Pooja Baburaj: Utilizing Tech to Ensure Education is for All
Hi everyone, Spiffy here, you’re one and only interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth. I’m thrilled to be talking to Pooja Baburaj, an entrepreneur working to make the world a better place through her work with GroundZ. Are you ready to be enlightened?
Spiffy: Welcome, Pooja! Wow, it’s hot here in Dubai! I understand you’ve had a lot of informative experiences in your short lifetime. Can you tell me what challenges you’re busy addressing?
Pooja: It’s so wonderful to have you here, Spiffy! I am passionate about educational inequality and I’m working to address equity, inclusion and diversity within the global education system. My work is focused on ensuring that we move towards a world where education is a part of every child’s life — not an elitist privilege.
Spiffy: I never thought of education as a privilege, can you tell me more about that and how you stepped into this work?
Pooja: My primary motivator was fatigue. I was an immigrant kid growing up in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and people assumed I was privileged. My reality was starkly different. Next to the glamourous skyscrapers and other city luxuries is a class of low-income workers and their families, thriving in the nooks and crannies of UAE’s concrete jungles. I was a five-year-old with an ambitious spirit and love for academia. But I often had to stay out of class due to unpaid school fees — it was confusing for me. As a 15-year-old, I was angry that my diligence, discipline, and high achievements weren’t enough to earn a seat in my classroom. I didn’t deserve this experience — no child deserves this kind of humiliation. You look at the favelas in South America, the slums in Asia, the reservations in North America, and refugee camps across Africa and the Middle East — no child deserves to be stripped of their right to dream. At 25-years-old, I decided it was time to stop crying and complaining about my lack of privilege. Now is the time for change!
Spiffy: You’re right, Pooja, the right to dream is universal for children! So how is GroundZ making it possible for children in the world to dream? How are you making the world more equitable?
Pooja: Well, Spiffy, GroundZ is an educational technology startup consisting of accessible, digital platforms that holistically equip students from low-income households to become community change-makers. We use artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality to power our Z labs. Students of all genders, abilities, and other social identities can learn to innovate in a safe, educational environment, including diverse areas such as STEAM, business, and public policy.
Spiffy: So would you say you’re a hub? Tell me more!
Pooja: Exactly! One of the recent milestones we achieved was a technological innovation — the inception and introduction of Z labs in the beta phase of digital platforms. We’ve harnessed AI advancements to create a virtual learning environment for students in STEAM and for those who have an interest in technologically underdeveloped fields such as social sciences and business studies. We now deploy IT interventions in all spheres of school education, creating a truly inclusive learning experience for all.
Spiffy: Are interplanetary journalists included? If so, sign me up! Has this been a smooth journey? Have you ever experienced failure?
Pooja: You’re definitely welcome to join, Spiffy! Ah, failure! Let me tell you a story. When I was in school, I suffered from a nervous breakdown due to economic and social pressures. I ended up withdrawing from school for a year. It was really tough to go back — all my previous achievements had dissipated into nothingness and I became another blockbuster failure. I had to restart from scratch, with the added label of being mentally unhealthy. In my final year of school, despite all the difficulty, I ended up serving as class president and took home the student-of-the-year trophy.
Spiffy: Wow, Pooja, congratulations for going back and holding your head high! I mean, it can’t get any worse than that, right?
Pooja: Oh, Spiffy, I wish. I faced even more failures after that, both at university and at work. However, I would say that was my first — and biggest — lesson in resilience. You will fail hard but your comeback should always be harder. That is what makes you, YOU!
Spiffy: Tell me about the students you work with — how have they changed your outlook?
Pooja: I had the honor of leading an inclusion workshop, and this group of awesome, inspiring young kids taught me about the power of limitless dreaming. These kids want to land on Mars, find the cure for Covid-19, save the planet, and generally create a nicer world for us all. Getting into the ruts of routine and responsibility can steal our power to dream. I hope we can all find the strength to believe in ourselves and not be consumed by the mundane aspects of life.
Spiffy: How are you doing that today, Pooja How are you powering your ability to dream, and how can others jumpstart their ability to dream?
Pooja: Find what makes you angry about the world, and use that to rebuild a better place. People frown upon grief, anger, and resentment and see them as terrible emotions that create chaos. I don’t think of it that way. I think negative emotions can help us develop empathy and fuel our force for good. Let’s all revolutionize disenfranchising systems and structures, and work towards an equitable future!
Pooja Baburaj is co-founder and CEO of GroundZ, an inclusive digital platform supporting educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth. Besides being a passionate serial social entrepreneur and political science researcher, Pooja works as a diversity and inclusion specialist at Unilever North Africa and Middle East.