Every child deserves the right to an education and learning opportunities and BSc Information Management for business alumna Sara Berkai and founder of Ambessa Play is working to provide this opportunity to children around the world and diversify the STEM pipeline. Alongside founding Ambessa Play, Sara has also received multiple awards such as; Innovate UK’s 202 Youn Innovator, UN ITU 2019’s Young ICT Leader and the UCL Provost’s Excellence Scholarship and the London Opportunity Scholarship.
Ambessa play creates toy kits and workshops for children (aged 3-15) globally where for every kit or workshop purchased, a disadvantaged child with low STEM capital receives one for free. Sara shares why she believes education is such a powerful tool and what drove her to found Ambessa Play and the challenges she has experienced as an entrepreneur.
What made you want to study at UCL School of Management and especially the BSc IMB programme?
What were the key highlights and challenges you faced on the programme?
The work abroad opportunities were the key highlights. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have interned in Shanghai and Silicon Valley as a result of the IMB programme.
I also enjoyed the ‘Software Engineering’ class taught by Daniel Hulme, where we covered value proposition design, and ‘Mastering Entrepreneurship’ by Gillian Lacey-Solymar, who brought in venture capitalists and founders in our evening lessons. I also loved working on my thesis (which was on the digital divide).
The biggest challenge was working part-time or full-time throughout my studies. I worked in retail part-time in my first year and did waitressing in second year to help cover rent. I then worked full-time at Amazon in my final year. So balancing studies and work overall was difficult.
What have you been doing since you graduated from the BSc IMB programme?
After I graduated, I took a break and realised I didn’t want to start a traditional tech graduate scheme role. I was interested in the digital divide and ran STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workshops at the technology companies I worked at. I applied to a few accelerators (including UCL’s Enterprise) with various ideas: a solar-powered tablet with educational materials pre-loaded - sort of like a portable Khan Academy (a free educational not-for-profit), or a one-for-one coding workshop. All of the grant applications that I applied for those ideas were rejected. During this time, I worked as a digital researcher at UCL. I then worked at Stemettes, a charity that encourages girls into STEM careers.
I kept thinking what would the STEM workshops look like in Eritrea (where I’m from). I ended up asking edtech companies for donations and prepping an offline curriculum. The workshops went well and I wanted to learn about why the children that undertook the workshop gave feedback such as “I want to become an engineer now”. What was it about hands-on learning that enhanced their STEM self-efficacy? This led me to apply for and undertake an MSc in Child Development at the University of Oxford.
Part of the feedback that I received from the same children at the workshops was that they wanted to make DIY toys that were practical items they needed. I applied for more grants and accelerators and was chosen as one of the recipients of the Mayor of London Future Startup Now award for the idea of building DIY Stem toy kits.
What is Ambessa Play and what gave you the idea to start it?
Ambessa Play is a social enterprise that develops DIY toy kits with the aim of diversifying and demystifying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). We operate on a one-for-one model where for every kit purchased, a displaced child out of school receives one for free.
My parents moved to London when I was a baby and I was fortunate to attend great state schools and have access to wonderful libraries and free museums. Globally, there are 4 million displaced children currently out of school with so much untapped potential. Whilst these kits can’t replace schooling, I wanted to co-create STEM learning opportunities for children everywhere. The idea of operating as a for-profit social enterprise, versus a charity, was to do this at scale.
What are the current barriers for diversifying the STEM pipeline and how is Ambessa Play working to overcome these?
UCL has done a lot of research on STEM participation and the Science Capital Approach1, a concept which looks at barriers concerning an individual’s science-related knowledge, attitudes, behaviours and networks. I think if you have access to the internet, you can to some extent, learn anything. There is an abundance of resources online. You can learn to code through YouTube, or engineering high school lessons via Khan Academy. There are also great organisations tackling these barriers and diversifying STEM for specific groups, such as Stemettes2, for girls aged 5-25, or In2ScienceUK3 which provides STEM work experiences for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
However, some countries or regions remain offline. Moreover, there are 4 million displaced children not in school4 according to UNICEF. Ambessa Play is devoted to overcoming these specific barriers to STEM learning through our one for one model.
What achievements are you most proud of and why?
A personal achievement is that I ran a fundraiser5 for my 25th birthday last year, to donate resources to a school in my parents’ village, Besikdira. This was to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the massacre which took place in the village. We raised £3,265 which will cover school materials and long-term solar-powered generators.
In terms of career achievements, I was also awarded Young IT Leader by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union in 2019 in Busan, South Korea and the 2021 Oxford University’s Vice Chancellor Social Impact Award. Ambessa Play was also awarded the Young Innovate UK grant and recently joined the Design Museum’s Entrepreneur Hub.
You recently had two BSc IMB students intern at Ambessa Play, what did that entail?
Working with Ally and Mark to create this experience was great. I interviewed the IMB students who applied and then ran a feedback session for those interested. Ruth and Josiah were offered the roles and were great to work with and learn from. Ruth worked on marketing, drafting our branding guidelines and creating posts for our Instagram. Josiah worked on developing wireframes for a crowdfunding page on our website. This was all done remotely due to the pandemic.
Do you think the internships were beneficial to Ambessa Play and the students and if so how?
I hope so. They both created a blog post on our website about their experience. If anything, I wanted to provide an opportunity for the first-year IMB students outside of the banking internships and tech spring weeks to show they could build their own solutions to problems they care about.
Josiah: “This experience was especially rewarding since I was given an opportunity to contribute to a meaningful social mission in the exciting world of edtech while developing new skills.”
Ruth: “The past two weeks have been exciting as I got to create new and unique content and understand in some detail the functioning of a startup.”
4 - UNICEF Report