Rana Chemaitelly, Founder of the Little Engineer, Is Proud to be Lebanese

After spending many months in the United Arab Emirates, Rana is back home in Lebanon, she is preparing herself to move to Saudi Arabia for a new job. She received the opportunity to start something new and to work alongside the government, developing engineering curriculums for schools there.

Rana, 50, mother of three, embodies a success story by creating a one-of-its-kind concept to make engineering accessible for kids. She founded The Little Engineer back in 2015 in Lebanon. Her vision was to make sure children across the country, no matter their background, had the opportunity to be prepared for engineering.

The Little Engineer started as an extracurricular program in 2015, to train young students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) related activities. “The curriculum grew as we went,” Rana explains, “For example, if I was giving a class on robotics and we were assembling an electronic truck, the students would ask me ‘What’s next?’, so I had to prepare what lesson was next for them, to keep growing and to cater to the students as they got older.”

Today, The Little Engineer offers classes to students aged between 4 and 18 years old. They cover a wide range of topics like robotics, coding, renewable energy, and 3D modeling. And, since 2015, TLE has offered classes to over 85,000 students in Lebanon.

Rana always knew she wanted to follow an unconventional path. When she decided to pursue mechanical engineering at university, her father didn’t like the idea. Despite this, she followed her heart and enrolled at the American University of Beirut (AUB). She was one of three girls in a class of 60 boys.

“I knew I didn’t want to be like everyone else, which is why after graduation I chose to work in maintenance, even though everyone told me it wasn’t a job ‘for girls’,” she remembers.

The start of her career wasn’t easy for her because she really had to prove herself. When she would correct her superiors if a mistake was made, no one would take her seriously.

“I was not only the youngest but also, and above all, a woman,” she explains.

But as time went on, she established herself in the field. “Clients started asking for me specifically,” she says.

She started working for Middle East Airlines in their maintenance department. Rana excelled in her position and was offered a full-time job twice, but she refused both times. She wanted something different and unconventional.

Following her heart, in 1997, Rana flew to Japan to be trained in digital imaging. Back when imaging used only analog cameras, and people used to wait to develop films, Rana distinguished herself by flying personally to the epicenter of the technology revolution for hands-on training, in something no one had heard of yet. After this training, she was able to come home and be one of the first people in Lebanon who were working in digital imaging.

As time went on, Rana noticed the market was becoming over-saturated, and she knew as an entrepreneur that she had to decide, either to bring something new or to step down.

She decided to step down temporarily, “I decided I wanted to be home with my three young kids. It was my decision, no one pressured me or told me to do it,” she says, “But four months in I knew that this wasn’t for me. I am not someone who can stay at home.”

Rana felt so overwhelmed by not working, she decided a change needed to be made. At first, she considered a total career change.

“I had tears on my face as I was telling my old instructors back at AUB that I want to get my Master’s in education,” she recounts, “Thank God they reminded me that I was an outstanding engineering student, and that was where I belonged.”

Following her instructors’ advice and encouragement, she decided to enroll to study engineering management. After receiving her degree, she found a love for teaching, and so she became a full-time engineering instructor at AUB.

One day in class, one student came up to her and told her, “If you don’t give me a passing grade, I will commit suicide.”

Shocked by his statement, Rana sat down and talked to him through his emotions. He told her that he had failed courses repeatedly, but that it was his father’s dream to see him become an engineer.

This made Rana wonder: If this boy had a love for engineering, then why was he not better prepared in school? Why were he and his peers, when they were kids, not taught basic STEM concepts and tools? Was it really a love for engineering, or just good grades and no deep understanding of the field that lead him here?

All these questions made the woman entrepreneur notice these patterns in her classes and how her students had no actual STEM education before coming to university. This is how, in 2015, she decided something really had to change, and so she founded the Little Engineer.

In so little time, The Little Engineer became a success. She opened many branches in Lebanon. She and her team would also visit private and public schools to give trainings and classes.

For Rana, the pride she received from her work pushed her to expand her vision even further. Rather than focus solely on her business, she chose to think even bigger: to set up a lesson plan to be incorporated into official government school curriculums. To make sure that every student in Lebanon has access to STEM education within their school hours, not just as an extracurricular activity.

“I wanted to be a pioneer,” she says.

Soon, she became known by international companies. The Little Engineer was the first education organization in the world to partner with aerospace company Airbus to teach young students about aviation.

“You know everyone sees an airplane in the sky, but no one knows how it works,” Rana explains.

Through their partnerships, TLE reached over 27,000 young students in 52 countries worldwide, and all the sessions were given by Rana herself.

Unfortunately, when the economic crisis began in 2019, Rana, like every other business owner, had to decide how to survive, and how to go on. When she knew that the situation was threatening the survival of her company, she decided to travel to Dubai and open TLE there. The aim was for her to send the money back to Lebanon.

Rana left Beirut on March 8, 2020. What she expected to be just a two-week trip soon became a COVID-19 lockdown.

“I knew I had two options, either to take my money and spend it on myself so I can live in Dubai,” she remembers, “or to put the money back in TLE for the sake of my business. I chose the second.”

With the financial Lebanese crisis starting in the fall of 2019, depositors couldn’t have access anymore to their bank accounts. With the tremendous drop in the Lebanese Lira facing the dollar, the economy collapsed in the country.

Rana survived in Dubai for two months on $2,000. After the initial lockdown, a Lebanese friend who lives in Dubai but was stuck outside the country lent her his apartment. Still, she had to figure out to survive and pay for her necessities.

Just a few months before, Rana was the CEO of a successful company in Lebanon, she was living in the comfort of her old home with her family. When the lockdown happened, she was stranded in another country where she had no family and limited funds. Due to the crisis back home, she couldn’t ask her family to send her money, so she had to make do.

She learned how to make eggs in the microwave since she didn’t have money for gas to turn on the stove. She learned what foods she needed to eat to stay full. She was able to not only survive but also set up her business and keep working until the airports opened again.

Today, even though the Lebanese crisis is at its worse, Rana is still determined to never shut down the Little Engineer in Lebanon. She plans to channel all the money she is making in Dubai and Saudi Arabia back to The Little Engineer Lebanese offices so she can keep investing in young fellow citizens.

“We Lebanese people, have this know-how; we land on our feet no matter what happens. I am a proud Lebanese, and this is the reason I have achieved all these things today.” Rana says, adding, “I am waiting for the day I can finally come back for good.”

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