Innovator Profile: Joel Baraka and Anson Liow

My Home Stars founder, Joel Baraka, grew up in Uganda’s Kyangwali refugee camp, where he spent most of his childhood and received his early education. For many of his peers, schooling serves as a source of community and hope for the future amidst troubling times. Despite this reality, it is impossible for a child who is hungry, tired, and dealing with immeasurable trauma to concentrate on math problems in the classroom. The structure used in typical schools worldwide failed to account for these factors in Baraka’s school, and therefore continues to fail to successfully teach many refugee children throughout the Ugandan education system. To address this problem, Baraka partnered with Anson Liow, who grew up in Malaysia while volunteering as a teacher for Rohingya refugees following his high school years. Drawing on their combined experiences at the head of the classroom and behind the desk, Baraka and Liow co-founded My Home Stars, a nonprofit focused on making education accessible in a fun and engaging manner for underprivileged primary school students in Uganda.

Instead of the traditional approach of a teacher lecturing in front of their students, Baraka and Liow realized that children needed more engagement and fun in their learning experience. My Home Stars rethinks how Ugandan children are taught in classrooms through the 5-STAZ, an academic board game through which the students can interact with the four core subjects: Math, English, Science and Social Studies. This approach provides a child-centered, enjoyable, and quality learning experience while also ensuring that the student can meet Ugandan standardized curriculum expectations. My Home Stars has reached over 6,000 thousand students, but Baraka and Liow hope to expand their reach across Uganda and continue to empower young people in refugee communities.

We asked Baraka and Liow to share insights on their roles as innovators: 

Where did the idea for your social entreprisecome from initially?

This idea of My Home Stars was first inspired by our founder Joel Baraka. Joel, who grew up and attended school in Kyangwali refugee camp, learned from experience that it would be great to ensure that learning was fun and engaging beyond just focusing on the content delivery. This is especially true

for refugee children who sometimes come to school on empty stomachs while dealing with various traumatic events in their lives. Similarly, Anson Liow grew up in Malaysia and spent time volunteering and doing social work with refugees and indigenous communities in Malaysia after graduating high school. Building on these two different but interconnected experiences, the duo was inspired to come together and join hands to build My Home Stars for the greater good.

How has D2P helped you, and what have you learned along the way?

D2P provides a platform for aspiring entrepreneurs to engage with and learn from each other. Experienced mentors were eager to share their wisdom and provide constructive feedback for our project. We learned to develop hands on problem solving skills and equip ourselves with valuable tools like the business model canvas, product-market fit, and discovery interviews. This allowed us to explore various revenue models other than traditional fundraising. 

What other entrepreneurial resources/programs have guided you?

There have been other couple resources connected to UW–Madison that have been very helpful. For example The UW Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic which has been great with providing legal services. The Transcend Innovation Competition was great securing some of our initial funding through the annual campus-wide competition where students with ideas can compete. The Arts Business Competition, Wisconsin Idea Fellowship, and Clinton Global Initiative University were other great resources that provided funding and guidance during our initial product development. 

What’s your current focus with the social entreprise? 

Currently, we are collecting data to help evaluate our program’s impact on the children and the schools we serve. We hope to continue to improve the 5 STAZ educational content to align each core subject to the Ugandan education curriculum on a termly basis. We also heavily rely on public donations and grants to run our operations. We are currently working on a sustainability model to fund our operations in Uganda through the sales of Your African Quest (YAQ), our second educational game, in the United States. This 1-for-1 model will allow us to provide a game of the 5 STA-Z in Uganda for every sale of Your African Quest sold here in the United States. We are working on social media marketing for YAQ as well as participating in board game conventions and other programs to promote our social mission and the games. 

What are your hopes for the social enterprise moving forward?

We are currently expanding our program to include inter school competitions and children’s forums that can help to develop soft skills, boost children’s confidence, and develop leadership skills. One of our major plans in the next few years is to build a community center where we can run most of these programs. We strongly believe that having a safe and welcoming space in the community will help us scale our impact. We plan to secure new partnerships to help us bring some of these goals to life.

What drives you/why is this project important to you personally?

It means a lot to both of us given our shared experience in working with refugee communities. Life in refugee camps can be really challenging and offering quality education to the young ones is one of the best ways to give them an opportunity to empower themselves, their families, and their communities for a better future.

We both are very fortunate, especially having the opportunity of attending school at UW–Madison and it is a huge privilege to be able to utilize our knowledge, skills and network to give back to those who need it most.

What advice would you give to other campus innovators who are just starting out with exploring the potential of their ideas?

The biggest advice we can give is to take advantage of your network and resources available on campus. We couldn’t have done what we accomplished without the support of the UW–Madison community and resources. Whether it’s your peers, professors, or campus resources (such as D2P), they all have different perspectives and past experiences that they can share. They might also know someone else who can better help you if they are not a perfect fit. Never be afraid to reach out or ask questions, especially when you are part of a great university like UW–Madison that has been really supportive of its students when it comes to entrepreneurship.

Read more innovator profiles from D2P