Start-up Corner: Building Schools for 264 Million Children

Marcel Ohngemach, Contributor

Marcel Ohngemach (MBA ’22) shares how provides access to education in developing countries and how the HBS community can contribute.

Tell us more about your background and what inspired you to be an entrepreneur. 

I grew up in Southern Germany close to Stuttgart, the Motor City, which is home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Out of school, I packed my bags and the few euros I earned as a waiter and bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand to explore life on the other side of our planet. My curiosity for foreign countries and cultures continued to grow during my undergrad in Mathematics and during my job in consulting—with an exchange semester in Taiwan, projects in China and Africa, and travels all over Asia.

As the first in my family to go to university, access to quality education has always played a major role in my life. To me, it is the most effective tool to increase social mobility and break through glass ceilings. However, my travels have taught me that while we take basic schooling for granted, kids in developing countries often do not have this access to education.

In 2018, a friend of mine partnered with a local headmaster in rural Nepal to build a school in a remote mountainous village. That’s when we decided to join forces and create an organization dedicated to elevating inspiring local leaders on their mission to spread education. came to life in order to build schools for the 264 million children worldwide who do not have a school today. Over the past three years, we have built three schools in Nepal and Uganda for 357 children. At the same time, we are covering the schools’ running costs and are employing 31 local teachers and staff.

What is the problem that you are trying to solve?

While millions of people contribute billions of dollars of donations every year, only a few of them know whether and how much of their money reaches the causes. And, those who do are shocked to see over 35% of every dollar consumed by overhead cost. Unfortunately, social impact has been characterized by inefficiency, bureaucracy, and lack of transparency. It needs to be fixed.

What is your solution?

We have been setting up as a for-impact organization. Through digital communication (think: no physical letters sent around the globe, but video updates of our partner’s progress), a high degree of automation, and fully voluntary work, we minimize overhead cost so that $1 of aid is $1 invested on the ground. In 2020, our overhead made up 2.2% of funds raised (vs. 35% of the largest German NGOs) which we offset out of our own pockets to truly deploy 100% of all donations for education.

We further differentiate from large NGOs in that we help scale existing schools run by inspiring local leaders rather than setting up a project from scratch. We empower the local community instead of imposing Western values and culture onto them. The school belongs to the local community and will therefore never carry 264’s name or the name of large donors.

How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your work?

While the pandemic threatens jobs worldwide, it hits developing countries like Nepal and Uganda particularly hard. Their economies depend a great deal on exports and the hospitality industry, both of which plummeted this year. Besides, “work from home” is impossible for physical jobs and leads to loss of employment and income.

It is at the core of 264’s mission to provide kids with quality education and, at the same time, to elevate their entire community. We source local raw materials, hire local workers to build the classrooms, and engage local teachers and support staff to run the school long-term. By doing so, we invest in the children’s future and the local economy.

Who is the team behind your startup?

We are a group of eight entrepreneurs, management consultants, growth strategists, and students. This combines an analytical view on the challenge we are trying to solve with a can-do mentality. The team is based in Berlin, Munich, and now Boston. While we all have full-time jobs, we spend most of our free time with 264.

What’s next?

During the pandemic, we are extending our existing partner schools in Uganda and Nepal with additional classrooms and free lunch programs. Additionally, our team is currently visiting potential new partner projects in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and we are expecting to realize two more school construction projects this year.

How can your classmates get involved?

We are setting up an IMPACT RUN in mid-April 2021. Classmates can sign up as runners and set a target distance (e.g., five miles)—any distance is allowed. Runners then “recruit” supporters who pledge to donate any amount for every mile you’ll run (e.g., $3/mile). Our team will support the runners with vast info material to engage potential supporters. If you don’t feel like running, you can sponsor your classmates instead or help the org team set up an engaging event. Every effort makes a real impact! To register for the 264xHBS impact run, check out this link.

And of course, donations of any amount are always much appreciated and, most importantly, 100% deployed on the ground. To donate, please visit this page on the website.

Marcel Ohngemach (MBA ’22) is from Stuttgart, Germany, and graduated from the University of Mannheim in 2017. During his international travels, he realized the imminent need for access to education as well as the need to take action. Prior to HBS, he worked in management consulting in Berlin where he has also been working on