Karim Abouelnaga

Summer school - two words typically not associated with changing the world. But, Karim Abouelnaga (Under 30 ‘16) is setting out to change that narrative. As a graduate of New York City’s public school system, Karim knew he had to make a difference and improve the lives of kids like him. He shared his most transformative moments along the way and take aways from REALITY that have shape his work. You can ask Karim more about education reform, leadership and social entrepreneurship. Learn more about him below.

What can the REALITY community contact you about?

Anything related to education reform, leadership and social entrepreneurship. 

Tell us more about the work you lead as the Founder of Practice Makes Perfect.

My company runs summer school for low income public schools across New York City. I started the organization when I was eighteen as a sophomore in college. I was raised by a single mother on government aid. I went through some really crappy public schools and did not think anything of it at the time until I learned about the research on inequality when I got to college.

When I was getting ready to graduate and thinking about opportunities, I realized that the people who were trying to fix and repair the education system had never gone through the system themselves. So much of our education reform comes from a sympathetic perspective rather than an empathetic one. In that moment, I realized I had the first hand perspective and now was blessed with this elite education giving me more obligation to go back and invest my time in improving the system. So, that is why I do the work that I do and sort of what we do at a higher level addressing the issues of the achievement gap by directly tackling the summer learning loss right now.

You graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Hotel Administration, how has your education impacted your professional life and shaped Practice Makes Perfect?

At the School of Hotel Administration, there is a quote on the building walls by E.M. Statler that says “Life is service - the one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow men a little more - a little better service.” I felt like there was this element of service and creating hospitable environments missing in the education system. I think that was a big draw for me to launch Practice Makes Perfect. I was looking at how we can improve the level of service for all of our guests, specifically for those at budget hotels and independent hotels that exist. I wanted to apply that to education. The Hotel School is essentially a business school with a hospitality orientation so I saw a lot of transferability to my work. I have been building a business for the last six and a half years and learned so much from my HR and law professors that I use day to day in my job.

As a Founder, what keeps you up at night?

I am someone who is committed to making a difference and having an impact. I want to look back in ten or twenty years and see that my time wasn’t wasted. I think about what more can I be doing to make sure that is not the outcome in a few decades. That is what ultimately keeps me up at night - the fear in twenty or thirty years it could have all been for nothing.

Who inspires you?

Today, it is the kids and the families we work for that inspire me the most. When I started my organization as a sophomore at Cornell, it was initially a way to pay it forward and give back. I remember seeing the impact on the lives of so many high school kids. We were working with girls like Linda, whose mom was a seamstress and ultimately felt like no one expected her to go to college. This year, she is going to be a senior at Brown. Also, kids like Irving, who is the oldest of three kids and is going to be a senior at Cornell this year.

These kids may have felt like college is the right thing or education is the way to go, but never imagined it could have happened for them. Now, their education is having an impact on their own families; Irving’s younger sibling is a freshman at Syracuse this year. So you can see there is sort of a ripple effect. I see pockets of hope in the kids of these families we are serving. Ultimately, that is what inspires me to keep going and replicate those results for so many more.

What is an example illustrating the impact of your work?

The stories about Linda and Irving. Both of them are going to be the first in their families to graduate from college this year. They both also went to my high school which is where we ran our first program about six and half years ago. In the past,  no one from my school really got into top colleges, but now it is more of a norm. I think so much of it is putting college role models that look like these kids in front of them way before it is time to apply for college. This is changing the way kids think about their own ambitions and possibilities.  

Can you share a meaningful moment that happened because of your REALITY journey?

My defining moment of REALITY is when we were on the bus. Michael Bauer was our tour guide and he was talking to us about how you can be Jewish, but not really practice the religion and the cultural identity of being “Jew-ish.” Up until that point, I never really realized that you can just be culturally of a religion.

I was raised Muslim, my parents were from Egypt. By the time I was a teenager, I started to disassociate with the religion. I felt like religion had its pros of bringing people together, but also had its cons of being very divisive. So, I just moved away from religion all together. I felt like every single main religion would tell you that this one is right and that one is right, but no one could tell you why that one is better than the other. I remember for a while after several years from moving away from Islam, I lost part of my identity.

On the bus when Michael was talking about how people who are Jewish and do the cultural things do not have to be really religious. He used the example of how many Americans have Christmas trees, even if they aren’t Christian. And I was like yeah, I had a Christmas tree. I started to think about what cultural elements I could take from my religion. This learning processes has opened me up to all sorts of religions now. I felt like I could be more of an ally in this struggle that is happening in the Middle East if I own the fact that I was Muslim and understood the parts of my identity I want to preserve and maintain that both things don’t have to be divisive, without having to actually subscribe to the ideology of the religion. So, I think that was one of my most transformative moments, but obviously there were so many others. I went back as a facilitator this year and that was also a great experience as well.