“Determination knows no barriers”, Matthias Meier

mεlite hosts once a month inspiring stories from friends and colleagues, who apart from being ultra-cool, they in their own way offer something special to Education.  This month, Matthias Meier, a friend from Zurich, Switzerland, shares with us his views on what it takes to create, run and develop a for-impact organization! Enjoy!

Matthias is 32 years old and now lives in Zurich. He holds a Master in Accounting & Finance from University of St. Gallen (Switzerland) and is now working in a small consulting boutique as project manager  (www.digma.ch). He has been a volunteer for Aiducation since 2009 and now he is the CEO of Aiducation’s Swiss chapter with about 15 Aiducators , taking care of all strategic and operational issues.

So, let’s start from a general question. What do you think should be the goal of education as a whole? What is missing now?

In my opinion education should serve first of all as one of the key enablers to realize the personal potential, which is sitting inside us and just needs to be explored. Education therefore is the pre-condition for the development of individual human beings. And only well-educated human beings are able to take on the responsibility to become active citizens and to shape their societies in an economic, ecological and social way by pushing (the required) sustainable change within their countries or even on a global level. Unfortunately we lose every year the potential of millions of young, motivated and smart people worldwide as they are not able to access school at all, due to financial restrictions.

And let’s be honest: We are facing a lot of challenges everywhere and can’t really afford to lose all this potential and creativity required  to identify adequate solutions. Therefore the key problem with education today is the lack of access primarily driven by insufficient financial power  – especially in developing countries with a huge mass of young people willing and able to change their future.

This is exactly where Aiducation comes into to the game, doesn’t it?

Exactly! Aiducation (www.aiducation.org) is a for-impact organization, dedicated to giving people access to education. Founded in 2007 by parts of Kenya’s civil society, the organization awards merit-based high school scholarships to bright and needy students in developing countries (current focus is on Kenya). Thereby, donors („AiduMakers“) donate in a highly impact-efficient way as they help individuals („AiduFellows“) to realize their chances in life, while at the same time pushing the human capital in developing countries closer to their factual potential.

Aiducation is worldwide guided by the following “4 Guiding Principles:
1)      Transparency:  The 1-1 principle ensures very high transparency of the investment as the AiduMaker receives regular performance reports during the scholarship. The AiduMaker is part of an informal selection committee and decides from a pre-selected pool of AiduSeekers who he/ she wants to support and each scholarship is named after the AiduMaker (e.g. “Frank-Smith-Scholarship”). Regular reports inform AiduMakers on personal progress and impact.
2)      Education: We believe that education is the most effective way of realizing potential. Therefore, Aiducation’s activities fully focus on providing access to education and we are proud to say that 90% of all scholarship funds are invested into education.
3)      Meritocracy: We believe in meritocracy. Consequently, each AiduFellow has to go through a rigorous selection process in which financial neediness and brightness are carefully assessed. Therefore, our AiduFellows are high-potentials capable of contributing significantly to the social, economic and political development of their country.IMG_4185
4)      Human Capital: Aiducation supports AiduFellows financially (Aid to Education Program) and non-financially (Education to Aid Program) by making them become part of an exclusive network of high potentials. The Education to Aid Program, consisting of elements like mentorship academies, group mentoring, career rotations, workshops, project work, seminars, internships, training, startup experiences and others, allow the students to meet and learn from high profile speakers and from other each other. The whole program empowers AiduFellows to live active lives and to use their potential and capabilities for the economic, political, and social development of their country.

Until today, Aiducation has been awarded numerous prizes and is run by volunteers (called Aiducators) with chapters in Germany, Kenya, Switzerland, and UK.

You are with Aiducation almost since the beginning of its founding. What are your most important learning points so far, as an education social enterpreneur, that others can learn from?

We always try to shape our organisation according to business principles like efficiency and effectivity as we have limited time and money – therefore we are facing the same challenges as every entrepreneur. Furthermore we are a social startup driven by a group of young professionals, PHDs and students volunteering for our impact in a virtual and global network, which makes it even more challenging.
First of all, there are some hard facts every entrepreneur is required to fulfill when starting a venture like a convincing business model, the unique selling proposition and of course a sustainable (financial) business plan.
But this is only the technical side of it and like a human body, an organisation as Aiducation does not only need a brain and a heart to survive but also a soul. There are several factors creating our Aiducation “soul”.

The team with its individual members for sure is the most crucial factor – especially if you are working with volunteers. On one side for sure you need a diverse set of skills and personalities for the various tasks within the organisation. On the other side it’s so important to select the “right” people which are  first committed to our mission of empowering high potential students in developing countries with scholarships and second share a common set of values like meritocracy, transparency, responsibility, team-work and reputation. By adhering to our values, we are creating a truly distinctive organisation with passionate, enthusiastic, energetic and qualified people who go the extra mile to realise Aiducation’s mission.

Beside the team there are many more factors creating a “soul” within our organisation. Let me focus on the one which I personally think is a key success factor for every start-up as all entrepreneurs are facing manifold challenges and sometimes do not see a way out: Persistence. Giving up when it gets difficult has unfortunately become quite a common behaviour in our culture – not only in organisations. In my opinion there is always a solution and just by believing in it we can make it happen. Sometimes it takes a bit longer than expected but you might be very close to a solution without even knowing it. Believing in what you are doing and doing it even when it gets difficult sets free additional energy every time you overcome a challenge.

Now, let’s talk about your personal experience. How has this experience with Aiducation changed you as a person and as a professional?

Aiducation, the people behind this organisation and finally our impact with almost 500 lives turned by 180 degrees so far has definitely changed my life.
On a professional level I am able to support Aiducation with my diverse experience as a project manager at a small consulting company. Aiducation gives me the chance to further develop my entrepreneurial mindset by fostering my creativity in problem solving. Furthermore I’m working with about 10 volunteers living in and around Zürich – all investing at least 5 hours a week for Aiducation. This diverse set of people with the individual backgrounds, skills and ambitions inspires me again and again. With our specific skills and preferences we all try to achieve our ambitious targets. In a virtual team this requires a lot of leadership and I’m continuously developing my skills in this area. Furthermore I’m in close contact with the Kenyan chapter and right now we are expecting about 300 applications from bright and deserving students for 2013 and we try to continuously improve our processes. This involves a lot of cultural challenges I would never be able to experience in my professional life.

On a personal level Aiducation might have even a bigger impact. For me it is not just an organisation I’m working for and I’m able to learn something from. I started with Aiducation about 4 years ago and in the meantime I have a very close relationship with many of our Aiducators in Kenya and in all our scholarship raising chapters. Some of these people became my friends. Sometimes we also have some disputes but in the end we are all dedicated to our impact and we are all investing our energy to realise our vision of giving young people access to education. Something we take for granted in Switzerland and something I personally never really had to fight for in my life when deciding to do a master degree at one of the top business schools. I’m free to choose the direction of my future – wherever it goes. And I think only this access to “free” education enabled me to take over the responsibility to give the same unique chance to young boys and girls with great ambitions and powerful visions for a sustainable development of their countries.
For sure, sometimes this is a balancing act but as one of our Mentorship Academy speakers told me and our students in Nairobi last December “Determination knows no barriers“.

Thank you Matthias!

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