By Dr. Mohsin Raza
To understand how The Citizens Foundation (TCF) has grown in to such a promising institution, PROSEED team has sit with its CEO Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad.
The Citizens Foundation (TCF) is a professionally managed, non-profit organization set up in 1995 by a group of citizens who wanted to bring about positive social change through education. Twenty two years later, TCF is now one of Pakistan’s leading organizations in the field of education for the less privileged. Today, TCF runs 1,441 schools across Pakistan with an enrollment of 204,000 students.
TCF President and CEO Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad:
Asaad has a 20-year distinguished career in the petroleum industry. Prior to joining TCF in 2009, he served in key positions of responsibility at Castrol, British Petroleum, Exxon-Mobil and Shell Pakistan. His last assignment was as the Sales Director, Castrol – Pakistan. Asaad holds an MBA from the University of Texas, Austin and a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from NED University, Karachi.
1) Why did you leave the corporate sector for this job?
I had always been interested in the education. During my whole professional life, I remained somehow connected with the education sector since I wanted to do something. My inner self was not satisfied and I continued to question the greater purpose of life.
I don’t know why I was always interested in education… Perhaps one of the reasons is that I like children. Another possible reason is that my family has also been associated with the education sector. My grandfather taught at the Aligarh University and my mother was also a teacher.
Moreover, many of my friends were already doing voluntary work in sectors like education and health and some of them were working on extraordinary projects. So I started off with a little contribution to TCF. Later, we (few friends) helped built three schools for TCF. But I was still not satisfied and thought it was not enough. About 8 years ago, the Chief Executive’s position was vacant at TCF, and so I applied.
When I applied, naturally I was fearful of a few things. I was unsure whether I would be able to do this or not because I had no experience in the education sector. I just had management experience of the corporate sector. The TCF board also put the same question forward: “Would you able to do this?” And I said to them, “I do not know. You have my experience before you, you decide about it.”
But when I joined the TCF, I realised there was so much work. Frankly speaking, when you join establish organisations such as TCF, you take others’ work forward because somebody has already taken the organization to a certain level. TCF has a philosophy to grow continuously, and I did not find anything unusual in the education management.
I am still unsatisfied with what I do. I think there is a need to do more, and a need to do quality work. I also believe that every organization needs discipline, but the main challenge is to take your team along. A team is a combination of all types of people. For instance, some like to go fast while some are slower-paced.
This is a non-profit organization where people work because they love what they do. Most people come here with significant pay cuts (sometimes up to 50%), so it’s clear that they are committed to this cause. So we try to hire people who have good intentions, and display commitment as well as the ability to serve this organization.
2) How difficult was it for you to have a significant cut in your monthly salary?
To be honest, I can afford a reasonable living with my current salary at TCF.
It was not a tough decision for me to join TCF because [earning a salary] was not the sole purpose of whatever I wanted to do in the education sector. Our religion also clearly says that money should not be our only purpose. However, before accepting this job offer, I formally took my wife’s consent because the real sacrifices have to be made by the family and not me. I was not interested in owning a house in Defence Housing Authority (DHA), but they might have wanted to have one. Fortunately, my family stood with my decision.
3) What is so unique in this organization that so many committed people join this? And how do you keep them motivated?
The top people in our organization are supposed to give the biggest sacrifices. It then comes down gradually. The top team generally accepts a 50% pay cut, the second tier takes a 30%, then 15% and then there is no cut at the lower end. We do not expect the same sacrifices from our support staff, therefore we give them market-competitive salaries.
The Human Resource (HR) role is critical in TCF because we do not only look for competency, but also for those who make a ‘cultural fit’ according to the organization’s philosophy and culture. We usually get the right people, but sometimes we do not. There is a conscious effort from our side to see passion for our cause in people before we recruit them.
We have about 17,500 employees in TCF, and since our schools are scattered throughout Pakistan, we constantly reevaluate how our people work. Our environment is such that we continuously look for transparency, openness and accessibility. Right now, we have 10,000 teachers and this number is soon going to be 12,000. We appreciate our teachers through different programmes. I will not say that it is a complete success because it is a continuous process in which we are constantly bringing new changes to make it better.
4) We have heard that you are working on TCF College. What is the main theme behind this project?
Yes, we have initiated a college programme in which we are going to accommodate 200 pupils every year. We realized the need of a college because about 2,000 children are now completing matric every year from our schools but they do not get good opportunities, mainly due to lack of proper guidance and financial issues. Since we have very limited seats (just 10% of the total students who are completing matriculation from TCF) in our college, it will also serve as a motivation for TCF matric students to work hard to get admission in the college. Unfortunately, colleges in Karachi do not hold regular classes and our students cannot afford tuitions. Therefore, we have partnered with coaching centres, some of whom charge half fees from us, while some give us discounts in return of us bringing them 10-20 students. This is how many of our students complete their college education.
5) How will your college motivate students for university education?
We at TCF make a conscious effort to keep our students away from the victim mentality. We have structured our syllabus in such a way that we keep them motivated throughout their stay at our schools. Initially, only 10-15% of our children opt for colleges. However, this percentage has gradually increased over the years and now about 80-85% of our students get enrolled in colleges. This has happened because we not only encourage but also guide them in college admission processes. Still, it remains a big challenge to push them to complete the whole of two years.
Our college campus is in Qayyumabad, Karachi and our specific target is to prepare students in such a way that about 40% of them get admissions in tier-one universities like NED, etc. So we will groom them in whatever ways we can, like improving their soft skills, language skills, mathematics etc., and then prepare them for the entrance examinations of the leading universities. Let’s see what happens in the next two years (time when the first batch of the college will be out). The timings of the college will be quite long (from 8:30am to 4:30pm) because we want to prepare them properly.
6) How can individuals contribute to TCF?
People can help us by supporting a child and contributing Rs. 1,250 per month. You can go to our website and pay through a credit card. There are so many ways through which you can automatically transfer this amount every month from your bank account to our system.
We also have two voluntary programmes. One of them is Rahbar, it is for housewives and professionals. The second one is for O’ Level and A’ Level students in which they help our students in summer programmes.
However, for teachers, we do not have a specific programme. Teachers and principals can join us fulltime, but then they may have to accept a cut in their paychecks because our salary structure is not that high.
7) Do you have any message for our readers?
I do not think I am qualified enough to give any message to teachers or principals. But I want to share something that recently happened with me and my childhood friends who came all the way from the United States and Canada. I completed matric in 1976 and after 40 years we had a reunion of our matric class. We clicked pictures with our school teachers and all.
One of our teachers who is still teaching in our school told us that people in Pakistan usually say ‘taleem’ (education) as well as ‘tarbiyat’ (training) are crucial for children. But he said our school provides ‘tarbiyat’ as well as ‘taleem’. This made me realize that it was my school that really helped me become who I am today.
I think today ‘tarbiyat’ has further taken centre stage because of the current social and economic challenges that we face. These days, children generally do not listen to anybody. Teachers are role models for students and so it’s a very important responsibility. I also believe that primary education is prime education because this is age when you can influence kids most.
Moreover, people see your actions not what you say. Recently, I went to a school where Students’ Week was being celebrated. I asked a group of young children why they were celebrating this week. One of the answers was that they think it helped built their confidence. Later I put the same question to some teachers, but it was quite obvious to me that it (the Students’ Week) was much more important to the children compared to teachers.
In our times, we used to be so afraid of our elders, so much so that we did not ask questions. This is not the case now and today we see students ask questions. We called it ‘adab’ and ‘ehtehraam’, but actually many a times it killed our curiosity and ability to raise questions.
So, if we want holistic development, we need to look at every minute detail, and that is what we want to achieve at TCF. You cannot measure everything – in fact, there are many important things that we cannot measure. How can you measure creativity or confidence? So, at TCF, we try to look at things that are beyond academic results and test numbers. The world is changing at a much faster pace now and we will be left behind if we fail to give importance to originality and creativity.