SYNERGY: Better Education means Better Sharing

London, United KingdomChina
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
for profit
Project Stage:
$1,000 - $10,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

SYNERGY aims to revolutionise the way schools and students in the UK and China can connect educationally, to accelerate English learning in under-resourced Chinese schools, and Mandarin learning in the UK. We do this via repurposing used books, which are discussed on our online education platform.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

WHAT IF students in developed and developing worlds could instantly connect to talk about any book, and were able to share books with each other?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Hundreds of thousands of books that cannot be sold by charities and small businesses in the UK are sent to recycling companies to be pulped (and turned into toilet paper), rather than being used as an educational resource in developing countries. This is also at a time when there is a chronic shortage of good English-language resources in numerous schools around China, and a strong need to build cultural tolerance between our countries.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We seek to repurpose these waste books rather than recycling them, by redirecting them to under-resourced schools across China in order to fundamentally enhance English learning there. Students in the UK can also share their old books with us, and get back an international relationship. But our work does not end with the book shipments: we then facilitate peer-to-peer (and class-to-class) conversations between students in both the UK and China about the books they are both reading, through our unique online platform. We believe we may be the only social enterprise in the world to have created a 'facebook for education' at the same time as supporting the way students use this with actual, physical books.


Won a place on the EY Accelerate Program; Recipient of Chinese government sponsorship; Won two University-based grants.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

For charity workers, wasting quality books is demotivating: we re-inspire people in charities around London. By bringing in students from partnering schools to manage these waste books we also provide charity experience in a start-up atmosphere, with global impact. We call this line of our work ‘CREST’ (charity entrepreneurship for students). When the books get to China, schools are so delighted that some, like one Shandong partner, build small libraries for them. What makes a difference is this is where our work truly begins (often, this is where other projects end). Schools in both countries can join our online platform, to have peer-to-peer talks about the books. To maximise academic impact, we also offer a unique tutoring course.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Since 2013, we’ve processed 13,000 books from 7 charities, sending 10,000 to Chinese schools. In 2013-14, we shipped 2000 to schools in Xi’an and Shandong as a pilot, and in 2014-15, 8,000 to 10 new partnering schools. We work in 11 provinces with 22 Chinese schools, with 15 in the UK. These books totally rebuilt the capacity of our Chinese partners to help students’ English: we subsequently signed-up about 30,000 students to our online platform. So students get the most out of this, we also designed a tutoring course based on its use as a classroom tool, running this in Sichuan for 50 students. Most students improved one grade in English as a result. Recognising its impact, the Chinese government became a sponsor. Over the next 3 years, we expect to empower around 75,000 users in China and the UK to connect educationally through our platform, supported by real, complementary books.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

By 2020, we will have shipped >50,000 books that would otherwise become toilet paper, empowering countless students with better resources for English learning. As such, we will drive a major disruption in how second-hand books are managed, which will promote repurposing over recycling at a policy level. We aim to secure ~500 new partners in the next 5 years, in the UK spreading from London to Devon and Scotland; in China, with clients in every province, and government support in ~40% of these. By involving this number of schools, we will deeply re-integrate schools with community work.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Like a spaceshuttle, our model has 2 stages. Short term, we create revenue via our immersive tutoring course, for schools keen to add value to their use of our online platform (the booster-rocket phase). Secondly, we focus on scale (and ensuring scalability), through securing large numbers of school clients. Rather than charging students directly, once we achieve a critical mass of 50,000 users we’ll charge schools small subscription fees.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

A few projects ship books to China, some of which use waste stocks, such as Books Abroad (UK) and Bridge to Asia (US). Both operate at scale, as we aim to do. However, they also use a ‘transactional’ model: books are picked up, sent, deposited, and the process ends there. We see this as a mistake, believing it is key to ensure such books are used to maximum effect locally: we wrap education services around this with our online platform and tutoring course. As charities, these projects also rely on donors: we prefer to sustainably create profit from helping people as a social enterprise.

Founding Story

After my first year at university, I travelled to China to spend the summer trying to improve my Mandarin. I had been thinking for a while that I was keen to try and set up a scholarship at UCL for a disadvantaged Chinese student, due to the fact that poverty is still endemic in China, and after completing my course at Peking University I set up a series of meetings with the Chinese government in Sichuan province, and travelled there. I managed to successfully negotiate for 350,000 RMB to be provided, to fund a student to apply to UCL whose education had been disadvantaged by the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. From this, I realised a much larger project might be possible.


We have a remarkable, four-person team of directors who manage SYNERGY, comprising a China Schools’ Coordinator, a UK Schools’ Coordinator, a Head of our Online Platform development, and myself (CEO). In addition to this, we work with a wider 20-person team of volunteers, each of whom volunteers their own time to work with a particular division. Only the CEO currently works full-time, though each of the management dedicate a huge amount of personal time to our work, which they balance with phenomenally active lives. As a whole, the work done by the team is underwritten by a mutual commitment to changing the way education works, and how educational resources are shared. In the future, we would like to be able to offer either part-time or full-time employment contracts to many of these people; we would also aim to create new divisions for logistics and marketing, as these are currently overseen by the existing management team. Finally, we would also seek to hire-in some developers to assist with our platform work.
Please confirm how you heard about the Unilever Awards:


Please confirm your role in the initiative (eg Founder/co-Founder) and your organisational title:

Founder & CEO

Which of the 8 UN Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) pre-selected for this competition does your solution relate most closely to? [select all that apply]

No Poverty, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Responsible Consumption and Production.

Leadership and the Unilever Awards
Please provide examples of any previous entrepreneurial initiatives you have pioneered.

Following my initial work with the Chinese government in Sichuan, I began to wonder what a group of people could achieve with a similar commitment to making international relationships work. Returning to the UK, I founded IDEAS, a Society at my then-university (UCL) which stands for ‘the Society for International Development and Emerging economic Advance’: its core ethos is to think-tank and then launch large-scale, socially entrepreneurial businesses.
Through IDEAS, we have also launched projects in Myanmar and Nepal, the former focused on empowering local entrepreneurs, and the latter on improving disaster resiliency.
The vision of My/Go, the former project, is to fundamentally empower local and aspiring Burmese entrepreneurs to take advantage of the technological tools available to businesses in our digital era, through a tailored course of technology for business.
We have created a hub in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, which will provide Burmese start-ups with access to computers and online connectivity: this is called ‘HOME’ (the Hub of Modern Entrepreneurialism). We are currently seeking to equip the My/Go hub with refurbished computers. The unique feature we are building into this, however, is that each computer we send to Myanmar will come preloaded with a comprehensive 25-module course in entrepreneurialism and business skills, created by experts at University College London.
All Burmese entrepreneurs who join My/Go will take a customised route through this course, supported by a course consultant in the UK, depending on their own needs as a business person. Our purpose is not to teach entrepreneurs how to do business, but rather to provide a portfolio of computing tools for business purposes as part of this course, and to suggest ways in which these might be useful for a given entrepreneur. This gives a flavour of our work in Myanmar, which is now entering a unique historical moment.
In Nepal, we are developing a project seeking to help Nepalese institutions become more disaster-resilient, by better integrating the phenomenal expertise of individuals in the surrounding local communities into their reconstruction and operation, especially in environmentally-sensitive ways. We hope this will enable us to advocate to various international NGOs the value of streamlining aid finance into specific local institutions, thus helping to make existing aid flows into Nepal even more targeted.
Through our work in both countries, we have expanded our logistical expertise in South-East Asia, as well as deepening our understanding of how to approach and collaborate with local government; as a result, there have been numerous cross-pollinations between projects. The success of IDEAS as an entity has meant that I am also now engaged in the process of launching it formally as an NGO.

Beyond your existing team, who else are you working with to achieve your objectives, eg partners, advisors, mentors?

- Members of the British & Chinese business communities
- Personal mentor at Ernst & Young
- Chinese government