Jonathan Starr's Somali Good Deed

After succeeding on Wall Street, Jonathan Starr built a school in Somaliland that he runs like a business

By the time he was 27, Jonathan Starr had written a book about value investing, made his first million, and founded his own hedge fund, Flagg Street Capital, in Cambridge, Mass., not far from his hometown of Worcester. He had a fat Rolodex and a bright future in finance—only he was burning himself out. “I’m obsessive by nature, but I wanted to be obsessed with something else,” he recalls.

In 2008, Starr took a trip to Somaliland, his uncle’s home country, which had been devastated by civil war and was struggling to rebuild. (Although it declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland is still internationally recognized as an autonomous region of the state.) A year later, with some $500,000 in savings, Starr founded Abaarso Tech, a nonprofit organization that helps prepare the country’s brightest boys and girls for top-tier institutions in the U.S. and U.K. (Abaarso, the school’s location, means “drought.”) The institution is also designed, he says, to run like a business: Students pay what they can, while several revenue-generating programs—English courses, a school of finance, and an executive MBA track—make up for the shortfall in tuition.

Starr, 35, works at Abaarso all but three weeks of the year, along with two dozen teachers. “He was fanatical about investment philosophy, and he’s fanatical about what he’s doing now,” says Anand Desai, a former colleague at SAB Capital Management. Next year, Starr will administer the first official SAT exam in Somaliland history. “We’re making great progress,” he says. “And soon we’ll have some test scores to prove it.”

Starr’s Best Advice

1. Burn your ships

You aren’t going to make progress in the developing world without running into a lot of roadblocks and uncomfortable situations. To succeed, you can’t even consider packing up and going home.
2. Manage on the ground
You have to be able to see what works and what doesn’t and to adapt quickly. Otherwise you’ll spend years running plays that have no chance of succeeding.