Thought Leadership: Elaine Starkey​

Local vision, global impact: GSP's EdTech journey through innovation, perseverance and drive​

Looking back, I never would have imagined that this NSW start-up company I’ve been leading so passionately would have found its roots from a visit to Kathmandu, Nepal in 2015. Drawing on my well-established relationships with universities and Austrade from my International Student Guide business, I organised an event with a handful of universities for proof of concept. We set out with a sincere desire to improve the limited systems that were in place and then to streamline processes for all the stakeholders involved to provide better services. Our idea for digital disruption in the international education sector grew from there. With the spheres of international education and EdTech continuously changing, there could have been a million ways for Global Study Partners to evolve.

Building shared solutions

In Australia until now, 83% of students come overseas through an intermediary such as an education agent. In Kathmandu, I was surprised to find more than 1,000 education agents on one street alone. However, most of them had very few and limited agreements if any, with Australian colleges and universities to be able to recruit students. Because of this, the students were experiencing poor outcomes when determining which institutions and courses would align best with their goals. I realised early on that their existing marketplace was lacking in structure and transparency or choice. It was rife for disruption.

I knew that introducing technology into their systems and processes would bolster the services agents were providing and we determined right then to build a platform that would give intermediaries unparalleled access to core stock, universities, and technology. We set out to ensure that agents give students a seamless journey from application up to enrolment and much more. We wanted to build solutions that were more collaborative, integrated, and comprehensive.

GSP was created and designed to be a shared business model, offered without cost, where we focus our technology to create competitive advantages for our recruitment and institutional partners.

I felt instinctively that adopting a model which empowered the channel rather than competing with it would allow us as well as our stakeholders to grow our businesses and we did. It has worked out beautifully this way!  This has been our trademark since day one. Our commitment to our vision enabled scope and scale, with more and more partners have been coming on board with GSP because they, too, are committed to improving their services to give students better outcomes.

Walking the walk

We started small with a few partners and built the business together with them, while also working hard to be worthy of gaining their trust. Creating GSP and entering into the world of EdTech was no walk in the park. It was quite challenging. At the outset, getting acceptance and buy-in from universities and recruitment partners seemed like a mammoth task on its own. We were new disruptors in the field and needed to show and prove that what we were offering was legitimate and invaluable. There was no shortcut. We dedicated untold amounts of hours to sharing our vision; determined to build effective partnerships based on trust in the long term. We chose to position GSP as a B2B marketplace committed to delivering better student outcomes that brought transparency, and this was at the core of what we were doing. We didn’t just talk the talk; we walked the walk and ultimately proved our capability to deliver quality and efficiency.

GSP evolved slightly differently from our original blueprint. Walking the walk meant acting on our vision to create a level playing field for students around the world so they can access correct and valuable information, as they deserve to do.  In the early stages, we envisaged a B2C business with a lot of technology for students to access directly, with a hands-off approach. We wanted to offer students reliable technology that would streamline their decision-making process. But direct human interaction and trust, such as that of recruitment agents, proved indispensable in providing guidance and advice to students during this pivotal time in their lives. So we insisted on forging deep and longstanding partnerships through active engagement – focused firstly on a high-touch approach and blended with a high-tech solution. Though our sign-ups were online, I spent countless hours in-country hours dedicated to meeting every single one of our partners and listening to understand first-hand their challenges.

As we built out technology solutions for our institution and recruitment partners, we were very aware and mindful of managing risks and conflicting demands across partners. GSP was instrumental at exactly the right time in creating a space to help guide and lead a new innovative and much-needed narrative for our industry as a whole first in Australia and then globally. Now, we are a unique, hands-on, high-touch B2B business with technology that complements it. We understand that relationships and trust are the cornerstones of our success.

If I can give one critical piece of advice to budding entrepreneurs, it’s that having the ability to listen, adapt, and change when called to is a necessity when building a startup that’s meant to serve. While staying committed to the goals you set out to achieve, you have to keep an open mind and be able to pivot depending on the ever-changing needs of your stakeholders. And at the end of the day, if you believe in what you do, you can overcome every obstacle in your path.

Navigating modern challenges

The largest challenge we encountered at GSP, as well as the rest of the world, was the COVID-19 pandemic. We had just reached this stage with the business where we had investments, and great acceptance and buy-in when the pandemic hit. We were sending students to Australia, the UK, the US, Canada; and other multiple destinations from 22 source markets. COVID meant that every single one of those destination and source markets closed.

This was a major setback that threw us completely off track. We reflected on how we would situate ourselves to still be in the strongest possible position coming out from this. That was difficult. No one in the world knew the time frame for the pandemic. I rallied the team all together to combine whatever strength we could contribute to each other. We introduced daily stand-ups and stand-downs, and we gave each other support and understanding. It took deep leadership, self-resolve and an unwavering belief in my team to stand together and strong through our shared ordeal. GSP management is committed to building deeper and stronger relationships with our partners and upskilling our teams to become experts on our institution partners on the courses and in parallel continue to onboard and train new recruitment partners. We also released our GSP 2.0 platform.

In those two years, we achieved more growth in partnerships and technology than we had ever done in the previous five years; we tripled our partnerships and grew our markets throughout COVID. We also mustered a ‘can do’ attitude and jumped in headfirst to lead our university and recruitment partners into the digital marketing space to which we were already accustomed – truly a pivotal moment in our history. The perseverance and unity we cultivated during those trying times definitely propelled us to where we are today. By the time we were coming out of the pandemic, we had developed a strong presence and were well-positioned as a leading Australia-based global education technology company. We created a company that was now investable and started to attract interest from large institutions and private equity firms.

Merging passions with India’s leading EdTech unicorn

GSP successfully closed a significant investment round of funding from upGrad in 2022. upGrad is Asia’s largest EdTech player, with a strong focus on lifelong learning and upskilling targeting anyone from 16 to 66. They shared the GSP values of making sure that education is more accessible and affordable to many more learners. They sought out GSP to obtain a B2B platform catering to students who want to study overseas, so this was where GSP complemented their offering. I found that upGrad very much shared our vision of creating a level playing field and democratising education, which I believe is the key to our harmonious and fruitful collaboration so far.

With upGrad’s backing, we have enhanced our capabilities, and are exploring avenues to grow and internationalise. As part of One upGrad, we now have the opportunity, the means, the maturity,   and the courage to make a once-in-a-lifetime impact on so many. As an established B2B marketplace, we are excited about building future development of our new venture upGrad Connect, and our study tours businesses. These exciting new chapters ahead will ensure that this better and enhanced study experience will be a life-long one, supported by a truly global integrated, connected, and deeply caring international student community. Undeniably, surrounding yourself with the right partners and collaborators is a key factor to succeeding in building a business, and I don’t think we could have chosen a better company than upGrad.

Onward with perseverance

Looking back at how far we have come and how much we have achieved in establishing this unique marketplace, I am also mindful of the many small failures along the way. We become better, smarter, and stronger people with more insights and inbuilt resilience as a team.

Failures were also part of the fabric of my journey with GSP. We got it wrong; we rebuilt; we got it wrong again. There was a time when we couldn’t raise any capital, and we struggled to keep the doors open and retain the team.

Thankfully, we persevered, and here we are today a part of history in the making and becoming an integral part of the world’s leading lifelong learning company upGrad. I am truly grateful every day for being allowed to be part of this life-changing journey.

How? Stick to your core principles, care for your people, and surround yourself with partners that share your values and goals, success will come. Focus on the best learner outcomes and always do the right thing along the journey, and everything will work out in the end.

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