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Why the Next Steve Jobs Might Just Come from Kazakhstan

Feature Article | September 15, 2017 by Vivek Bapat Hot Story

Weaving a magic carpet of digital dreams on the new silk road.

Denis is a typical nine-year-old who loves playing video games. His parents both work full-time jobs — his father is an accomplished engineer and his mother is a professor of economics. Thrice a week during the summer, his grandmother drives him to a small computer training center on the outskirts of town. When his parents discovered this training center through Facebook, Denis proactively suggested he wanted to go there to learn how to make his own computer games. On return trips, Denis often tells his grandmother with great excitement how he just developed a new game in which a monkey must make several moves, jumping and spinning over obstacles to gather fruit.

Alzhan is 13. Altai, his proud father, takes Alzhan to the center twice a week. He recognizes great potential in his son’s innate math and English skills and is convinced that early exposure to computers and programming will provide an edge in his son’s future career prospects.

Boris attends the training center five days a week, for six hours a day. Quiet and serious, the 14-year-old has always known he wanted to be a programmer and loves tinkering around with new programs and advanced algorithms.

Elya, also 14, is a sharp, savvy young girl with boundless energy. She wants to study medicine and become a doctor. She attends the training center for several hours a day, thrice a week, to get familiar with programming skills that might accelerate her academic trajectory.

These are aspirations of some of the children I met at Love to Code, a small entrepreneurial educational center on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan, a prominent city in Central Asia on the iconic Silk Road.

Weaving these strands of diverse aspirations together into a proverbial magic carpet of dreams is one of the founders of Love to Code, CEO Yeldos Balgabekov.

Attired in casual shorts and t-shirt, Yeldos is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered 28-year-old. He has a bold vision to educate one million kids in Kazakhstan with basic and advanced computer programming skills by 2020. Of humble origins, Yeldos has a finance, math and economics background from one of the most well-recognized universities in Kazakhstan, but has developed significant skills in programming through self-study and interest over time.

I met Yeldos and students Denis, Alzhan, Boris, and Elya — along with many more aspiring coders — during a two-week trip to Kazakhstan. I was there as part of a two-week “social sabbatical” offered by my company, SAP, in support of its mission to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. Together with SAP colleagues Eckhardt Siess and Matthias Medert, we served as a team of consultants to Love to Code and Yeldos in his quest to improve digital literacy in Kazakhstan. During our two weeks there, we worked with numerous stakeholders — including students — to identify the opportunities and challenges in bringing Love to Code’s vision to life.

Inspired by the likes of Khan Academy, Yeldos created Love to Code in 2015. It’s a private programming school with a unique approach built on top of commercially available tools such as Scratch, Code Monkey, Python, and other languages. The curriculum uses a proprietary step-by step-process so children between the ages of 8–15 can learn at their own pace through hands-on one-on-one instruction delivered in Russian, Kazakh, and English. Today, Yeldos operates five training centers in major cities including Almaty, with ambitions to grow across the country. He recently organized a national coding event, where his programs touched 150,000 kids with an hour of coding.

Balgabekov’s ambition to get a million kids coding is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Although Kazakhstan was one of the last former Soviet satellite states to claim its independence, it is still very much an emerging nation. Its history and resources (including large oil reserves) provide it with major advantages, which have accelerated its growth. The ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is abundant in natural resources such as oil, natural gas, and minerals, including 40% of the world’s uranium, providing the underpinnings of the largest economy in Central Asia. It was a space center during the Soviet era, making engineering and mathematics admired pursuits, and its school system produces a population that is virtually 100% literate. While Kazakhstan is 70% Muslim, the religion is not practiced with the orthodoxy found in other regions.

On the other hand, Kazakhstanis have a broad gulf between rich and poor, and, despite an elected government (the same president has been in office since the early 1990s), there are limits to freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and other rights that might challenge the authority of the state. In a country where the average monthly salary is 130,000 Tenge (USD $400/month), only a tiny elite earns enough to cover the monthly 25,000–65,000 Tenge cost of the courses at Love to Code.

Between tastings of camel’s milk, horse milk, and horse meat — local delicacies reflective of the nomadic history of the Kazakh people — we witnessed a free-flowing energy. There is a hunger and desire to compete, especially in areas like technology and digital literacy where the market is just forming and where early movers have to potential to strike it big. While there is little legal infrastructure to protect intellectual property, local coding education startups like Method.kz and Step.it are already carving out niches in the market. It will be only a matter of time until international players such as U.S.-based Tynker focus on Central Asia.

Typical of a start-up, we found that Love to Code always feels like it is on the verge of a breakthrough. The demand for its services is clear among parents, students, and teachers. It has an array of go-to-market models, including franchise and private label opportunities, no different than anywhere else. It has a strong product that it’s constantly improving. Its challenge is clearly in scaling the program and bringing it to a wide swath of the population. That’s where the SAP team focused our time, identifying prospective partners and distribution outlets. Then we began doing the legwork.

One scalable idea, bringing Love to Code into schools, is fraught with challenges. Mr. Mereihan, a young principal at one of the top-10 public schools in the country specializing in physics and math, told us that he recognized the great value in programs such as those offered by Love to Code. However, for him to introduce the program into his public school, it would have to be endorsed and funded by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry requires a full-fledged curriculum from grades 1–12 — a very high bar. The expensive private schools we asked reported they already covered the topic (though our research suggests otherwise) — and, besides, their students could likely afford the fees at the Love to Code facilities.

Mr. Murat Narkulov, the highly progressive Director of the United Nations Development Fund in Kazakhstan, is already planning to incorporate coding education into their programs for women and people with disabilities. They are thinking about a JAVA/Rush application that gamifies coding. It would be delivered free of charge on mobile phones with the aim of reaching millions of people in five years. We found that these organizations could provide the muscle and the money required to scale digital instruction and learning.

The greatest opportunities to scale Love to Code, it turns out, are coming from wealthy private donors. Many of them are creating their own funds and NGOs with the explicit intent of improving the civil life of the country. Making coding education across income levels and populations a priority for these new social investors will, in our opinion, present the best opportunity for the widespread teaching of digital skills. Technology companies can also do their part to create a pull for future talent with digital skills — investing the region, creating new jobs, training their employees, and improving wages for high tech workers.

Despite all of these issues and hurdles that would seem daunting to the best of the best, Yeldos keeps pushing ahead with a flat organization of a few full time and part time workers. He is constantly on the go. Like a “Swiss-army-knife” — he does it all: develops the content, delivers training, and talks to investors, clients, and parents. With the classic persona of a founder of a self-funded company, he is quick to strike new deals and make instant adjustments to the business.

As we peeled the layers of the onion back each day, we discovered a new set of ideas, events, opportunities, and surprises that challenged our recommendations from the day before. In the end, our findings and consultations helped uncover a few new ideas, and a short term and longer term strategy for sustenance, growth, and scale. Most importantly, it helped validate the fundamental beliefs and tenets of the business model from an independent, external perspective.

One more thing. We learned that Yeldos recently won a full academic scholarship funded by the British government to attend a one-year Master’s program in Computer Engineering in Southampton, U.K. He has decided to take this opportunity to beef up his credentials in data science and is leaving for the U.K. in six weeks. His wife and his 18-month old baby girl are both supportive of this life-changing opportunity. While he is away, his co-founders and staff plan to step in to sustain the business.

Yeldos intends to drive some of the business development efforts to grow the business while managing the rigors of what will be undoubtedly a challenging period in this life.

But he knows that the hopes and dreams of young Denis, Alzhan, Boris, and Elya — representative of the children of Kazakhstan, are all unequivocally pinned on to his own. And that he bears and owes them a greater sense of responsibility in their success than that of his own.

Vivek Bapat is senior vice president and global head of Marketing Strategy at SAP.

This story previously appeared on Medium.

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