In 2009, Rana El Chemaitelly, an instructor at the American University of Beirut at the time, founded The Little Engineer. The education institution was created after El Chemaitelly grew concerned that her three children were spending too much time glued to electronics, instead of learning.
The Little Engineer combines the two by connecting students to pre-engineering skills, such as robotics, coding, artificial intelligence, 3D modeling and much more, through hands-on activities.
Based in Lebanon and serving the MENA region, Africa and the United States, the organization is dedicated to preparing young minds for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field.
The concept started as a six-week summer program providing supplemental STEM education and has evolved into a curriculum for students from grades 1-12.
When the pandemic hit, the hands-on nature of the Little Engineer programs created an obstacle for the team and students alike. “With all schools temporarily closed, we were active, working on our company infrastructure and the strategic planning for regional expansion in KSA and UAE. We also prepared a guide with resources for educators and students to get engaged in 3D Modeling,” El Chemaitelly expressed in a message from the CEO in a March Newsletter.
Closed doors have not stopped El Chemaitelly from virtually keeping students busy and learning. She comments, “I have been strategizing and planning how to take the business to the next level. During this time, I asked myself ‘how can we make this available online?’”
As a solution, the Little Engineer launched TLE Online Activities, a series of educational challenges using free 3D design software from Tinkercad and 3D Builder. Through promotions on social media, use of email and conversations with partners in 30 countries, the online tool is engaging students around the world.
“The platform is not payable, but we need to stay relevant by engaging with our communities and maintaining leadership,” El Chemaitelly shares. “This is how I plan to engage more schools in new regions where we want to launch. It is a way of planting seeds for after COVID-19.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic is only one challenge that the Little Engineer is facing. In 2019, a financial crisis, exacerbated by months of political uncertainty, brought much of Lebanon’s economy to a halt.
“There is capital control on all of our assets. We can not touch our money. It’s really scary,” she expresses.
To save her company, El Chemaitelly temporarily moved to Dubai and started setting up her company there. “I just received my new credit card. We could not even use the credit cards from Lebanon,” she notes.
In Lebanon, with no access to company funds, the Little Engineer lost the ability to utilize several digital tools essential to their business operations. “We no longer had Dropbox, I could not make ads on Facebook or renew the hosting of our website. All of these were rejected because our banks were declining all of the transactions. So I had to take the money outside of the country,” El Chemaitelly remarks.
“Without tools like Instagram and Facebook ads, I was going crazy.”
El Chemaitelly reports that there are loans available to small businesses, but this is not the answer to the larger problem. “I don’t want to borrow money, I have money. I need them to allow me to use my money.”
“At the Little Engineer, we heavily focus on sustainable development and providing access to everyone. We want to create a program that lifts the morales of students after coronavirus, keeping them motivated and engaged,” she shares.
Like many other entrepreneurs, El Chemaitelly is using these uncertain times to reorganize, restructure and reshape her business and adapt to a post-pandemic environment. For the time being, this means digitizing operations and relying on online strategizes.
“We, as entrepreneurs, need the support now. I’m not shy to say it, we need support.”