Simon Sällström

CEO/founder @ DirectEd Development Foundation
10 karmaJoined Working (0-5 years)


Born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 6th 1996. I grew up in Högdalen, a working-class area in southern Stockholm famous for its A-team members, Ebba Grön and (basically) the place where Spotify founder Daniel Ek grew up (he grew up in Rågsved, the next stop on the subway line). After moving to Örby where my parents still live and completing my primary education at Sturebyskolan, I went on a one-year exchange in Shanghai, China. So from September 2012 to June 2013, I spent my days reading Wikipedia articles, Plato’s republic and memorising combinations of lines drawn in clever ways (i.e. I studied mandarin) at CaoYang No.2 high school. My year in China taught me to really appreciate how hard my Chinese peers had to work compared to my Swedish ones. Even the hard work required to do well in the sciences program (natur svenska sektionen) at Kungsholmens gymnasium in Stockholm was nothing compared to what the Chinese students had to struggle through. My time at ‘KG’ (as it is called) was great and I was a member of the debate society, the political association and the student newspaper KZINE as their webmaster (I successfully managed to not crash the website, yay).

I’ve always been more interested in people and society so the political science and economics program (politices kandidatprogram) at Lund University was a natural choice for me. It was far away from home, I loved the old architecture of the city and they had an exchange program with the University of California. I picked up competitive debating again whilst letting the dream of going on an exchange to UC Berkeley motivate me to work hard.

Fall 2017 came and I applied to the exchange. After a long strenuous process I got an email on April 12th. I was one out of a handful of students from Lund who were going to UC Berkeley for one year! It was a great year by all metrics. I got a research assistant position, then a scholarship and then I co-authored an op-ed with my professor – all of which were a result of being at the right place at the right time, a genuine passion for what I was working on and ample preparation. My mantra? If you want good things to happen in your life, then work hard to be in a position where you can be lucky.

Fast forward. It’s fall 2019. I’m back in Lund to study some mathematics while I write my bachelor’s thesis in economics and master's program applications. This was the toughest year so far (academically). Never before had I studied 50-60 hours per week for extended periods. It was often easier to count the numbers that I did not study or write some application than the other way around. By January 2020, I was pretty exhausted and had begun experiencing some issues sleeping. I’ve been careful with balancing work and other things ever since. After all, what’s the endgame if not the life you have right now?

I applied to numerous universities but it was on March 25th that I received the offer that I really cared about. The first line said: “Thank you for your application for the Master of Philosophy in Economics which we have now considered.” Skip. “We are very pleased…” and so I was accepted to the MPhil in Economics at the University of Oxford.

What have I been up to at Oxford (apart from meeting boatloads of interesting people)? I’ve joined the Oxford University Table Tennis club, gotten a mentor from E3G as part of the sustainability mentorship programme and joined the Oxford Society for International Development.

After graduating with a masters in economics from Oxford in July 2022, I decided against going on the traditional 9-5 route in the City of London to move around money to make more money for people who already have plenty of money… Instead, I launched a charity

DirectEd Development Foundation is a charitable organisation whose purpose is to propel economic growth and develop and deliver evidence-based, highly scalable and cost-effective bootcamps designed for under-resourced high-potential students in Africa, preparing them for remote employment by equipping them with the most sought-after digital and soft skills on the market and thereby realise their potential as leaders of Africa’s digital transformation.

How others can help me

I am looking for grant givers to support our foundation, and for passionate interns who are interested in what we do! 

How I can help others

I have done a masters in economics at Oxford. Here are my key interest areas (happy to chat about them!):  the future of work, climate change's relationship to capitalism and economic development! :)


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Great article! I'll be writing up a similar post for DirectEd ( ) later this year and will be sure to reference and take inspiration from this excellently composed post.

  1. I reacted to the claim "Many governments appear motivated to maintain and expand the number of higher education slots available for foreign students. Lobbying could enhance and accelerate these efforts." 

    Anecdotally, Sweden only relatively recently shifted towards requesting (high) tuition for students coming from non-Eu countries, suggesting a different trend. I am not generally aware of the political sentiment towards international migration for higher education though but I'd be curious to see sources for this claim. 
  2. Having a charity in a similar space (digital migration for remote jobs for students in Kenya & Ethiopia), I am quite curious about your overhead costs. The 36%+ admin cost seems very high and I am wondering what you include in that. Whether assistance to take the exams and VISA are included for example? 
  3. Eurostat reports that, in 2021, overqualification rates amongst people with tertiary degree education who are non-EU was nearly 40%. Migrant integration statistics - over-qualification - Statistics Explained ( This might cause some worry because it would suggest that using the average income within the country as the proxy may not be representative. Moreover, when looking at unemployment rates amongst foreign-born youth (15-29), the picture is not great. EU Citizens in their own country: 12.6%. Non-EU citizens: 20%. 

    The numbers may of course differ widely for this particular tertiary-educated sample of Malengo scholars, as they are selected for their merits etc. 


Either way, looking forward to seeing the evidence speak for itself once the first two cohorts are out on the market!

As a fellow empirical economist, I applaud this empirical economics pivot! Economics can go, and have gone, very wrong when it is too inwardly focused on its theoretical models with often false assumptions and low predictive power...

As someone not too familiar with AI safety discourse… is there a $-value estimate benchmark one can use to compare “apples to apples”?

The number we have at the moment is at about $130 in DIRECT increased lifetime earnings (relative to counterfactual) per $1 donated.

If we also include spillover effects, then this increases to about $300 per $1 donated.

Again, there are many detailed assumption made to arrive at these numbers, and you are very welcome to point out which ones you believe are unreasonable!

And the purpose of our pilots and proposed RCT (later) is of course to test this in practice.

I like the idea of having an introductory AI safety lecture. We’re actually planning out the guest lectures for the introductory bootcamp right now. Would you be interested in doing 1 hour on this topic? Or if not, could you refer me to someone?

Right now we do have one lecturer talking about how one can use AI in ones work as a software web developer, as a tool. I think it would be great to also, in conjunction, have something on the safety/dangers.

Best Simon

Thank you for pointing it out. I was sloppy in my wording!:)

As I mentioned earlier, I was not able to find any relevant studies with transferable insights, unfortunately. There is ample literature on primary school or secondary school interventions, or general vocational training programmes. But there’s non that

  1. Target digital remote employment in low income counties (simply because that wasn’t feasible from an infrastructure point of view)
  2. Do NOT target those who are already unemployed.

To be more specific. The studies you cite here are simply not relevant. It’s as if I come and suggest medical intervention X to combat diseases, and you find study A, B and C from 10 years back that used intervention Y to also combat diseases. On a very superficial level they may seem similar in the same way studying at Harvard university is similar to studying at Södertörn university. But they are hardly particularly useful in producing useful proxies for cost effectiveness of our particular intervention.

First of all, they are NOT digital skills programs. And as an aside, this type of intervention wasn’t even possible to do just 4-5 years ago because the internet infrastructure or otherwise just didn’t exist in Kenya or Ethiopia back then.

Second they are targeting currently unemployed youth or less educated youth. We do not target this group. Our intervention targets the upper segment of highly talented individuals - and most of which won’t have the resources or access to the top quality training needed to succeed.

Third, the amount of resources invested is comparatively low relative to ours. Our intervention is definitely not as scalable as some of these programs (that are intended to scale) and we instead focus on intervention targeting efficiency. That means we invest a lot more per individual and we invest much more in selection of whom we support. This is inspired by on existing research on the heterogeneity of the effectiveness of microcredit by Banerjee et al (2018), Gung ho entrepreneurs paper.

Instead, I propose that in our case, it is much more informative to look at current market data on (a) how much remote employed software engineers earn, (b) what they need to learn in order to get these jobs.

To give you some numbers, this comprehensive stackoverflow survey with 100.000 respondents from 2018 reveals that, amongst the 55% who enrolled in a coding bootcamp without already having a jobs as developers, 71.5% found jobs as professional developers within 6 months (n=6652).

With that said, we make several assumptions in the CEA and I’d love to get informed critiques of those assumptions so we can adjust and change them to be more realistic. We’ve tried our best to find good data but that itself takes time and a lot of effort. We are in the process of rolling out survey of former students and of working professionals to figure out both counter factual earnings of comparable students from earlier years from the same schools and from people who work as remote engineers. Our current estimates are in the range $300-$600/month and are based on informal surveying in both countries. Anecdotally, the ones who do get jobs have often learn the frameworks and languages themselves using pirated versions of Udemy or similar sites (even if they have CS degrees).

However, given that US software engineering entry salaries are at $12,500/month, there’s clearly ample room for potential.

I don’t think it’s a It’s not a matter of whether some of the brightest talents in Africa can compete with these 6-figure position jobs. It’s a matter of asking “what does it take” for them to get there.

Thank you for keeping the conversation going! It’s very helpful as I’m forced to flesh out my arguments. This will help prepare a long form post at some point later on!:)

Best Simon

I am somewhat familiar with it yes:) perhaps I have not fully appreciated the dangers of it yet (admittedly I should, given that I hang out in Oxford with the people who do this research). Will watch the video

With different discounting rate, preference and particular skillset (my skillset), I see this focus is the most impactful thing for me right now.

I would like to hear from you if/how, on the margin, you believe that the intervention we are working on would make any meaningful difference in making AI more or less a threat to humanity! 

If there are concerns, I have the ability to steer the training content, so if anything, these will be the least dangerous software engineers out there. Maybe they will replace software engineers who are less AI-safety-aware even as they take jobs from western engineers who do not receive any training whatsoever?

Hi again Ian! 

Yes you are correct I could have clarified in my reply to you that there is no RCT yet. 

A CEA doesn't have to be based on RCT data. As long as the assumption being made a clear then it is up to the reader to accept or reject those and evaluate the merit of the CEA on that basis. I think you may be confusing a (theory-based) estimation with the actual evaluation, which is our fault as I also see that this distinction is not entirely clear. 

In other words, even if we did not have it in the roadmap to conduct an RCT in order to validate the assumptions used in the CEA, the CEA itself can use the terminology "control" in order to make it analytically clear that the "control" refers to a group which differs only from the "treatment" group in that it did not attend the programme.

Regarding existing studies. There are not really any that I have found. I am in talks with some of my professors here in Oxford who were looking into doing something somewhat similar, but still quite different (simple IT gig work, of the Amazon Turk type)... 

More generally, the devil are in the details for programmes like ours. Only because someone, somewhere, has evaluated a X week-long training programme in IT in country Y doesn't mean that this generalises in any meaningful way to what we are doing. Analogously, say you have a social media website in year 2005 where users can create profiles and connect with each other. Will this company be valued at $1B, $10B or be bankrupt in 10 years? It all boils down to the people, execution and many small details. 

We target students right after high school in Kenya, have partner high schools (high performing schools), make use of 2-week milestone assessments/conditional cash transfers, have direct contact with western tech companies with an end-to-end pipeline from 0 to internship to job and focus on state-of-the-art MERN stack Javascript development. All of these matter for the end-impact. 

For exampl, Educate! do vocational training programmes and say that their programme have measurably impacted 250,000 Educate! | Preparing youth in Africa with the skills to succeed in today’s economy. (
"Educate! tackles youth unemployment by partnering with youth, schools, and governments to design and deliver education solutions that equip young people in Africa with the skills to attain further education, overcome gender inequities, start businesses, get jobs, and drive development in their communities." 

Now their focus is very different from ours. They target a population that is unemployed. We target a population that is not unemployed (they are between high school and university).

Here is an example of an intervention that was implemented by the same NGO, in the same country yet had 0 measured impact, despite strong RCT evidence suggesting otherwise prior to this. The Comparative Impact of Cash Transfers and a Psychotherapy Program on Psychological and Economic Well-being ( Podcast episode where I interviewed the author 

Regarding why I focus on this. I can write a lot about the personal journey and the entire process/long form argument for it, but in short, I think it has the potential of being the most cost-effective (development) intervention there is. Why? Because the greatest alleviation of large scale suffering has historically always been grounded in a strong economy and specifically a flourishing export industry. Remote work is an export industry and we are now in a position to help upskill this industry through knowledge transfer at a very low cost (since all the info/content is out there already, we just need to structure it and match the talent with opportunity).  

Happy to elaborate if you are at EAG London. 

@chris, I’m not sure I’m following. This is coding bootcamp for students in Africa to further their internal capacity for economic development.

@Ian turner,

This is indeed just based on our best guesses. The idea is, as we roll out the program in practice, to update the hypothesised numbers with actuals (this is set up already), ie update our priors.

This is an RCT, hence the 100% attribution.

Yes this is merely the Cost effectiveness analysis document. Not a full research proposal! Right now it’s in the piloting stage either way, but next year our hope is to run this as a small scale pilot RCT!:) if you are interested then I can share a proposal that the specifics of the RCT, including the two stage saturated randomisation for spillover estimation!

The scale question is valid. The short answer is that the number of students interested and able to succeed, say out of a cohort of 400 graduates from our partner high schools (well performing) will be in the single digits, possible 10s.

Teacher cost is very low because we use existing online course material. We only require some tutors to assist. Also, chatGPT is incredible.

I really appreciate that you took the time to read what we’ve worked on and I look forward to more questions:)

Again, happy to share more documents if you are interested!

You can find link to the whitepaper (old version, to be updated soon) for the entire programme here

Could coding bootcamps for high potential under resourced young students in low income countries that explicitly target remote employment in software engineering be the most impactful return on dollar donated?

This cost effectiveness analysis suggest that DIRECT benefits over the lifetime of programme participants amount to $130 per $1 donated.

If we also add spillover effects (earnings from remote work constitutes export, so money is injected into the local economy) then the returns are in the range of $300 of economic value per $1 donated.

With more money, many other issues become much much easier to solve ranging from malnutrition, lack of medical supplies, basic education and investments in agriculture productivity improvements or insurance.

Please let me know what you think, leave comment in the docs! Here is link to the report. NB it is merely a first draft and just a starting point for the discussion!

Hi! Do you take in founders with existing high impact (potentially) organisations that have already in the bootstrapping phase?

Internship / board of trustees!

My name is Simon Sällström, after graduating with a masters in economics from Oxford in July 2022, I decided against going on the traditional 9-5 route in the City of London to move around money to make more money for people who already have plenty of money… Instead, I launched a charity

DirectEd Development Foundation is a charitable organisation whose mission is to propel economic growth and develop and deliver evidence-based, highly scalable and cost-effective bootcamps to under-resourced high-potential students in Africa, preparing them for remote employment by equipping them with the most sought-after digital and soft skills on the market and thereby realise their potential as leaders of Africa’s digital transformation.

I'm looking for passionate people in the EA community to join me and my team!

We are mainly looking for two unpaid positions to fill right now: interns and trustees. The latter is quite an important role

I am not entirely sure how to best go about this which is why I am writing this short comment here. Any advice? 

Here's what I have done so far in terms of information about the internship position and application form: 

Here is what we have for the trustees (work in progress): 

Happy to take any and all advice:) 

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