How This 25-Year-Old Cornell Alum Is Making Outliers Ordinary

Imagine you’re in fifth grade. You’re sitting in the auditorium. The entire school has been called together for some announcements. Your friends are busy tagging up the chairs with their keys. And then you zone out. The last words you hear are “reach for the stars because the sky is the limit” and “if you dream it, you can be it.” You start to imagine yourself in an NBA Jersey. You catch the ball on a fast break, and within seconds you’re at the other team’s hoop. Everyone’s eyes are on you. You go up for a dunk, and deliver. The crowd goes wild! You look up in the stands, and you see your family and friends cheering you on. You think it must be a home game. Suddenly, you zone back in. You look around the room and notice there are over 500 people in the audience, but only one person on stage. Any ONE in the crowd could probably be successful, but will everyone make it?

Six years later, you find yourself in an auditorium again. Except this time, there’s a billionaire speaking about the millions of dollars in scholarship money he just gave out to you and kids like you to pass Advanced Placement (AP) courses. He tells you that education is your way out of poverty. You internalize that thought. Again, you zone out. What’s the value of one person’s life? You’ve been trained to think it is priceless. There are a few hundred students here. If this billionaire casted his net wide enough and just two or three of them were successful, then he would probably break even. If he got a dozen in the crowd to succeed, then he would really win. Could one of those people be you? 

Those big dreams and lofty aspirations were deflated every day when I got home. I shared a tiny, 100-square-foot room with two of my siblings in a cramped two-bedroom apartment. Our family relied on food stamps to supplement our food budget and social security checks to support us with our rent. Inevitably, we’d have a week or week and a half at the end of every month when the fridge was empty and we needed a shrewd way to get food. My brothers and I would sell candy on school nights and weekends to help out with the rent and other small bills.

In hindsight, it’s hard to understand how or why I could have been so hopeful in such a hopeless circumstance. But I’ve learned that some questions will invoke responses of greater wisdom if I wait until I’m older to answer them. 

There were moments in my life when I felt like I got my big break. In fourth grade, I made it all the way to the regional finals of a story-telling competition in my neighborhood. I memorized the short story “The Tinder Box” well before I could comprehend its message. When I was 11 or 12, I learned html and built my first website. That same year, I was ready to sell electronics online during the upcoming holidays. It would’ve been my first successful business if I had been able to drive traffic to the site. When I was 12, I envisioned a career as an inventor, and I designed the framework for a heated toilet seat. That would’ve been my second successful business if I had moved into manufacturing and producing the product.

For every moment that I felt like I had received my big break, I was given reason to believe that my life might’ve amounted to little. I skipped 60 days of school when I was in seventh grade. Call that what you want: apathetic school system, poor parenting, or unengaging teachers. For high school, I only wanted to attend my local school after I didn’t test high enough to get into any of the specialized high schools in New York City. I was on track to becoming another statistic. My school had 4,400 kids, a 55% graduation rate, and a 20% college-readiness rate. (To this day, I don’t understand how we let our education system graduate a kid from high school if they aren’t ready for college.) Despite passing five AP exams, graduating in the top of my high school class, being a student-athlete, and growing up in the inner-city, I was denied admission into MIT. Maybe I just wasn’t a fit? Maybe that ignited a fire? 

When you grow up poor, you want to be rich. At least, that’s how I have always felt. But I also very much believed that you can’t chase money. If you do what you love, then the money will come. Though I was never the artistic type, I’ve always loved to build and create. Perhaps a trait I gained from my father, who was an entrepreneur. I’ve been working since I was five years old. I worked in the family business, and then I worked all sorts of odd jobs. I think my early exposure to building may have given me a feeling of its significance. I would marvel at the site of skyscrapers when I walked through the city with my father. I wanted to own one someday. In middle school, I remember reading online that the richest people in the world came into their money because they found ways to solve problems. That’s when a lightbulb went off for me. I remember making a commitment to myself in that moment that I would spend my life solving problems. 

I completed my freshman year at Baruch college. The entire time, I felt like I had a chip on my shoulder. I felt like I had something to prove. I wanted to do well in order to show MIT they made a mistake when they didn’t accept me. I got a 4.0 my first semester and then learned about opportunities to transfer. But, when you get rejected by one top school, you’re not exactly excited to apply to another top school. There was also the insecurity that maybe I wasn’t smart enough. The process was not easy academically or emotionally.

The Cornell Icon and Innovator Awards Ceremony

The Cornell Icon and Innovator Awards Ceremony

In addition to putting together a transfer application to Cornell, I applied for over a dozen scholarships – many of which I didn’t receive. Applying to those scholarships is also when I started to learn about the achievement gap and systemic inequalities that plague low-income communities like the ones I grew up in. One of the scholarships I applied for was for $10,000, funded by the United Negro College Fund and Coca-Cola. The scholarship asked applicants to identify a solution to the achievement gap that involved corporate intervention. In 2009, McKinsey & Company published a report that detailed the economic impact of the achievement gap. The report concluded that the economic implications were north of $300 billion each year, which is equivalent to a permanent national recession. Until then, I knew nothing about the gap or how corporations worked. I learned from research that the achievement gap is the disparity between rich and poor kids, and black and white kids, on standardized tests. Up until learning about the subject, I would’ve defined myself as a “rugged individualist.” I thought that the kids who worked hard were the ones who were going to “make it” and the ones who didn’t, wouldn’t. At home, I had my older brother as my prime example. He wouldn’t stay up late do his homework or wake up early to go to class. When we both graduated high school the same year, and he eventually dropped out of a two-year college, it made complete sense to me.

It wasn’t until I started to learn about the sociological influences on the gap that I began to realize how much of an outlier I was. The Education Advisory Board reported in 2016 that 90% of low-income first-generation students don’t graduate on time. According to researchers out of Johns Hopkins and the National Summer Learning Association, children in low-income neighborhoods forget 2.5 – 3.5 months of academic content every year, which is a problem commonly referred to as “the summer learning loss.” By the time a low-income child makes it to ninth grade, they could be as far as five years behind their more affluent counterparts. Though I didn’t win the scholarship, the awareness around the problem compelled me to later act out of a sense of moral obligation.

I continued on my track as an outlier when I was accepted to Cornell. After a moment of excitement, an overwhelming amount of anxiety came over me. I wanted to continue doing the most I could and stand out for being the best. I felt like I had an obligation to do better than everyone else. After all, as an African-American, first-generation kid raised by a single mother from an inner-city neighborhood, the expectations for “my kind” were low. I wasn’t supposed to be in college – let alone an elite college. How much cooler would it be if I went to an elite college and stood out? Could I be a model for my community? Could I transform the expectations of “my kind” from low to high? There was only one way to find out. 

Up until then, I didn’t know how to type using the home keys. I figured when I got to Cornell that my classmates would know and be way ahead of me. What good were my thoughts if I couldn’t get them on paper fast enough? I wouldn’t be able to compete. I didn’t exactly enjoy reading either. What would I do if I was given a lot of reading and, because of how slow I was, I wouldn’t have enough time to eat or sleep? I invested in a speed reading software and read over a dozen books the summer before my sophomore year. All of the kids I was going to go to school with would probably have had a bunch of internships, right? So, I kept myself as busy as possible. I volunteered on a political campaign for Congress, made cold calls for a sales and trading firm in midtown, interned at an accounting firm twice a week, got my real estate sales license to rent apartments across the city, and taught private swim classes on the weekends. I wanted more from life, and I was prepared to work for it. I remember thinking to myself that I might not be able to compete with those Ivy League kids on brute intellect, but I was ready to outwork them. I was ready to make all of the necessary sacrifices to prove what was possible.  I understood that for plenty of kids like me, how hard they worked wouldn’t matter because of those sociological influences previously mentioned. For me, I had decided that it would be different.

Cornell provided me with everything I needed to grow and develop as a leader and then some. Not all my peers could type using the home keys, I wasn’t the slowest reader, and the classes were appropriately challenging. I graduated from the School of Hotel Administration in the top 10% of my class, was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship, and had internships at Goldman Sachs and BlackRock under my belt. I was the first one in my family of seven to graduate from college. When I started at Cornell, I had never stayed in a hotel before. I had barely left my own state. By the time I graduated, I could walk into a hotel and point out almost a dozen shortcomings. Cornell was a blessing in my life. I knew I had access to something that people would die for, and I wanted to make sure I made the most of my opportunity. During my time there, I studied when my friends were sleeping, joined the clubs I cared about, made time to party, volunteered as a mentor, conducted research alongside some of the smartest professors in the world, and launched a company to level the playing field in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Karim was able to join the Forbes team to ring the closing bell at NASDAQ for his work as CEO of Practice Makes Perfect (@pmpusa)!

Karim was able to join the Forbes team to ring the closing bell at NASDAQ for his work as CEO of Practice Makes Perfect (@pmpusa)!

Instead of just showing kids growing up like me my path, I wanted to go back and remove the obstacles that prevented my childhood friends from achieving their full potential. To tackle this goal, I started focusing on the summer learning loss. It turns out the summer learning loss is one of the single largest contributors to the achievement gap. If we could eliminate the summer learning loss, we could eliminate two-thirds of the achievement gap. My company Practice Makes Perfect works with low-income schools to design and operate high quality summer learning programs to help kids move forward over the summer instead of sliding backwards.

Today, Practice Makes Perfect eliminates the summer learning loss through our summer learning programs. We train aspiring educators for the classrooms and provide them with a realistic job preview over the summer. This training allows them to make a more informed decision about whether or not they want to teach, which effectively works to eliminate the issue of unprepared educators. If these teachers decide to stay in the classrooms, they are better equipped to be successful in their roles. And, thanks to PMP, children growing up like me are also exposed to college students as early as Kindergarten. We recruit high-achieving kids who live in the same low-income neighborhoods as our enrolled children and we make them their mentors. In exchange for their service, we give them a paid summer job, provide them with SAT prep, and prepare them for college. After this summer, our team will have supported more than 5,000 children across New York City with our programs. I continue to be excited by the potential Practice Makes Perfect has to level the educational playing field. 

Today, my mornings start at 4:30am. I find an immense amount of satisfaction working with some of the smartest people I know building my company. I’m no longer driven by other people’s lack of belief in what I can possibly achieve. I’m not out to prove anyone wrong. I already feel rich. I have the most incredible group of friends, family, and colleagues. My biggest wish is that everyone feels a connection to their bigger purpose as early as possible in their lives. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to make a difference.  

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About the Author: Karim Abouelnaga is the Founder and CEO of Practice Makes Perfect, a full-service summer school operator that uses a “near-peer” learning model to drive academic outcomes. Karim experienced the struggle to succeed in under-resourced urban public schools; lucky enough to benefit from nonprofits that provided him with great mentors, he received over $300,000 in scholarships to make his college education possible and is now working to make the college education experience he received possible for other economically disadvantaged children. Karim is a regular contributor for Entrepreneur and Forbes, is a TED Fellow, Global Shaper, an Echoing Green Fellow and at 23 was named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in Education. In 2016, Richtopia ranked him in top 5 of most influential entrepreneurs in the world under 25. Karim graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Hotel Administration in 2013.

Keep up on Twitter @KarimAbouelnaga