Over dinner one night in 2017, two UC-Berkeley Haas MBAs decided to launch a company to help international students in the United States. The idea was to provide services, like help navigating thorny visa issues, that they wish someone had provided them.
Edtech company Interstride was born out of Nitin Agrawal and Christian Eder’s desire to empower international students and graduates in their education and career journeys by bolstering support services at U.S. colleges and universities. Four years later, foreign students’ need for guidance is greater than ever, and — despite Eder’s untimely 2019 death from a sudden heart attack at age 35 — Interstride has grown to become an integral part of thousands of students’ and graduates’ lives. The company now has more than 85 university partners and works with over 130 programs — including MBA programs at leading B-schools like Michigan Ross, UCLA Anderson, USC Marshall, Duke Fuqua, and Texas-Austin McCombs.
“We had a similar journey,” Agrawal says of his friendship with Eder, describing how both had earned their MBAs from the Haas School in 2012. Both had backgrounds in finance and had managed to return to the U.S. through L-1 inter-company transfer visas after years of working abroad.
They reconnected about five years after graduating. “We were at a dinner table,” Agrawal recalls, “and he said, ‘Look, there’s definitely a void in the market in terms of international students and how they are serviced by higher-education institutions. Regardless of where you do your MBA, whether you graduated from Berkeley or from Harvard or Stanford, if you’re international, you’re in the same boat. If you don’t receive H-1B, you are basically out of luck. And that visa has a 25,000 quota for every year and it’s always over-subscribed. So you have to find creative ways to get yourself back in the U.S.’
“Both of us were able to do that through the L-1A program. But then once we were back, we realized there are other avenues as well, whether it’s through entrepreneurship or through what they call the Einstein visa, the national interest waiver, other ways. So we said, ‘OK, let’s try to figure out a way where we could help other MBA students better understand this.’ That’s where we started.”
2 MBAs, ONE VISION: TO HELP FELLOW INTERNATIONALS LIVE & WORK IN THE U.S.
Agrawal understands better than most what it’s like to come to the U.S. as a student, graduate from a school (or schools) here, and struggle to stay. A native of Nepal, he earned a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Miami in Florida, then went on to work for a New York investment bank. After a few years, he left New York to join Berkeley Haas, where he met Eder, a native of Austria.
Despite Agrawal’s strong ties to the U.S. through education and industry, after he left Haas he faced the prospect of being unable to stay. “I was still an international student,” he says. “I was still on H-1B, and unfortunately, it was very hard for me to find a sponsor and employer who would sponsor me again.” He didn’t want to work for a big bank again. “I was avoiding all the big-bracket names in order to look for a different experience, and so luckily, through an alumni contact, I was able to find a role.” Agrawal went to work for Norwegian investment fund Aker, living and working first in Brazil and then in Norway before moving back to the U.S. “Ultimately, I was very tired of the travel, so I requested the company to relocate me to their Houston office. They were able to bring me back to the U.S. on an L-1 visa, which is an inter-company transfer visa. That made it much easier for me to apply for the green card and become a U.S. citizen in the end.”
Eder, who earned a bachelor’s degree from USC before getting his MBA from Haas, began his professional career at KPMG, later working at Wells Fargo Securities before he served as CFO at Pillow, a hospitality startup that was later acquired by Expedia. With so many professional parallels — and since he and Agrawal faced and overcame so many of the same visa and career obstacles — they determined at that fateful 2017 Berkeley dinner that their next roles would be helping others.
Interstride began as a support network for San Francisco Bay Area international students, employing webinars, workshops, and a texting hotline. Along with their grad school alma mater, Stanford Graduate School of Business played a key role in Agrawal’s and Eder’s enterprise, but they also used their contacts at their undergraduate schools to help get Interstride off the ground.
“The sales process in higher education is much longer if you don’t know someone, so it was much easier for us to target our universities,” Agrawal says. “So Christian went to USC and I went to the University of Miami as undergrads; we started with universities that were within our network, and so that’s where we started building a little bit of our partnerships.”
Eder tragically passed away in July 2019 from complications related to sudden cardiac arrest, leaving behind a wife and two children. He was about two weeks shy of his 36th birthday. More than a year later, the company he co-founded has found its niche and become an integral part of graduate and post-graduate life for thousands of international MBAs in the U.S.
‘CAREER SERVICES ARE OFTEN CLUELESS ON HOW TO ASSIST THESE STUDENTS’
Interstride’s technology is currently assisting students at Harvard, the University of Chicago, USC, Arizona State University, the University of Georgia, UT-Austin, and more than 120 other schools. The company offers international students a one-stop platform for all career-related needs — but it also helps on the other end, working with universities to increase their international student enrollment and retention rates, by bolstering often-beleaguered career services and international student offices.
“We are even working with alumni offices and eventually with admissions as well because from our own experience as both undergraduate and graduate students, the experience is very siloed,” Agrawal says. “When I came to the U.S. as an undergrad student, I didn’t know what the international student office does versus what career services do versus what the student affairs division does. It’s all these different departments, and they try to do their best to serve students, but it’s very hard to engage international students because they are almost clueless about what the role of these different departments are. So what we are trying to do is create that engagement from a technology standpoint, but more importantly, the biggest bottleneck today is from a career standpoint.
“On the front end, whether it’s top MBA program or any other program, they over-promise international students about the great opportunities students will have once they graduate from XYZ University. Once a student is here in the U.S. and now they’re looking for jobs, career services are often clueless on how to assist these students. Most career services administrators are not immigration experts, and then international student services that provide immigration advice or OPT and CPT and H1B information, they are not career experts. There’s a huge gap there because students don’t know who to contact and reach out to. That’s where we build the bridge: we provide immigration advice. We give them insight on employers that hire international, along with contacts that they can reach out to for job opportunities. And now we’re working with alumni services to bring alumni to the portal as well, and we’re starting a marketplace where we can connect international students to immigration lawyers.”