Manal Zraiq is the MENA regional honoree for the 2022 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making an impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
“We are wearing the same suit,” says Manal Zraiq, YPO member and chairwoman of Al Mustaqbal School. Smiling, she holds up her phone. On it is a photograph of U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi wearing a nearly identical suit to the one Zraiq is currently sporting. Zraiq has just returned from an unexpected reception with the congresswoman following the announcement of The United States Agency for International Development’s project for supporting Small and Medium Enterprise Assistance for Recovery and Transition from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During her speech, Pelosi said, ‘The United States is committed to promoting peace and security to both sides, and to supporting a two-state solution,’” Zraiq mentions with pleasure.
This is the kind of open ease with which conversations with Zraiq begin, leaving no doubt how her pioneering spirit has managed such diverse success. With a background in financial services, real estate, media, IT, fund management and logistical planning, there is nearly no sector Zraiq has not helped elevate.
But perhaps her most treasured role to date is one she never saw coming: educating Palestine’s youth by designing a vigorously innovative academic and nonacademic programs that gives them the tools to create a better tomorrow.
I am a problem solver. I am a risk taker. I am diplomatic. But problems at school are really different than in any other sector. In a school, you are not only dealing with children, but with parents, and when parents send their children to school, they send their hearts. All of my skills required me to be more open-minded and empathic. ”
— Manal Zraiq, MENA regional honoree for the 2022 YPO Global Impact Award share
The unexpected educator
As one of the pioneers behind Rawabi, the first planned city in Palestine and the largest private sector project, Zraiq has been involved every step of the way, from ideation to implementation. But when it came time to building a school, well, that wasn’t exactly her cup of tea.
“I raised three children …” Zraiq, says, laughing and recalling years of rustling children out of their beds, getting them to school on time, ensuring they did their homework. It made sense to hand them over to someone else to create and manage the school.
As a “country in the making,” 48% of Palestine’s population is under the age of 19. As Zraiq says, “It is a place in desperate need of leaders in this time of increasing radicalization on both sides. In December 2015, my two partners said, ‘You have to create this. You have to find an international curriculum and create a top-notch school that will encourage people to move to Rawabi city.’”
And so began Zraiq’s journey to build a top-notch school that would create leaders with the intelligence and fortitude to build a better future.
For anyone who has ever managed the building of anything — a company, a community, a home — they know deadlines are moving targets. That it is inevitable when, say, a contractor submits a move-in date, it is necessary to tack six months onto the back end. For Zraiq, the hard and fast deadline of opening a school was an incredible challenge.
“There was absolutely no way around opening after August,” Zraiq says, shaking her head at the memory. “If we missed the August deadline, we would have to wait an entire year before opening.”
After extensive research into the various educational platforms available, Zraiq chose “the Mercedes” of academia — the Cambridge International curriculum — as the foundation of learning for Rawabi School. To Zraiq, Cambridge offered a visionary take on learning that combined all the usual subjects with soft learning skills and leadership programs, building blocks that would help prepare students for the unknown future ahead.
In August 2016, Rawabi School opened with 100 students from kindergarten-fifth grade.
The incredible development Zraiq saw in the students — whether in their knowledge, personality, attitude or language — shone a bright light on what an impact the school was having on creating the leaders of tomorrow. This was the turning point that compelled her to invest more in education by buying major shares in an existing school in Ramallah, Al Mustaqbal School and changing the system by implementing Cambridge International curriculum for all grades, kindergarden-12.
Lessons beyond the walls
“We strongly believe that we should prepare students for the unknown future,” says Zraiq.
“The world is moving fast and new jobs are being created that never existed before. We are preparing our students to engage in jobs that don’t yet exist by teaching them soft skills such as public speaking, research, debate and working as a team. This will prepare them for anything that comes their way.”
At AL Mustaqbal School, the project-based learning program inspires students to become proactive in their communities, strengthens their sense of belonging and reinforces the concept of being a good citizen. For instance, a program called “Houses” gives students in grades 1-12, a choice of which “house” they want to join. Each house elects a chair and a deputy, then participates in making collective decisions, competing against other houses at events throughout the year.
“In this way, students inside each house learn how to communicate and work together among classes with different ages and different knowledge sets,” explains Zraiq. “They work together to build communities and support each other, compete with different houses. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, it all nourishes their life skills.”
When children are raised to not only think academically, but empathically, you create a better world. Investing in education has a long-term impact that affects every other sector. ”
— Manal Zraiq, Chairwoman of Al Mustaqbal School share
Additionally, the students learn fundraising skills and help other schools in marginalized areas locally as well as internationally. During an incredibly popular event called “The International Day,” each class researches a certain country then does a presentation showing their culture and traditions, with embassy’s and representative of the countries joining the students at the event. All of this is aimed at teaching children to not only think academically, but empathically.
“When you do that,” says Zraiq, “you create a better world. Investing in education has a long-term impact that affects every other sector.”
“I am a problem solver,” states Zraiq. “I am a risk taker. I am diplomatic. But problems at school are really different than in any other sector. In a school, you are not only dealing with children, but with parents and when parents send their children to school they send their hearts. All of my skills required me to be more open-minded and empathic.”
The combination of Zraiq’s business, management and soft skills have resulted in more than 1,000 Palestinian students benefitting from AL Mustaqbal School’s education. Sixty percent of the academy’s graduates go on to attend prestigious universities abroad and in 2021, the academy was ranked in the top 10% of Cambridge schools who took the official exams worldwide.
For Zraiq, one of the proudest impacts has been creating a management and operation team that is 83% women.
“The greatest impact for me is empowering women,” says Zraiq. “By empowering and educating women you educate the whole family and the whole society. This is also evident in the students,” she adds, referencing the “Houses” project. “The chair of every house is a girl. Our brand has given women the opportunity to understand and be involved in business.”
A model future
The overall success of Al Mustaqbal School has led Zraiq to work on expanding it to embrace more than 1,800 students in the near future.
“It is my dream to turn it into a model school that can be duplicated in other Palestinian cities and throughout the region,” she says. “I am currently speaking to investors and seeking funds for partnerships.”
The joy on Zraiq’s face is palatable when she talks about her schools and the impact they are having is undeniable.
“I don’t know how to express the joy and happiness I feel when I go to graduation and see all of the students preparing to take their next steps,” she says. “Believe me, when I go there, I feel that all of them, they are all my children.”