For the first 15 years of her life, Zoya Miari lived in a refugee camp in Lebanon, sharing a room with the other six members of her family. It was a dangerous place to grow up: people were killed, both accidentally and intentionally, and child abuse and mental health problems were rife. Conflict was a daily reality for Zoya and many others.
“It wasn’t safe living there,” she says. “From a very young age, all I wanted was peace.” At night while her family slept, she would lay awake, gazing out of the single window in their room. “I remember it like yesterday. I would look out of that window at the stars and see hope.”
Now living in Switzerland, Zoya knows the realities of war and displacement better than most. Zoya and her family fled Lebanon in 2020 to make a fresh start in Ukraine, where her mother is from. But a year later, they found themselves once again displaced as war broke out.
By the time she arrived in Switzerland, aged 22, Zoya had already been a refugee twice in her life. But she refused to feel like a victim: “I had this inner need to do something. I couldn’t become a victim of war; I dreamt of being a peace ambassador.”
She applied to become a One Young World (OYW) Ambassador. “At the time, I didn’t comprehend the scale or scope of the organisation,” she says. It wasn’t until she was accepted that she realised the kind of community that she was now a part of: “What I found beautiful and striking when I first joined was the sense that I was surrounded by people who want to make the world a better place. Suddenly, it felt like I was no longer alone.”
“I remember it like yesterday. I would look out of that window at the stars and see hope.”Zoya Miari
Zoya had joined a global community for young leaders from across the world with the intention of empowering the next generation of leadership. The annual OYW Summit sees young leaders from every country gather in one place, alongside businesses, speakers, NGOs and government bodies. It is an immense synthesis of the most inspiring, the most driven and the most visionary individuals pooling resources to create change.
But, alongside the scale of the summit, one thing is clear: OYW itself is not creating these young leaders. Like Zoya, they are already out there. The summit is merely a catalyst to activate them.
Inspiring the individual
“One Young World came about because we wanted to take young people seriously,” says Ella Robertson McKay, OYW’s Managing Director. “We wanted to pave the way for responsible and effective ethical leadership – to inspire them, build their skills and elevate their profiles.”
At its core, OYW has a belief in the process of taking the power and impact of an individual and amplifying it through a community. By nurturing individuals and involving them within an international community of like-minded people, their impact can be compounded. The energy ricochets off the walls at the OYW summits; a tangible buzz of enthusiasm, emotion and support. Everyone is taken along on the journey – young ambassadors, corporate partners, political delegates. No one is a bystander and, above all, everyone is human.
“We often hide behind our achievements or job titles,” Zoya says. She spoke at the most recent summit, held in Belfast, on the Peace and Reconciliation Plenary Challenge. “But the only way that we truly, genuinely and deeply connect is through stories that share our vulnerabilities.”
Many of the young leaders attending OYW have a similar story to Zoya: one filled with adversity and difficulty. Instead of hiding the challenges they’ve faced, many of these young leaders have confronted them head on. No longer happy with the hand they have been dealt, this generation isn’t waiting for permission or instructions. They are changing the game on their own terms, in their own time – and they’re doing it as a united front.
Mohamed Mashharawi is another young leader doing exactly that. After growing up in Gaza and experiencing frequent power shortages, Mohamed and his sister Majd started a social enterprise that deploys renewable energy systems to powerless communities.
“Being part of the One Young World community is two-fold – the summits and the sessions are amazing, but it’s also about the sense of support and inspiration for the future. It’s an energy and mindset that lasts long after the event itself.”Mohamed Mashharawi
SunBox, founded in 2017, has brought over 600,000 watts of energy to 300 families in the last two years and has created 35 jobs in areas facing 70% unemployment rates. It is an impressive coalescence of harnessing the power of business to provide a solution to a pressing social need.
“Power outages aren’t just about the lights going out,” Mohamed explains. “They have a devastating impact on critical services like hospitals, water supplies and internet access.”
He joined OYW as an Ambassador in 2023 and talks about the impact that the community has had on his plans for scaling SunBox’s global reach: “Being part of the One Young World community is two-fold – the summits and the sessions are amazing, but it’s also about the sense of support and inspiration for the future. It’s an energy and mindset that lasts long after the event itself.”
Jessica Jones is Managing Director of OYW Switzerland – the first national board established as an offshoot of OYW’s global structure. Jessica points to its existence as evidence of the commitment to a truly global and community-based model: “It was set up as part of the long-term legacy to translate what is going on at a global scale through to a local level.”
At the core of OYW is the need for individuals who are personally committed to and connected to causes that matter. The roster of already-accomplished young leaders is made up of people unafraid to share their vulnerabilities, because they have recognised that by doing so they are able to tap into a higher level of motivation: their why.
But OYW’s summits are not just made up of young leaders. The value and importance of OYW’s global community also relies on the wealth of resources, experience and support supplied by the current generation of leadership. Business, it seems, is stepping up to invest in the leaders of tomorrow.
Investing in the future
Alongside her role as MD of OYW Switzerland, Jessica is also Sustainability Manager at the multinational equipment manufacturer Bühler Group. Shortly after joining Bühler, Jessica became involved in Generation B (standing for ‘be the change’) – an employee-driven movement to drive cultural change within Bühler from the bottom up.
“It was the first time in an organisation that I felt empowered to challenge things,” Jessica says. “You’re trying to shape the company you want to work for, so you have the opportunity to work on some really impactful projects and learn to lead teams and manage different stakeholders.”
Generation B is one way that Bühler is committing to support the activation of young leaders. Stefan Scheiber, CEO of Bühler, recalls the moment that he realised the necessity of becoming involved with OYW: “I’d just spoken at an event in Davos and Kate Robertson, the Co-founder of OYW, was speaking after me. At that point, I didn’t know what One Young World was or who Kate was. And as she spoke, she started addressing me directly in the audience: ‘You better do something’.”
“It was the first time in an organisation that I felt empowered to challenge things.”Jessica Jones
Later that day when leaving the event, Stefan sat in the car with Ian Roberts, Bühler’s Chief Technology Officer, in stunned silence. They looked at each other. “We’ve got to be part of this,” Stefan said. They sent a delegation from Bühler to the 2016 OYW Summit in Toronto and haven’t looked back since.
“There is an extremely compelling and instructive part of Kate Robertson; she is highly adept at guiding people to take action. And I’m so glad that we did – what came back from that first summit was so much better than we ever expected. And that’s why we’re still here today.”
Bühler now sends a large delegate of employees to each summit. Stefan explains that investing in the future generation is not just the right thing to do, but it also adds a wealth of value to the organisation itself: “After Toronto, I asked the attendees, ‘What now? What’s the return?’ I wanted to instil action after the summit, not just facilitate people participating. What does it mean for us as a business? How do we bring the learnings, insights and inspiration into our organisation? I actually demanded something from them – not just encouraged them to participate.”
“It’s clear that this generation of young leaders is not waiting around for direction, instruction or permission. But just as they are already taking action, it seems that business is already on board – and increasingly committed to spurring them on.”
Over time, Bühler developed a new muscle as a result – for example, the creation of Generation B. “We pride ourselves on programmes like that because they come from somewhere within your inner self, rather than just the next corporate project,” Stefan continues. “That has created a major difference within our company compared to other businesses. And it’s something that would not have been possible without OYW.”
And Bühler is not the only company clocking onto the powerhouse of benefits that OYW represents. Attending the 2023 Summit in Belfast were over 250 organisations, including Deloitte, Danone, Siemens, BMW, Standard Chartered, IKEA and Novartis, to name just a few. Business was showing up in a big way.
Insurance company Zurich is another organisation recognising the importance of joining the conversation. Mark Heasman is Head of Activism at the Z Zurich Foundation, a charitable organisation established by members of the Zurich Insurance Group. After meeting Kate Robertson, he too was immediately inspired to become involved with OYW.
“It’s the perfect platform to really scale the impact that we can create,” Mark says. “Kate told me about the impact these young leaders were already making at a grassroots level, and we wanted to find ways to use the resources at our disposal to open doors that they usually wouldn’t have access to in order to scale their impact up.”
“It’s about empowering people to talk about the things that are important and provide support and resources to the young leaders coming up with incredible solutions, because without that nothing changes.”Mark Heasman
Mark’s job title, though perhaps unusual in the corporate world, reflects a tangible commitment by the organisation to invest in real impact.
“Activism is a word that seemed to resonate with all of our supporters globally,” he continues. “Ultimately, we want to move people from passive into active support. We are really clear that it’s not about protesting or civil disobedience; it’s about empowering people to talk about the things that are important and provide support and resources to the young leaders coming up with incredible solutions. Because without that, nothing changes.”
As Mark points out, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship: a symbiotic balance of business and young leaders coming together to maximise the meaningful change that can be actioned.
“The big, inspirational figures that come to One Young World really inspire the young leaders,” Ella Robertson McKay says. “When you are able to nudge a young person’s trajectory in the right direction, the impact that can make over the course of a lifetime is extraordinary.”
It’s clear that this generation of young leaders is not waiting around for direction, instruction or permission. But just as they are already taking action, it seems that business is already on board – and increasingly committed to spurring them on.
Impact and action
The role of individual stories and business involvement is paramount to the success of the OYW community. It’s precisely the attention, support and encouragement of these unique and driven individuals that facilitates such influence on the global machine of change.
OYW has created a community of over 13,700 young leaders across over 190 countries leading their organisations, communities and countries to deliver impact to more than 41 million people around the world. For every $1 invested in OYW Ambassador initiatives, $16 of social value is generated. “Most investors would take a 16 to 1 return on investment,” Ella Robertson McKay points out.
And why young people?
“Back in 2010, before Malala had been shot and when Greta was only about four years old, young people weren’t in the public discourse when it came to global movements,” Ella says. But today, the world has reached a critical point of urgency.
“The big, inspirational figures that come to One Young World really inspire the young leaders. When you are able to nudge a young person’s trajectory in the right direction, the impact that can make over the course of a lifetime is extraordinary.”Ella Robertson McKay
“‘Young leaders’ has become a bit of a buzz-phrase,” she continues. “There is a growing awareness that young people are not going to sit back and watch, and that the current generation of leadership need to do all they can to support them.”
There is no room for wasting away years on a damaging course of action. The time for reaction and repair is over; the era of prevention and planning is here. Young people are no longer happy to watch the evolution of a world that they don’t want to live in – or, more crucially, can’t survive in.
Young leaders are also the best placed to find the solutions and generate change. “All of our research shows that youth-led development is the most effective type of development because young people are often working at the grassroots, while at the intersection of technology and innovation,” says Ella.
Programming and leadership school Codi, based in Beirut, was founded to support underprivileged youth in building a career in technology and was the winner of the OYW Lead2030 Challenge for Sustainable Development Goal 4 in collaboration with Deloitte. The award champions organisations providing opportunities to underrepresented and marginalised groups around the world through education.
“No longer happy with the hand they have been dealt, this generation aren’t waiting for permission or instructions. They are changing the game on their own terms, in their own time – and they’re doing it as a united front.”
“We are in the business of changing lives,” says Codi’s Founder and Managing Director Hortense Decaux. “We think of ourselves as somewhere in between a coding bootcamp and a leadership school. We provide the tools, education and skills for individuals to learn full-stack web development and pursue a career in technology.”
Codi’s involvement with OYW demonstrates the necessity of its community of young leaders: with access to a global pool of young people, Codi is able to amplify its impact on a much larger scale than before.
“It’s giving us a much more global audience – it’s elevating our project and showcasing it to young people that would not have come across us otherwise,” Hortense says. “I’m incredibly excited about the future opportunities that being part of this community can provide.”
Codi’s involvement is testament to the symbiotic relationship that OYW has created between young leaders, impactful organisations and large corporations. At the core of these intricate layers of collaboration remains the vital importance of human connection.
“When I first attended OYW, I heard young leaders talking not about their achievements or accolades, but about their adversities and how they planned to create something beautiful out of something tragic,” Zoya says. “I realised that there is so much power in the stories that we tell ourselves – by understanding that, we can all create true impact.
“Rather than telling myself I am just a refugee, I stand confidently and say that I am twice a refugee and I am proud of the person that it has shaped me to become. I no longer hide my past, because I now understand that our struggles do not define us: rather, it’s what we do afterwards that allows us to create meaningful impact and build something truly beautiful.”
Photography by One Young World 2023.
The interviews included in this piece were conducted between 24 August and 5 October 2023, prior to the start of the 2023 Israel-Hamas war.