Published May 16, 2013
Karim Abouelnaga knows first hand the importance of having mentors. During his freshman year in high school, his father was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma. Without life insurance, it was necessary for the family to sell their home and their store — the one Karim was going to one day own and manage. His future snatched away, Karim dove into his schoolwork. With focus, determination, and a strong network of mentors, he earned himself a spot at Cornell University.
After learning about the achievement gap in college, and having experienced first hand the power of mentoring, Karim and a few friends developed Practice Makes Perfect. The nonprofit strives to narrow the achievement gap by providing mentorship opportunities to low-income students in New York City. A summer program that pairs low-achieving middle school students with talented high school tutors. It’s an approach that actually helps both the younger and the older students learn and grow.
Karim’s hard work has not gone unnoticed. Last month, Practice Makes Perfect was recognized at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference. And if that wasn’t enough for a single month, Karim was also named as a finalist for a 2013 Echoing Green fellowship. He’ll still need to survive another round of in-person interviews to see if he makes the final cut, but we’re confident that he will.
This spring, Karim graduates Cornell and enters the “real world.” It’s great to know that he has already helped to make the real world a little bit better. Thanks for talking with us Karim.
The 10 questions
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
I believe I’ve been blessed with the education and perspective to help reform some of America’s most academically struggling public schools so that they work for the children attending them again.
HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU?
It has been my experience that when you figure out your purpose in this world, you become so much more efficient. You are no longer searching for the answer to the question of “What will I do with my life?” Decisions in life that may have been tough before suddenly feel not so tough. You build up the confidence and the energy to carry out your pursuits in a meaningful way. At least that has been my experience.
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
I get a deep sense of satisfaction. As if I am honoring a commitment that I made. See, my whole life I have been given a lot. Thinking back to high school, I participated in a nonprofit called Rewarding Achievement. The organization paid students attending select inner-city public schools for passing Advanced Placement exams. My senior year I received a $1,750 check for my performance. I immediately went up to one of the co-founders who also happened to be a former corporate lawyer and thanked him. I asked him how I could repay him and he quickly responded “just pay-it-forward”. The reality is that there wasn’t much I could give to a successful corporate lawyer at the time but my word that I would. And so every time I give, I feel as if I am honoring that earlier commitment.
WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
There are three on my list: President Barack Obama, Richard Branson, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. If I had the chance, I would ask them all the following question: What are 10 things you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?
WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS?
Aside from money, which can never hurt a nonprofit, we are looking for people. This summer as things ramp up, we’d like to get more people and their companies engaged with us to help rebuild the schools our students attend. Additionally, we can never discount the importance of mentors for the interns we hope to bring in over the summer. If individuals have expertise in PR or business development and would like to mentor college students as they work with us for the summer, we would gladly facilitate the relationship. Last summer Nancy Nicolelis volunteered her time and it helped our intern grow tremendously.
WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY?
I’m giving the senior toast this year at It’s a Black Affair at Cornell and I will be asking my peers this very question: Who will your life’s journey be for? I feel that a life lived for oneself is a life not worth living.
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
If I had to write a book, which I hope to eventually do one day, I would title it The Time is Now. Our whole lives we come up with excuses not to do things or take responsibility for things that we should. Every chapter of the book would be used to inspire the reader to take action in their personal and professional lives.
TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC?
When I was 13 years old I started two business ventures that didn’t really go anywhere. I taught myself HTML and built my first business from scratch. I was going to import electronics from China in bulk at wholesale prices and sell them at retail value to people in the United States through my company “All You Need In A Bundle”. The second was an invention for a heated toilet seat that my father and I patented through the invention submission corporation but never really took the time to further invest in the idea.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS?
Stop aspiring and start doing. Early on when I was starting my nonprofit, a mentor told me that I couldn’t help the poor if I was one of them. It took me two weeks to finally figure out that poor was more than just a financial status or a social class – it was a state of mind.
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
I read through all of the simple questions that were difficult to ask and I was surprised I didn’t see this one: What drives you? I honestly don’t have a good answer for this question but I just figured it would have made the list. My drive has come from different things at different points of my life. As I have gotten older those motivations have changed, which I think is natural and essential. I know my early motivation was to impress my father more than my other brothers did. Then I remember wanting to be the best salesmen at our family business. At another point it was money and then it was family. Today it’s my life’s purpose and I can only wait for what tomorrow’s inspiration will be.