When four students from Our Own English High School, Sharjah – Boys Branch set out to tackle poverty and debt, they had no idea where it would take them. This is their story

It all began when four crazy high school kids began to look for solutions to different world problems. Pollution, global warming, water scarcity, food scarcity – you name it, we spent countless hours poring over these big issues. Why? Ever since we heard about ‘Project Pentagon’, an innovative initiative by seniors in our school, we’d dreamt of accomplishing something just as novel.

Poverty was one issue we looked at. We also researched statistics of people falling into debt traps in the UAE and that was quite startling. Nearly 66 per cent of UAE citizens save less than 10 per cent of their monthly income. So, what would we do? How could we go about solving this? We realised that we couldn’t exactly pull people out of poverty but we did come up with a solution that could potentially help people save more money, thereby improving their financial prospects.

We were pleased to hear about a new component of the annual Global Innovation Challenge (GIC) – The ENBD Future of Digital Finance Challenge – and concluded that this was going to be the best platform for us to transform our vision into reality.

In January 2019, we began work on our project, which we named ‘XBank’. After doing endless research on banks, app development courses and AI technologies, we developed the first prototype of the XBank App, which utilised AI chatbots to help users with their banking experience and introduced a new loyalty system, budgeting system, virtual wallet and other features. We felt we were ready. Boy, were we wrong!

Project development

In February, we presented our app during the GIC Demo Days event at GEMS Modern Academy – Dubai. The judges loved our idea and we ended up as one of four finalists. After this, the next big event was in April, when we began our mentorship programme with Emirates NBD, Meydan as part of our GIC training sessions. Our mentors helped us identify flaws (huge ones at that!) in our project and suggested how we might make improvements.

We then attended the GIC Bootcamp at GEMS Wellington Academy – Dubai Silicon Oasis. Over the course of those two days, we learned about patenting, starting a successful business, pitching ideas to investors and much more. What we took away from the experience was truly invaluable.

It was at this point that we began to realise that we were going about our project all wrong. We’d been looking for an innovative solution that could potentially solve a global issue. But if we had first identified a problem and then designed an innovative solution to it, we could have saved ourselves lots of time and effort.

And so, we started from scratch, tweaking and re-tweaking bits and pieces of our project. We added new features such as volunteering and a start-up platform to make the app more engaging for young adults. Finally, at the end of April we presented our project to the GIC judges for what we thought would be the last time. Sure enough, we didn’t win – but we were runners-up and we were happy, nonetheless. So that was the end of the road, yes? No way!

Persistence pays off

We didn’t give up. Instead, we created an account on LinkedIn and spammed every banking official we could find in the UAE. Surprisingly, we received calls from RAK Bank and even an invitation from Emirates NBD to present to their Head of Liv. Digital Bank, Mr Jayesh. He loved our idea and promised he would get in touch soon. One week later, we received an email inviting us to intern at the Liv. Head Office in Meydan, Dubai.

Over four weeks in the summer, we were fortunate to intern at such a high-profile banking institution. We helped Liv. design and develop the Liv. Young App, an upcoming extension of the Liv. App, which is primarily for adults. Incorporating our concept as a new feature, we provided Liv. with a means to educate young adults about managing their finances, preparing them for the ‘real world’.

We also explored marketing strategies and how we could build new ways to engage our customers. We learned first-hand how an app comes to life, from an initial concept to full-fledged application. Best of all, we were delighted to hear that our app will go to market within a year. Mission accomplished!