Interview with Ila Prabhuram, founder of College Pathways and GenZWrites!

IlaPrabhuram is a rising high school sophomore in Atlanta, Georgia, advocating for education equity globally and empowering marginalized youth voices. She founded College Pathway, an international nonprofit advocating for education equality and reform by impacting thousands of students in over 10 countries, in August of 2018, and GenZ Writes, a global media platform amplifying student voice and sharing student stores, in April of 2020. She believes everyone deserves a quality education, regardless of their race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

Interview by Lois Chan

Can you start off with introducing yourself?

Sure! My name is Ila (ee-la) Prabhuram! I’m 15 years old and I live in Atlanta, GA. My passion lies in education equity and empowering marginalized youth voices across the world; I run two organizations centered around that! I love writing, reading, dancing, and playing the harp and ukulele!

Let’s talk about the organizations you run. What is their mission and purpose, and how did they come to life?

I started @collegepathwayus in August of 2018. I used to tutor at a local trailer park in my community, and one day I started talking to one of the moms who lived there. She told me how her son (who was an elementary schooler at the time) wasn’t going to attend college. I was so confused, so I asked her why, and she replied with “... We can’t afford it.” Obviously I was shocked, because what about financial aid? Scholarships? But then I realized that not everyone can receive financial aid or scholarships. I thought this was just an issue with her family, but then I found out that this is something affecting students worldwide. Education has always been so important to me and I was finally able to see the privilege I had. So, I really wanted to do something about it and help solve the education inequity crisis! CP originally started out as a project/ fundraiser, but once I saw how awesome it felt to help others, I needed to continue it. CP has now reached over 1,000 students worldwide and we’re working in over 10 countries (super super stoked about that)! We’ve hosted scholarship information sessions, FAFSA workshops, resource drives, forming curriculum, and we co-founded @knowmovement to collaborate with other youth-led NGOs combating education inequity.

I started @genzwrites this April during quarantine actually. As I mentioned before, I love writing, so when I saw my own personal blog about current events and politics start to get hits, I thought it would be cool to hear what other people had to say about the same issues! I originally planned for it to be a small little community of people able to share their opinions on current events, but we now have a team of 50+ students in 7+ countries and our website gets over 1K+ hits every day! GZW publishes articles by students, interviews changemakers, and we’re hosting @genzgirlcon! It's crazy how I’ve met so many amazing people worldwide through GZW!

So what are your duties in these organizations, what do you usually do for them on a daily basis?

So for both organizations, I’m on calls at least once a day! Whether it’s updating my team, or collaborating with other orgs, there’s a ton of communication going on between me and everyone else involved with CP and GZW. For CP, we’re currently working on establishing partnerships with youth orgs in Cameroon, Lebanon, India, Kenya, and more, and so we’ve been having a lot of video calls with them! I’ve also been having calls with other orgs to schedule virtual scholarship and financial aid info sessions. I’ve also been designing curriculum and documents with chapter info! For GZW, I’ve been doing a lot of planning for @genzgirlcon- currently we’ve been judging student panelist applications and working on the operations behind the conference. I’ve been having daily calls with my planning team to plan the con as well! Both orgs involve a ton of planning every day, so I spend at least 4-5 hours working on them each day.

What is the mind and skill set one needs when leading a nonprofit?

It’s so important to have a positive mindset when starting a nonprofit. You’re definitely going to be faced with several hurdles, but it’s important to be able to grow from those experiences and actually learn from it! Honestly, this sounds cliché, but you need to be passionate and truly caring about what you do. If you’re starting a nonprofit for the wrong purpose, then it probably won’t be as successful as it could be. Also, you have to be able to plan, organize and lead a team really well. Having a concrete plan of how you want to help with the issue(s) your org works to combat is so crucial! Without a structure or potent leadership, it would be harder to make your org a success and increase its impact!

What is something you wished you knew before going into nonprofit work?

Definitely how to send cold emails! I remember sending so many emails to so many orgs when I first started CP, and I didn’t receive a single response back. But it was only then, when I realized I needed to find a different method of approach and actually learn how to properly send cold emails and reach out via LinkedIn. Cold emailing is so important and it's crucial to understand how to send a cold email! That would’ve definitely helped me a lot more if I had known how to send one in the beginning.

What do you love about your work, both in leading and writing?

Ahh that’s a hard one! I love pretty much all of it. But I’d have to say that my favorite part is seeing how much of an impact people can have on others! I never would’ve thought CP or GZW would’ve helped so many people and grown so much. So that feeling of surprise and gratitude is really the best part, along with knowing that you can really make a difference in someone else’s life. For writing, I really love how I can be a completely different person on paper— I can express myself in ways that I could never in person, which is definitely my favorite part about being a writer.

In your own opinion (and especially during these times), why do you think it’s important for teens to use their voice to share their passions and values?

I definitely feel that the COVID-19 pandemic has really brought out and shed light on so many of the inequalities and injustices the world has been facing. With everything happening in our world right now— from the police brutality and racial profiling to political turmoil and the 2020 elections, to climate change and more— it’s vital for Gen Z to stick together and share what we care about. Because there are people who will listen, and we need to share our voices to empower the others who can’t. Gen Z is powerful! I can’t even begin to tell you how amazed I am that there are so many students making such an incredible impact in our word. I think it’s time we utilize that power and share our voices for the greater good.

Related to that, what are your tips for getting your voice out there and building a bigger base to share opinions?

Social media outreach is definitely a great way to put yourself out there! If you’re a writer, submit articles to platforms you can find on social media about topics that you care about, form networks with other like-minded teens, appear on podcasts to talk about social injustices, or even start your own organization about an issue that you care about! Whether it’s education reform, climate change activism, battling gender and racial inequalities, etc., there are so many organizations and platforms you can get involved in and make a difference in the causes you’re passionate about.

What are your goals for the future for yourself, College Pathways and GenZWrites?

In the future, I hope to go into the field of international relations, law, and/or business; (hopefully) attend law school, and eventually start my own business/law firm. I can see College Pathways as something that I will continue for a long time, because education will always be important to me, and in the coming years, I hope to expand CP to reach thousands of more students in several more countries. I definitely want to continue CP throughout college. I can also see GenZ Writes as a long-term project for me— something that I really want to continue throughout high school and (hopefully!) college. For GZW’s future, I hope to expand my team and reach students in several more countries, produce more content, host more virtual panels, and maybe even host in-person events? There’s so much I can do with both organizations, and I’m excited to see what’s in store!

What is your general advice to teens about life?

Don’t let people dismiss you because of your age! You may be young, but that doesn’t make your ideas any less valuable. And don’t get too caught up in things like social media likes and popularity! While they may seem important now and it’s totally normal to care about that, those things don’t matter in the long run. So don’t focus too much of your time and energy on that, when you could be focusing on something much more important!

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