One man’s amazing accomplishment in founding a school amid a series of daunting challenges.
Feeling unfulfilled in his career as a successful hedge fund manager, Starr invested $500,000 of his own as seed money for a secondary school in impoverished Somaliland. It is the homeland of his uncle, a place where formal education had long ended with third grade. Otherwise, the author knew little about the African country until he was already committed to the project. Nor did he bring much expertise in founding and running a school; he had just “one undergraduate education class at Emory,” and he had been something of an educational underachiever throughout his schooling. “People have commented that it took a tremendous confidence, bordering on arrogance, to think that I could take students from Somaliland and get them to the point where they could compete in the world’s best universities.” If there is a weakness to the narrative, it involves perspective and tone. Not that Starr is a glory hog—he gives full credit to his students, who have been accepted at the likes of Harvard and Oberlin. However, if Tracy Kidder had written this book, it would have a different perspective on the teachers who failed to fulfill their one-year contracts, the partner with whom Starr had a bitter falling out over control and credit, and the local population that feared the first white man many of them had ever seen was a missionary in disguise, intent on converting their children from Islam to Christianity. The author’s invocation of “my favorite college book, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged,” suggests that he subscribes to the “great man” theory of cultural accomplishment. Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with Starr’s impressive results: “as of May 2016, Abaarso students have earned approximately $15 million in scholarships and financial aid, and the 2016-2017 school year will see almost ninety students studying around the world.”
Though the story suffers somewhat in the telling, Starr is proud of his accomplishments, and he deserves to be.