Arnoud Raskin is a born entrepreneur, but one who prefers to channel his profit to the street than to his own bank account. The reason? He does it for the street children whom he wants to give a better life through his mobile schools. Google has given him 490,000 euro for his latest spin-off StreetSmart, and he is developing an app that supports youth and social workers to help vulnerable young people.
There are industrial designers who design beautiful but uncomfortable chairs. Others focus on noisy coffee machines, multifunctional bannisters or unaffordable cars… Alumnus Arnoud Raskin developed a mobile school. “A fold-out blackboard on wheels filled with educational materials and learning games, through which I seek to educate and empower street children around the world,” he says.
His organization Mobile School now has fifty-seven mobile schools in thirty different countries. The idea came to Raskin when he was traveling around Colombia as a twenty-two-year-old. He worked as a social worker and saw the terrible circumstances in which children grow up. It was a eureka moment for the young student of product design, who at that time was still trying to make something of himself.
“As a child I dreamt of becoming an inventor,” he tells us. “My comic book heroes were not Jommeke or Lambik, but Professor Barabas and Gobelijn (laughs). I decided to study product design, but I soon became something of a the odd one out … My fellow students made sketches of the Porsche that they hoped to design or read fancy design magazines. I was not interested in those things at all. ‘Social design’ was not a major topic anymore, but I did feel that that was the direction I wanted to go in. I wanted my work to be meaningful. And how can you improve people’s life chances than by educating them? The prototype of the mobile school eventually became my thesis project.”
After graduating, Raskin spent some time between Belgium and South America, where he improved his mobile school and – literally – tried to roll it out. “It was a difficult period. I worked in a bar to make ends meet and as soon as I had earned enough, I got on a plane. When the money was all gone, I returned to ‘hotel mum’ and started the cycle again. My whole life was focused on my project. I had been in touch with various NGOs, but they were not welcoming. ‘A designer who wants to do development work? Don’t be ridiculous!’”
It motivated him to take the additional Master’s in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies (CADES) at KU Leuven. “I realized that I had to have a broader education to be credible in the world of development cooperation. Until then, I had relied on my gut, but I was now learning the jargon to articulate my intuitions professionally. I had the advantage that the programme was still being developed, so I had the flexibility to take all the courses that were useful for me: economics, anthropology, philosophy of technology… And every paper I wrote was about my mobile school (laughs).”
Raskin also met his first business partner, Ann Van Hellemont. “Ann had experience in social work, so we clicked immediately,” he says. “We sat next to one another in class, made group work together, and would stay up late discussing things. I also met a philanthropist in that period who wanted to invest in starting up my project if I could provide a five-year plan. Ann immediately joined in, helped me to make the plan, and just over a year later, the Mobile School was launched.”
For years, aid organizations perceived the street as being negative. But if you tell a street child that the street is bad, you are telling them: ‘You are bad’.
Raskin travelled around South America with the Mobile School for ten years, while also helping out as a social worker. How difficult is it to win the trust of street children?
“A lot depends on how you approach them. I always treated them as equals, due to a kind of fascination. ‘I think you are interesting, can I get to know you?’ It is very different than approaching them as an aid worker who is coming to ‘save’ them or paternalistically tell them what they are doing wrong. I have seen what not to do many, many times. In Colombia, I had a colleague who always put a cloth on the ground before sitting down. That is an insult to the children, of course. The street is their home. How would you feel if I visited your house and put a handkerchief on the sofa before sitting down?”
“For years, aid organizations operated on the basis of the idea that the street is a purely negative environment,” Raskin says. “But for many young people, it was their salvation. If you live in a slum and are beaten or abused every day, sniffing glue under a bridge with friends is progress. However cynical that might sound. The street is a place where they find friendship and recognition for the first time, where they can develop their own identity. If you tell these children that the street is bad, you are telling them: ‘You are bad’.”
“In the past, far more efforts were made to place children in care homes or rehabilitation centres. But figures show that ninety percent of those young people returned to the street. Why do they prefer to live among the filth and the vermin? To take drugs, suffer hunger, or prostitute themselves? Simple: because their self-worth is ruined. Due to everything they have gone through, they on the wrong track and are no longer able to make choices. Mobile School is intended to help them climb out of the hole. Through education, we help them to become strong enough to make free choices. We stimulate them to aim as high as possible, but we don’t make their decisions for them.”
Raskin is rightly proud of this pioneering approach. The fact that it is bearing fruit is evident from the story of Junieth. “A street girl who took lessons at our mobile school, and eventually obtained a university degree and started working as a journalist and entrepreneur.”
“I regularly receive messages from the street children I have taught,” he says. “They invite me to their wedding or send me pictures of their ultrasounds with the message: ‘You’re going to be an uncle’. It gives me an intense sense of satisfaction. But you can’t rest on the laurels of the successes. Of the tens of thousands of young people who came through the school, many are still poor or live in a slum. Does this mean that our work was a drop in the ocean? No, because the difference between they are and where they would have been without help is enormous. If we can prevent somebody from becoming a crack junkie, then we have given a profoundly positive impulse.”
And yet he knows that he cannot help everybody. “Between 1996 and 2008, I worked intensively in social services with South American young people. It forges a relationship: you get to know the children. When I walked down the street, a face would pop out of every carboard box to say hello: ‘Hey Arnoud!’ So when things go wrong, it has a profound emotional impact. I experienced terrible things in Guatemala City. I had to identify young people who had been murdered as part of social cleansing. You see somebody you have worked with for months, who has become a friend, lying in the street with their brains blown out. That is horrific.”
“The traumas mounted up in that period, but I had no option but to persist. The young people count on you. You have to try and convert the negative energy into something constructive. ‘I have to pursue my project’, I thought, ‘I have to do all I can to prevent such situations in the future.’ It was only when I had returned to Belgium that I felt the impact. I would go for a drink and hear friends talk about the shares they had just bought, while my own hands were still sticky with blood, as it were. That was a difficult period. I barely slept; I was very emotional … It turned out to be post-traumatic stress disorder.”
That emotional involvement did not make my work any easier, but it is still one of my biggest motivations. “You have to know why you do it,” he says. “I expect all of my employees to have worked in social services, even if only for a few days. Looking those people in the eye and forging some kind of connection with them. That is often the problem with aid organizations. They grow and grow until the point when the survival of the organization is more important than its original goal. You lose the connection with your raison d’être. I want to avoid that at all costs.”
You should practice what you preach. You can’t tell street children that they have to stand on their own two feet and then ask to be subsidized yourself.
Raskin has dedicated the past twenty years of his life to working with street children. We almost don’t dare to ask, but did he ever have doubts? “Every day,” he says. “I am in the business of poverty and that gives me an enormous sense of responsibility. Is it legitimate to develop an organization that pays a comfortable wage to Western Europeans while street children are in misery every day? Is it okay that I am building a career and receiving recognition at their expense? Am I making enough of a difference to be allowed to claim that? These doubts led me to found my second company StreetwiZe in 2007.”
With StreetwiZe, Raskin teaches training in companies, schools and organizations. The goal? Teaching employees or executives to think like street children, under the motto ‘Didn’t grow up like a street kid? Start thinking like one’. “Even in crisis situations, street children stay positive, flexible and creative, otherwise they wouldn’t survive. Top managers can learn something from that. The profit we make goes entirely to the Mobile School, so we can help even more children.”
“I was initially criticized for using street children for consulting purposes and being morally irresponsible. That’s nonsense because it is precisely because I think those kids are worth it that I wanted to be self-sufficient. I thought it was wrong to keep insisting that they should simply sort themselves out and work instead of begging, so I decided to ask for subsidies myself. You should practice what you preach. I have nothing against government support, and I do not think budgets should be reduced, but I also realize that it is not the only way to finance your organization.”
“People who innovate always face opposition,” Raskin says. “If you think out of the box, it is normal that certain people react sceptically or indignantly. You only really need to be concerned when everyone applauds (laughs). In a certain sense, I need that criticism. It motivates me. The more people oppose me, the more I think: ‘Just you wait!’.”
The financing model of Mobile School and StreetwiZe are now taught at major business schools as examples of social entrepreneurship and innovation. “We were even invited to tell our story at Harvard. I hope that we can inspire students to think in new ways and build on that social entrepreneurship. That will enable us to make our impact even bigger.”
He also aims to do that through his new project StreetSmart, a ‘Tech4Good’ company that supports youth workers and social workers in their work with vulnerable and socially deprived children. Google has expressed its faith in the project and given Raskin 490,000 euro. “We are using that money to develop a Learning Management System, with training videos for youth workers, a digital platform around educational play, and an app that measures the impact of mobile schools on street youths.”
“Social workers ‘loan’ our mobile schools and in exchange, they report on the social impact on street children,” Raskin says. “In the past, we had developed a system, but it was difficult to measure the impact. Many youth workers trust their gut feeling. That is good, but if we want to improve our schools, we need more data.”
Youth workers can use the app to indicate how many children attend their activities, what the mood is like, and monitor the young people’s learning process, or to map their social network. “You can keep a case file per child. That helps to monitor the person in question. If they tell you about a friend, for example, you can add them to their network and see how healthy the relationship is. Is it an old school friend? Or a drug dealer?”
“The fact that each of these street children has their own ‘profile’ makes it easier for new youth workers. Many people leave the sector. These online profiles ensure that expertise about the young people is not lost if someone leaves the sector ... A new youth worker coming in will have all the information they need, without infringing on the privacy of the young people or the GDPR. Reporting via the app is much less time-consuming that fiddling with Excel sheets.”
There was a period when the traumas were piling up, but I had no option but to persist. The street children count on you. You have to try and convert the negative energy into something constructive.
Raskin wants to become a world player and to support different organizations. “It would be ridiculous to keep this extremely expensive technology to ourselves. I hope that both youth workers in the outskirts of Paris and social workers in South American can use the app.”
“That is also related to legitimacy and doubt. To double my impact, I would need ten more years with the Mobile School. Imagine that we have trained 350 youth workers. I would have to train 350 more. With the StreetSmart technology, in two or three years, I can help tens of thousands of social workers to become better at their jobs and to help young people better. This is not linear but exponential growth.”