Since graduating from our BSc Information Management for Business programme in 2018, Sara Berkai’s startup, Ambessa Play supported hundreds of children globally. Ambessa Play is working to provide this opportunity to children around the world and diversify the STEM pipeline.
Ambessa Play has had some great achievements to date including; being awarded the Young Innovate UK grant and joined the Design Museum’s Entrepreneur Hub, being profiled for British Science Week and being invited to a roundtable discussion led by George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation which was a great opportunity.
What does Ambessa Play do and how did the idea come about?
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.
I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the digital divide because I was interested in the internet as this great ‘leveller’. I worked at various technology companies during my time on the IMB programme and at every opportunity, I would volunteer and run STEM-related outreach workshops. After writing my dissertation, I wanted to see what these workshops would look like back home in Eritrea.
The feedback was encouraging but I was specifically asked to bring back more useful DIY toys, for example, a flashlight. I pursued an MSc Education degree in Child Development and Education, studying how children learn and specifically STEM self-efficacy. During the degree, I worked on the flashlight and parents at my university were interested in buying such kits for their kids as a screen-free alternative.
This is how the one-for-one model was designed. The idea of operating as a for-profit social enterprise, versus a charity, was to do this at scale.
What have been your biggest challenges as an entrepreneur?
The biggest challenge thus far has been the lack of financial stability and not having a financial safety net. It’s easy to feel slightly ridiculous when peers and fellow IMB students are stable in corporate roles. I then remind myself that nobody forced me to do this, hard work is undoubtedly hard. I love what I do and I figure not working on a problem I care about [education inequality] would be a bigger challenge.
Do you think the skills you learnt on the IMB programme helped you navigate the entrepreneurial process and overcome these challenges?
I don’t think any degree can help you navigate ‘entrepreneurship’. I did however enjoy the ‘Software Engineering’ class taught by Daniel Hulme, which covered value proposition design, and ‘Mastering Entrepreneurship’ by Gillian Lacey-Solymar, who brought in venture capitalists and founders in our late evening lessons. I also loved working on my dissertation which gave me an opportunity to deep dive into a problem I cared about and inspired the workshops in Eritrea.
Why did you decide to study IMB at UCL SoM?
What is it that you think makes the IMB programme so unique?
The ability to learn programming and business modules is great for when working at corporate technology companies and bridging between software teams and business as usual departments. It’s a great programme for anyone interested in project management or working in technology!
What were your top three takeaways from the programme that enabled you to pursue entrepreneurship?
Exposure & Experience - I participated in the Cisco International Internship in 2016 and lived in the US for a year. The experience opened my eyes to the scale of wealth and opportunities funding the most ridiculous initiatives, so I figured why not try and give it a go.
Test! - I recall at least 4 modules mentioning The Lean Startup book or The Agile Methodology. We were encouraged to iterate and try with whatever we had available to us, which I took away with me.
Confidence - I graduated with incredibly useful skills (programming Java, SQL for data analytics) from a degree with a 100% employability rate (at the time of my study). This also helped in that I felt somewhat confident that even if entrepreneurship didn’t work out, I would find a job.
What are Ambessa Play’s biggest achievements and your proudest moments as the founder?
Ambessa Play was awarded the Young Innovate UK grant and joined the Design Museum’s Entrepreneur Hub. We were profiled for British Science Week this year and also recently invited to a roundtable discussion led by George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation which was a great opportunity.
My proudest moments as a founder are always hearing feedback from kids about how they’ve been inspired to build something else or reviews from parents.
What are your future aims for Ambessa Play?
Our toy kits in every child’s bedroom!