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Education

Boundless Minds: Plugging the skills gap for graduates to drive successful school-to-work transition

"I am fascinated by the power of ideas and their ability to transform communities and give individuals, especially the vulnerable, a shot at a decent and dignified life."

Benjamin Rukwengye, founder of Boundless Minds

After finishing university, Boundless Minds founder Benjamin Rukwengye spent two years doing unpaid work, learning the soft-skills that he knew employers wanted, but which he had not been taught in school or university. He knew that thousands of other graduates across Uganda were facing the same challenges, with an estimated 83% of unemployed people in Uganda being aged between 15-24 years old. Many of these were spending up to 3 years as postgraduates working for free in order to bridge the skills gaps preventing them from accessing permanent employment. Benjamin saw an opportunity to help break this cycle and contribute towards solving the growing unemployment problem in Uganda. In 2017, Benjamin founded Boundless Minds to do just that, utilising a mix of training, placements, mentoring and job matching to create pathways to entrepreneurship and further employment opportunities.

With support from QCT, Boundless Minds will produce and distribute soft-skills toolkits and handbooks to 5,000 high school graduates. These materials will focus on subjects such as communication, critical thinking, collaboration and teamwork, as well as people and project management, all with the purpose of helping more young people stand a better chance of finding work or succeeding in entrepreneurship.

The same toolkits will be adapted to enable Boundless Minds to expand their reach beyond the city of Kampala, where they currently operate. QCT will also work with Boundless Minds to provide advice and guidance on organisational areas including safeguarding and financial management.

Continue reading to learn more about Boundless Minds, and hear from Benjamin himself in the Q&A and video below.

Boundless Minds is working towards SDG 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Context

An estimated 83 per cent of all unemployed people in the country of Uganda are aged between 15-24 years old. Of 40,000+ school and university graduates, approximately 70% are unable to find paid job opportunities, largely due to a lack of work-readiness and entrepreneurial soft-skills developed in formal education.

Work

Boundless Minds uses experiential training, volunteer placements and mentor/job matching as pathways to entrepreneurship, employability and social justice learning. This compliments existing education systems by offering training on soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, teamwork, and management.

Impact

To date, Boundless Minds has collaborated with 3 universities, 15 placement and training organisations, 40 mentor professionals and 20 community schools to equip over 500 young people with work-readiness and practical entrepreneurial skills. It has also carried out career mapping sessions with over 2,000 high school students.

"I am grateful to QCT mostly because of the time at which we got selected for the award, but also for how the Trust is intent in ensuring that we drive our own change process. And to think that we now have an inter-continental network to tap into, explore opportunities for collaborations, benchmark and share learnings with, is such an honour."

Benjamin Rukwengye, founder of Boundless Minds

Getting to know Benjamin Rukwengye

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Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Benjamin Rukwengye, and I am fascinated by the power of ideas and their ability to transform communities and give individuals, especially the vulnerable, a shot at a decent and dignified life. I founded Boundless Minds in 2017 to validate the ideas of young people in school and offer them access to mentorship that prepares them for work; providing a smoother transition from school into work that positively impacts their communities. Both my grandparents were teachers, which probably influences my motivation to place education at the centre of transforming lives, because I have seen it first-hand. I have therefore spent the better part of my professional life working and volunteering with others, through initiatives that are pursuing equality in education, creating content that enhances personal development and inspiring young people into community-change work. I am invested in developing knowledge and policy work that’s rooted in community-based initiatives, as a way to build change movements from the ground.

Why did you decide to work in this area?

As a young person, I initially struggled to find my place in leadership, define my career and passions, and help change my country for the better, because our education system does not prepare us for this. But I benefited from the goodwill and guidance of mentors and friends along the way, especially when starting out and transitioning from school, which showed me what it’s like to grow (or not) through systems that work or don’t. This is what drove me to found Boundless Minds, to create a platform where many young people can discover who they really were meant to be, and then go out and change their communities and country.

What were your first steps to get the project off the ground?

It was difficult at the start. I knew what I wanted to do, in my head at least, but I guess I just lacked the courage – for a long while. Then one January morning in 2017, I just decided that would be the day. I sent out a series of tweets asking my followers and friends who had siblings that had graduated from high school to point them to this programme that I would be running.

18 young people signed up. The details on what we covered over the course of 6 weekends are pretty hazy now but I remember receiving a lot of feedback from people saying how this new initiative was a much needed solution to the problem at the centre of education and employment. As a result, lots of people offered to help me think through how we could best go about building a great solution – giving birth to Boundless Minds as we know it today.

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Benjamin founded Boundless Minds in order to create a platform where young people can discover their passions and abilities.

What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you overcome them?

As a founder I think you face three major challenges. The first is to turn your ideas and dreams into actual products. Things don’t always work the way you envision them; people don’t always respond the way you hope they will. So you have self-doubt and sometimes it feels lonely. What am I not doing right? Why is it this hard? Who will understand me? Some months, it feels like you have been running but haven’t moved a yard. The second is that you are literally everything. You have to be the finance guy, the comms guy, you have to learn to pitch but also develop strategy and programmes. You have to build a team and lead it. Now nobody can do all these things – but you also don’t have the money to pay for support. So this takes a toll on you. Sometimes I envy people with co-founders because you can lift the weight together.

Lastly, you need investment into the dream for you to continue to run. You have to pay your own bills, but your work usually can’t even afford that. Then when you have a team, you have to take care of their welfare, operational expenses and programme/idea costs. Then you discover the migraine that’s fundraising when you are a start-up without a body of work and years of experience.

I have experienced all of these challenges. They are things almost every founder experiences. Having mentors, advisors and a great team has been of immense help in plugging the gaps that I might have as a person. It is important to open up, especially if you are doing social impact work, to the fact that this is not your cross to carry alone, and that there are people out there that want pitch in – but they won’t if you don’t ask them to. I now have an amazing team of 7 and our mentors’ portfolio has hit about 50 professionals – and I couldn’t be more grateful.

We are also working hard to build great value in our programmes to achieve two things: first to accelerate our growth – by staying lean and building efficiency and quality – which also translates into the second solution: building a mixed model that allows us to charge a fee on some of our programmes, diversify our fundraising and build investible partnerships to increase our organisational income.

What has been your proudest moment with this work?

At the end of last year, we knew we were ready to scale but were worried about how we would be able to raise the funds for us to design the soft-skills toolkit we wanted to provide in schools. We also had an ambition to build a digital mentorship platform to enhance work-readiness in institutions of higher education. We had applied for funding all year and been turned down by everyone – even in instances where we came so, so close.

So, in December 2019, we turned to the public and ran a crowd funding campaign to raise $5000 to start building The Mentor – our digital work-readiness platform. On December 31st, we hit the $5000 mark to start building The Mentor, thanks to friends, strangers and acquaintances on the internet who showed up to see this dream come to life. It was an intense period but I have never felt prouder for how people showed up to invest in this dream.

A month later, we got selected for QCT funding, that will allow us to design and produce the soft-skills toolkit. That recognition, from an organization with the stature of QCT, validated our work and made the team and I realise that the work we are doing is important and must go on.

What is the most important thing you’ve learnt?

Investing in relationships. I can’t emphasize how important it has been for myself as a leader to build great work relationships with my team, and for Boundless Minds to build a brand that elicits the amount of goodwill that we receive from the public. This work would have been hard, impossible in some respects, if we didn’t constantly get the validation and input of the public – to learn from, be innovative with and continue to grow.

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Boundless Minds uses a mixture of training, placements, mentoring and job matching to create pathways to entrepreneurship and employment opportunities.

What are your future goals for Boundless Minds?

We are currently developing two initiatives that I am particularly excited about because of the scale that they will bring, enabling us to reach many more young people in many more schools. First, we are designing a standardized soft skills focused, 21st-century-ready toolkit that high school graduates will use as a guide when they to volunteer in primary schools within their neighbourhoods as part of our initiative to improve personal and career development.

We have also started building our digital mentorship platform that will make it possible for students in Universities and vocational schools to access work-readiness content, find professionals as mentors and access curated entry-level work opportunities – easing their ability to transition from school to work.

Those two initiatives are borne out of two years of groundwork and will not only give us the opportunity to scale and reach 5,000 students in under two years, but they will also offer user cases and proof of concept that we shall use to lobby government for education reform. That is the future of Boundless.

Why do you think it’s important for young people to be equal partners in driving change in the world?

Young people, perhaps more than anybody else, understand the context in which they exist and operate; the context that drives their innovations. But they also exist within a system that usually holds them back and asks them to wait, even as that same system does not deliver on their aspirations and dreams. So, we constantly exist in a world where our dreams are in conflict with our realities, yet we know that it’s possible to create change – because we have tried it on small scale, within our means.

Making us equal partners in driving change puts our ideas, our energies and motivations to test. It gives us the chance to decide our future and to create a world that we have imagined for so long, a world where we won’t have to fix the brokenness created by those that came before us. That’s why we need to be part of the forces driving change, because we have a stake in the future of the world; and a perspective that hasn’t been tried yet.

What are your top 3 tips for young people who have a great idea, but are wondering how to get started?

1. Believe in in your vision. The reason you have that idea is because you have the ability to drive it. So dream big and invest in building small systematic steps to get there. Sometimes we don’t start because we haven’t thought about the process. If you invest in understanding the problem and the solution, then you know which pain point to start with, and how to stay the course, even when things get hard.

2. Collaborate. The second tip is to acknowledge that you are not alone – even if it will often feel like you are. So learn to collaborate. There are so many others going through the same experiences, because they are trying to get to where you are going. So work together. Share your load. Carry other’s loads as well. Reach out. Collaborate. Network.

3. Practise self-care. Lastly, take care of yourself. I believe that the founder for the first couple of years is the most important asset of an organization - which is why it is important that they take care of themselves, of their mental health, of their welfare, of their growth – because if you don’t, your idea will never exceed your wellbeing.

What does working with QCT mean to you?

I am grateful to QCT mostly because of the time at which we got selected for the award, but also for how the Trust is intent in ensuring that we drive our own change process. As we pivot and scale our programmes and impact, having a partner that offers us financial and professional support to go through this process, whilst also allowing us to direct our vision, is invaluable.

And to think that we now have an inter-continental network to tap into, explore opportunities for collaborations, benchmark and share learnings with, is such an honour.

Follow the work of Boundless Minds on Facebook and Twitter, or visit their website.

Article published: May 2020

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