The fusing of free, quality education, social entrepreneurship and design may seem like an impossible feat. But Sarah Hermez, Founder of the Creative Space Beirut took on the challenge. After completing her degrees at the New School in fashion design at Parsons School of Design and in media studies at Eugene Lang School of Liberal Arts, in New York, she decided to return to Lebanon. During a short visit to New York to pack up the rest of her belongings, an inspiring conversation over coffee with her mentor, Caroline Simonelli, who teaches fashion design at Parsons, changed the course of her journey.
Asking herself what it means to be Lebanese, after being part of the Diaspora for seven years, her seemingly conflicting passions for social justice and fashion design, started to surface. All it took was for Caroline to ask one, simple question: “Why don’t you start a school?”
Saying the rest is history would diminish from the hard work and challenges overcome, and the achievements that the Creative Space Beirut has marked since its launching in June 2011.
“Studying fashion design proved that creativity was of huge importance to me, but it also became clearer that social justice was something even more significant. That day, the dots connected, and I knew exactly what I was going to spend my life doing. I was 24, naïve, passionate and stubborn with no experience when it came to starting and building a school, but I was going to do it regardless. Somehow, I still feel this way,” shares Sarah, with an unwavering conviction.
However, the journey was never easy, and being in Lebanon, made it even harder.
“Free, quality education should be provided by the government. Unfortunately, it is not, and living in a country that doesn’t offer even the most basic of human rights often makes things like inclusive creative sectors feel so impossible,” she shares.
The Creative Space Beirut launched in June 2011 with the mission of making free, quality design education accessible to all - regardless of their financial or personal circumstances. Since its founding over eight years ago, the school developed a three-year curriculum and provides assistance with job opportunities to students after they graduate. Establishing a successful curriculum was an organic, yet upward struggle, where results were achieved through trial and error.
“Education is where it all begins. From technical skills to creative skills and soft skills, high-quality education creates a higher quality of life. We believe that free education will help pave the way to equal opportunities in the work force. Design is a process used to shape and structure our world. In order for design to be used as an effective tool for the progress of society, it needs to be inclusive, incorporating the vision and voices of people from all backgrounds,” Sarah adds.
But when the Creative Space Beirut was founded, potential students were hard to come by, and had to be searched for in community centers, NGOs and refugee camps. Today, as a result of the school’s credibility, student success stories and media exposure, the Creative Space Beirut receives around 150 applications each year. As the education is provided completely for free, the team was tasked to develop fundraising strategies from the outset which proved to be very difficult.
How funding challenges were overcome
While Creative Space Beirut is a non-profit organization, the school does not quite fit the corresponding non-profit model. Seeing that the school’s curriculum spans over three years and only accepts five to seven students each year, grants are difficult to secure. Despite this growing challenge, the team refused to change their model, as their mission remains to provide high-quality education and long-term job opportunities.
In order to build a sustainable support system for Creative Space Beirut, a social enterprise was launched. This entails two in-house brands which include: CSB ready-to-wear and Second ST., and also serves as a platform to help students with job opportunities. Establishing a complex eco-system of this nature has been a challenge - as it also includes a flagship store and eCommerce website, csb-shop.com.
Despite the ongoing struggle, achievements are abundant
Sarah shares the various accomplishments that the Creative Space Beirut was able to achieve in just over eight years.
- The three-year curriculum: Starting with just workshops and courses, the school has successfully become a three-year program that has, to date, graduated nine full-time students in the last six years (Get to know the students and read about the success stories here: https://creativespacebeirut.com/Students)
- The Social Enterprise: Starting, developing and maintaining a non-profit school, while partnering with George Rouhana and Tracy Moussi to implement sustainable strategies is one of the biggest achievements to date. By turning a project into a social enterprise, the Creative Space Beirut designed and created an online shop - which was a step forward when it comes to targeting the global market.
- On growth: Acquiring a four-year partnership with the Drosos Foundation. Established in 2003, the organization works to promote the independence and personal responsibility of disadvantaged individuals. The foundation is involved with more than 100 projects as of 2015, which work to fight poverty, promote health, increase access to education and creative activities for youth.
The message for aspiring talent in Lebanon
Sarah shares: “There are many challenges to face, especially when it comes to living in Lebanon. For instance, the youth unemployment rate is very high, and there is a real struggle to achieve a decent standard of living. For those working towards a better Lebanon, it’s going to be a long, hard journey. However, I will say that if you know what you’re passionate about, and you’re willing to learn about the industry in question, you can work towards finding a path for yourself. It’s never easy, but it’s worth the fight. Be aware, challenge yourself and work hard!”
And the advice for other organizations setting up in the social entrepreneurship realm
“In my experience, the beauty of building a social enterprise lies in the fact that the business has to fundamentally adhere and live up to its core values. At the heart of our enterprise is the right for free education and equal opportunity. When the core of a business is driven by a cause, it motivates the team to never give up. When the impact is right in front of you, and when you see the change for yourself, it’s very difficult to give up. If someone wants to build a social enterprise, they should be attached to their mission, they should believe it full-heartedly and they should test and try it over and over again until the impact is clear.”
In the case of Sarah, having a noble cause at heart and a driving passion, were the foundational elements. However, with any entrepreneurial journey, hard work, adaptability and adopting a creative, solution-oriented mindset, is key to succeed.