What is Zero Gravity? – helping dental students from low-income families

Zero Gravity helps low-income students in the UK secure places at top universities. We hear from its founder, Joe Seddon, and Umair Afzal, a fifth year dental student at Leeds Dental School, about what the organisation stands for and how it is making a difference in dentistry.

Zero Gravity helps UK students from low-income families secure places at top universities. We hear from its founder, Joe Seddon, and Umair Afzal, a fifth year dental student at Leeds Dental School, about what the organisation stands for and how it is making a difference in dentistry.

What is Zero Gravity?

Umair Afzal (UA): Zero Gravity is the UK’s first ever tech-driven business solution to social mobility. It helps talented low-income students secure places in top universities, through free access to their tech platform which provides mentoring, masterclasses and a community of students like them. In partnership with top employers such as HSBC and KPMG, it also propels low income university students into high-flying careers.

Zero Gravity was founded by Joe Seddon in 2018, when he was then aged 21, with the last £200 of his student loan in his childhood bedroom. Growing up in a low-income, single-parent family in Morley, West Yorkshire, and attending state schools, Joe was one of the only students in his area to achieve a place at Oxford University.

He experienced firsthand just how high the barriers are for low-opportunity students like him to access elite institutions, such as Oxbridge, and wanted to help future generations overcome these barriers.

Zero Gravity has already supported over 8,000 low-income students into top universities and now hundreds into elite careers. Zero Gravity powers the UK’s largest independent scholarship fund through the Zero Gravity Fund, providing hundreds of the UK’s highest-performing university students from low-opportunity areas with £3,000 scholarships. This funding accelerates their academic and career journeys, helping them land the future they didn’t think possible.

Please tell us a little bit about your involvement with Zero Gravity

UA: Whilst preparing to enter my presidency for the Leeds Dental Society in 2021-22, I received a message via Linkedin from the Zero Gravity team asking if I would like to promote their mission. As a result, I shared the opportunity to be a mentor on my own Instagram page and via the Leeds Dental Society.

I signed up and started my journey as a Zero Gravity mentor. After applying, the platform’s algorithm matched me with talented, low-opportunity school students who wanted to study a dental career. They all wished to apply to the same university I was at or had come from a similar background.

I matched with my first-ever mentee, Thivya, and helped direct her university application and professional development. Together, we reviewed her personal statement every few weeks for an hour or so.

I also provided advice for admissions tests and access schemes. I initially took for granted how our regular meetings had become a lifeline for her future, especially as I was a busy dental student with commitments outside of University. Similarly, I answered her other questions about my dental course and student life. Our efforts from 2021-22 meant Thivya got in, and she will be starting her second year at Leeds this September. Eventually, she will become the dentist she has always dreamt of.

Beyond mentoring, I became an ambassador and active member of their online community to support applicants. In September 2022, Zero Gravity invited me to visit their HQ in London. Whilst there, I saw how all the ambassadors who attended were amazed by the team’s enthusiasm for their roles.

I particularly resonated with the similarities I had with Joe Seddon. Like me, he was from a single-parent, working-class family in a small town in Yorkshire with a low university progression rate. I was honestly so glad to have found a group of people who shared the same passion as I have.

How did you end up appearing on BBC Look North?

UA: BBC Look North had previously spoken to Zero Gravity’s founder, Joe, several years ago when the business was founded in Yorkshire and in its infancy.

Following Zero Gravity’s rapid growth in recent years, BBC Look North was keen to hear more about Zero Gravity and the students from Yorkshire involved in the tech platform today. As such, BBC Look North worked with Zero Gravity to share a segment on their daily news programme in the run-up to A-level results day.

This featured an interview with myself, Joe Seddon and Grace Brooks. Joe is the platform’s founder, and Grace was an A-level student from Doncaster who was mentored on the platform. Grace found out on results day that she had achieved her place to study at Durham University.

Whilst on air, I spoke about the importance of breaking down barriers to access dental careers, as well as the work I have been doing with Zero Gravity as a mentor and ambassador.

How can Zero Gravity help those interested in dentistry?

UA: The recent NHS long-term workforce plan describes how employers can utilise social mobility platforms like Zero Gravity. Some of the most exceptional dental students already come from working-class backgrounds. However, most of the industry continues to lose out on the best talent simply because they don’t know how to reach it.

This workforce plan explains how employers and universities can ‘add social value, benefit communities and reduce inequalities’ through social mobility. Students from socially mobile backgrounds like myself can improve patient care within their communities whilst enjoying fulfilling career paths and using their full scope of practice.

Diversity within the dental industry is magical. To place NHS Dentistry on a more sustainable footing for years to come, employers and universities alike need to consider how they recruit students into our profession in greater detail. I can see how Zero Gravity helps recruit talent from every part of the country despite inequalities in opportunity for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Lacking insight into the application process made it difficult for me to apply as the first in my family to join a dental career. Nevertheless, now that I have overcome these barriers, I want to be the role model I never had.

Whilst politicians debate the format of a viable NHS dental service, Zero Gravity actively uses student mentoring to recruit the best talent. They help working-class families up the social mobility ladder.

As a result, they are transforming patient care for the better, alleviating the lengthy waiting lists in communities with a reduced socio-economic status, and bringing fresh perspectives to the forefront of the dental collective to make a difference.

Reaching potential

‘I set up Zero Gravity because I saw first-hand just how big the barriers can be for ambitious young people from low opportunity backgrounds who want to reach their potential,’ said Joe Seddon, CEO and founder of Zero Gravity.

‘Talent is spread evenly, but opportunity is not. The vision for Zero Gravity is to change that by making opportunity match talent. We’ve got big plans to continue expanding Zero Gravity, which has scaled up massively from a bedroom startup to now being a team of 25 based in London.

‘So far we’ve supported more than 8,000 students into top UK universities, with more than 800 securing places at Oxbridge, and this year we’re on track to support a further 10,000 students.

‘We’re expanding our offering to support UK students applying to US universities too, and are also growing our support network and opportunities available to help our talented university students then get into their dream careers.

We’ll be doing this by giving university students access to a career mentor currently working in their chosen industry, which will allow them to learn more about their industry and build the confidence they need to access it. Our university members will also have access to matches of relevant job opportunities, as well as masterclasses to help them stand out as excellent candidates.’

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