This Former Hedge Fund Manager Dropped Everything To Start A School In Somaliland

“Mubarik’s story is one of the greatest stories of human achievement I’ve ever heard."

The first time Mubarik saw a car, he thought the vehicle was a wild animal. 

He was 8 or 9 years old at the time and growing up in a nomadic community in Somaliland, so it's understandable that Mubarik would mistook one for the other. But what's stunning about Mubarik's story is that he just graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. Now, he works on programming autonomous vehicles.

"Mubarik's story is one of the greatest stories of human achievement I've ever heard," Jonathan Starr, who started the school that helped propel Mubarik to MIT, told A Plus. "It may actually be the best."

Starr is the founder of Abaarso School of Science and Technology, a school in Hargeisa, Somaliland whose main objective is to help grow the territory's next generation of leaders, primarily by getting smart kids into good schools abroad. Eight years ago, Starr — a former hedge fund manager at the peak of his lucrative career — dropped everything and left behind his life in Massachusetts to move overseas and open the school.

"The stars just aligned where I looked and said, 'This will be my best chance in life to do something really special,'" Starr said.

Recently featured in 60 Minutes and The Boston Globe, Starr's story — and the story of his school — are a remarkable example of how giving students with potential the opportunity to succeed can change their futures forever. His initial inspiration for the school was a long-held belief that there was too much wasted talent in the world, that far too many children with potential are left without fulfilling lives because they never get the opportunities they deserve.



An aeriel view of the Abaarso School of Science and Techonology.
An aeriel view of the Abaarso School of Science and Techonology. Jonathan Starr

Ironically, it started with Starr himself seeing opportunity where others hadn't.

"I had never even been to the developing world before," he said. "The least developed place I'd been to was a very short trip to Chile. But this was another level. You notice the trash in streets, the roads are unpaved, but the thing was I went to visit wanting to have a project, wanting to love it. So what I saw was opportunity."

As Starr put it, the challenges of having a school in Somaliland were mostly about how willing you were to overcome those challenges. Ultimately, his greatest obstacle in building Abaarso was winning over the community around it.

"You're trying to create something where it doesn't currently exist," Starr said. "And there are going to be reasons why it doesn't currently exist."

One of those reasons, it turns out, was that much of the community was skeptical of foreigners.

There is very little Western presence in Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia from 1991 but is not yet internationally recognized. On top of that, there were people in Somaliland already profiting off of the status quo — so Starr's presence, to some, was immediately unwelcome.

Even students at Abaarso and their parents sometimes fell victim to fear-mongering about his presence — some locals said they were "missionizing" the students — though Starr couldn't blame them. 

"It'd be like an alien spaceship landing on your planet and saying, 'hey, we're going to teach your kids,'" he said. "And if some people would say, 'I've actually been to that alien planet, and they're here to get you,' you would believe it."

Mubarik and Nimo, two graduates of Abaarso, at a conference in New York City.
Mubarik and Nimo, two graduates of Abaarso, at a conference in New York City. Jonathan Starr

Starr had to work hard to convince the people of Hargeisa that he was there for good reasons and that they would benefit from the school. In his book, It Takes A School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World's No. 1 Failed State, Starr delves into this in a chapter called "The Great Miscalculation."

"I was naive enough to think because I was donating a lot of money and moving to the country and providing something I knew was going to be very good — because I knew that, people would embrace it," Starr said. "And that was just completely wrong. It was entirely incorrect."

Eventually, though, Starr won over some trust and got his school off the ground. He spent over a half million dollars of his own money to do it, built Abaarso on a hilltop in a remote area, and then began recruiting teachers online for $250 a month — though they'd have no expenses as long as they stayed on campus.

He recruited students, too — grades 7 through 12 — most of whom had never spoken a word of English. He insisted on English immersion from day one, and all the classes were taught in English. Unlike American schools, Abaarso are nearly year-round, starting at 7 a.m. five and a half days a week, 11 months a year. On top of that, the students have jobs on campus and community service work, and if they skip anything, they could be suspended. Some have even been kicked out. Expectations were and remain high.

Mubarik, who was part of the first class of students, was also the first to be accepted to a school abroad. Starr had convinced Worcester Academy, a private boarding school in Massachusetts, to give Mubarik a chance and a scholarship.

When Starr heard that Mubarik was concerned that his classmates' fate was on his shoulders, he was glad.

"I said, 'good, he was listening,'" Starr said. "Who was going to give a $60,000 scholarship if the first kid doesn't do well?"

But Mubarik did do well. He succeeded in class, was a track star, won wrestling matches, and even scored a 5 — the highest score possible — on his AP Calculus test. And he did it all after only two years at Abaarso. The next year, Abaarso got six or seven kids into boarding schools. Today, there are 80 students from Abaarso placed in foreign schools, and by September, Starr expects that number will be more than 100. Almost 90 percent of Mubarik's graduating class has now been accepted to international colleges.

At one point, Starr could easily name all the students and every school they were in across the globe. Now, he says, "it's much, much harder — which is very good."

"We took Mubarik's success on the one side and showed schools: look at all he contributed, he can do this," Starr said. "But back home in Somalia, we made it clear: you can be a hero like Mubarik who opens doors for people or you can be someone who cheats and takes shortcuts. Which one do you want to do?"

Mubarik's story isn't the only amazing one to come out of Abaarso, either. 

In 2013, Nimo, a former Abaarso student, was the first from the school to get into college. She made it to Oberlin with a full ride. When A Plus contacted Starr for this story, he was just returning from her college graduation. Nimo now says she wants to return to Somaliland to teach and eventually come home to join Somaliland's Supreme Court. 

Starr (left) and Nimo, who recently graduated from Oberlin College.
Starr (left) and Nimo, who recently graduated from Oberlin College. Jonathan Starr

Others followed in Nimo's footsteps. Abaarso alum Nadira is at Yale and wants to empower young women and girls back home. Abdisamad, another alum, is at Harvard and wants to start his own business when he returns to Somaliland.

One girl who was in Abaarso's second class had been born into a nomadic community in Somalia with only one arm. Her relatives, realizing she wouldn't thrive in their community said, "You're not going to be any good here," and sent her to Somaliland to get an education. She ended up finding Abaarso. This spring, she finished her sophomore year at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and got a 4.0 in her first semester in the States.

Now Starr's school faces another threat: President Donald Trump's travel ban, which is currently being held up in federal court. Since Somalia is one of the countries on the ban, Starr fears the next wave of students could have their visas rejected.

"Our belief is that no one who understands the situation would possibly not want Mubarik to come to MIT or Nimo to come to Oberlin and then go back and teach her countrymen, which is her plan," Starr said. "How could you not want that to happen?"

Unfortunately, Starr's students won't know for sure until their visas are approved or denied. Starr, for his part, says he is hopeful. 

"I went there not knowing any of the students and I didn't know anybody beforehand," Starr said. "Two years ago, I had my first child in the U.S. and three of my students from the first year class came to the hospital to see her. I consider us family. They consider us family. The same way people can't imagine life without their children, I can't imagine life without them."

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