Jonathan Starr: It Takes a School

By Lakin Allen

In the spring of 1998 at Emory University, Jonathan Starr graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in economics and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After working as an analyst at SAB Capital and Blavin and Company, and as a Research Associate within the Taxable Bond Division at Fidelity Investments, Starr founded Flagg Street Capital. It was a two-week trip to Somaliland, Africa in 2008, however, that changed the trajectory of Starr’s life. 

According to a 2018 interview, Starr has a “Somali uncle named Billeh Osman who is originally from Erigavo, attended Sheikh Secondary School, and then came to America for his university studies.” In his dialogue with the Somaliland Chronicle, Starr claims that ever since he was a child, his uncle “had told him about his home country of Somaliland, which he spoke of with great pride.” Following a career in finance, Starr wanted to use his personal finances to make a contribution to the world. After his uncle convinced Starr to visit Somaliland in 2008, Starr says: “before I’d even left the two week trip I’d committed to starting a great school. I returned to America where I worked on the plans and then moved to Somaliland to found Abaarso in 2009.” 

In 2009, indeed, the Abaarso School of Science and Technology was founded. The American-curriculum focused school includes libraries, student dormitories, basketball, tennis and volleyball courts, as well as computer and tablet labs. It also provides a wealth of extracurricular activities encompassing computer programming and creative writing to chess and drama. The Abaarso School encourages outreach as well, offering students opportunities to tutor at the Hargeisa Orphanage and in an afternoon primary school program.   

The school’s mission to nurture the academic, intellectual, and character development of promising Somali boys and girls so they can effectively and ethically advance their society as the leaders of tomorrow still rings true today. For the last ten years, the premier 7th-12th grade boarding school outside Hargeisa, Somaliland has been changing lives and helping to rebuild a nation, and they have no plans of stopping soon. 

In late 2017, the Abaarso School launched Barwaaqo University, a four-year all-women boarding university for the purpose of training teachers. In an exclusive interview in 2018, the leader of international development and education states how “extremely pleased [we are] with how the students progressed last year, and we expect them to continue improving themselves even after they become teachers. With the Barwaaqo graduates out in the world, Abaarso’s quality of education will spread around the country.” 

When asked about future plans for Somaliland education in an interview with the Somaliland Chronicle, Starr mentions his desire to launch a boarding university for boys as well as open more primary schools, “first in Hargeisa and then in other Somaliland cities.” “We want to make sure many more families get access to our quality of education,” says Starr in the interview. This quality education has allowed more than 130 Abaarso students to continue their education around the world, including at Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Cambridge. In the same interview, Starr revealed how these students have earned more than $23 million in scholarships: “They are showing the world just how smart and capable Somalis are while also exposing America and other countries to Somali culture. Abaarso students are great ambassadors for all the wonderful potential in the country.”

In a 2018 interview, Starr says that the most exciting aspect of the scholarships is that “Abaarso students are going abroad so as to develop new skills that can be brought back to their country. They are now graduating from foreign universities and are already making contributions to society.” As Somali students who are deeply committed to helping their country, Starr communicates how “Abaarso’s positive impact will continue to become clearer as Somali society benefits more and more from Abaarso students.” 

In his conversation with the Somaliland Chronicle, Starr’s international heart is evident when he states, “it becomes clear that a lot is possible in Somaliland….I’m not claiming it is all easy, but with each year I see the country moving forward. I’m very excited for what the next couple decades will bring.” Starr shares his experiences in his book It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the #1 Failed State. It is a story of David and Goliath proportions that describes how Starr created a unique school in Somaliland whose students, against all odds, have come to achieve success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The narrative details how an abstract vision became a transformative reality, as Starr set out to build a school in a place forgotten by the world.

Starr’s global work has been covered by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes and CNN, as well as featured on 60 Minutes. His book, It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the #1 Failed State is available for purchase on Amazon. The Abaarso School of Science and Technology also displays multiple ways to get involved on their website.  

ΦBK member Lakin Allen is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in journalism with minors in Spanish and Italian. She loves traveling the world and meeting new people over a good cup of coffee (or gelato!). She hopes to use her degree to continue learning from and sharing people’s stories. The University of Kansas is home to the Alpha of Kansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.