The winner of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center’s first Access Sharjah program, Little Thinking Minds aims to remedy a disconnect from the Arabic language among youth from the MENA region
‘‘Society is placing Arabic as a secondary language at best.’’ Lamia Tabbaa and Rama Kayyali don’t mince their words when discussing why their entrepreneurial company, Little Thinking Minds, offers “must-have” products for children and teenagers in the region to help rewire their cultural and linguistic circuiting. Having started as a passion project nearly 15 years ago to create engaging video content for the founders’ first-born sons (in order to ensure that they grew up speaking and loving Arabic), Little Thinking Minds today has offices in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and it was recently declared the winner of the first edition of the Access Sharjah program run by Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa). Launched late last year, Access Sharjah is a global platform that connects digital startups to relevant public and private entities in Sharjah and across the UAE, and it led to Little Thinking Minds being awarded a US$100,000 equity-free grant to further their work in the fields of knowledge and culture.
When giving a current cultural synopsis of the Middle East, Tabbaa and Kayyali admit that there is unfortunately an obvious disconnect from the Arabic language among the youth. They attribute this largely to English being the language of contemporary popular culture, but they also believe they have the right remedy to fix this issue. ‘‘For children to reconnect with the Arabic language, they need to reconnect with cool figures that speak it and embody our values,” says Kayyali, co-founder and CEO. Both the co-founders, who have shared backgrounds in visual arts and production, have a common goal: “to fill a gap in the market to create engaging and quality content for children to make them love the Arabic language and connect with their culture.”
In trying to fulfil this mission, the journey has been a long one, but with the advent of technological innovations over the years, Little Thinking Minds has managed to continue its quest to remove the faulty perception that Arabic is a rigid language. Their programs “I Read Arabic” and “I Start Arabic” target students who are in the KG2 to Grade 9 age bracket, with the latter program also being a great starting point for adults who wish to learn Arabic from its very basics. ‘‘We do have plans to add content that is more teen-appropriate and touches on their lives to get them engaged with reading,” Kayyali adds.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tabbaa and Kayyali have seen a significant spike in the usage of their programs for schools that had already purchased their products, with other educational institutions in the region also showing an increasing interest in their services. While they remain committed to supporting schools with their distance-learning programs, they also observe that their programs offer an opportunity for parents to give their children the gift of learning through a gamified journey; especially during these particularly anxiety-inducing times. ‘‘The child normally goes through tasks in order to collect stars to unlock fun educational games; those tasks include reading, listening to books, taking digital and gamify quizzes as well as watching short videos on different topics including STEM, Arabic language grammar, social studies, and much more,’’ Kayyali says.
The topic of schools and distance learning then begs the inevitable question– how are the programs offered by Little Thinking Minds any different from the Arabic lessons offered to children at school? ‘‘Firstly, our content is homegrown and not Arabized,” Kayyali replies, explaining that the Little Thinking Minds programs engage school teachers through offering very detailed timely reports on students’ usage and literary improvements. All the content on their “I Read Arabic” and “I Start Arabic” programs are also aligned with learning-oriented outcomes. “We pride ourselves on our customer support and engagement teams, who are always creating multiple touch points with our schools and students as well as our content creation abilities,” Kayyali adds.
However, the two co-founders are well aware that they cannot reach their desired audiences without a synergetic collaboration with the education sector in the region. The founders attribute a big part of their success to the rapid increase of technology in the education sector, adding that e-learning is now an absolutely integral part of the educational journey. ‘‘Education is being reshaped for students and teachers alike in the Middle East and the world,” Kayyali says. “We are optimizing the use of technology in order to further advance the learning outcomes of the students when it comes to Arabic language.’’
It’s easy to appreciate the success that Little Thinking Minds has seen as an enterprise – what started as an edutainment campaign through the usage of videos and DVDs in the early 2000’s, today has B2B literacy platforms that are being used by over 300 schools globally, 160,000 students, and thousands of school teachers. ‘‘Independent studies have shown a great deal of improvement when using our programs; literacy rates including fluency of reading and comprehension improved dramatically,” Kayyali notes. The company also works with governments and NGOs, and it is now entering the B2C space with school products to access the millions of Arabic speakers in the diaspora.
But the road to success for this edtech venture hasn’t been simple or smooth either. ‘‘The biggest hurdles for any entrepreneur are fundraising, getting someone to believe in your dream, and building a good team,” Kayyali says, although she notes that she and Tabbaa were fairly fortunate in these areas, but that access to the right or desired markets was initially a huge hurdle. However, they were able to negate this by pivoting their business model in 2016, which saw Little Thinking Minds become a digitally accessible platform.
The concept that led to the creation of Little Thinking Minds was simple, and sourced from a very personal space for both founders– ‘‘to create a ‘must-have’ product for Arabic that helps students achieve their learning outcomes, and more importantly, implants a love of reading.’’ When asked about their future plans, the ladies proudly mention that a large number of weekend schools in Europe and the US are currently using their programs to make their Arabic language classes engaging and more entertaining; a market that they definitely hope to tap into more.
Over the last decade and a half, Tabbaa and Kayyali have pieced together a digital platform that has a very straightforward goal at its core– to foster a love for the Arabic language through a product that is ‘‘levelled, personalized, and can scale globally.” Indeed, Little Thinking Minds’ recent win with the Access Sharjah Program, along with the other achievements they’ve had so far, seem to be only the building blocks to much larger successes. Here’s hoping.
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