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Leadership

Forage’s Pasha Rayan on why founders don’t have to be the best – just the best they can be

- November 22, 2023 6 MIN READ
Pasha Rayan
Pasha Rayan addresses the UNSW Founders Gala Dinner
About seven years ago, I stood at an art gallery in Sydney in front of a crowd not dissimilar to this one  and pitched our startup as part of the first batch of the UNSW Founder 10x program.

On that demo day, we did not come across as the best startup, we did not get picked as a startup with any potential, and there were definitely no investors lining up to put money into this platform running job simulations for university students.

I am pleased to report that seven years on, we still don’t come across as the best startup, we still never get picked for being the most exciting one, but now, enterprises and investors do line up to put money into that same platform that runs job simulations for university students.

I do remain slightly modest. One of the pieces of advice I tell Australian founders when heading to the US is not to be afraid of showing your wins – it seems to be the only language Americans understand.

So allow me to do my 30 seconds of American-esque puffery to ground the rest of what I want to talk about:

At Forage, we run job simulations by big corporates on our website for university students to upskill for work.

We have over 3.5 million students on our site, over 200 of the worlds biggest companies ranging from JP Morgan, BCG, Pfizer, and Lululemon run job simulations with us, and we’ve raised from top investors like Y Combinator, Blackbird, Lightspeed and this most prestigious source of funds called UNSW – revenue we would only have dreamed of seven years ago, and we have offices here, in London, New York, and San Francisco. 

Some of the world’s biggest banks, top law firms, and most notable retailers have over 30% of their student hires coming from us. Their hires from Forage are more diverse and come from tougher socio-economic backgrounds but, because of our programs. They come more prepared for the real world of work.

We’ve been going long enough now to see some of these students become successful managers in these companies or even startup founders who themselves have raised millions.

We’ve created unique technology, process and culture innovations that allow us to revamp what good education and recruitment can even look like.

And at Forage today, we know that we are less than one per cent of the impact we know we can have.

In other places, to many founders, I’ve talked about what we’ve done in those seven years to make Forage work. But today, I feel like it’s worthwhile talking about the common thing between us at Forage, UNSW and UNSW Founders.

Community creates success

Today, I’d like to talk to you about creating communities that help create more success. 

This theme of creating communities that help create more success is one of the things for me that threads UNSW, the Founders program and Forage together – this thread that we all exist to help the next generation of people achieve exponentially more than before. 

It’s little known, but one of the things I studied here at UNSW was philosophy (on top of business and some computer science) – and I figured I should finally try to get some value out of that major by using some of those skills to write this speech.

I hope that by talking about this topic, we can retain, expand and improve on the wonderful ecosystem we have here at UNSW in a similar way to how we relentlessly create an ecosystem of success for students, universities and corporations around the world at Forage.

So what enables, causes or creates communities that help create more success?

I posit to you three things are required:

One: a disposition to care and improve things.

Two: The will towards tangible results in the real world.

And Three: The necessary conclusion of the earlier two things: innovation.

A disposition to care and improve things

So what does that look like? Let me start with the conclusion: a disposition to care and improve things looks like Josh Flannery and his hearty smile helping an awkward student pitch for the first time in the Peter Farrell Cup while he musters up the courage to get a sliver of budget for this new fancy thing called startups from a deputy-chancellor.

Pasha Rayan

Pasha Rayan

It’s Elizabeth Eastland, with her infinite wisdom, telling a generation of new founders that they, too, can change the world.

It’s Jennifer Zanich’s cackle as she shares tactics and experience on how to turn things around.

It’s Phil Doran’s infinite enthusiasm for the next project to make everything better for founders.

It’s David Burt pitching new frontiers for what startups could be in Australia.

In common to all of the people before was this attitude that who they were and what they did was more than a simple job. They really cared for the students and founders they worked with – and they showed that with their hours of thoughtfulness. They all thought our ideas and startups could be better.

I might be biased – but it’s a testament to UNSW that they have the only university accelerator in Australia that actually works.

This isn’t normal, by the way.

Many corporate accelerators fail. Many people believe they fail because of the ‘corporate’ element of those accelerators – but in fact, I’d argue it’s not that.

It’s because many of the people running these programs can’t envisage a world where things grow more than 3% year on year and treat projects in life with the same apathy as replying to an email. To fix many corporate accelerators, you don’t fix the corporate – you fix their care and optimism.

That being said, there are many with this disposition to care and seek to create communities that create more success but who fail to do so anyway. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful?

That’s where the second point comes in: 

The will towards tangible results in the real world

There’s something both horrifying and liberating about facing reality. It’s hard. It’s hard to wake up and see that the idea or community you’ve tried to create is not hitting the goals it needs to hit.

But facing reality is important for communities that aim to help people become more successful. At Forage, we can’t hide if the students who do our job simulations aren’t more employable. It’s very quickly obvious for students, employers and universities if something doesn’t help them land great jobs.

So what do we do? Over the last seven years, we’ve always faced those challenges head-on. We’ve always asked for the hardest and most meaningful metrics from our customers, even if they might hurt us. We’ve always asked how many people our partner firms actually hire; we’ve always asked whether we’ve made a difference on diversity, we’ve always asked whether they’re better off with us.

This is the cultural backbone that allows us to create a huge impact in a short amount of time. We don’t just worry about passes/fails in academics; we’ve worried about real, genuine change in our ecosystem.

We were lucky, though – we had a good start at Forage. When we did Y Combinator, the north star for you as a startup in the program was 7% week-on-week compound growth, ideally in revenue. Let me tell you – there’s nothing more grounding than a few successful ex-founders of unicorns telling you to do better. It was the same in Founder 10x – how could you let some of those amazing mentors and leaders here at UNSW down with puffery on your numbers?

Bringing more of that attitude of creating tangible results in the real world here will allow us to break through so many ceilings in our ecosystem.

Now the thing is – if you genuinely care and have a view that things in the world can improve while grounding yourself in the real world – you can’t help but innovate.

People love to think you can teach innovation, but innovation is a reaction – a chemical explosion at the end of a chain of frustration and pain of dealing with the real world while thinking the real world can be better. 

Just as the innovation of job simulations at Forage came out of the pain of trying to make a student jobs platform work, so too for our peers in the first batch of Founder 10x, the innovation of satellite monitoring at HEO came out of the process of mining asteroids, and the innovation of corporate expense management for Australia for Weel/Divipay came out of the process of working with virtual cards. And the innovation of the Founder 10x program gives student founders and alumni the space they need to forge their product market fit.

Now – while we aren’t Atlassian-sized yet, at Forage, just in the last quarter our team has shipped unique ways for students to discover careers and land jobs while doing our job simulations, started to integrate generative AI in how we upskill, and we’re about to release new ways for universities to enrich their teaching and engagement with industry and their students. We’re going to roll this out to millions of students and thousands of universities worldwide.  

But all of that is something that we’re able to do only because, at the beginning of this all, a decade ago, some amazing and good people at UNSW decided that the students and alumni here had the ability to make the world better.

This is something we’re able to do because the startup ecosystem, from UNSW Founders to Y Combinator, continues to innovate so more people can start and make things better in reality. Something we’re able to do because, from that foundation, we’ve been able to create an amazing team at Forage that doesn’t stop innovating and helping people out.

This is something we’re able to do because I’d like to think all of UNSW, the Founders program and Forage all hold these three things dear: a genuine disposition to care and see improvement, the will towards tangible results in the real world, and the conclusion to innovate.

And I hope for everyone here  you’ll all be able to start another chain reaction which might help a student or alumni of this university succeed in helping millions of people become successful in a million more ways in what they do.

 

  • Pasha Rayan is a co-founder of Forage, an education technology startup that hosts job simulations around the world. He gave this address to the recent UNSW Founders Gala Dinner.