Social Entrepreneur Spotlight: Adeeb Barqawi of ProUnitasOctober 27, 2023
ProUnitas, part of New Profit’s Mental Health Equity Catalyze Cohort of Social Entrepreneurs, aims to work with public school districts to build and sustain a system that supports the well-being and mental health of every student so that they stay in school and unlock their fullest human potential. ProUnitas provides a technology called PurpleSENSE and best practices coaching support to districts, aiming to create multidisciplinary teams that put the student at the center and make access to mental health and student support quicker and more coordinated.
To help us get closer to ProUnitas’s work, President & CEO Adeeb Barqawi took time to share how their work is seeking to connect critical dots and how embracing our shared humanity can be the starting point for real change.
Q: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about the issue your organization is working to solve?
A: Most people don’t realize how much chance determines whether or not students get the help they need. Despite all the programs and services that are available, and despite the hard work of so many school counselors and social workers, only 15% of students in poverty get connected with mental health and basic needs resources. The problem is that there’s no system to connect the dots. That’s what we’re working to solve at ProUnitas.
A lot of folks think of entrepreneurs as people who blow up the system, but that’s not us. We build systems where none existed before.
Q: Can you share a story that brings to life why you made the decision to pursue a career in your field?
A: Before ProUnitas, I was a high school physics teacher. I thought I had a great relationship with this one student, and I was so excited to help her succeed. But one day, I just couldn’t get her attention. When we had a moment, I asked her what was going on. She said, “My mom was murdered last night. I came to school to eat.”
I literally stood in my tracks not knowing what to do. I had no idea where to go or how to start. I looked for resources, reached out to our school’s counseling services, and did all I could think of. But it wasn’t enough.
Even today, I still don’t know where she is or what happened to her. By the time we found a resource for her, she had stopped coming to school and we could not track her down. We had amazing school counselors and community services, but we lost her because there was no system to connect the dots in time.
Q: In your opinion, what is the most important step towards making the world a better place?
A: I believe the key to a better world lies in recognizing and embracing our shared humanity. When we ground in the common element of our humanity, we naturally want to see everyone achieve a better life. In my opinion such recognition is an important step toward making the world a better place.
Q: What has been the most fulfilling part of the work that you do?
A: One of our mantras is a quote by Isadore Sharp, “systematize the predictable to humanize the exceptional,” and seeing this lived out in our everyday work is really fulfilling. When we build predictable processes with a school district, that frees up school counselors and support staff to bring their full humanity to solving the most exceptional challenges of their students. This mantra has also allowed us to serve 427 schools and more than 150,000 students with a staff of just 11 talented individuals. We’re obsessed with documenting and streamlining our internal operations so that our team can focus on exceptional challenges and be their exceptional selves in and out of work. I’m not saying every organization needs to work this way, but for us, it’s been really fulfilling to build systems that achieve mega impact through understanding of the various levers in the system that result in the greatest change.