Following her graduation in 2010 it seemed like Iba Masood had the world at her feet. After receiving a top honours degree in finance from the UAE’s American University of Sharjah, the then 20-year-old interned at a string of multinationals including General Electric and McKinsey & Co before landing a role at the Dubai office of PR firm Dabo & Co.
Masood’s success in turning her academic achievements and real-life work experience into a promising career would have made her the envy of plenty of graduates in the region, many of whom struggle to land rewarding, paid work immediately after leaving university. But it was in this gulf between education and employment that Masood sensed an opportunity. In early 2011, she and her business partner Syed Ahmed came up with the concept of Gradberry, an online portal designed specifically with the aim of finding meaningful internships for university students. Since launching a year ago, the site now has more than 10,000 students registered, while its employment partners include technology giants Google and IBM. It has so far placed more than 100 graduates in high-profile employers.
Masood says she came up with the idea while interning herself. “A lot of the companies I interned at — McKinsey, General Electric and Dubai Islamic Bank — they would always say ‘find us graduates like you, talk to your friends and get them to intern’,” she tells Arabian Business. “It was a cognitive process that started then — the wheels just began turning.”
Masood says she began to see flaws in how regional companies were recruiting graduate talent, either as interns or first jobbers, and realised she could leverage her network of academic and professional contacts to bridge this gap.
“If an employer wanted to reach out to students and graduates, they would go out and blast maybe fifteen to 20 universities in the UAE, and they had to individually approach each of these universities,” she explains. “The whole process was very difficult, time consuming and tedious.”
Masood’s idea was that rather than doing this, employers could pay to post advertisements on Gradberry, which would then be pushed out to students and graduates via its website, social media channels and mobile devices. “The employers were having a tough time in terms of getting candidates immediately. That’s where we saw that gap. So employers posted opportunities on Gradberry and they started receiving applications immediately from all the top universities,” Masood adds.
Gradberry’s journey has been by no means all plain sailing however.
In summer 2011, before the site had even launched, Masood and her partner Syed Ahmed were offered seed funding and mentorship from a local accelerator programme based on the Gradberry concept alone. Excited by the prospect, Masood left her job in PR during the negotiations stage, before talks eventually broke down due to a disagreement over the equity stake that she and Ahmed would have to forfeit.
“I’d already given my one-month notice and at the point we decided not to go ahead with the accelerator, so that was a very scary time,” she recalls. It was then that Masood decided that if Gradberry was going to be anything like the success she had hoped, she would have to go it alone.
“Me and my co-founder literally took out $200 [from the bank]. He had $100 and I had $100,” she says. “We were sitting in one of the study rooms at our university and we were like ‘we’re just going to do this’.”
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With this limited capital Masood managed to buy the internet hosting space required to launch the site, as well as invest in some rudimentary methods with which to market it. “We learned as much as we possibly could about every single possible aspect of starting up something tech. We tried to implement really innovative marketing methods,” she explains. “We focused on virality and how do we capture students’ imaginations and make them excited about Gradberry.”
Two ways that Gradberry captured this “virality”, she says, were Twitter (which Masood admits she “knew nothing about” at the time) and Facebook. The latter was particularly fruitful for Gradberry, which before launching its own site had used Facebook as a means of posting internship opportunities in online student groups, which helped to create a buzz around the concept.
The site officially launched in November 2011 and saw its user base snowball within a matter of weeks via word of mouth and Masood’s DIY marketing campaigns on social networks. “Initially it was just friends and contacts — we had about 100 users who were all of our friends but then it just exploded from there,” she recalls. “All of a sudden we had universities not only in the UAE, but also in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all signing up for the site.”
Within a month and a half of launching, Masood says that the site had 2,000 students regularly logging-on to check for the latest internship opportunities and Gradberry had begun to generate revenue, which it derives from charging employers about $100 to post each job listing.
Twelve months down the line, Gradberry now boasts heavyweight companies including IBM, Google, Akzo Nobel and Edelman as some of the employers in which it has successfully placed candidates.
However, Masood says that most of Gradberry’s business today is coming from the small-to-medium enterprise (SME) market. “Over 90 percent of our customers have been start-ups and SMEs, because they have very, very low budgets in terms of hiring. They might not even have an HR department because they’re so small,” she explains. “You can see them scale using our talent. Rocket Internet hired over 30 interns through us.”
Since launching in 2011, Gradberry has racked up more than 10,000 registered users across not only the GCC, but from destinations as far-flung as Ireland, UK, France and Portugal, while its website has received over three million hits. Gradberry has also attracted seed level investment and funding from the United Nations.
Masood herself has garnered a number of industry accolades for her entrepreneurship, including Arabian Business’ own Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and Laureate 2012 for Middle East and North Africa at the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. But she has no plans to curtail her ambitious growth plans anytime soon.
She says that the Gradberry team is currently working on the second iteration of the site, which is due to launch early in 2013. Among its improvements are greater scalability, “which will be able to accommodate students and graduates from more universities and more location specific sites within Gradberry.com”, Masood explains. Examples are an Arabic language edition of Gradberry and specific micro-sites that target graduates in particular parts of the world.
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“We’re trying to go more global. We started out with the UAE, and we were expecting to only be in the Middle East, but now we’ve been posting job opportunities from Ireland, the UK and very, very diverse countries,” Masood says. “We’re even seeing candidates from locations like Portugal and France.”
She adds that Gradberry is looking to emulate the success of another prominent professional networking and recruitment platform, LinkedIn, which floated in New York in a $9bn IPO eighteen months ago.
“The goal is to become the LinkedIn for students and graduates. We want to become a social networking site specifically for people that are aged between sixteen and 23,” Masood explains. “LinkedIn has not been able to capitalise on that youth market.”
Masood says she is also eager for action on youth unemployment, which stands at around 26 percent across the region, at a government level. Recently, she has been pushing the idea of an ‘internship’ visa, which would give overseas students in the UAE an additional six months stay in the country in order to secure work. This, she says, would “make sure employers are less confused about the procedure for hiring interns”.
Gradberry is also working with universities to help students better understand what is required of them by employers once they complete their studies. Masood says that as things stand, many graduates struggle to grasp the basics of what is expected of them.
“Students and graduates [in the region] are lacking information. They don’t even know how to create a proper CV, but they are graduates from universities,” she says. “We receive more than 100 applications per day for all the job applications we post, and we actually go through all of these CVs to see how advanced students are and to see where the gaps are — and they’re huge.”
Masood says that Gradberry recently secured its first batch of seed funding, although declines to say how much or on what terms, and is currently looking to secure further capital investment. For her, the attention Gradberry is generating among employers, students and other entrepreneurs is the pay-off for the risk she took a year ago when she left her job to pursue the project with just $200.
“Entrepreneurship is up and down – sometimes you have the wins and sometimes you have the losses. Last month we closed our first seed funding round, but before that for an entire year we faced rejection every single day,” Masood says.
When asked if there was ever a point over the last twelve months where she considered giving up on the idea of Gradberry altogether, Masood is refreshingly frank. “This is something that is common for entrepreneurs — one day can be a win and one day can be a loss,” she believes. “You just need to average it all out.”
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