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.
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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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