Any entrepreneurial journey starts with a problem. For Audrey Nakad, co-founder of EdTech platform Ostaz, it was the difficulty for her, as a private tutor in Canada in the mid-2010s, to find students and for students to find her. “What a shame to not have some sort of Uber for education; and how powerful it could be to build a community of knowledge where someone who knows something can exchange it with someone who doesn’t know,” she thought.
From this basic realisation, Nakad started developing a university peer-to-peer tutoring programme that would soon grow into Ostaz, an online learning platform and mobile app that connects students to highly qualified private tutors and offers a wide variety of school subjects, university courses, languages, and prep tests to complement and support traditional learning. Starting off with a free trial, users are offered flexible packages based on their individual needs, with the ability to rate and review tutors. “We offer personalised learning based on what you need in a timely manner,” explains Nakad, who takes pride in the fact that Ostaz doesn’t simply match up tutors and students but is actively involved in ensuring the quality of learning. “We make sure that you have a learning plan with the right assignments and the right content, we follow up, and every single user has a dedicated educational consultant,” she explains, adding that “The point is to make education accessible to all. So, we have a wide price range that’s not too high. And we’re fully transparent.”
The entrepreneurial gene
Convinced that there was a massive need for such a platform in the MENA region, where education is highly valued and private tutoring is in demand, Nakad launched Ostaz with Zeina Sultani Nakad, now CMO, in 2016 out of her native Lebanon.
She laughs when asked about how she managed the shift from a classical education to a tech environment. “It was a nightmare. My friends made fun of me because I could barely use a computer at the time. But I took it as a challenge. And when you have a vision, you focus on the end goal and it keeps you going,” she says.
Like both her father and grandfather, Nakad had entrepreneurship in her blood. She, in fact, had already sold her first company when she started Ostaz at age 24. “While pursuing my education, I enrolled in an entrepreneurship programme in Montreal where you had to build a business in three months. If you succeeded, you could leave university and continue with the business. And it worked! But, coming from a Middle Eastern background, my father didn’t let me quit my bachelor’s degree. So, I sold it,” she recalls.
Ostaz was developed with the same learn-on-the-go spirit. “I was researching the project online when I discovered the word ‘accelerator,’” she says, explaining that she then applied to a three-month accelerator programme in Lebanon that led her to be selected for another intensive programme in Silicon Valley. “This helped me really speed up my entrepreneurial journey and start the right way,” she says.
The next step was for Nakad to find a co-founder with the right tech skillset, which prove challenging, “coming from a non-tech background, with few resources,” she explains. “But I had learned that you have to sell your vision, give them ownership and equity for them to feel as if they’re part of something big. And this is what I did!” Fares Samara is now Ostaz’s CTO.
Once her minimum viable product was successfully tested in one Lebanese university after the other, Nakad realised that the real potential was in the school system, where the platform could reach a younger audience for a longer period. Roughly at the same time, Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), responsible for the growth and quality of private education in the emirate, was launching a programme with Dubai Future Accelerators, an initiative aiming to facilitate the collaboration between start-ups, private entities, and the government. This opportunity prompted Nakad and her team to go and try to replicate their model in the UAE. It was the right move at the right time.
Today, Ostaz has operations in the UAE, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, and serves users in 42 different countries, with 80% of its activities conducted online and 20% in person. The platform boasts 60,000 customers comprised for 70% of school pupils starting grade 1 and for 30% of university students/adults interested in learning new skills or languages, as well as 1,000 carefully pre-screened tutors on top of its almost 50 full-time employees. It also inked partnerships with five school networks and ten universities in the region. “When the pandemic hit, Inspired Education decided to join forces with Ostaz for after-school support, and this was a game changer for us. There was a domino effect. We then signed with Taaleem, Aldar Education, and so on,” says Nakad.
The future of education
The team has raised $4 million so far and is planning another round soon. But since the company has reached profitability last July, any new investment will serve to add new markets in the GCC, as well as new capabilities. For example, Ostaz is working on artificial intelligence functionalities to assess students and create content that will reduce the number of sessions needed with a live tutor. The platform already leverages AI to help users find the right university globally, the right study plan, and write cover letters for job applications.
This creativity is critical for Ostaz’s long-term resilience. Post-pandemic, the online learning space has been booming and competition is increasing, but Nakad sees it as a positive. “When we started, we had to work a lot on awareness. Now, at least, people are more aware and accepting of online learning,” she says, emphasising how Ostaz focuses on keeping students engaged in creative ways. “Gamification is important, especially with younger kids. Online, we can have 30 minutes sessions instead of an hour when tutors go in person. We can think outside of the box in terms of content and teaching methodology,” she says.
Nakad has grown into a savvy entrepreneur with many learnings to share. “The first challenge is building the right team and culture. The second challenge is fundraising as well as finding the right VCs that understand and brings added value to what you do,” she explains. “It’s worse than a marriage. You could end together for at least five to seven years, and if you don’t see eye to eye, it can create a lot of friction. We were lucky because we had great relationships.”
Eventually, “As an entrepreneur, you will be pulled away in many directions. And once an entrepreneur loses focus, the company is lost, and the employees are lost. So, keep your focus on what really matters,” she concludes.