Dr Rasha Saïd, founder of The Toucan Project

Dr Rasha Said headshot

Dr Rasha Saïd is the founder of the The Toucan Project, which is dedicated to empowering students for better lives through providing access to education, vocational training, and internship opportunities. Rasha is deeply committed to lifelong learning, firmly believing that it keeps the mind, body, and soul vibrant. Based on this conviction, she founded the Toucan project, which has now been thriving for over 14 years and continues to expand. Numerous partners, including UNHCR, IRC and Sony, collaborate with the project. Rasha's current challenge with the Toucan project involves transitioning from a London focus to a global initiative. Although The Toucan Project maintains a relatively small internal team, their loyalty and consistency are strong, driven by a shared commitment to the project's fundamentals. As the company grows, a forthcoming challenge will be deciding who to bring into the team when the existing structure functions well and has demonstrated sustained success. The question remains: Who to hire, and when?

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?

My family is a concoction of philosophers, doctors, and entrepreneurs. The languages they speak are philosophy, medicine, and business. I embarked on my academic journey with a focus on medicine during my undergraduate studies, but I transitioned towards business after that. The decision to venture into entrepreneurship emerged as a logical and organic evolution, aligning with the multifaceted influences and interests within my familial environment. 

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
The Toucan Project logo, beige text on black background

Entrepreneurs are brave people with the ability to look into the future and inspire others to join them. Their strength lies not merely in forecasting future trends and recognizing opportunities but in having the capability to take actionable steps and deliver!  Having an idea is important, but the true measure of success lies in the ability to execute and bring those ideas to fruition.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?

I harboured a profound passion for the idea and sensed a genuine necessity to bring it to fruition in the world. Through witnessing others' enthusiastic reactions, it became evident that the idea had a resonating impact.Viewing the idea as a seed meant to grow in collaboration with others, I actively sought feedback, valuing the capacity to sift through and prioritize responses. The validation of the idea occurred when it spread and sparked discussions within my networks. 

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?

Successful entrepreneurs embody the following key principles
1. About the WHY: Prioritize the "why" behind your endeavors. The project needs to be fueled by passion which will resonate with others; caring about the project ensures that people will hear about it.
2. Simplicity is Key: Keep your message straightforward. If it becomes too complex, the intended impact is often lost.
3. Follow Through: Uphold your commitments with honesty. Be a person of your word, always turn up to the kitchen table, whether the context is a casual tea gathering or a high-stakes business negotiation. Respond to every individual around the table, recognize the significance of each person, and be prepared to engage in difficult conversations.

What is your favorite part of being an entrepreneur?

My favorite part of being an entrepreneur is being consistently present for all the students, ensuring the sustainability of resources and continually expanding support for a growing number of students.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

A challenging question —identifying a company that hasn't inspired me is tough. Two stand out, Pixar and Ben & Jerry’s. Pixar stands out for the positive culture it has fostered. The environment is healthy, promoting learning from mistakes, embracing open-mindedness, and celebrating success. 
Ben & Jerry's is another inspiring example. Not only do they produce fantastic ice cream, but they are also advocates deeply connected to mainstream culture. Their activism aims to bring about societal change, cleverly using a beloved product like ice cream to engage people in meaningful conversations. They've successfully navigated the test of time, proving to be not just ice cream makers but also influential policy change advocates.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?

I had the privilege of sitting next to the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, and I was awestruck. Like an excited schoolgirl, I felt a profound sense of inspiration and joy, wanting them to continue "bringing more ice cream into the world". If faced with Pixar, I imagine a similar reaction, being impressed by their creative process, akin to a meticulously crafted ribbon.I would want to thank them for the immense joy they have brought into the world.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?

The most gratifying experiences in business emerge when one recognizes that the work has a direct impact on your users. Other deeply fulfilling moments happen when I reflect on the remarkable dedication of individuals who have invested their time in the project, and those who have chosen to support and stand by me as a founder. This exemplifies the essence of mutual aid in fostering success.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

By nature I am very trusting which has led me to hire people who did not deliver. The key takeaway is to prioritize results, employing a more discerning approach in a business context, while still maintaining a compassionate perspective.

How have you funded your ideas?

The project is financed independently, utilizing both personal funds and the support of a highly collaborative ecosystem.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?


What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?

Based in London (n/a)

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?

To begin, I would suggest exploring the Said Business School, renowned for its highly supportive culture. However, for more tailored advice, I would delve into the latest updates and understand the specific context of the entrepreneur before offering further guidance.

Any last words of advice?

Communicate with clarity, kindness and stay focused on results. Uphold a commitment to fairness in all interactions. Practice active listening and acknowledge that everyone’s voice deserves consideration. While appreciating everyone's input, ensure that you aggregate information thoughtfully. Go beyond acknowledgment and actively synthesize and apply them to enhance decision-making and project development. Never lose sight of your core “WHY”.

Women specific questions:
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?

Certainly, as a female entrepreneur, I have encountered challenges, particularly in facing decisions that sometimes seem influenced by my gender or family status. Ideally, decisions should be made based on merit and entrepreneurial considerations rather than personal attributes. However, some do take into account factors such as being a woman or having a family. In navigating these challenges, it is crucial to prioritize what is both healthy and best for yourself and the business. It is essential to make decisions on your terms, and maintain the integrity of your company alongside personal considerations. I choose to keep my private life private, especially when it contributes to certain decision-making processes. This decision is made with the intent of protecting my personal life and maintaining a boundary between professional and private spheres.

What resources would you recommend for other women?

I strongly encourage leveraging platforms and network groups specifically designed for women entrepreneurs.

How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?

The Business School has undertaken commendable initiatives, bringing numerous women entrepreneurs into the business landscape and beyond. The University of Oxford is actively supporting women entrepreneurs, notably through EnSpire, but there's always room for improvement. It's essential to consistently support each other and maintain a strong spirit of advocacy. We must keep the flame burning brightly and commit to continuous efforts.

Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?

Engage with other female entrepreneur groups, and actively communicate and forge connections. Be courageous in discussing the challenges you encounter. Speak up wherever you feel most confident, and do not hesitate to reach out if you have concerns. It is crucial that we foster more open dialogue.