I’ve always believed that everyone is born with passion, talent, and untapped potential. I was one of the lucky ones who was able to follow my passion, discover my talents, and benefit from education—and my gender was never a factor.

But not every young girl has the same opportunities, and the pandemic has set back their chances even further. Even after decades of progress, some women and girls—an estimated 11 million of them—may not return to school this year.

At the Yidan Prize Foundation, our mission is to create a better world through education. We aim to reach the most marginalized learners and improve their access to quality education by awarding our annual prizes to changemakers with the brightest ideas—and helping them scale up their incredible work.

Historically, men have been much more likely to access education and leadership opportunities—so the laureate lists of well-known prizes are seriously skewed in their favor. Since the launch of the Yidan Prize in 2016, we’ve given women stronger and fairer representation. Of the eleven laureates selected by our independent judging committee, six are women. They’re from India, Colombia, Zimbabwe, the US, and the UK—though their reach extends far beyond where they’re based.

This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating what makes our laureates into leaders

They share a fundamental belief in themselves, and in others—as well as inspiring those around them to reach further and leap higher. Here are just three of the powerful qualities I’ve observed that help them drive their work.

1. They’re committed to a clear goal

Goals help us move forward. They give us a roadmap to follow, and motivate us to develop strategies to shape a world we truly want to live in.

Take Lucy Lake and Angeline Murimirwa, CEO and Executive Director—Africa of CAMFED (the Campaign for Female Education). Their focus on helping women across sub-Saharan Africa “turn the tide of poverty” and define their own futures has led them to devise powerful strategies to get—and keep—millions of girls in school across Zimbabwe, Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia.

One approach is Learner Guides: former CAMFED scholarship students who return to local schools as mentors and role models. Having experienced educational barriers first-hand, they’re quick to spot girls who might be struggling with family pressures or learning challenges, and support them to stay in school. Of course, Learner Guides also need a network—which is why CAMFED is using its Yidan Prize funds to build them a digital hub for resources, peer-to-peer networking, online reviews, and reporting.

United by their shared mission, these young women have grown into a movement: the 200,000 member-strong CAMFED Association. It’s a community that helps girls transition to independent livelihoods, and lead on the big challenges in their societies—from child marriage to climate change.

2. They dig deep, getting to the root of the issues to find solutions

To set a goal—and solve a problem—you need to understand the issue inside-out.

Like CAMFED, Dr Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham Education Foundation, works towards a clear mission: “Every child in school and learning well”. Rukmini and her team set out to find out not just whether children in rural India were going to school, but how well they were learning. Their pioneering Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) still surveys 600,000 families in 100 days every year. Through it, they learned that many children were in school but couldn’t read, write, or do arithmetic to their grade level. In fact, by grade three, nearly 70% were falling behind. And if they got further into primary education without catching up on those foundational skills, they rarely picked them up later.

So Pratham asked: what if children were not grouped by grade, but by learning needs? The team developed the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach, making it totally child-centered. Teachers work with children in groups and individually based on learning levels, not age or grade, to focus on the basics. This approach has proven to be effective and efficient at helping children acquire basic reading and arithmetic at a low cost.

Rukmini and Pratham’s work shows us that only once we’ve gathered data, identified root causes, and fully understood the issues, can we set those all-important goals.

3. They have a growth mindset—and the ability to inspire.

There’s no ‘one path’ that works for everyone. The key is to be willing to learn, embrace a challenge, work hard, and persevere in the face of failures.

These are qualities Professor Usha Goswami shows in spades. She’s the founder and director of the world’s first Centre for Neuroscience in Education, and Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. Her research uses cutting-edge imaging technology to help us understand how language learning develops from our very earliest days. It is estimated that 7% of children in the world—over 15 million of them—are affected by developmental language disorder, and Usha’s work could potentially improve life and learning for all of them.

Usha originally trained as a primary school teacher and a child psychologist. She was a graduate student when she heard Professor Carol S. Dweck discuss how important it is “not just to do things that are safe to show you’re clever, but to be willing to learn”. Inspired by Carol’s research into growth mindset, Usha stepped out of her comfort zone, and pursued her interest in the physics of psychoacoustics and neuroscience. Both of them became our laureates, and are continuing to break new ground in their fields—inspiring the next generation of researchers coming up behind them.

We’re proud to champion these visionary women, and hope more girls will follow their lead

They show us how being committed, clear-headed, and open to challenge changes lives—and opens doors for other women. Through project funding and networking, we’re very honored to work closely with them to expand work that creates a better world through education.

Read the article here.