By Valerie Franchi
Westborough – Westborough resident Jonathan Starr has been featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes” with Anderson Cooper. His story of building a successful nonprofit boarding school in one of Africa’s most unstable and remote countries has been touted on CNN and in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and many others.
Two of his greatest marks of success, however, happened in the past two weeks. First, on June 2, he stood in front of Worcester Academy’s Class of 2017 and gave the commencement address. Starr had graduated from the school in 1994.
“I was a straight ‘B’ student,” Starr said. “I certainly did not make best of my time [at Worcester Academy.] My teachers wouldn’t have expected me to be back speaking there.”
A week later, he visited MIT to attend the graduation of a student from the Abaarso School of Science and Technology, of which he founded in 2009, one of many students who have gone on to attend America’s best colleges and universities.
“He grew up a nomad,” Starr explained. “As a kid, he saw a vehicle coming toward him. He thought it was an animal; he had never seen one before. Now, he is graduating in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT.”
The Abaarso School is located in Somaliland, an unrecognized breakaway country that is still considered to be part of Somalia, a conservative Islamic country designated as the world’s number one failed state by The Fund For Peace, greatly due to war and instability that have plagued it for nearly 30 years.
Starr became interested in helping there through his uncle, who is originally from Somaliland.
“He had told me about his homeland since I was young,” Starr said. “When I was ready for a career change he accompanied me on a trip to Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital.”
Starr had previously had a flourishing career in finance. From 2004-2008, he founded and led Flagg Street Capital, a private investment firm that managed $170 million of investor assets. Previously, he was employed as an analyst at two private investment firms and was on the
board of directors of Pomeroy IT Solutions, a publicly traded U.S. information technology company generating approximately $500 million of annual sales. Starr graduated from Emory University, where he received a B.A. summa cum laude in economics and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
His accomplished career allowed him to put his experience and financial success to use toward a higher purpose.
“Simply put, I thought it was my single greatest chance to do something really special,” Starr remarked. “I had financial freedom, enough savings to donate the first big chunk, and while I didn’t have an education background I did know what it took to become successful.”
Starr began work in May 2008 to open the privately funded school in 2009 with only the ninth grade class. His efforts were met with “a great deal of resistance,” he said, from the local population.
“This type of thing had not been done before,” Starr explained. “And a lot of for-profit schools saw us as competition.”
In February, Starr released his book, “It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World’s #1 Failed State,” recounting his determination to create the Abaarso School in an armed compound while working to overcome profound cultural differences.
“Writing a book makes you reevaluate some things,” he explained. “At the time I didn’t take too kindly to the way [local people] were reacting. [Writing] gave me time to rethink it. For them it was like aliens came down and opened a school. I can’t blame them for their reaction.”
After the first class graduated in 2013, locals began to change their view.
“Now there is an overwhelming positive feeling,” Starr said.
Starr added that while Somaliland is generally viewed as being like the rest of Somalia, it is a “very different and much safer place.” The book proceeds to explain the difference between Somaliland and Somalia.
Because of its success, the school added seventh and eighth grades, with 1,500 applicants to fill 50 spots in the first year.
“It is safe to say that we’ve exceeded all expectations except possibly my own,” Starr noted. “Before our school there hadn’t been a student from that country (who didn’t also have a foreign citizenship) to get a scholarship to an American university in several decades. We now have students matriculated at Harvard, MIT, Yale, Brown, Columbia, and a host of other famous institutions. In total they’ve earned $17 million in financial aid versus just a few million in donations to build the school from scratch and operate it for eight years.
“What’s more, our students are staying true to the mission, determined to come back and lead their country. In fact, our first four graduates of American colleges will be teaching at Abaarso next year. In doing so they are sending a message to all those students who follow them.”
Starr said there are efforts under way to expand the work in Somaliland.
“Our plan is to work with our graduates to do more in Somaliland,” he explained. “To that end we are opening up a women’s university this year, the first boarding university in the country, using many of the lessons we’ve learned from Abaarso. This is a major step forward but by no means the last one we are planning.”
Starr will be reading excerpts and signing his book at an author event at Tatnuck Bookseller, 18 Lyman St., Saturday, June 17, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information on his work visit ittakesaschool.net.