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It was already one of the best days of her life. Waed al Taweel, a 20-year-old Palestinian college student and budding businesswoman, travelled to Washington, DC, shook hands with Barack Obama and spoke at his Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, an event aimed at deepening economic ties between the US and the Muslim world.

But for Ms Taweel, who grew up on the West Bank, the real excitement came after her speech. On hearing
Ms Taweel’s presentation about a company she started aged 17, the president of Babson College, Wellesley, offered her admission to the school’s graduate business programme and a full scholarship to boot.

“In Ramallah [West Bank], if you want to get your MBA you’ve got to go abroad,” says Ms Taweel. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

As a high school student, Ms Taweel started Teen Touch, an event management business that employed fellow students to organise and staff
events for customers. The company had 72 investors – mainly relatives, friends and community leaders – who contributed seed money equivalent to about $800. Over several months, the company earned its “shareholders” a profit of 200 per cent.

Teen Touch was named “best company” in the Injaz student entrepreneurship competition, launched by Jordan’s Queen Rania in 1999 to help nurture young entrepreneurs. Ms Taweel was subsequently named best student chief executive officer of the Arab World.

The contest, she says, left a deep impression on her. “It made me realise I can do something.” After discussing the success of her business on the panel, she was asked about her future plans. Ms Taweel, a student at Birzeit University in Ramallah, said she would like to secure a scholarship to help her study her MBA in the US.

That was when Leonard Schlesinger of Babson, made his move. Babson played an advisory role to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department and the White House, laying the groundwork for the summit and is involved in other projects to teach entrepreneurship round the world.

“When she described the event planning business, it was the sort of thing where normally, you’d say, ‘Oh that’s interesting. That’s cute’,” says Prof Schlesinger. “But the level of insight and the level of sophistication she described, the way she structured the start-up and the basic operating model that she executed when she was only 17, led me to conclude
that here was a rather extraordinary young woman.”

Prof Schlesinger does not make a habit of offering scholarships on the spot. “You can’t programme stuff like this. It was a private act of philanthropy on behalf of Babson,” he says.

Babson’s MBA programme costs $40,600 a year and nearly 50 per cent of the undergraduate student population at the school receives financial support; Babson funds $22m each year in grants and scholarships.

Babson’s MBA class includes 36 per cent non-US students. “We’ve never had someone from Palestine and we’ve never had someone who’s won a competition on this scale this early in life,” says Prof Schlesinger. “It’s a logical opportunity to expand our reach to another part of the world.”

Babson is not the only business school looking to branch out in the Middle East. With strong employment, a number of booming sectors and robust economic growth, both European and US schools are clamouring to get a foothold in the region.

Several European business schools have successfully established outposts in the Middle East through degree programmes and branch campuses.

In 2006, Insead, which also has two campuses in France and Singapore, opened a centre for executive education and research in Abu Dhabi. The following year, London Business School started offering degree and non-degree programmes there too.

Meanwhile, US schools are making headway in the Middle East through executive education programmes and other extra-curricular activities.

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, last year graduated the first cohort of students in the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership Certificate Programme in Cairo. The programme, in collaboration with the American University in Cairo, was part of the Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Initiative, a $100m, five-year project to boost the number of women in the developing world who receive management training.

After she gets her MBA at Babson, Ms Taweel plans to open a recreation centre for Palestinian youth in the West Bank. Poverty and unemployment continue to be big problems in the region, and lack of security and checkpoints that restrict freedom of movement have had a devastating impact on the economy. “I want to help other people in my community and give them job opportunities,” says Ms Taweel.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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