Soraya Salti: Empowering Youth Against all Odds. When Education Entrepreneurs Create Eternity

World of Work November 09, 2015

To say ‘A teacher touches eternity’ conveys that those who devote their lives to cultivate the talents of the young help them make sense of the future. On occasion, educators empower their students to not just make sense of the future, but to create it. When they do this, they do more than touch eternity, they participate in creating it. Soraya Salti was an education entrepreneur who cared deeply about the transformative power of education. She devoted her life to creating entrepreneurship education programs that empowered thousands of youth in the Middle East. 

I met Soraya Salti when she participated in a leadership development program as a young global leader of the World Economic Forum about a decade ago. I was leading a session on the urgency to transform the global education architecture, the thousands of schools built over the last seven decades as part of the Global Education Movement to Educate all Children, from their focus on just providing access to gaining basic literacies to institutions that actually helped the young gain the skills to become self-authoring individuals and agents of development of their communities. Soraya was one of the most outspoken participants in that group of about hundred young global leaders. She challenged me and I challenged her back. I loved the exchange which went on for a few rounds. It was the kind of dialogue I treasure as a teacher. No pleasantries or political correctness, just hard honest conversation in search of truth. Some of the participants observed the exchange in silence. One of them came to Soraya’s defense asking ‘why are you challenging my colleague?’. “Because I respect her intelligence too much to not engage seriously with her thinking”, I replied. At the end of the session Soraya came to see me to continue the conversation. I realized then that Soraya was not deterred by challenge, she embrace them just as she valued honest discussion as a way to get closer to the truth.

That afternoon, Soraya and I spent two hours in my office discussing her work as the leader of Injaz-Al-Arab, and organization she had created to bring entrepreneurship education programs to all countries in the Middle East. Soraya talked to me about how she had been transformed when she first discovered in Jordan the program Junior Achievement, a program that provided teenagers opportunities to work with mentors in learning to create a business. She explained that, relative to the schools she had seen in Jordan, Junior Achievement excited her because she thought it could help students develop imagination, a sense of possibility about the future, confidence in themselves, the skills to collaborate with others, deep respect for others and enough trust in each other to learn to collaborate in creating businesses and other institutions that would advance well being throughout the region. This realization had caused her to want to bring this program to every country in the Middle East, in hopes it would eventually help to transform education, so it could truly empower all youth. I understood at that moment that Soraya was a woman of big dreams, and with the courage to put her life in service of goals much bigger than herself.

Over the years I knew her, my respect and admiration for Soraya grew. I increasingly understood the urgency of helping young people in the region she so deeply loved gain a sense of hope and possibility about the future, how educational innovation and serious transformation was essential so that youth would develop the skills and the dispositions to engage in building businesses and other organizations to advance social progress throughout the region. I admire the resolve with which Soraya built public private partnership in 13 countries in the Middle East to create national chapters of Injaz-Al-Arab, and how she grew the portfolio of programs to provide youth such opportunities to dozens of different programs in each country. Soraya was at heart a social innovator, someone always seeking new and more effective ways to serve more students, always asking questions, open to evidence, to learning, always seeking truth. She was deeply interested in producing significant educational change at scale. She once invited me to do an evaluation of the impact of some of the programs of Injaz in six countries in the Middle East. She was interested in and respectful of evidence, she had great expectations and hope in the power of human reason, and of science, to guide human action and social development. She hoped the programs she was working so hard to bring to thousands of youth in the Middle East would help them gain the necessary respect for reason, for science, for evidence, and the skills to work with others so they could collaborate in improving the world.

Soraya was also a generous spirit. I invited her several times to be a guest speaker in my graduate classes at Harvard. She always obliged, often joining us via video-conference when it was late for her in the evening, often on holidays, so my students could see her on a Friday morning at Harvard. She consistenly inspired them, and she inspired me too. It was obvious to all of us that in seeking to transform education in the Middle East this young woman was taking on powerful interests, forces clinging to a past that depends on youth that accept authority without questioning. Soraya was always questioning, she wanted others to learn to question, she lived by Bernard Shaw’s idea thata ‘Some people see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were, and ask why not?’.

Soraya did more than ask hard questions, she built things that would not have been without her leadership. She was a remarkable force for change and for good in the Middle East. With her intelligence, determination, charisma, and her consistent optimism and bright smile, she made it possible for hundreds of thousands of young people to gain the skills to understand that a better future is possible, and that it is theirs to build.

I last saw Soraya about a year ago. She was attending an entrepreneurship education conference in Boston, and gave me an impromptu call at the end of the conference. I invited her to join us for dinner with friends who were visiting from Singapore. She came home, her suitcase ready to go straight to the airport. She looked tired that day. She told us it was tiring to keep working with governments to persuade them to sustain their efforts to empower young people. She was tired of having to start and restart negotiations as government turnover threatened lack of continuity and support for the programs she had worked so hard to build. Her concern was not for her, but for the youth she believed it was her duty to serve. Her parents were  aging, she explained, and they had been helped with her son as she travelled extensively throughout the region, but it was going to be harder for them now to provide that support, as they themselves would need more help. She mentioned she was considering creating another organization to focus on teaching math and science in Jordan so she could spend more time with them. As CEO of Injaz she was always on the road and this was hard on her personal life and family. But she would not do this until she could find appropriate succession for the leadership of Injaz, an organization she had given so much of herself to.

I just learned that Soraya passed away in Jordan with her sister Jumana, in circumstances that are not yet clear. I do not know what demons would cut short the life of such a light for the world. I do know, however, than in the 44 years she lived, Soraya Salti made it possible for many youth in her beloved Middle East to become the architects of their own lives. In the process, she taught them, and so many of us who knew her, that an educator can not only touch eternity, she can create it.

Rest in Peace, Soraya. I am so glad to have challenged you in that our first discussion, and deeply and forever grateful that you too took me seriously enough to teach me.