Startup culture is going to school. In Toronto, Canada, two entrepreneur brothers have set up an incubator of people, one of promising talents instead of startups. Opened in May 2016, this weekend school “teaches young people aged 13 to 17 to become their best selves,” director Navid Nathoo says. He’s hoping that somewhere among his little geniuses is the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs.
Where did the idea of the Knowledge Society come from?
My brother Nadeem and I come from the startup world. Once we finished business school, we started working for different companies. He ended up getting hired by McKinsey, the major consulting firm, and I created my company for data security, Airpost. To develop it, I visited incubators like Nextstars and Y Combinator. I saw how the value of companies could go from 0 to several billion dollars in just a few years. Behind the successes of Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit, there’s always one or two people with an idea at the beginning. Why do they work so well? We saw that success came in large part from exploitation of available resources. Airbnb rents apartments that already exist, for example.
But this process isn’t what we learn at school. The education system doesn’t take tools like Google into proper account, which give students the power to study any subject with a click. This system came about at a time when books and notebooks were essential. In other words, printing is at the foundation of modern education, and that’s hardly evolved since.
How is the Knowledge Society different from traditional school?
When we started TKS with my brother, we asked ourselves how to solve the most important problems in the world. We couldn’t do it ourselves because there are so many. So we imagined we’d need to teach the people capable of solving them. Instead of maximizing revenues, we want to maximize impact. We have a goal, at least, which the education system doesn’t have. Or rather, it does, which is just to make students competitive enough to go to university, or to be functional enough for blue-collar work. People like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs didn’t come from those places. They succeeded despite the system, by going off the beaten path.
In the end, the issue with schools is that they teach you to assess risk. Instead, we try to optimize success. That’s our state of mind. We’re looking for the best scenario instead of avoiding the worst.
Is this a philosophy you took from startups?
That comes from my parents. They came from East Africa. My mother was born in Uganda, where she was hunted by the dictator of the time, Amin Dada. Fortunately, she was able to board a plane for Vancouver with the support of the Aga Khan Foundation, an NGO that takes its name of a rich Ismaili family, a branch of Shiite Islam. Since she was part of this community, my mother received aid, just as others in the faith were. Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, where I grew up, was part of it too.
Like him, my father comes from Tanzania. He had to leave because the government requisitioned his land. He arrived in England at 14 with empty pockets, without having finished school. He became an air traffic controller at night while working in a bakery by day. He was always working to help his two sisters and two brothers. He saved money, and he ended up buying a bakery, then another, and he finally decided to move to Canada. That’s where he met my mother. They’re both intelligent but don’t have a degree. They passed their tenacity and perseverance down to me.
Where did you get your intellectual education?
While we were in business school, we went to Bangladesh with my brother. We joined the biggest microfinance institution in the world. It sent us into villages with no running water, where bed bugs and cockroaches were everywhere. There wasn’t much to eat apart from rice. That was part of the experience. We also went to northern Tajikistan, in the mountain region, to help young children with access to education. Once while we were driving our car from one village to another, the road became so narrow that I imagined myself falling into the ravine. That struck me. Next, I taught courses at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa, Kenya.
Then I founded Airpost. I was 25 when it was purchased by Box.com. I found myself working at a new company, where I managed artificial intelligence questions. Outside of the interns, I was the youngest person on the team. I supervised people coming from Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). That proves that a diploma doesn’t guarantee success and it doesn’t define intelligence. What’s more valuable is knowledge, spirit, and people’s unique lived experiences. That’s the principle we build our program on at the Knowledge Society.
Who are your students and what do you teach them?
There’s a form to fill out to apply. The Knowledge Society is an additional program, without the official school label. During the week, our students are in class fulfilling academic obligations, and on the weekend they come to the Knowledge Society. We attract young, ambitious and curious people, without specialized knowledge bases, and we put them on another path. They study technologies and sciences like artificial intelligence, gene editing, blockchain, quantum computing, nanotechnology, the control of human aging… all these new tools that will impact the world.
TKS is not an academic program but an organization for human development. The first step is to support students’ growth. We teach them to become their best selves, in other words conscious beings who know themselves well enough to be intrinsically motivated. We teach them to define what success is to them, not how society defines it. It takes people who know themselves, know how to motivate themselves and know how to stay motivated. And when they enter the market, we’ll invest in their companies. A platform will connect them with our students, and some former students will give advice.
What response have you had from the education system?
Some schools appreciate what we’re doing, others less so. Some of them believe that their students will figure out what they want to do later on. I’m surprised by the number of school principals who think like that. They keep their children from exploring their passions. Some students have had problems with their schools because they were absent one or two days to go give a lecture or because they didn’t have the time to do their lessons. The education system is outdated. It’s ironic, but some teachers aren’t well educated. That needs to change. On the other hand, we have partnerships with companies like Google, Microsoft, Airbnb, Walmart, Nestlé and Facebook. Our students train there.
What are your plans?
In 2019, we’re going to export the program to other cities. We’re looking for a director, speaking of. At the moment, we’re concentrating on the northeast United States, because it’s easier for me to take a two- or three-hour flight. I’d rather expand the Knowledge Society in English-speaking cities, because it’s easier to adapt the programs. That said, I’m open to ideas. I was in Dubai last week, and I think a lot of interesting things are happening there. Maybe the next Elon Musk will come from there.