I am a very passionate and driven person, and it all stems from a desire to help people. Teaching is one way to do this.
After living more than half my life abroad, I returned to Saudi Arabia to give something back to my community and help the nation’s youth to discover their passions through education. I am Taghreed AlSaraj and I want to spread awareness of the importance of knowledge in our community.
The eldest of four children, I was born in Makkah and raised in Pakistan, France and Saudi Arabia as my father was in the Saudi Navy and stationed in a number of locations. This exposed my siblings and me to several cultures growing up. Although he was in the navy, my father was very diplomatic and always gave me the opportunity to speak my mind. He also encouraged me to be a responsible person from a young age.
My mother was very pro-education. She instilled in us the belief that with a good education, we could go very far in life. Living by that motto, I graduated from high school in Saudi Arabia and, soon after, I got married and returned to the US with my husband, Fouad Kaaki, where I received a partial scholarship to study fine arts at the University of Miami (UM). I graduated summa cum laude in 1999.
I had developed great interests in education and art by then, and decided that I wanted to get involved with teaching language and art. I had twin sons, Rayan and Kenan, by then and, with the support of my husband, I began studying for a master’s degree in TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) at UM. I also became an assistant researcher and joined a national project on teaching science through languages. I graduated in 2001, gaining a lot of experience along the way. Years later, I became the president of the Saudi chapter of the UM Alumni Association.
After spending about two years in Jeddah, my family and I moved to London where, in 2011, I received a doctorate in applied linguistics and TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) from the UCL Institute of Education at the University of London.
The turning point in my life came while I was working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. Initially, my sights were set on academia and teaching but then I saw that entrepreneurship was a focus for many students, who combined business with education. Out of curiosity, I became more engaged in helping students by concentrating on developing pre-employment programs to help pave their way to entering the world of entrepreneurship.
My family is very supportive of my work. My two elder boys are as keen on education as I am and the youngest, Aban, was my little partner while I was at Berkeley. It was just the two of us together for a while and, though I was busy with my work and also taking Master of Business Administration classes in the evenings — not for the qualification, simply to gain knowledge — he grew to be very responsible and mature from a very young age. We became school buddies: I would be studying my classes and he would be doing his homework in another room. I taught him to be responsible, just as my father taught me.
Having been exposed to such a thriving environment excited me and encouraged me to do more. I worked hard, which caught the attention of a few companies that headhunted me. I weighed my options and chose Takamul, a semi-government agency operating under the umbrella of the Saudi Labor Ministry. I returned to the Kingdom in January 2016 as I had found a place where my passion for learning and development could thrive, fueled by a combination of education and innovative programs designed to tackle unemployment challenges and create more jobs that suit the Saudi market.
I established a new department to produce online learning materials for the Duroob platform under Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund. We developed local content created by local people. In this way it was cost effective, created jobs and ensured sustainability. Saudis understand the needs and requirements for tackling local challenges better than anyone.
It was a wonderful experience as it tapped into my niche perfectly, allowing me to develop training programs for Saudi youths and help the next generation of Saudi entrepreneurs.
I then moved on to another platform, the 9/10ths Startup Accelerator Program, as a consultant. This focused on entrepreneurship and I was able to bring to it the experience I gained at Berkeley. It was a wonderful experience as it tapped into my niche perfectly, allowing me to develop training programs for Saudi youths and help the next generation of Saudi entrepreneurs to develop.
For many students, returning from their studies abroad and having to start looking for a job can be an unnerving experience. Sometimes they feel lost and simply do not know where to start. To address these issues, a partner and I in 2018 co-founded Upskillable, of which I am CEO, which assesses the suitability of candidates for the positions they are interested in. We assess their cognitive ability, personality and skills to make sure they are suited to the jobs they are seeking, making use of artificial intelligence technology as part of the matching process. We are motivated by a desire to find the right people for the right jobs, so that success is based on merit, without any bias.
I remain passionate about education, so spreading knowledge and helping young people understand and realize their potential by giving them the learning tools they need is very close to my heart. I visit universities, give talks and lectures, all for the sake of spreading knowledge. In recognition of my efforts, I received the British Council’s Social Impact Award in 2019.
I am proud to say that my love of life-long learning and education has rubbed off on my husband and children. My husband and I attend webinars and discuss and analyze things together. Education, among other things, brings us together as a family.
Education is not just about earning a degree — you learn something new every day, at every stage of your life. Saudi Arabia is at a beautiful stage of its transformation, and this is the time for innovation as we advance so much in a very short time.
If you believe in what you are doing, focus on that and not on what other people might think.