On International Women’s Day 2022, Alison Jenkins launched Gradstar Global Education – a full service international student recruitment and partnerships operation in India. One year on, Jenkins tells The PIE why she has no regrets about swapping the security of university leadership roles for her own start-up.
Originally from Melbourne, Jenkins now splits her time between Australia and India. Previously, she held senior positions in international strategy, recruitment, external relations, marketing and admissions functions at three Go8 universities in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Being at home during the pandemic, unable to travel, was the catalyst for Jenkins launching the business, and simultaneously become part of the ‘Great Resignation’, she tells The PIE.
“Midway through 2021, I’d never been home so much, I couldn’t travel, I couldn’t leave the country. I’d never not travelled that much since high school so I was literally grounded and had a lot of time to think,” she says.
“Every day at work we were in crisis mode strategising about international students – what are we going to do without them? How are we going to teach them online? How will they return?
“I wanted to do something bigger on a much more global scale, which I’ve never actually had the time to stop and think about before.”
Another reason Jenkins was inspired to go out on her own was that often, as an international director, she would only see students in their time of need, when they’d come to her office after being given bad advice somewhere along the way, or were homesick.
“Those sorts of things drove me to think what if they got much, much better support and advice in their home countries?
“It knew it was now or never”
“It knew it was now or never. And I haven’t looked back.”
India was, and is, a second home for Jenkins, having visited the country for the first time over 20 years ago as a young recruiter and returning multiple times each year since, there was a natural affinity to the market.
And so, Gradstar was born. Jenkins describes it as a “co-design experience” where counsellors, or ‘Dream Makers’, collaborate with students in the early stages to personalise their future.
Jenkins was concerned that often students were being forced into “quick-sells”, and notes that in Gradstar, there are no algorithms.
“It’s really highly personalised,” she explains.
Now with two offices – one in Delhi and one in Mumbai – and over 20 staff, it’s been an exciting inaugural year for the business and since launching, has seen over 200+ applicants apply to over 450+ universities.
“It probably doesn’t sound like a lot in India, but because of our high-touch approach, we do spend a lot more time with each individual student and have a high conversion rate.”
But it’s not just student recruitment. Gradstar also works with high schools and colleges to build partnerships with universities, setting up articulation agreements, pathway programs and generally acting as a “facilitator of partnerships”, says Jenkins.
Jenkins describes the Indian market as “super exciting”, partly to do with it having the largest youth population in the world.
“It’s really limitless what you can do in that market and you really have to be very selective in your approach to make an impact in a way that creates value,” she says.
Jenkins notes that although the market is saturated, she is confident she can use her university background to be the point of difference, providing a trusted premium product and service to students and partners.
Throughout her career, Jenkins was conscious of the ‘brain-drain’ the sector was contributing to, by taking the smartest and brightest citizens out of a country, often for them not to return.
“You really have to be very selective in your approach to make an impact in a way that creates value”
“It was weighing heavy on me that I wasn’t giving back. I decided that Gradstar would be a profit-for-purpose business.
“There’s so much difference that you can make in the education space in India. A percentage of the profits is going into education development projects in rural and regional India.”
This is not without its own challenges, says Jenkins, who worries about displacing money due to corruption, and the lengthy bureaucracy and red tape that would come with setting up a foundation in India.
Finally, she has settled on partnering with established NGOs, providing them with project-based grants for which they will report their findings.
Jenkins is joining a PIE webinar on International Women’s Day on March 8.
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