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Shabab Lab: Two IC Alumnae Empower the Youth

Joelle Kahwaji

In the last warm days of November, two IC graduates returned to their alma mater with a proposal: how would you feel about integrating the first social innovation e-learning platform in the Arab world right here at IC?

Administrators were immediately intrigued by Mona Itani '02 and Yasmeen El Kaissi '11. Tell us more, they said.

The platform is aptly called Shabab Lab, explained Itani and El Kaissi. It serves as a virtual innovation lab where high school students can tinker, innovate, and create technology-based solutions for real social problems in their communities.

The women were exuberant. It was a dream for both of them. Fate brought them together a year and a half ago when El Kaissi, who had a great job at an international company at the time, was feeling distinctly unsatisfied. The role and package she had were ideal, but she simply felt she was not walking her life's path. And so, bidding the corporate world goodbye, she resigned, hoping that working in the research world at a university would somehow fulfill her.

It did not. And so, she did what all millennials do: turn to Google looking for an opportunity that would be aligned with her life's purpose. That is when she came across an unfamiliar name: Mona Itani, who, according to her website, Riyada for Social Innovation, was out to transform young people into badly needed change makers and social innovators of the future. The website offered project-based and hands-on programs that develop skills in youth by empowering them to use technology to solve real problems in their communities.

Intrigued, El Kaissi instinctively knew she had found her calling and immediately contacted Itani. Would they be able to meet?

In her office, Itani, an assistant professor of Entrepreneurship at AUB, was pondering her next move with Riyada. She had a few interns and a couple of freelancers working with her, but the time had come to take Riyada for Social Innovation to the next level. She envisioned Riyada's effect and wide impact in Lebanon and well beyond.

As a professor of Engineering and Business Ethics, Itani, a self-proclaimed idealist, was getting increasingly frustrated with teaching one thing while the world was practicing another. Tales of business corruption and advertisements of get-rich startups were disheartening her. We are working toward our extinction, she thought and even contemplated not bringing children into this world. But then came her first child. How could she leave such a corrupt world to her child? She began to fight off her despondency. We can teach the youth that they can become money-making entrepreneurs while at the same time serving society. That was in 2011. Six years later, she launched Riyada for Social Innovation with the mission of fostering social entrepreneurship in communities by equipping the youth with 21st-century skills based on three pillars: Technology for Good, Social Entrepreneurship, and Community Engagement. Children are born digitally native, so our job is to teach them to use or create this technology for the social good. We need to reach these youngsters before they reach university, she thought. Her first attempt was a teenage summer camp where grade 10 and 11 students created a mobile application to solve the problems related to the then country's waste crisis. They were required to apply entrepreneurial concepts to find a self-sustainable solution that could generate revenue. The camp was an instant hit and paved the way for an iSME grant from the World Bank. It was then that Riyada for Social Innovation was officially registered as a SAL company. Itani went on to launch other programs – all with the same goal of creating technological solutions to environmental and social problems in the participants' communities and pitching them as entrepreneurial startups.

After testing and validating the unique social innovation program for four years (both off-line and online) with various reputable organizations, the time had come to create an e-learning platform that would be scalable and would reach a wider number of young students. She needed a strong team that believed in her vision, but finding the right people to join her team was not easy. Most people wanted a job that offered a good salary and a career plan- the whole package.

Itani offered a vision.

It was precisely that vision that El Kaissi eagerly embraced. She wanted in for the purpose. Itani had found the perfect colleague. A little later, they found out that they both graduated from IC.

Soon after, Shabab Lab, with its various modules, came into being. The e-learning platform was an interdisciplinary one able to reach high schools all over the country and well beyond. But now, the challenge was to market it.

Then COVID-19 hit. The relatively new world of online learning exploded. Shabab Lab team went into acceleration mode to get the e-learning platform out. In March 2021, Shabab Lab was launched.

The program's success spurred many schools to sign on – including IC – while AUB is currently certifying the programs.

Still in its infancy, Shabab Lab is not yet ready to be implemented in public or less privileged schools, although plans are underway. But Riyada for Social Innovation has partnered with various NGOs to make its Shabab Lab programs all-inclusive.

For Itani, it is a dream come true. She is fighting corruption in her own way and succeeding. "This is my purpose in life," she said, "I really want to empower the young generation to help them become the change the world needs."

As for El Kaissi, she has finally found her self-fulfillment. "I wanted to do something meaningful in my life," she said." And I finally am."

For more information about Riyada for Social Innovation and Shabab lab, go to: https://riyadainnovation.com/en/about-us/ & https://shabablab.com.