S02E02: Houda Ghozzi Talks Empowerment through Education and Entrepreneurship

00:00:00:00 – Intro

Welcome to What Do You Understand? Brought to you by Global Partners for Development. I’m your host, Ria Pullin, and together we’ll explore the world of philanthropy and development, confronting global disparities and the impacts of our collective efforts.

Joining me is my co-host Daniel Casanova, the Executive Director of Global Partners for Development. So, are you ready to question what you understand? Let’s dive right in.

Our guest today is Dr. Houda Ghozzi. She is the co-founder of Open Startup, an NGO that aims to bridge the gap between education and entrepreneurship by connecting students and recent graduates with industry stakeholders. Open Startup fosters public private partnerships, promotes entrepreneurial culture, and collaborates with global experts to create impactful programs and communities. Tune in as we delve into their initiatives aimed at empowering aspiring entrepreneurs across North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.

00:01:03:26 – Houda Ghozzi

So my name is Houda Ghozzi. I’m initially a professor of strategy, so I come from the field of academia, and I come from a country where you wake up one day and there is no more leadership. So the president left the country and, like, after 40 years or so with a country running under a president, that’s really a moment in your life where you’re like, okay, now what’s going to happen?

Like, it’s as if you wake up and your parents are not back home and you’re like, okay, what’s going to happen now? And I think that you have two options, whether you have this, let’s say, pessimistic perspective, to say oh, this is really going to be terrible, or you just say this is the moment to take action, and this is the moment where you can become a citizen, and so basically, starting from there, I shifted my career.

I built this NGO called Open Startup serving the same beneficiary, which is like youth, students, fresh graduates, people who we need to empower. And that’s definitely equipping them with skills, but also giving them exposure and giving them hope. And I think that the mix of those three elements can only take people forward. And that’s what I’ve been doing in the last seven years.

00:02:13:18 – Ria Pullin

Oh, so the last seven years. Amazing.

00:02:16:04 – Daniel Casanova

Okay, cool. Yeah. 

Do you have children?

00:02:21:02 – Houda


00:02:23:05 – Daniel

Do you like them?

00:02:23:27 – Houda

So, Aisha.

00:02:27:20 – Daniel


00:02:28:03 – Houda

Liking them is not the right word.

00:02:31:20 – Ria

How old are your kids?

00:02:32:29 – Houda

She’s 13. And her name is Aisha, which means the lively one, she’s one hundred percent.

00:02:39:12 – Ria

I have an Isla. She’s ten, and she’s lively and a spitfire. His daughter’s also same age too. So we get it. We get it. Amazing.

00:02:48:04 – Daniel 

Girls are ruling the world, right?

Yeah. Beautiful.

00:02:51:01 – Ria

As they should. 

We get things done. We get things done.

00:02:55:20 – Daniel

So did you just get here today?

00:02:57:23 – Houda

So I arrived two days ago. I wanted to get ready. I had some rehearsal yesterday, etc., so I felt super prepared.

00:03:04:17 – Ria

You did great up there.

00:03:05:22 – Daniel

Oh, yeah.

00:03:06:14 – Ria

You were amazing up there. You were so inspiring, I was watching you up there from the little press area. And I was like, oh, she’s incredible. I was like, I would love to speak with her. And he texted me like, he’s like, we’re going to meet with her. I’m like, what?! So exciting.

00:03:18:15 – Houda

It’s my pleasure.

00:03:20:25 – Ria

Just because, you know, we truly believe in the opportunities and the youth in Africa and on the continent.

00:03:27:00 – Houda

To be honest, there is no other option.

00:03:29:16 – Ria


00:03:30:11 – Houda

It’s like, you have no other option. Like take Uganda, median age, 15.

00:03:36:02 – Daniel

That’s crazy, right? Well, and especially because like the AIDS epidemic, like there’s whole generations that are just missing.

00:03:42:13 – Houda

70% below 30. And imagine if these people are not going to be finding solutions. They’re going to go from unemployed to people who are retiring without an allowance. So you have double trouble, right?

It’s like you really need to be part of the solution in Africa. And the solution is, you know, like as of today, when you look at like the media, you see boat people, you see kids running in the dust, but you don’t see the narrative. And I think that that’s really what’s missing. And that’s why I’m very happy to be here, is to tell you I’ve been working in Africa for seven years now and it’s a totally different story that we see.

We do see youth learning coding. We do see women. I mean, in Tunisia, 70% of our scientists are women. If you look at universities, engineers, more than 60% of engineers, women in tech, then when you look at like going to the, I mean, they starting the venture, they start decreasing, the number starts decreasing, clearly. But there is a potential, and in general,imagine like, if you’re an African, you can travel. So I ask you this question, you probably have an American visa. What was your first trip in your life?

00:04:57:20 – Daniel

Oh, us? Me?

00:04:58:28 – Ria

I’m a child of the military, so I-

I traveled my whole life. Yeah.

00:05:04:08 – Daniel

I mean, I travel, I’ve traveled a lot. You know, my first trip was to Cuba. 

00:05:08:28 – Houda

Africans would not.

00:05:09:26 – Daniel

Yeah, I know right, they can’t. 

We’ll no, we have employees that we’ve tried, we’ve tried to get out. 

00:05:15:18 – Houda

Imagine, you’re not a citizen of the world and they ask you to be a global entrepreneur. What world are we talking about? So us, what we try to do is through the language of innovation, through the language of entrepreneurship, where it’s all about how creative you can be. We get them, we’re building this bridge with the U.S. and we’re saying, listen, give us a chance. Let’s try to bring along people who are building solutions in Africa. And then if you think about it like Africa is the best laboratory because you can experiment at scale. And if the solutions work, you can bring them to the Western countries.

So it’s like Africa is part of the solution. It’s not the problem and it has to be part of the solution because demographically everyone’s growing old and it’s the only continent where you’re going to have youth working with digitalization. You would need to get them to work even from Africa for the Western countries that are growing.

00:06:06:24 – Ria

Yeah, yeah.

And businesses need to say those are their future customers as well.

00:06:09:29 – Houda

Absolutely, absolutely.

00:06:11:23 – Daniel

You’re going to leave the world behind is what’s going to happen. All the cool people are on the continent. Well, no, I mean, you think, it’s you know, I say this really, because I think, you know, I’ve worked in the field long enough where, like, you know, there’s this space when I was young where, like, you know, there’s all these young aspiring Americans and Europeans going to want to work in Africa and like, be there and like, have this experience like, oh, I lived in this village or I did this thing.

And like, they have that thing and it’s like, the irony of it and the flip where we are now is like,

00:06:46:13 – Ria

And they know what their communities need. Yeah, they’re creating solutions that their immediate community needs. They don’t need to leave home for a better life. They can create that better life within their homes.

00:06:56:28 – Houda

And then probably the difference with the U.S. is that as much as in the US, probably the narrative when it comes to Silicon Valley and unicorns and billion dollars. In Africa, it’s really an entrepreneurship for sustainability, for survival. But at the same time, like, the

the scope of opportunities is tremendous. Everything needs to be solved. Like, no access to water, no transportation, no help, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. And you just need to have homegrown solutions.

00:07:27:03 – Ria


00:07:28:05 – Houda

Where absolutely we need the Western countries to be holding Africa and to-

00:07:35:03 – Daniel

They just need to share wealth.

They just need to move the money.

00:07:37:16 – Houda

They need to cooperate.

00:07:39:25 – Ria


00:07:40:14 – Houda

As ulterior goes, that’s what needs to happen in the future.

00:07:45:07 – Ria

Yes, and so they can, you know, spend the money from the government on their people as opposed to having to spend all that money repaying debt to the World Bank, to the IMF, you know, cancel that debt. Let the solutions happen within the country.

00:07:58:26 – Houda

And here I’m probably going to be a bit provocative but, you know, if you look at like how the UK, I mean, industrial revolution in general. Africa contributed a lot in different ways, labor, resources, and that allowed for those countries to develop, not caring about the environment at that time.

And as of today, we’re asking all the other poor people to be careful in the development and that like carbon print and so on, so forth. Who has a debt? Is it Africa or the developing world? As I think, it’s like, I totally agree on this debt question. I really think that this is the kind of

situation that we should just bury and move on helping Africa because Africa is an engine, not because it’s charity, because it’s part of the solution, because we need them demographically and because you can’t continue to see so many people dying in the  Mediterranean every year.

I mean, I come from Tunisia. This is like my daily bread and butter. We are constantly saying, oh, 1,000, 100 dead, 20. What is this? This is survival mode. This is the same way the Mayflower arrived to the US. People will always want to survive, no matter what it takes. And so it’s not, I mean, we tend to forget that what’s happening in Africa is historically the same movement. When a human being is starved, he or she decides to leave, taking the risk of their lives. And I think that this is the reality that we also need to tell people, because every one of us has been an immigrant somehow in their history.

00:09:33:23 – Ria

Yeah. Yeah. Oh, agreed. Yes.

00:09:38:12 – Daniel

There’s like so many of those negative things we could talk about Tunisia or like, sad things, but I think especially right now, there’s like, I know, but I’m curious, like, I always want to talk. I mean, when I heard you speak about the space, people always think of Africa as like this safari place. They’re like, somewhere with giraffes, you were saying. I was like, I’m curious. Like, what is your like, take me to where you grew up and like, what’s your favorite place to eat? What’s that like? What does the space look like and like, how is that? What brings you joy when you think about your home?

00:10:10:12 – Houda

Tunisia is that country that has a special light, a special sun, and a special population that’s welcoming, cheerful, and that has a sense of humor. It’s a kind of the British, like, the sense of humor, always joking about themselves and how stupid we can be.

00:10:26:15 – Ria

Like self-deprecating.

00:10:28:26 – Houda


So that’s, I would say, how Tunisians are. Food is tremendous everywhere. Fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, fish. I mean, it’s a kind of really a type of country where you could taste a lot of street food as well, and so many other things.

It’s a 12 million inhabitant country that has a very specific, magical history. And honestly, like, it’s not because I’m Tunisian that I’m saying this. It’s like Tunisia has always been a crossroads of civilization historically, it had a President Bourguiba, who offered the women the possibility to vote before France and this is something we have to remember. 

And who put, like, most of the budget of the government into education, offering free education for anyone who would be enrolled in a university overseas. So what he has created in the, say, sixties, seventies, eighties, and then of course, he didn’t know how to leave as often, unfortunately, in our countries. But the exercise in ethic, he shifted the paradigm. He he really demonstrated that 

the key words are always say more or less education, health, trust, right language, good leadership.

You’re of to go. So, and then I mean it’s been a difficult 23 years of another president didn’t want to leave he left then we had these summits. But at the same time, this is the history of a majority of a country and, you know, a period of even myself, like as a Tunisian.

But I’m asking you this question, how much time before the US, how much time before Europe really ended up building democracy? Hundreds of years. And we expect Tunisia in 22 years, rocket science.

00:12:14:11 – Daniel

Well, the West expects, it’s awkward. The West wants to build out companies and spaces

and figure, and elect who the leaders are. I mean we, you know, we know the model.

00:12:23:14 – Houda

We need time and we need to figure out how to build leaders that are ethically adapted to what we want our century to look like. We need time to build the right political model. And we need also countries that really try to help us move into a model that we can adapt to the way our population sees things happen and at the same time, Tunisia is like that country that super open, like, 3,000 years of civilization in under which we had the Romans, the Phoenicians, you name it, everyone was at one point of time in Tunisia. So you really feel it. And I think that that’s, if you say, what’s Tunisia? I would say it’s really this openness of a country that has in its DNA openness as a core value.

00:13:14:24 – Daniel 

And so in your organization, do you work outside of Tunisia?

00:13:17:22 – Houda

Of course. So, we started testing in Morocco, and then we learned a lot, did some mistakes, did some of the things and identified the ecosystem. And then we moved to Jordan. We worked a lot in Jordan, Senegal, and we’re launching our office. I’m going there at the end of this week. We’re also about to launch in Togo.

So we look at countries actually that we call challengers. We don’t think that big for leaders, so big Nigeria, South Africa, etc. we’re not needed. We go to countries

that want to see their ecosystem thrive. That’s precisely our positioning. We go there and we take our friends from Colombia and in my team we tell them, guys, you want to do something cool in Africa?

And they have been amazing in building a real and this is a real genuine partnership where, I mean, you see faculty intervene in Africa, students do their internships in student exchange on both sides, access to ecosystems. And I think that that’s really a showcase of how we can build the right type of cooperation and partnership.

00:14:30:14 – Ria

Right? That mentorship is probably priceless, and they don’t have to leave their country to go do that. Which is amazing.

But we got to ask you the best question. Before we send you off. Our last question. 

00:14:42:18 – Daniel

So it’s like, so this is the thing to think about. It’s like, what’s something that you understand particularly well that you feel certain of that, like you, you can like, invest in and tell people and be like, I know, you know, like, I’m invested in this and I know that there’s, this is the direction we should have.

00:15:01:20 – Houda

I think is probably related to my experience 20 years as a professor. I think that if there is one thing I’m I could really bet my house on and my family and my husband is that if you take any human being and like a flower, you put them in the fertile soil and you spread the water, and you give role models, and a bit of sun, and a bit of skills, and hope, and the right narrative, and the good direction, because they see leaders that are doing the things the right way.

If you put them in a community. I mean, all of the problems that we see today in specifically exclusion of youth and their unemployability, drugs, drug addiction, mental health issues, all of that would be solved. And we see it. I mean, it’s like a kid, like that’s the specific age, like you have the chapter of being a kid. But when you’re, say, eight, 15, 19, if you manage to have good skills, role models, international exposure, hope, trust, you can only move forward. It’s very difficult to get someone to fail.

00:16:14:25 – Daniel

Yeah, I love the hope part of it.

Hope’s a big thing.

00:16:21:09 – Houda

You wake up, you have no hope. How do you want to move on? You can’t keep on going.

00:16:25:03 – Ria


00:16:25:14 – Houda

You need to wake up and say I can make it. It’s going to happen.

And have purpose.

00:16:29:21 – Houda

There is no curse. There must be a solution. And once you have that, the engine is the obstacle.

00:16:37:21 – Daniel

Well, I used to talk about, I used to work with refugees. And then I always think that one of the things that’s terrible about a refugee camp, although there’s like, it’s sometimes the only space that people can be in. So there’s like, it is an intervention, but if you don’t integrate people into the economy, they, you can’t have hope. You can’t like, live in this space. And so it’s like, people lose hope in those spaces.

And like, when you look at other models, like, you know, the Tibetans being integrated India or like, Guatemalans being integrated into Mexico, like, not put in refugee camps, but allowed to participate in an economy like, those, as refugees, those people thrive. But if you look at people that are stuck in like Dadaab and like, if you’re just going to put someone somewhere and not, there’s no future for them, they’re, it’s, they lose hope and it’s like, it is, it’s like, such a powerful thing.

00:17:26:17 – Ria

It’s amazing.

00:17:27:09 – Houda


00:17:27:28 – Ria

You know, we, this is the part of the work that we do. You know, we’ve started a fund, the Grassroots Fund, to be like these seed funding for these entrepreneurs in East Africa where, because, you know, he was telling me that, you know, funders are always like, we want, you know, we’re going to give it to grassroots organizations.

But it really looks like, they’re like, already established, you know, like, how about the person with a great idea who’s maybe not even literate but has a solution for their community? And so, you know, we were working with these women in Turkana who are, you know, trying to make something of their lives, send their kids to school.

And so they have their own little entrepreneurial businesses, but all they need is just a little bit of a boost not to be told what to do, nothing. We just go and listen to their idea and support their idea. And it’s been really, really interesting. But one of the ones we supported was, I don’t know, have you heard of Menya Accelerator in Burundi? 

So it’s very, so it’s a, it’s an entrepreneurial camp in IT and agriculture to help support these young Burundians, because they also have a very, very young population. And it’s, it’s incredible. We supported their first camp and from that we’ve then supported their entrepreneurial ideas, when it comes to fish farming, one was for digitized health care. And these are just people who have been educated here and they want to stay in their communities. And it’s amazing. Are any of your entrepreneurs, are they all in those areas or do you have any in East Africa? We’re always looking for entrepreneurs to support.

00:18:53:01 – Houda

Yeah, so they’re in the countries where we operate right now, but we have a program called Grow that helps startups that fundraise for 250k or so, reach the first million, and that is Pan-African.

So we get startups coming from all over Africa and around like 20 countries have by then 500 applied for 12 spots because we do it for free and we give them access. We really give them money, direct money to hire and money to international exposure because we don’t talk about it sufficiently. But again, it’s not a tourism agency, but it’s, if you don’t see, you can’t protect yourself and you’re not going to build something that’s global. 

00:19:34:22 – Daniel

Really quickly ‘cause I’m sure you have to go. What’s your, there must be like a favorite project or entrepreneur that’s like, come out of like, there must be something like, when you’re like, oh, this is the one that I’m like, oh, it makes, you know.

00:19:49:09 – Ria

I’m sure you have a lot.

00:19:52:12 – Houda

I tend to like educational programs because we see a lot of people who leave the program

and who really build platforms to educate  all types of beneficiaries. Usually I do have, I do love them. And there is also another little project that I love, which is a woman that, it’s called Hunie.

And so it’s cookies that are personalized. It’s a very small little project,but that has an incredible turnover, and that also demonstrates that it’s also about building a venture that just could be a basic product that’s kind of digitizing.

Like, often times we tend to exclude those projects that are not very heavy in technology while they’re just creating sometimes more jobs, more revenues, answering to a real need, so, like those ones. Simple ones.

00:20:41:00 – Ria

Yeah. Yeah.

And to support someone’s passions because you know, what they’ve decided to do and work on is probably something they’re super passionate about.

00:20:48:01 – Houda


We’re very lucky to support them.

00:20:20:19 – Daniel

Thank you for taking the time. 


At Global Partners for Development our mission is to advance community-led initiatives that improve education and public health in East Africa. We envision a world in which every East African community has the capacity to implement dynamic, sustainable solutions to the challenges they face.

To learn more, visit gpfd.org. 


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