From Geneva with Love

A young international company sets a new trend in edtech culture.  

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

credit-goodwall-omar-bawa-and-taha-bawaThey have nearly as many passports as they do team members; this is a company continually looking to learn and understand new cultures. “We’re all different but share a common mission and goal,” says Taha Bawa (pictured, right), CEO of Goodwall, a Geneva-based edtech company. Goodwall is a social network for high school students to tell their stories, discover opportunities, win scholarships, and get recognized by universities they might like to attend. By way of background, Taha already lived in five countries by age 11; the company culture he’s developed is a reflection of that honest, open and equal treatment. He’s spoken at TEDx, Google Btalks, and ECIS. Leading the team as chief strategist, he studied economics, and is a member of the Human Rights Watch Youth Committee. His Chief Product Officer, Omar Bawa, 25, (pictured, above left) co-founded Goodwall “to inspire the next generation to make better choices and pursue their passions.” He, too, has been a TEDx speaker, he is considered a “High Potential Global Leader” according to IMD’s Global Leader Index. He studied law, intellectual property and marketing, and served on the editorial board of — that’s right, the United Nations Magazine. Here, Omar talks about edtech, drawing strength from diversity, and what the future holds for a company doing good for students.

If your company were a coffee, it would be a rich, international blend. How’d you assemble such a team?

Omar: I started by trying to convince the best person I know to join my team. That person was my brother. He then introduced his closest friends who were in business development, design and computer science to get us started. Then, as our needs grew, we started recruiting outside of our own circles.

The future of education is looking good. More students are pursuing their passions and becoming the best they possibly can.

This meant recruiting online and focusing on recruiting the best talent and best person for the job. We ended up with a team with more passports than people from Switzerland, France, Italy, India, Serbia, Ireland, Greece, the Philippines, Israel, Mozambique and Sri Lanka.

When I say rich, I mean full of life, dynamic, speak a lot of languages, a great mix of cultural backgrounds. What is /has been the value and benefit in having a broad spectrum of perspectives from every corner? 

Omar: Our team is completely bilingual – we speak both English and French at the office. The great mix of cultural backgrounds and diversity allows us to be very creative and have very different perspectives. It’s also really valuable to have such a diverse team given that the students we serve come from over 150 countries. It allows us to serve them better.

How did you arrive at your goals? What prompted you to build a company from them? 

Omar: Our goal has always been to maximize our impact in the world. Building a company dedicated to transforming education, recognizing talent and providing opportunities was our vehicle to achieve that goal.

credit-goodwall-team-photo

How’d you arrive on the name, what is its significance?

Omar: Goodwall was born out of an incredible team brainstorm where we listed every possible idea for our community. We decided on the word “wall” since we wanted to build a place where people could post their stories and achievements, like on a “wall”. At the same time, we chose the word “good” since we really wanted to focus on creating a positive community. Today Goodwall has become an incredible positive community with students from around the world supporting and congratulating each other on their achievements.

You’ve said, “With Goodwall, we aim to remove chance and privilege from the equation and provide every student with the opportunity to succeed in life. Easy and free.” Bold statement! Care to elaborate? Do you see a tipping point where there is way too much inequity surrounding education and now something needs to be done about it? why are you in higher ed, not earlier? 

Omar: Not everyone in the world today has the opportunity to a full holistic education. By that we’re referring to both the access to guidance counselors and advice and universities, but also to what happens outside the classroom. On Goodwall, our students, irrespective of where they are or what school they go to inspire each other to achieve more and pursue their passions. We wake up because we want to give hope to the one person who thought that they would never achieve what they’ve always dreamt of.

“Goodwall is the social network for high school students to tell their stories, discover opportunities, win scholarships and get recognized by universities.” There’s a lot of ways to accomplish this. How did you narrow this down? What sort of group meetings, focus groups, talks, discussions did you have to sort through issues such as using digital portfolios, being a LinkedIn like service, being a sort of micro-facebook? what sort of ideas and then, choices, did you go through? are you still churning through, or do you have a bit of a workable template now? will you iterate daily? monthly? 

Omar: This is the result of months of iterations. We have fine-tuned our message to really deliver to maximum value to our students. We follow a very powerful agile sprint method. We hold weekly product sprints we clearly defined deliverables and every morning we have a scrum meeting to track our progress and address any challenges. This allows us to iterate very quickly while progressing steadily to achieve our goals.

Do any sailing on Lac Leman? I see that’s an analogy in some of your writing. Any sailing parallels for your edtech startup?

Omar: While I would love to learn to sail, unfortunately that involves time that we don’t have. That said, our senior backend engineer sailed across the Atlantic before he joined us. As for sailing parallels, I think we just have to keep sailing faster in the same direction as the wind.

With your level of dedication and commitment to your cause, it looks like you’re in this for the long haul. Are you finding funding sources (seems like Geneva has money, but is it the kind of money that will fall into startup coffers)? What edtech startup type of meetings, conferences have you been to? What is the startup life like in Geneva? 

Omar: We are financed by both private and institutional investors. Startup life in Geneva is relatively quiet compared to San Francisco or Berlin. There is a huge benefit to this. It allows us to stay humble and focused and not get distracted by the noise and hype of the Valley. Also life in general in Geneva is quiet, allowing us to really focus on our objectives without being distracted.

We’re focused on building humans not robots.

In a global world where one can work from anywhere, “place” sometimes becomes even more interesting. Has your Geneva-based company been influenced by a sense of place? a world-class city, hub for diplomacy and banking, HQ for Europe’s UN, there’s gotta be some takeaways?

Omar: Of course, being in Geneva has many benefits. It gives us a lot of credibility, it is the HQ of the UN, the World Economic Forum and the International Baccalaureate Program with whom we have worked closely. We are also next door the International Olympic Committee who have worked with us. Finally we are neighbors with some of the most prestigious high schools in the world including the oldest and reputed international school in the world. We work closely with the schools and their students to deliver the best experience and the most value.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize regarding education these days? social networks with an education-related purpose? 

Omar: Our focus is on providing a holistic education for everyone. We’re focused on building humans not robots. By connecting our students through a social network dedicated to their success, we’ve been able to encourage and inspire them like never before while building an incredible passionate community that supports each other.

Thoughts about the future of education? is it looking good? Trends to watch? opportunities for leadership?  

Omar: The future of education is looking good. More students are pursuing their passions and becoming the best they possibly can. An interesting trend we have noticed and are following closely is that more 80 percent of our network and community dedicated to pursuing success is female – I think that’s something interesting to watch and says something about our future as a society.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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