Launching A Startup and Tackling Employability: A Chat with Rewardstudents’ Dana Achrafi
Being a parent of two, studying a Masters in Interactive Multimedia, and taking part in (what feels like) almost every extracurricular program available at UTS, may make most people feel more than a little stressed out, but this has been Dana Achrafi’s life for the last couple of years. On top of this already heavy workload, she has completed a program at UTS Hatchery, landed a job at AUSTRAC as a User Experience Designer, and created her own startup – all in the last 12 months.
Her startup, Rewardstudents, began as part of a subject she studied in September this year, and has grown into so much more. Her website (rewardstudents.net) aims to connect local businesses around universities with the student population, giving retailers the opportunity to build their brand, and passing a huge range of exclusive deals on to students.
“…many students miss the opportunity to take advantage of the deals offered by local service providers due to the lack of communication between them. Those deals could save students a lot of money for those living on thrifty student budgets.
To solve this problem, I have built a website that will allow service providers to showcase their services to students, and easily update them with any new deals offered.”
Despite her hectic schedule, Dana’s been kind enough to have a chat with us about how her journey began, the struggles she faced along the way, and what helped her get to where she is today. So if you’re thinking about getting into the startup world, or simply wondering how to build your employability while studying at UTS, read on!
So can you tell us a little bit about how your journey began?
I moved to Australia as a skilled immigrant with my husband and 2 girls in August 2010. We were excited to start a new journey in this amazing country. I tried to find a job but it was too hard to land a career in IT after being away from the industry for more than 7 years. I was always keen to improve my skills and knew it was time to take advantage of Australia’s high reputation universities.
I looked for a certificate that could be tailored to meet my desired subjects. Fortunately, I found the Interactive Multimedia postgraduate course at UTS and at that time it was the only course providing all the subjects that I’ve been looking forward to studying, like web development and design, iOS applications development and design and web applications development. I wasn’t really sure how I would go after being 10 years away from the world of education. It was truly challenging to me. But what encouraged me to take this step was the facility to go through this Masters course step by step.
So I started by enrolling into the Graduate Certificate in Interactive Multimedia that required completing four subjects only; and when I successfully completed it, I started my Graduate Diploma in Interactive Multimedia with four more subjects. I did this until I finally completed the whole Masters degree, completing 11 subjects with Distinction.
As a mum of two, it must have been pretty challenging juggling study whilst providing for your family! How did you make it work?
This is absolutely true. The biggest challenge was trying to find a day care to keep my children in whilst studying. Unfortunately all childcare centres close at 6pm and that was the time where most of my subjects started! I had to ask my friends to give a hand – I was keeping them in different friends’ homes and many other times I had to take them to uni to stay with me in class.
In another scenario, when my husband had work at 5pm, he had to pick them up from school and meet me at uni just to take them back home with me after I finish my lecture. Or I would pick up the girls from school and head to uni, wait for my husband to finish his work at 5pm to arrive to uni and stay with them in Central Park while I finish my class.
I found great support from my husband, friends and lecturers at uni, which helped me succeed in this journey. I truly wish that the UTS will one day consider helping mothers like myself, who do not have a place to keep their kids safe during class times, by perhaps having a special space at uni for children to stay at.
Students are often worried that they don’t have the experience or skills to achieve their career goals. After being away from the IT industry for so long and now achieving so much, do you have any advice for students wanting to improve their employability?
Taking advantage of the extracurricular programs at UTS is the wisest approach towards building your professional and interpersonal skills. Each program was a stepping-stone on its own. They are the biggest asset, alongside course subjects, for any student. Those programs empower students with great skills to unleash their talents.
For me, the idea of joining those programs started when I decided to enhance my employability in Australia after having studied for one and a half years. In Autumn 2015, I heard about the year-long UTS Accomplish Award program. I attended a number of interactive workshops and events that helped me build my skills, and had my resume reviewed and polished with the help of UTS:Careers. The more I was involved in those workshops, the more I understood what the Australian industries value when looking at job applicants.
Part of the program’s requirements was to complete around 100 employability hours (paid or volunteer), so to help me complete those hours I decided to join the Sydney Univative program and the UTS Peer Network team.
The Univative program was my first work experience completing a real-life project for Accor Hotels. I was elected by my team to be the team leader, which required a lot of project management skills. We worked really hard together to compete against five other Australian Universities. This program enhanced my teamwork skills along with what I was really aiming for, my presentation skills.
I joined the UTS Peer Network team in the 2015 Spring Semester. There was an amazing harmony amongst all the volunteering students who were of different backgrounds and cultures. This diversity helped facilitate the message to every new student that they are in a country that embraces all cultures with a positive attitude and acceptance. This program enhances your social networking skills in addition to your leadership, teamwork and communication skills.
In Autumn 2016, while working with the Peer Network team, I also joined the UTS Hatchery program. This program truly opened my eyes towards new ways of solving problems in the real world. The cross-disciplinary environment of this program elevated the richness of knowledge and skills, and that in itself enhanced my innovative and creative expertise. We had mentors and coaches from industry leading organisations like Microsoft, Optus Innovation lab, and Commonwealth Bank of Australia Innovation Lab. They shared their experiences and skills with us during the bootcamps, master classes and networking events. I met a lot of amazing keynote speakers, like the UTS alumni, Dr. Jordan Nguyen, who was really inspiring with his humble character and smart inventions.
In Spring 2016, I took the opportunity presented by Tida Tappapart (the Program Manager at UTS Hatchery), to practice my Design Thinking skills by coaching the new Hatchery students. It was also around this time that I launched my startup, and attended UTS Project Pitch – an entrepreneurship weekend. I also experienced the world of Hackathons by practicing how to build and enhance my startup in 48 hours, before pitching it to a judging panel or VCs. It was a great opportunity to bounce ideas with like-minded entrepreneurs, and helped enhance my brainstorming and ideation techniques.
I also attended a couple of events run by the Women in Engineering and IT at the UTS. Those events aim to empower women in general, in addition to some other events especially tailored to engage females in the Engineering and IT industry. I truly advise all the female students to keep an eye on those events and try their best to attend them because it is guaranteed that they will leave with some valuable information and knowledge.
What originally got you interested in beginning your own startup?
While doing my Digital Media Studios subject (for my Masters Project) in 2015, my lecturer, Catherine Raffaele, was delving deeply into the entrepreneurship and innovative approaches towards designing our project. She encouraged me to join the UTS Hatchery program to enrich my knowledge around this area when I showed my interest to learn more.
I joined UTS Hatchery in Autumn 2016, and my desire to build a startup was elevating day by day. In Spring that same year, I was offered the chance to join the Entrepreneurship Studio A subject, by the senior lecturer, Ben Johnston. Ben played a big role in helping me flourish in my entrepreneurial skills with his continuous guidance and support.
One of the deliverables of this subject was to launch a startup, and that is when I finally had the chance to put my skills into practice and build my own startup. In this subject six startups were launched, including mine. We had the opportunity to demonstrate our startups alongside the Hatchery+ teams’ startups in a Protojam exhibition, that was attended by our Vice Chancellor and President, Attila Brungs. Attila gave me valuable advice on how to grow my startup with the support of the UTS units.
I hear you’ve just started working at AUSTRAC – how did you land the job? And from your experience so far, how are you finding working there, as well as on your startup?
In March 2016, I went to the UTS FEIT Careers Fair, and started looking to find the right career. There were a myriad of options, which made the decision-making process harder! One of the options was the ICT Graduate Programme offered by the Department of Finance. From there I was offered a job at AUSTRAC as a UX Designer with the Innovation, Information and Analytics team.
So far, working on both my career and startup is very challenging. I’m fortunate that it is a little quiet at uni at this time of the year, which is helping me put things together in a more flexible manner.
Do you have any advice you’d give to others interested in getting into the startup space?
Building a startup is very challenging. On many occasions you might feel that you’ve reached a dead-end, but never give up. With good brainstorming, advice and patience you can always come up with new ideas and solutions. Test them and reiterate your design to move on.
As Dana’s showed us, it doesn’t matter where you’re at in your degree, it’s never too early or too late to work on building your skills and achieving some pretty amazing things!
By Mia Casey