By GRIFFIN GUINTA
Past the pristine lobby and spherical think pods of the Innovation and Collaboration Building, Phil Michaels, Sercan Topcu, and Ulixes Hawili sit together in a tight circle, jotting down notes that entail plans for the eventful few months ahead. Along with Samantha Taranto and Brent Caramanica, they comprise the core of Tembo Education, a Tampa-based social enterprise seeking to revitalize early-childhood education first in Nigerian slums, and then other parts of the developing world. Their plan? Using cell phones to transmit instructions and lesson plans to parents of young children in these countries; pairing them with trained “home educators” in the process to ensure the information is fully grasped.
On this drizzly Tuesday afternoon, Michaels and Topcu, products of UT’s graduate school, and Hawili, an undergraduate studying government and world affairs, are reviewing what they call their S.M.A.R.T. goals. This breaks down their ideas into five categories: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound goals. Included in the discussion is everything from safety procedures to other social entrepreneurship competitions to personal ambitions, like losing a few pounds.
Though the S.M.A.R.T. sheets are meant to be organizational devices, they ultimately serve more as ways to voice what’s on everybody’s mind. Team Tembo is worn, fresh off a narrow defeat at the Hult Prize Final in September, and Michaels, the CEO, knows unity and resilience is exactly what they need right now. To him, Tembo is as much of a family as it is a business venture, which adds an additional layer of cohesion and communication that some more traditional business models lack. Despite the late (sometimes very late) nights, rigorous planning sessions, and early setbacks, Michaels says the team has only forged a thicker bond.
“The past year and a half has been an incredible experience. The entire team, from when I met them in October of 2014– they’re completely different people.” Michaels said. “But the biggest change has been their ability to make decisions. Their thought process to make decisions is so much different from when we started. To be able to witness that in people you care deeply about and work daily with… as a CEO that’s your dream.”
Michaels has an advantage that most startups long desperately for: longevity and consistency. In the almost year and a half that Tembo’s been together, the core membership has remained the same. Given their diverse backgrounds, it’s somewhat surprising. Michaels was a Sykes College of Business alum looking to put his skills to the test, Topcu was supposed to be an engineer in Turkey, and Hawili is still an undergraduate with aspirations of attending Harvard Law. The puzzle pieces may not look the same, but they certainly fit together.
Now five months removed from the Hult Prize (a million-dollar startup competition for social entrepreneurs) they’re starting to see their work blossom, even if incrementally. The team recently flew to New York to meet the CEO of Forbes Magazine after being named to the company’s 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneurs List, eclipsed 17,000 likes on their Facebook page, and have received consistent praise from President Ronald Vaughn.
“It’s a great feeling,” Hawili said. “For some people it would’ve been enough to have been in a startup, gone to the Hult Prize, or even just competed in Regionals. But as these achievements start to stack up, you become desensitized. Then you start focusing more on the goal. You’re less concerned with praise–you’re more focused on the change. It feels better to create change. The praise is temporary.”
In order to create that change, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
For instance, having a comprehensive security protocol intact once they arrive in Nigeria this summer. This past week, they spent time at MacDill Air Force Base learning emergency procedures, such as disarming AK-47s, how to operate a satellite phone, and the proper formation to use when walking in a slum.
“We [were] grateful for that opportunity,” Michaels said in reference to the MacDill training. “With all the news of Boko Haram and ISIS infiltrating the Northeast of Nigeria we need to take every precaution necessary.”
Hawili, now serving as Tembo’s Chief Intelligence Officer, echoed Michaels’ sentiments.
“Especially in a region that’s growing more and more unstable,” he added. “That’s the importance of an intelligence department. We need to have a comprehensive security plan. That includes safe houses, security arrangements, contacts, and the acquisition of firearms and other self-defense weapons. All these things have to be perfect and flawless, otherwise there could be drastic consequences, not only for the business but the people running the business.”
Much like their S.M.A.R.T. sheets, the company has a fully fleshed-out plan going forward.
First, Michaels and a few other members of the team will head to Nigeria in early June to deepen their roots in the country and witness their business plan in action. The group has been privately raising funds, receiving outside sponsorships, and participating in other startup competitions in order to foster growth. Within the next few months, they plan to generate $38,000, hire 25 new home educators, and have 480 children under their educational umbrella.
Above anything else, it’s important to note the deeper implications of Tembo. It’s not about a few students with an affinity for charitable causes. If successful, the Tembo model could increase the level of educational accessibility in slums considered impenetrable, thus altering the global playing field. Of course, education isn’t the only dire need in developing nations. Without proper hygiene, healthcare, and nutrition, schooling no longer becomes the top priority. Which is why the future of Tembo is adaptability, and the ability to interchange curriculums. It’s akin to swapping out disks on a DVD player. The DVD player remains in place, but the stream of information is always rotating to provide new content.
“If we remove our early childhood education curriculum and insert a healthcare curriculum, we’re now teaching people how to wash their hands properly, pre-natal tips, how to treat a diabetic patient. If we remove the healthcare curriculum and insert a financial one, we’re now teaching people how to invest, how to start a business, and how to save money. The opportunities are endless from where we can go from here,” Michaels said.
Empowerment remains crucial in places like the Nigerian slums, and other developing regions Tembo is aiming to reach. According to Topcu, the view of population control in those regions is drastically different than that of the Western world.
“The reason they’re struggling is because to them it’s like a lottery. It’s a numbers game. They have six kids and they’re hoping one of them will make it. Unfortunately if they were to think the other way around and have just two kids and just focus on them, it would benefit them more. But the difference is the resources there are not substantial enough for that mindset. That’s where we come in, to provide the resources to support the [latter] mentality,” he said.
Tembo is doing something relatively unheard of in the entrepreneurial world. Most consider business and charity to be mutually exclusive, or partners that operate independently, but Tembo says otherwise. They say you can make money and do good. And so far, it’s working. And to think, it all started in a classroom on UT’s campus. For Sercan Topcu, it’s just now hitting him.
“You realize you’re going to achieve things you never thought you could achieve before. Now it’s just about hitting the milestones that you need to complete those dreams. It’s changed the way I think about life and the way I think about risks.”