In the third blog of our Featured Fellows Q&A series, Zubair Junjunia talks about young entrepreneurship challenges, educational equity and the role community plays in building purpose-driven, intersectional social enterprises.
Zubair is a social entrepreneur dedicated to ensuring fair and equal access to education globally. He founded ZNotes, an online learning platform that offers all students a level playing field when tackling high-stakes school exams. This youth-led platform has reached over four million students in 190+ countries, providing them with high-quality resources and a peer support community.
The RSA is a community of changemakers. What inspires you to be a changemaker?
I grew up in a family knowing deeply that our upward social mobility was inextricably linked to access to education. I had the incredible privilege of access to quality education, an unquestioned university pathway and a support system of family, friends and loved ones. I was surrounded by these opportunities thanks to the incredible hard work and pursuit of education that my parents had committed themselves to. Being a witness and byproduct of the massive shift in quality of life within a generation, I knew that my calling in this world was to ensure that every young person had this opportunity too.
At the age of 16, I saw my naïve view of a meritocratic world shatter as I saw first-hand how unfair the education system was and the advantages that came with a higher socioeconomic background. I had just completed the first of many high-stakes standardised exams and saw that even neighbouring schools were unable to provide the same teaching quality and resources to prepare their students. To consider the distribution that existed across the world where hundreds of thousands of students took the exact same exams left me astonished. I had to do something. That’s when ZNotes started.
From its inception as a repertoire of your personal notes to a global community that reaches over four million, ZNotes has evolved drastically. What would you say was one of your biggest challenges with this growth?
Having started ZNotes at such an early age, I had the advantage of making every possible mistake and learning from them while unapologetically using the excuse of my youth. One of the biggest challenges I faced was to suddenly take up the mantle of leadership with no guidance. At 16, I was just a teenager leading a group of other teenagers trying to help millions of teenagers just like us. My first reaction was what I had witnessed all my life - pursuing efficiency and productivity, imagining a global Z empire run as an autocracy. That failed very quickly for one jarring reason - Gen-Zers don’t like to be told what to do. I failed as a leader and grew frustrated not at my weaknesses but more at the team that surrounded me - how could they not understand what I was saying? Why weren’t they reporting back to me? Wasn’t it obvious? It wasn’t.
It took me some time and introspection to realise what was wrong: the reason these young people were willing to dedicate hundreds of hours of their time towards an organisation they only knew virtually was because something about its story connected with them. The social mission resonated with them in some shape or form and they wanted to be a part of the solution. Years later, the ZNotes organisational structure has changed many times over, but the most important evolution was my approach to leadership and its knock-on effect on the whole team. Today, we have almost 100 young people engaging in different capacities in the organisation at any given moment. The design of each role combined with continuously centralising and reminding ourselves of what we stand for has resulted in a much more resilient and scalable organic structure.
In a RewirEd Talk, you participated in last year, you spoke about the importance of building equitable social, technological, and educational systems. Could you talk more about the role of equity, as it pertains to technology, in challenging educational inequality?
We were made very aware of the digital divide that exists in our world during Covid, even in the UK, one of the most developed countries in the world. When education went online, the number of young people who actually had consistent access to a digital device, a stable internet connection and some form of power was a small part of the global population. However, it also unlocked the great opportunity we had – the ability to make quality education available at scale and ensure historically marginalised learners, such as those with chronic illnesses or learning disabilities, were included in a system that they hadn’t been included in.
The role technology can play in achieving equitable, quality education for all (the fourth UN Sustainable Development Goal) is massive. However, it must be integrated with the proper social infrastructures in place to support and embed it into the lives of individuals within a community. At ZNotes, we realise we play a small role in working towards the global goal; it is important to be aware of the many intersectionalities within educational inequity and mindful of our scope. But working in partnership and collaboration with other organisations, we have the opportunity to weave together and be part of a rich tapestry of solutions that can effectively move the needle in global challenges.
One of the larger intended impacts of ZNotes imagines young people who are empowered to take charge of their educational journeys. What does a generation of empowered young students look like?
At ZNotes, of the five outcomes we seek to achieve in our Theory of Change, it may be surprising that only two of them are directly linked to academics. In being part of a community that realises how empowered youth can create global impact, we are actively developing the mindset and interest to pursue global social development. This notion is evidenced by the measurable increase of our volunteers who go on to pursue careers that serve marginalised communities and increase their community service engagement alongside anecdotes of past interns going on to set up their own initiatives and NGOs. For us, youth empowerment, particularly during one's learning journey, directly translates to a more globally aware and impact-focused generation. This is critical if we have any chance at solving the existential crises standing in our wake.
You have been aligned with organisations like One Young World, DEFI Cambridge and the RSA Fellowship, all institutions that place great emphasis on the power of community. What roles do you think collaboration and community play in enabling social change?
I believe community is central to the growth of any initiative. Especially one like ZNotes. At its core ZNotes, is a community of students coming together to share resources. This in turn enables the growth of the larger student community which both benefits from and helps strengthen the platform. Central to ZNotes’ operational methodology is a volunteer, community-led approach to co-creating, supporting and contributing to the platform. On a larger scale, it is imperative for social entrepreneurs to collaborate instead of pursuing highly specialised solutions in siloed environments. Only by tapping into the strengths of a collective that brings together both technical expertise and the power of lived experiences, can innovators affect real change.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who are hoping to tackle institutional change like education inequality and reform?
I have three pieces of advice:
- Be obsessed about a social problem, not your solution.
- Pursue those challenges which you have deep knowledge of, whether it’s a lived experience or witnessing it first-hand.
- Build a community of unwavering supporters around your cause, ideally the beneficiaries of your solution too – enabling problem owners to become problem solvers.
The increasing awareness of social entrepreneurship and concepts such as the social unicorn – an organisation that can impact a billion lives – is going to be critical for us to solve the biggest challenges facing humanity today.
What does being an RSA Fellow mean to you?
I remember walking into the RSA House for the first time still as a student to see the winners of the Catalyst prize. There was something magical about it – an unassuming building on the Strand that opened like a maze of nooks and crannies and had been the stomping grounds of some of the most inspiring changemakers for over two centuries. I was graciously invited to be a Fellow over a year ago and I have since had the opportunity to strengthen my network, running into people I admire over coffee and striking up new friendships. Over the last year, I have also leveraged the space as an opportunity to convene interesting people in the education sector to meet and explore collaborations. I am currently associated with the WISE Emerging Leaders program supported by the Qatar Foundation and it is fantastic to see the cross-collaboration across the research being produced by both WISE and RSA on key topics such as learning cities and learning ecosystems.
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