Perfect Uses Interventionists to Make an Impact
Tony Loyd: How do you help people? K through 12? What do you do? What do you provide?
Karim Abouelnaga: Yeah. I mean, the core of what we deliver when we’re partnering with schools is our intervention services. You can think of those as things like tutoring, mentoring, after-school Saturdays, there are summer programs, but I think it goes a little bit beyond that. We’re a lot more consultative in the way that we do our work.
It really is a true partnership. So we seek schools or schools seek us. We have those initial discovery conversations. We try and find out what the problems are. And sometimes we have a sense because we’ve been working with schools in the same neighborhood or schools in the same area.
And so we have our own ideas. But every single school is unique. Every culture and setup is unique and different. And one program that might succeed in one area isn’t necessarily going to succeed in the other. And so it’s trying to figure out how are we going to use our core product, which is the interventionists they’re college students or recent graduates who we train to do intervention work.
How will we use them to be the most effective and impactful in a given school environment or community? And they, they are the product at the end of the day. It’s our ability to identify high potential candidates to live in these same neighborhoods, understand the struggle, understand what’s happening in that community, and then equip them with the skills and the tools to help students in their backyards.
Tony Loyd: So let me see if I understand your solution. So, your answer is to train these interventionists, partner with schools, and look at all of the tools in your toolbox. You have a bunch of them: after-school programs, tutoring, et cetera. Which ones will fit best for that particular school? It’s kind of a customized solution by the school district.
Karim Abouelnaga: Actually, it’s by school by individual schools. So that’s how tailored it is.
How Practice Makes Perfect Started
Tony Loyd: You’ve arrived at this, but is that how you started? I mean, what was your first product? How did you get there?
Karim Abouelnaga: Yeah. I mean, so this is year 10, as crazy as that is.
Tony Loyd: I’m sure year ten looks exactly like year one, right?
Karim Abouelnaga: It feels like it’s sometimes where you still have that sense of, okay, well, what’s happening? What’s going on? Is this the right thing? And I think as you’re always like going through the product, you’re continuing to question what you’re doing, and you’re thinking about how to improve it. But it’s finding that balance between continuous improvement and sticking with something and like driving it through to work.
But no, we didn’t start there. We started with summer. A lot of the initial research and discovery around the achievement gap, which inspired the work in the first place, was these disparities that we jumped into. And when we said, okay, well, where do we fix this? And where do we start?
So much so that for the first seven or eight years, all we did was summer and people almost pigeonholed us into a summer-only organization. And that was never our intention. We didn’t want to end the summer learning loss or solve the summer slide, even though that was a big focus for us in the beginning.
We did want to narrow the opportunity gap, and that meant going more broadly. Still, it wasn’t until we felt confident and comfortable in our ability to operate and run those programs at the level of consistency and fidelity that we wanted. We started to think about broader impact and work during the school year and during the school day, and on the weekends.
Tony Loyd: What about you, Karim? What was the path that led you to do this work?
Karim Abouelnaga: Yeah. I always tell people that I kind of fell into it. But when I fell into it, I finally embraced it. I never thought that I’d be an education entrepreneur one day, working with schools that I attended. And I think that’s the most fulfilling part at schools that I attended: kids that I grew up with, the neighborhoods that I’m in.
And I kind of thought I was always going to be this investment banker who was going to work on wall street. And I say that because I grew up in a low-income household, I was raised by a single mother. And when you were growing up poor, like you want to be rich, that’s your mindset.
And so it’s, how do you become rich? And when you’re a kid, it’s a doctor because that’s what everyone knows, even outside of like mainstream. And then when you get into the more educated circles, you realize, okay, well, it’s doctor, investment banker, or lawyer or engineer. From there, you kind of figure out, okay, well, which of those paths makes the most sense?
Or which of those am I most interested in? And then I realized. I didn’t want to be a doctor. I just wanted to make a lot of money. I found myself going down the investment banker route. Then I stumbled upon the inequality and the disparities and realized that so many of the opportunities I was afforded were because other people went out of their way to start creating pathways and thinking about education and creating opportunities for kids growing up like me.
In so many ways, when I started it, it was a passion project. How do I give back in my neighborhood, but by the time I was getting ready to graduate from college, it’s weird. It’s like that moment where they say, it’s one of those fundamental, like transition points, are there moments in your life?
And it’s an inflection point. And I said, okay, well, I’m going to do this full time. It can’t just be a passion project anymore. So what is this? And I spent a lot of time, my senior year of college, just reflecting on what this was. And to me, it wasn’t just the tutoring or mentoring organization that some people called it.
It was my life’s work. At that moment, I felt like I was committing to my purpose. I did a lot of reflection on why this like problem. Why was it important to me? Why am I the right person to be doing this? And then adding some urgency to it. Like what’s going to differentiate me here. And when I finally put to paper the answers to a lot of those questions, I was like, Oh snap, this isn’t an accident like this isn’t a coincidence.
I have a sense of moral obligation to be doing this, whether or not I want to do this or not. Like, I think I’m supposed to be doing this. And at every step of the way, every turn of the path, I just continued to get more and more reassurance. And now I’m at a point in the more I know this is like, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.
Whether or not I like it. This is, this is it.
Tony Loyd: Yeah. So, let’s go back a little bit further then. You were saying that you’re serving the schools that you attended. But I read your book, and you tell the story about how you went from high school into college, and then you made this transition to Cornell. There was something right in that transition that revealed for you about opportunity gaps.
So talk to me about that.
Karim Abouelnaga: Yeah. by growing up in a low-income neighborhood, my parents are immigrants. So you don’t know any better sometimes. I went to low-income schools. Many of them are academically struggling. And even when you’re in an academically struggling school doesn’t mean that it’s all bad, but you don’t always necessarily find the resources.
I was disengaged in middle school; I had 60 absences in seventh grade. I always joke that in 2000 and 2001, when they passed the no child left behind bill, my siblings and I were running around saying like, Oh, they can’t hold us back anymore because it says no child left behind. It had nothing to do with that, but it felt like we didn’t go to school, and somehow we still got promoted.
I went to my local high school at the time. There were 4,400 kids there, a 55% graduation rate. And I don’t want to say it was luck because I don’t think it was luck. I do believe there was a lot of divine intervention there. And there is something to be said about being in the right place at the right time.
And so, in that sense, I’m a bit of an outlier. But I had a series of nonprofits and mentors who ultimately stepped into my life—people who took an interest in me. And then I think it was the combination of that and my innate ability to ask for help. And I don’t know how that was developed or materialized, but I’ll tell you one quick story.
It was my senior year. I was a part of this program called rewarding achievement, where they paid kids to pass AP exams. And they pick kids at 31 struggling New York City public high schools. If you know anything about New York City, there are like 500 high schools, and two or 300 are probably struggling, given the demographics and the poverty. And I happen to be at one of the 31 where kids were magically paid to pass the AP exams. I passed five AP exams because of this incentive program. And I collected my last check, and I have this sense of like guilt. Because I had friends at other schools that were equally struggling and they weren’t getting paid to pass the AP exams, and they weren’t getting the extra support in the executive director at the time gave me that check.
And I remember going up to him and saying, thank you so much. If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know. Because when you’re poor, you don’t want a handout. You don’t want people just to give you things. Cause you feel like something is up with it. And you also don’t want to feel like you owe someone something either.
And he said, there’s nothing you can do for me. Just pay it forward. And at that moment, I felt like for the rest of my life, I was going to make good on that promise by paying it forward. I took that same thing to heart by asking for help. I get help. I receive it. It’s going to help build me up.
I’m going to get to a position where I can help more people, and that’s the ultimate goal, and that’s the way I always saw it. And because of that, I was less ashamed or less embarrassed or less afraid. To ask people for their time or place, I know as annoying or burdensome, like ask some times, but I did it because I knew I could help so many more people when I did.
Tony Loyd: Where did you start college?
Karim Abouelnaga: I started at Baruch. So I went to my local city college, and for high school, I applied to two schools. I applied to MIT because I saw it on Goodwill Hunting, and then Baruch was a local business school. And when I was growing up, you are going to be either a rapper, an entrepreneur, or you were going to play basketball.
And my basketball career was limited to a hobby. And I couldn’t rap. So I was going to become an entrepreneur and study business. And Baruch was the local business school. I scored a 1770 out of 2,400 on the SATs. That put me in the 95th percentile in my high school but the 70th percentile nationwide.
When I was going to school, they only looked at it compared to how you did with like everyone else in the nation. And so I didn’t have a competitive SAT score to get into MIT. And so when I got rejected, I was like, rightfully so. And I went to a local business school. They say the SAT’s supposed to be a predictor of how you’re going to do your first year of college.
After that, your first year is more indicative of how you’re going to do for the rest of your college career than the SATs. And I got a 4.0 my first semester at Baruch. And so it wasn’t, in my case, indicative at all. There was no correlation there. And I had an opportunity to transfer because I reached back out to that same executive director who gave me that check and said pay it forward.
And so I kind of went back to him, and I was like, Oh, I never have to pay this guy back. So I can continue to ask him for help.
Tony Loyd: It’s a good friend to have. You decided to transfer to Cornell, but between Baruch and Cornell, something brought the opportunity gap to your attention. What, what was that?
Karim Abouelnaga: Yeah. So I thought Cornell was expensive, and I would have to apply for a bunch of scholarships to get money to transfer. And I ran across a scholarship that was funded by the United Negro College Fund and Coca-Cola. They put out a challenge. They would give $10,000 to any student who can develop a solution for the achievement gap that involves corporate intervention. And at the time, I thought, well, I don’t know anything about the achievement gap, and no one in my family had ever worked at a corporation, but I want $10,000 to go to Cornell. And so I did what any student at that moment would’ve done.
I just started doing research. That is where I was blown away. Because of this term that I had never heard about in my entire life, and as a freshman in college at that point, I never heard anything about the achievement gap in my life. It was the way I grew up. The schools I was attending, my potential life outcomes, my siblings’ life outcomes, all my friends’ life outcomes – the statistics were all there, and that’s what they were talking about. The disparities in our test scores, like my SAT scores. It had nothing to do with my aptitude or ability.
And more to do with the resources that I had access to when I was going through it. And so I felt an immediate connection and sense of like frustration with the fact that these gaps in these disparities also weren’t new. These are problems that we’ve been talking about for decades. This is 2009 or 2010 when I’m going through this, and it just didn’t make any sense to me. And so I put together a proposal at the time, it didn’t go anywhere and ultimately didn’t win the competition, but I felt so connected to the problem. And like, I felt compelled to do something about it. And that’s ultimately what started my journey.
Tony Loyd: Achievement gap: you could almost plot academic achievement by poverty level and zip code.
Karim Abouelnaga: I take it a step further too, and say, then you can plot poverty to race. And so there’s, there are almost all three things there that are correlated or tied together.
Practice Makes Perfect is Born
Tony Loyd: As you said right from the go here, you said, look, that’s an opportunity gap. So you got this scholarship opportunity. Evidently, you launched something while you were in college. So what was your first offering to the world?
Karim Abouelnaga: Yeah, so I transfer. I get to Cornell. In the process, I decided that I have to do something about the problem, even though I didn’t win the funding for it. I compel a group of friends to come together and do something, and we decided we’re going to do something over the summer. Because the summer is where they said two-thirds of the disparities and opportunities don’t exist.
And kids are regressing, and I was like, Oh, this is common sense. Everyone knows over the summer; you forget what you’re learning. Even as a kid, you know that it’s happening. You just don’t know what it’s called. And then you go back to school, and you spend the next four to six weeks learning the stuff from the year before when you should be learning this stuff for that year.
And again, you don’t question it; you just sort of go with it. And I thought, well, the obvious solution here is summer school, but summer school sucks. It’s punishment for the kids and babysitting for the teachers.
And you’re like there has to be a better way. And so I said, the reason why it is the way that it is because people haven’t decided to innovate or redesign summer. And so the version, like 1.0, was starting a near-peer mentoring program at my high school, just over the summer with the express, explicit intention of eliminating this summer learning loss.
And I had a tough time getting people bought in, had a really hard time getting any funding. And I remember reaching out to another mentor at the time and saying like, “Hey, this is what I want to do.” And his mentor Vernon Jordan told him that you can’t write a check until you’ve made one.
And JZ says like you can’t help the poor if you’re one of them. And I remember thinking to myself, well, I’m poor. Yes. But I’m at Cornell. At that point, I had lined up an internship at Goldman Sachs, and if I’m poor, imagine everyone else back home. And this is how he was talking to me, at this prestigious and wealthy university.
I was like, the money has to be here. And that, that was the environment, ultimately that helped bring anything I was doing to fruition.
Tony Loyd: Yeah, I just so love that. You can’t write a check until you’ve made one. I so love that, and you can’t help the poor if you are one. So you made a decision somewhere along the way, and I just, I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but you said right at the top that you’re a public benefit corporation, so you’re not a nonprofit.
Practice Makes Perfect is a Public Benefit Corporation
Karim Abouelnaga: No. So we started as a nonprofit and then later on converted our legal status. And I think I just learned along the way that your legal status is your it’s almost like your conduit. You want to pick the legal status. It’s just the legal structure. You want to choose the legal status or structure that will enable you to best serve and fulfill your mission.
And when, when we started, we were serving low-income kids and families directly. And I realized that the only way to serve low-income kids and families directly was through philanthropy, where we could get some benefactors and ultimately pay for our programs and our services. We then hit this inflection point again in our business journey where the only way to scale was not to serve the low-income kids and families directly but to serve the schools that serve large amounts of low-income kids and families.
And so you have to make that personal decision for yourself. You can choose. Do you want to go deeper? And do you want to be all about quality? Or do you want to create some semblance of quantity, and how do you trade that off? I’m in the process of what you’re doing. And I wanted to reach as many kids as possible.
I wanted to serve as many students as possible, which meant getting access to as many kids and families as possible. And we shifted our focus from serving kids and families directly to serving the schools that serve the kids and families. And at that point, our legal structure made more sense as a public benefit corporation than it did as a 501(c)(3).
Tony Loyd: So talk to me about scale then. If you’re thinking about your impact, give me a sense of that.
Karim Abouelnaga: Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s weird. Cause it never feels like it’s enough. I was just looking at this last year, and we serve close to 15,000 students, a little bit over 15,000 students. I mean, we were partnered with 67 schools last school year, and we’re still ramping up this year. I think we’re right around that mark.
I think by the end of this year, we’ll get to close to 80 or 90 schools when all is said and done. And then the depth. So every program is sort of unique, but we’re improving math outcomes or improving reading outcomes. And we have different case studies on our website. So important, poor people with that on the summer side, which is what we’ve been still like most known for.
We’ve been eliminating the summer slide. So eliminating any sense of regression and then helping kids make the growth of a month or two months, some cases three or four months in math and reading over the summer. So, and it’s not, it’s not just a focus on outputs, and it’s probably like a big part of what we do is like this focus on inputs.
How do we make sure that the folks we’re selecting – who are going in there and doing the teaching or the tutoring or the mentoring – are high quality? And then the design. The setup. The environment matters. How do we make sure that we’re setting it up, setting up our programs in a way that is going to elicit or drive outcomes?
Instead of just saying like, Hey, here’s smart person, like go figure it out. It’s like, no, Hey, here’s a smart person. This is exactly what you’re going to be doing to help us achieve this outcome.
Karim’s Book, The Purpose-Driven Social Entrepreneur
Tony Loyd: You’ve had a ton of recognition along the way, you know, Forbes 30, under 30 somebody, else’s 32 over 32. I don’t know. You’ve been in pretty much every list of accolades that’s ever been. And you start in this high school; you make your way through this. You’re now making an impact, and you’re in a position where you could scale and grow this thing nationally or wherever.
One of the things you said early on was. Pay it forward. You have taken your lessons learned, and you’ve put them in a book. So, first of all, congratulations, I know what it takes to write a book. And so, you know, that is quite an accomplishment. I have the book in my hand, and not only is it a book, but it also has a 2021 copyright date. I’m so impressed. You have a 2021 book. You must have been working on this during 2020 and the middle of all the chaos and the pandemic and everything. I found it interesting that you started with purpose. You could have started with anything, you know, the product you could have started with market research.
You could have started with anything. You decided to start with purpose. Why is that?
Karim Abouelnaga: Like without purpose, everything else is lost. Purpose is this like an empty notion or thought. But purpose is that nothing that makes you something. It gives you that feeling of, okay, let me get up. Let me do this. When things are hard, because they will be, things are no easier for me than they are for anyone else. In those moments, when I’m challenged, when I’m pushed, what is it that keeps me going? It’s understanding my why and understanding my purpose. I’m supposed to be doing this, and there’s no way out.
It’s one thing when you can leave and do something else. But when you say this is what I’m supposed to be doing, and this is my purpose, there’s no way out. So I have to figure it out. If you have that kind of mindset, you’re going to be successful at anything you’re doing. Whether it’s your job day to day, building a business, running a social enterprise for-profit company, whatever it may be that you’re doing.
And so you always have to start with the, with the why and start with that purpose.
Who is the Book For?
Tony Loyd: This book has several chapters on purpose, mindset, and starting. It has chapters on people. It’s not just about achieving results but achieving results through others. You talk about structure. That’s where you talk a lot about for-profits nonprofits and different ways you can structure your company. You talk about operations, how to make things work, the business model, all that. So, you go into a lot of great information in here.
Who is this book for?
Karim Abouelnaga: What I was thinking. How about the ideal person who would pick up this book? I, I was thinking about the social entrepreneur or the aspiring social entrepreneur. And not just in college – maybe that person who’s been at a career for a few years. Or someone who is thinking about their last stint, what is that going to look like?
Or what is it going to be? And I wanted to write that book for them because the first thing people always struggle with is, how do I start, or where do I go? And I wanted to give that individual who is thinking about the social enterprise or social business that toolset. And again, many people always say like, well, if I go and do that stuff, is it sustainable?
How do I make it work? And I felt like there wasn’t enough out there about sustainable businesses that were doing something meaningful, actually solving social problems. And I fundamentally came to this conclusion a few years ago that the future is this merger. I think nonprofits are incredible and that they solve social problems.
And that’s what they do, but it’s also really difficult to scale. For-profits are great in that they solve pain points, and that’s how they generate their profits. How do we merge the two in the future? So people aren’t just getting up to create a profit. They’re getting up to make a difference.
And how do you use that profit to fuel your growth and fuel your sustainability? And it’s something I’m proud of. We’ve been profitable for three years. And we don’t put on any distributions. We continue to reinvest in what we’re doing. We continue to invest in our people.
We continue to scale. And it’s, it’s kind of like a nonprofit model because you’re not pulling profits out, but it’s not at the same time either. ? Like we’re generating profit with purpose, and then we’re continuing to grow and use that to fuel our success.
One Key Piece of Advice
Tony Loyd: If you were to kind of boil down to the critical piece of advice for an aspiring early-stage social entrepreneur, what’s something you’ve learned on your journey that you would pass along?
Karim Abouelnaga: A lot of times when we’re solving social problems. We kind of get defeated or run down because we feel like there’s a system of oppression and that someone is intentionally creating some of these problems. And we saw it with the – the philanthropist who was putting money in and the problems they’re creating.
And it’s very easy to get jaded. Or give up on what you’re doing. And I took a very different mindset at one point and realized that it wasn’t oppression. It was apathy. And so don’t let other people’s apathy be the reason why you stopped. And what you need to do as a social entrepreneur is make people empathetic.
And if not empathetic, at least sympathetic to what you’re doing. Because if you can get people to care about the cause that’s important to you, then change will come to fruition. And a lot of times, we take for granted that people have lives. We don’t wake up every single day thinking about we’re going to solve world hunger.
How will we create world peace or maybe the achievement gap or sex trafficking or whatever it is? Different problems are going to resonate differently with people, but they don’t resonate with everyone. And it’s your responsibility and job as a social entrepreneur to get people to see why this is so important and make them care.
And I think when they care, then you’ll see change, and you’ll see outcomes.
Find Karim Online
Tony Loyd: So if people are looking for you online or on social media, where are they going to look?
Karim Abouelnaga: Yeah, I mean, I have a website. It’s just KarimAbouelnaga.com. And through that, you can submit a contact form. You can also find me on Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook. I’m on all of those platforms as well. And then I check all my messages. So even if I can’t respond to all of them, I see them.
A Call to Action
Tony Loyd: What would you call on us to go and do as a result of this conversation?
Karim Abouelnaga: I think this conversation was too short to cover a lot of what I wanted to cover but pick up the book. And if you’re inspired by what you heard or even just want to get deeper into what you could be doing, think about the investment you’re making in yourself. I didn’t write the book just to give someone something else to do.
I gave them a tool that will hopefully help them grow as individuals and think differently about their lives.
Tony Loyd: Karim, Thank you so much for being with us on Social Entrepreneur.
Karim Abouelnaga: Pleasure is all mine. Thank you, Tony.