The PIE: What was the idea behind Interstride?
Nitin Agrawal: My co-founder and I were international students in the US, so I came in as an undergraduate student through F-1 visa status, and then I went back to grad school, again on an F-1 visa. Unfortunately, when I graduated from Berkeley, I had trouble securing the H-1B visa, so I had to leave the country mainly because of visa issues. It was very clear that there wasn’t adequate support provided by the institution to better educate students to secure this visa. I was trying to find jobs at start-ups, but they had no way of sponsoring, so I used my personal knowledge and found a job with a Norwegian investment fund – then I was able to relocate to the US after a couple of years of employment abroad. But essentially I wasn’t informed or educated on that. I had to find out all by myself.
“The majority of the students, they take on a lot of loans or extend family savings to secure a place”
Taking a step back, if you think about any student that comes to the UK, US or Australia, part of the reason is to pursue the dream of living and working in that country because of access to employment opportunities. So when you have so many challenges as a student and if you have to leave the country upon graduation, it’s a pretty difficult situation. The majority of students take on a lot of loans or extend family savings to secure a place. And for us, it was very clear from the admissions side, there were so many players trying to support the universities in attracting international students. But if you look at the employment side or speak of helping students who are going through the next stage, it is absolutely not the same. It’s because of this difficulty working with visa regulations or working with universities after graduation that Interstride exists.
The PIE: So you officially started in 2018. How has it gone for you? You’ve had two years in a pandemic and two years out.
NA: 2019 was a pretty good year. We signed our first early partners from an institution standpoint. That was clear validation that universities needed support and this wasn’t something that we were just imagining. But with Covid, the virtual environment, and students not being able to travel, the remote support was that much more important. There were two opposing forces. One was budgets were cut – so universities and institutions were not able to sign up to new services that easily because they had to justify it.
But on the other hand, because of the virtual environment and not being able to meet face to face with students and especially international students, there was even more need for a platform like this. And so many institutions had the budget. So we signed up at least 30-40 universities in any given year, and in the last two years, during Covid we had 100 new subscriptions.
The PIE: What is the breadth of services that Interstride provides?
NA: The whole experience is set up as a partnership with an institution. More importantly, it’s a modern platform which provides everything. Students can look at jobs in more than 80 countries, so whether you’re looking at jobs back home or in the US, you can find them here. If you’re looking at jobs in the US especially, you can find top employers. We find jobs with companies that have a historic record of hiring international students and provide different filters that are useful. They can also identify the most international student-friendly employers who are actively hiring.
International students are global by nature. Just because they’re in the US or UK doesn’t mean they’re only looking for jobs in those countries. So I might be from China, and I’m willing to either go to jobs in Europe or Hong Kong. We also provide alumni networks within that country on the platform – so students can connect to other alumni that have gone through this journey before, so we’re not reinventing the wheel every year. We also share travel and health advisories. But the goal is to create communities for those particular students.
“We have all the different resources students need during this journey – this is your readiness tool”
We also offer webinars and resources to students on different topics like immigration advice, financial advice, anxiety reduction – all the different resources that students need during this journey. This is your readiness tool. As an international student, sometimes it’s difficult to understand what it takes to be career ready, so we break down a candidate’s profile into pockets to give them a better understanding. We even provide tips for negotiating things like salary, which a lot of international students may be unaware they can do – of course, salaries are not always set in stone. Sometimes employers can under compensate international students because they know that they’re under visa or immigration pressure and they can be on the lower range if needed. Overall, it’s not just a static solution, but more of a software integration that is going to get into student services across the board.
The PIE: On Interstride’s report on whether studying in the US is worth it – what’s some of your takeaways?
NA: It’s not all doom and gloom for US education. A lot of headlines you see are of enrolment rates falling, [but] it’s very clear that students [still] want to pursue higher education in the US because of the reputation and rankings of the universities, but we cannot take it for granted that this will last forever.
When asked about the ROI of the education, students clearly stated that there might be something missing. And if you think about it, when you’re 17-18 years old, deciding to pursue education, yes, the rankings and all of this might seem glamorous and very nice, but once you graduate and don’t have a job opportunity on the back end, that’s when you start questioning the real value.
“It’s clear students want to pursue higher ed in the US because of the reputation”
There’s still the students who are really enjoying the experience, and there’s lot of value that the universities add to a student’s life and education journey. But when it comes to the overall value, that employment support is very important and that is why we started this company.
When I graduated from Berkeley and if I didn’t have a job – I might think, what’s the point of getting on a top-tier program? So there’s still work to be done. Whether it’s in the UK, US… it’s whether the country that is able to provide the fullest education.
It doesn’t necessarily mean they stay in the country – it could be, you know, connecting with employers back home. But how do you make sure that that journey is smooth for the student? Canada is winning at that for now, from an immigration standpoint. So again, as a student, you want the flexibility if you’re paying so much to pursue education – you also want that service post-graduation.
The PIE: What are your plans regarding expansion?
NA: We would like to extend to the UK, Canada and Australia in due time, but first want to make sure that the script is clear for the US student. We are trying to push into the employer ecosystem, working with some large employers to join hands saying, ‘we will hire international students, we will be a partner in this’.
By [having] employers join the system, we’re doing two things. One, it’s clear that you’re supporting the higher education system in the country – and because that’s what needs to be educated towards employers, if they are not part of this ecosystem, then everything is a sham. Without the career services and contracts, there are no jobs, and vice versa for these students. Two, a lot hinges on bringing these employers directly to the doorstep of students and saying, ‘look, we will hire you once you graduate’, so students don’t feel demotivated and feel like they almost have to defend themselves. We are trying to build that bridge.
Once we have that network, then it’s super appealing to UK institutions because it’s an even worse situation there. And then the pivot happens from international students to a global job search platform and so on. We’ll expand geographically at the right time, but the next step for us is to make sure we bring employers into this.