Welcome to the Information Age series on Diversity & Inclusion Champions. This week, we speak to Gerard Holland of international student community Outcome.life.

International students may be enrolling in Australian universities in ever-greater numbers –double-digit annual growth has seen more than 753,500 current enrolments this year – but how can they get a job after they graduate?

It’s a question that Australian universities and policymakers have not fully answered, says Gerard Holland, but one that he and business partner Domenic Saporito have been working to help answer with great success.

Their student community, called Outcome.life, was founded three years ago after Holland – a chartered accountant who obtained a Master’s degree in entrepreneurship and innovation in 2011 – completed a stint as an outsourced chief financial officer for an international education client.

“I got to see the industry from the outside looking in,” he told Information Age, “and I was pretty dissatisfied with how we treated international students in this country.”

Universities spend “a disproportionate amount of money” on recruiting top overseas students but those students are left to fend for themselves once their tuition funding is locked in, Holland said.

“International students are generally treated like a commodity, or a product,” he explained.

“The resources, money, and time spent on making sure those students are getting a ROI on their Australian education is negligible. But if students can’t get a career-related job after spending $100,000 on a degree, the ROI is zero – and they will stop coming.”

A place to call home

Holland and Saporito identified three key areas where the international students were struggling the most: lack of a local network to provide employment opportunities; companies’ expectation that graduates have work-relevant experience even before they graduate; and the inability of many students to find work with local businesses that too often seem to prefer local residents.

The pair set about to establish a community where international students could start building the networks, with potential employers and with each other, that would lead them to relevant and productive work – and the student community has responded enthusiastically.

A co-working space, called Outcome-Hub, was established in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton in early 2017 and has since seen 7500 international students come through the doors to attend 149 networking events.

“We have an open-door policy for international students to come hang out, work, and spend time,” Holland explained, noting that the facility was originally envisioned as an incubator for budding entrepreneurs who might begin creating their own opportunities after meeting like-minded students.

“What we want to achieve is just having people meet and have conversations,” he said. “It’s amazing what can happen out of those conversations.”

The response has been so far beyond original expectations – Holland said the original target was just 850 attendees – that the support of Victorian government start-up agency LaunchVic recently helped Outcome.life scale up its ambitions dramatically.

In September, Outcome.life was recognised with a TechDiversity Foundation TechDiversity Business Award, on the heels of its opening a new, permanent co-working space that fills a building in Melbourne’s Hardware Lane.

The firm now offers students 80 co-working desks and has ample room to grow in the future.

Fostering the entrepreneurial spirit

Entrepreneurship remains a core tenet of Outcome.life. Participating students are not only forming relationships with each other, but are increasingly gaining access to internships and other opportunities from industry partners that recognise the facility’s role as a hotbed of technical skills and entrepreneurial talent.

“A lot of international students have come from micro economies in places where their parents had their own businesses,” Holland said. “Their propensity to be entrepreneurs is even higher than that of domestic students, because they have grown up in that environment.”

The recent Dandolo Partners/LaunchVic Victorian Ecosystem Mapping Report identified over 2,700 start-ups and scale-ups in Victoria, with one in five of those focused on the healthcare market.

Some 28 percent of start-up founders are female, according to the report, with 2 percent identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Yet LaunchVic CEO Dr Kate Kornick said the community was also ripe for further efforts to improve diversity and to increase inclusion across underrepresented groups including regional Australians, LGBQTIA+ groups, and people living with a disability.

“Start-ups and high growth firms,” the report notes, “develop in ecosystems – which include, but are not limited to, networks of people, organisations, institutions, expertise and capital – that interact to create and grow new businesses.”

Apart from building a product and funding the company, surveyed start-ups said the biggest challenge they face is “recruiting quality talent”.

Melbourne – which, like Sydney, lags the start-up density of innovation hotspots like Boston, Seattle, Toronto, and Stockholm – is working hard to resolve this.

The city has nearly half of the country’s coworking spaces – leading LaunchVic to christen the city the “coworking space capital of Australia” – and meet-up groups have seen membership grow by 22 percent over the past 12 months.

And that’s where Outcome.life comes in. For Holland, the venture’s successes to date have confirmed the benefits that international students have in increasing the diversity of opinions and expertise within the start-up ecosystem.

Given that many of those students may seek to permanently migrate to Australia – keeping their businesses, hiring local staff, and opening up new export markets in their home countries in the process – Holland believes that more proactive and productive engagement will continue to deliver bottom-line benefits to Victoria and across the country.

The venture’s growing profile has helped strengthen collaboration with private-sector employers that are now much more open to looking at international students as a promising pool of skilled and eager talent.

“We realised that by helping international students do an unpaid internship as part of their degree, it gives them industry experience and local work experience,” Holland said, noting that Outcome.life has placed students into more than 2,000 internships over the past two years.

“Above all else, it puts them into an employment environment where their network grows exponentially – and with the right type of people. Once you open the door to them, their dedication and motivation and outcomes are amazing.”