YOU CAN BE ALL YOU WANT TO BE: INTERVIEW WITH ARREYTAMBE TABOT, CEO/FOUNDER OF ESTD FOUNDATION
Today’s interview is with Arreytambe Tabot, the brain behind Edu Teens Science Development (ETSD) Foundation, based in Abuja-Nigeria.
Thanks for joining us on Under35CEO today. Could you please tell us about yourself and what you do?
I would like to start by thanking you immensely for having me here today. It is such an awesome privilege to be here. I really do appreciate the work you are in doing here in Africa and across the world and I encourage you to please keep the flag flying high. I am called Arreytambe Tabot, Cameroonian by Nationality, PhD Candidate of Computer Science, Former Deputy Head of Department for Computer Science at the Nigerian Turkish Nile University and the current Founder and CEO of the Edu Teens Science Development (ETSD) Foundation. Together with an amazing team of 8 and 20+ volunteers, we promote Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) and Computer Science (CS) education through the establishment of CS clubs in schools, conduction of student and teacher training workshops, organization of summer coding camps for teens, hackathons and tech talks.
Wow! This is great. So, why did you establish ETSD Foundation?
If there is any one thing I love doing more than anything else then that thing will be serving. My life thus far has been a life of service to humanity and it will continue to remain so until my sojourn here on earth is over. I started volunteering for causes at a very young age. I remember serving as an Award Leader for the Duke of Edinburgh International Award also known as the intaward when I was in my teens. When I turned 20, together with some friends of mine, I co-founded a nonprofit called BigBros and served as its first president and board chair for 3 years. We focused on youth capacity building, mentoring, innovation and entrepreneurship. Later I became one of the eight founders of a group called the Center for Education and Community Development which was dedicated to educating communities, and the wider world on the effects of oil exploration, deforestation and other activities on neighboring communities in the Bakassi region. On moving over to Nigeria for my Masters, I volunteered with Communities Without Boundaries International, Africa Code Week, Google, WAAW Foundation, and became a Global Youth Ambassador for A World At School. After all these amazing experiences, I began to realize that I would have become a successful failure if I had succeeded in doing what I had to do to make the world a better place in my own little way and yet failed to train enough people to sustain it after I was long gone. I needed an entity bigger than my little self through which I could give back to my continent Africa in a more sustainable way. The ETSD Foundation therefore became that entity through which I will be able to extend myself and the work I was doing to places where I wouldn’t be able to go to as one individual limited in time and space. Through it many more people will be able to get involved in the causes we champion bringing about a more sustainable organization that will live well beyond its Founder.
It’s obvious you’re very passionate about computer science. Tell us why.
Because CS is a discipline that emphasizes persistence in problem solving — a skill that is applicable across disciplines, driving job growth, and innovation across all sectors of the workforce. So, in a sense, students participating in our clubs are being prepared to tackle some of the problems that have kept Africa in the dark for decades. They will also become creators and not just consumers of technology. They will have the courage to try new things and thus become more confident when using computers. Our programs will also instill in them a sense of community and collaboration, as they work with their peers to solve real-life problems.
How do you intend to use ETSD foundation to provide universal access to computer science for young people in Africa?
We have a two pronged approach. The first is through our Code2Schools program where we establish CS Clubs in schools and deploy trained volunteers to serve as instructors in these clubs using the Google CS First curriculum as the training manual. And the second one is through our ReTeach program where we train the teachers so that they can be able to integrate the material as part of their already running subjects. In that way, it doesn’t appear to be an extra burden being heaped on them. You know people resist change regardless of what the change might bring. Another idea we are incubating now which we intend to develop in the not so distant future is a mobile learning solution that will foster anywhere, anyone and anytime learning.
What age group are you targeting?
Our target group is mainly students between the ages of 12 to 18 and we strive for a 50% inclusion of females in all the programs we do. In the nearest future, we will be able to drop the lower age bound down to 9 years old after a series of tests we carried out yielded stunning results. In some cases they outperformed their seniors.
Tell us about Code2School and Google CS First Program.
The Code2Schools program is supported by ETSD Foundation and was born out of a desire to prepare the entrepreneurs and innovators of tomorrow by giving them knowledge and skills that will ignite creativity within them to create solutions for Africa’s problems. Our overarching goal is to ensure that every child between the ages of 12 to 18 knows how to read and write computer programs. It may sound like long shot to some, but to us it is a “moonshot” goal. It keeps us extremely motivated. It has also helped to attract other big picture-thinkers, who see things not only in terms of days and months but also in decades. In fact, I believe that it was our big, hairy, audacious goals and grit that compelled Google to partner with us on the pilot of the CS First program in Nigeria.
Google CS First is a free program that aims to increase student access and exposure to computer science (CS) education through after-school, in-school, and summer programs. All of the “clubs” are run by teachers and/or community volunteers. Students learn programming by watching video tutorials, then transfer those lessons into projects using Scratch. Clubs are designed around themes to attract students with varied interests, such as Storytelling, Fashion & Design, Music & Sound, Game Design, Art, just to name a few. Because of numerous similarities, we decided to adopt the Google CS First curriculum into our Code2Schools curriculum.
Why do you think today’s young people should learn how to Program and code.
I will like to borrow the words of two of the most respected innovators of our time, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Bill Gates, Co-Founder of Microsoft: “Learning to write programs stretches your mind, and helps you think better, creates a way of thinking about things that I think is helpful in all domains.”
Steve Jobs, Co-Founder of Apple: “Everybody in this country should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.”
In these two statements, the word “think” is mentioned. Everybody “thinks,” irrespective of the field in which they find themselves. Learning how to program, even at the most basic level, helps sharpen the thinking process. Learning how to code stretches a person’s ability to solve many problems in life.
For example, what’s an algorithm? It is a sequence of instructions or a set of rules that are followed to complete a task. This task can be anything, so long as you can give clear instructions for it. Whether it’s making a smoothie, baking a banana cake, handling a court case, performing surgery, and so on, you need algorithms.
What’s your vision for ETSD foundation?
Before I turn 40 which is 12 years away from now, I should have grown the ETSD Foundation into a global nonprofit, making measurable impact through our programs all over Africa and across the world. We should have trained 500,000+ students through our Code2Schools program and developed 100,000+ teachers through our ReTeach program. Our innovation lab called ThinkLab should have produced its first cohort of entrepreneurial leaders tackling some of Africa’s biggest challenges. We should have also setup a growing endowment for diversification of the organizations income as well as dependency reduction.
You run ETSD foundation and have an 8-5 job. Tell us how you’re able to manage both and do them well.
When I started the ETSD Foundation, I was still serving as the Deputy Head of Department for Computer Science, Coordinator of the Student Industrial Work Experience Program and Exam Coordinator all at the Nigerian Turkish Nile University. I must admit that this was not an easy task at all because in addition to this I was already doing my PhD in Computer Science. This meant that I had to utilize my weekends for work instead of rest and relaxation. So technically I was working round the clock and only getting a few hours of sleep daily for a long period of time. I broke down several times due to prolonged stress and fatigue. I also realized that I began to loathe being a full-time staff. Mind you I had received no external funding to begin the ETSD Foundation and so all the money I spent for its registration, lawyer fees, volunteer stipends, etc. came from my personal savings and software development jobs through my company, OpenKollabo Technologies (www.openkollabogroup.com). But I believed so much in the ETSD Foundation and the work we were doing that I resigned from my full-time position, took a huge salary cut and a part-time position at the University and went off to work full-time for the ETSD Foundation. It didn’t make sense to many but it did to me and I am glad I made that decision.
What was the tipping point for ETSD foundation?
The tipping point for the ETSD Foundation came when we made a strategic partnership with Google Inc. through our Code2Schools and its CS First programs. Through this partnership, the ETSD Foundation began to immediately gain credibility in the secondary and high schools we pitched our programs to. The reputation of Google preceded us and we leveraged that to our advantage because it became easier for schools to adopt the program since they knew Google and the remarkable things they had done. This partnership really opened many doors for us.
Tell us, how did you get the right people to help you translate your dreams and ideas into reality?
One thing I know about my leadership style is that I am a transformational leader. The people who work with me can attest to the fact that I look well beyond myself in order to work for the greater good of everyone. So it wasn’t difficult for me to build an A-list team of top talent to carry the vision forward. The first people I checked on my list were a couple of my students at the University whom I mentored out of class. They were very passionate, energetic and eager to run with the vision. So I brought them into the decision-making process and allowed them the opportunity to learn and grow as individuals. The second set of people I brought in were two smart ladies, one a Chartered Accountant and the other my PhD colleague who was also making waves in the Computer Science field. With the inner team now in place, we went ahead to recruit and train 30+ motivated volunteers who were ready to be deployed to the different schools where we had established CS clubs. We tested our hypothesis and validated our assumptions with a pilot run of our Code2Schools program which turned out to be huge success by our own standards and ever since then the program as been expanding to other schools within the Abuja metropolis and without.
What habits have you developed over the years that have helped you become successful at what you do today?
I will mention 5 things that have helped me through the years. The first thing that comes to my mind is prayers. For me this cannot be overemphasized. I see myself as a steward of all that has been given to me and so I connect daily with my Maker for wisdom and direction in my affairs and He has never failed me. The second is resilience. I have been able to build the ability to bounce back from setbacks into the very fabric of my being. You will hardly see me whining about one thing or another. If you see me talking about politicians, the economy and all that stuff it’s probably because I am around people talking about such things. Apart from that I don’t complain about things that I can’t control. It’s a complete waste of time and energy for me. Thirdly, I do a lot of deep thinking. I am comfortable with ambiguity and spend a lot of time trying to connect the dots between what I know and what I don’t know mentally. I usually do that while lying in bed, during my retreats or on long flights. Fourthly, I make plans and review them frequently. This provides a roadmap for me to follow towards achieving my goals and lastly, I ask a lot of questions. I speak to people who have gone ahead of me, I read biographies of successful people, I talk to people more knowledgeable than me in other areas and I generally surround myself with positive people.
How was growing up like for you?
I am the third child in a family of 5 and always felt like the odd one in the mix. Many things contributed to this. I was the only Science inclined person in the house and to make matters worse a quintessential nerd. I was very antisocial, couldn’t talk before a small group of people, never looked at a lady in her eyes without sweating and very poor when it came to matching colors. While my siblings were very articulate and had the power of expression due to the kind of literature novels they read, I struggled with words and this further strengthened my resolve to excel at what I was good at-solving physics and mathematics problems. As a result of all these things, I always felt my siblings were better than me and this led me to having a very low self-esteem for many years until I got into the University. To cover up for my self-image issues, I became very defensive and arrogant towards everyone at at home. Yes I was very stubborn and took pride in the fact that I excelled in school and so couldn’t care less what anyone said about me. I got used to the cane to the point where it didn’t matter anymore to me. I did what I wanted to do knowing fully well that I will get spanked and that’ll be it. But all that changed one day when my mum called me into the living room after I had disobeyed her instructions again. I felt she was going to be beat me so I came prepared. But then what happened totally changed my life. She asked me to go get a Bible and bring to her. I did that and then the next thing she did was ask me to read Proverbs 16:18 to her out loud. It read, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Then she told me to go back to my room. Was that it? Yes, that was it and this got me really thinking hard about my life. It made me realize that there was no point trying to succeed in life if I was planning to fail. How was I planning to fail? Pride and arrogance would have eventually caused my demise. That evening was the turning point of my life.
How do you personally define success?
That’s an interesting question because success means different things to different people. In my opinion, the level of a man’s success can’t be adequately measured while he is alive but after he is long gone. I strongly believe that the measure of how well I succeeded in life should not be evaluated by how much money I left in my bank account, the class of cars I drove, the mansions I built, and all what not but rather in my ability to point to the people I invested in and expended my life for. A success without a successor is an epic failure. History is replete with men and women who accomplished great feat in business, academics, politics, etc. but died without passing on their accumulated wealth of experience and legacy to a worthy successor. Everything they accomplished was buried beneath the place where their mortal remains lay. What a waste! So in order not to make the same mistakes of the past, I am currently mentoring and coaching a young group of talented people to carry on with the vision and sustain the legacy of the ETSD Foundation. By the end of my life’s journey, when I can with dim eyes, look back and see the people I trained, running the organizations I built, making a positive impact on their world and doing even better than I did, then will I be able think of myself as a success.
Lastly, what’s your thought about Under35CEO?
I really love Under35CEO and the work you do in profiling young people who are making significant contributions to their world. I can tell you that a lot of people (myself included) visit your site daily for inspiration and encouragement. It gives one this “if they could do it, then I can do it too” attitude which is a good thing. Please don’t relent in your efforts, you are really doing a good job.
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