Emkan Education co-founders on the firm's growth and achievements

13 December 2023 Consultancy-me.com 9 min. read
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Mounira Jamjoom, Basma Bushnak, and Sara Zaini are the co-founders of Emkan Education, a Jeddah-headquartered boutique education consultancy. The female leaders reflect on the growth of Emkan Education into a leading player in the sector.

Reports suggest that the size of the global consulting industry has become bigger than ever, which can lead one to assume that there is now room for everyone, from industry giants to boutique consultancies.

However, starting up a smaller, localized, and specialist new entrant in this domain is still something that might require a certain degree of bravery, and that’s the trait that has been evident in Basma Bushnak, Mounira Jamjoom, and Sara Zaini, the co-founders of Emkan Education.

Emkan Education's co-founders on the firm's growth and achievements

“Founding a management consulting firm that is sector-specific means that you need to be the best at what you do, because you need to compete with the best, and so, our quality had to be on par with the top firms, like PwC and Bain & Company,” says Jamjoom, who is today the Business Development Manager of Emkan Education.

“Back in 2013, when we were starting, it was our personal profile and expertise that was selling the projects, not the Emkan brand that we have now.”

Having now completed a decade in business, Emkan Education has managed to develop or complete more than 75 consulting and advisory projects with clients across sectors, support more than 70 schools and universities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE.

Meanwhile, the firm’s training arm has been able to facilitate more than 8,000 entries for Cambridge International (part of the University of Cambridge and the provider of international education for 3 to 19-year-olds), and train more than 3,770 teachers and leaders to attain the Cambridge Professional Development Qualifications.

Adding to this list of achievements, Bushnak – the CEO of Emkan Education – points out that the enterprise is also the first Saudi company to be associated with Cambridge Assessment International Education, the world’s largest provider of international education programmes and qualifications for 5 to 19-year-olds.

In addition, the team behind Emkan Education are also responsible for Aanaab.com, the first Arabic e-learning platform for teachers in the MENA region.

Emkan’s signature seal of quality

“Today, there is something called ‘Emkaner’, like a stamp for our clients, which shows their high quality, commitment, and making it happen in the education sector,” Bushnak says.

“We've earned this reputation, because we, as founders, have been leading by example since the beginning, and even today, we want to maintain the culture in the company that is unique and high quality, but still local, having a deep understanding of the local markets and culture.”

Basma Bushnak

Basma Bushnak, Co-Founder and CEO of Emkan Education

The story of these three entrepreneurs follows a well-known path of how disruption occurs in the consulting sector: seasoned professionals leave a branded firm to leverage their high degree of expertise in a particular sector to strike out in a new direction.

All three co-founders have a bachelor’s degree in special education from Dar al Hekma University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In addition, Bushnak also holds a master of arts in curriculum and assessment from University College London, Zaini holds a master of arts in in curriculum from the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, and Jamjoom has a master of arts from Teachers’ College, as well as a doctorate degree in curriculum studies from Oxford University.

To join her co-founders in launching Emkan Education, Jamjoom had left the position of a senior research specialist with the Ideation Center, Booz & Company’s think tank in the Middle East. “It is not often that you hear about people starting a management consultancy firm in the field of human capital development, and this is a service industry that drains you a lot,” Jamjoom admits.

“But as we mark the tenth anniversary, I'm glad that we’ve had a strong year-on-year growth for a while, and that I see room for growth in the next three years as well.”

Focus on the education sector

Today, Emkan Education strives to provide best-in-class support to different stakeholders of the education sector, including government entities, private schools, investors, and non-profit organizations. “I really wanted to focus on the business development angle, which is about understanding where different countries are in their education trajectory,” Jamjoom explains.

“And so, when we talk about education, we don't look only at K-12 schools, universities, or technical vocation, but we also look at workforce, tourism education, and green economies. Our projects are diverse, from national development strategies, to very small projects like how to transform a school.”

The firm’s work comes on the sidelines of a booming education sector. UAE-based Alpen Capital reports that the majority of the countries in the GCC have earmarked a significant proportion of spending for education, with Saudi Arabia allocating the highest expenditure at 17% of its total budget ($50.4 billion in 2023), followed by Oman at 16.7% ($1.9 billion). Budget allocation for education in the UAE increased by 15.5% in 2023 from 14.8% in 2020, while Kuwait maintained spending of 11.5% towards the sector.

However, government spending on education in Bahrain (9.9%) and Qatar (9.0%) remained below the regional average. That said, budget allocations for education in the GCC region remain higher than those in the US, UK, and Germany.

Mounira Jamjoom

Mounira Jamjoom, Co-Founder and Business Development Manager of Emkan Education

“The majority of the education sector in the region is driven by the public sector, apart from the UAE, where education is driven by the private sector,” Jamjoom notes.

“As a result, the majority of these countries want to improve their public sector education, which are all huge systems, and therefore, most of our clients have similar problems – such as teacher quality, high quality early childhood education, reducing the gap between university and the workforce, privatization, and finding efficient ways to fund public education.”

“Of course differences might arise in projects due to our clients being at different stages of development, or when we need to customize programs to different cultures, but they all face very similar problems”, Jamjoom continues.

Their biggest lessons

With offices in Jeddah and Dubai, Emkan Education’s 40-strong team have thus got their work cut out of them. So, when asked about her biggest lessons when it comes to leading herself and others, Bushnak replies that a key one was to learn to trust her partners, and, eventually, the whole team.

“In the end, I had a high commitment to the cause and value of the service we are providing, and that helped me to persevere,” she says. “It's also very important to be bold and take risks in business by putting yourself out there fully, and I also learned how to deal with rejection, and focus on maintaining a good relationship with the people who rejected us, in hope that they would become our clients one day.”

Adding a more personal tone to the topic of managing teams as well as her own performance, Zaini warns all entrepreneurs to be wary of burnout. “I think people don't take burnout as seriously as they should, and they don't realize how it could scar you and prohibit you from ever bouncing back,” she says.

“Getting into this cycle of extreme burnout, taking a break to breathe, then getting back to the grind was not serving me, my family, or even my company. What's been working well for me, at least for now, is to design internal processes that build the team’s capacity, and for me to learn to delegate. I hold myself from getting the job done myself, and take a step back to coach them, while they operate and offer feedback as they go. I also recently learned to protect my weekends, and treat them as seriously as my working hours. I don’t respond to emails, or try to catch up with work, on weekends.”

Looking back at how Emkan Education was built, Zaini admits that the ambiguity of the entrepreneurial journey, especially in the beginning, was quite difficult. “We had to be very agile, and to keep changing the business model, removing and adding service lines, while operating within a very niche market,” she recalls.

“Now that it's been 10 years, I can see the blessings in disguise. The experience shaped me, with full force, to focus on what's under my control, and have faith that what's out of my control will be sorted out, eventually.”

Sara Zaini

Sara Zaini. Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Emkan Education

Bushnak adds, “I would add the importance of being brave to make difficult decisions. Back in 2017, we had to kill one of our edtech products, an app for school ratings, that actually wasn’t going anywhere. So, not being afraid of making these big decisions early on, to stop the company from bleeding cash and effort, is important.”

Armed with this wisdom, the Emkan Education co-founders are now ready to have their enterprise contribute not only to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 (the government roadmap for Saudi Arabia's long-term economic and social success), but also to other regional economies and their education sectors.

The road ahead

It will undoubtedly not just be a smooth ride, but the Emkan Education co-founders are confident in the road ahead.

Jamjoom: “A lot of entrepreneurs are always afraid of competing with the big whales, and I think that our key message is that you can always differentiate yourself, and deliver the same quality as them, if not better,” she says. “Because, by being a small firm and a sector-focused firm, you can see opportunities that other people cannot.”

“For example, we opened a new market for us in advisory for foreign investors coming to the Kingdom back in 2018, when none of the big firms wanted to touch that. It indeed was very early then; however, when the time came, it quickly became our area of expertise. Even while being small, you can compete, and you can differentiate yourself.”

Earlier this month, Emkan Education was named one of the leading consulting firms in the Middle East.

This article was created by Tamara Pupic and was first posted in Entrepreneur Middle East.