Clint Betts

Meti, thank you so much for joining this show to talk about ApplyBoard and your journey. Let's start with ApplyBoard. What is it and how did you get to where you are today?

Meti Basiri

Thank you so much for having me and giving me the opportunity to share my story and ApplyBoard with you all folks. So I guess before I jump in telling about ApplyBoard, I need to tell you about my story because then I kind of explain what ApplyBoard is. So about 12 years ago, me and my brothers decided that we wanted to study abroad. So we took our journey in our hands and we tried to find an institution, but knowing little and of course not being able to speak English made the process much harder. It took about 12 to 14 months for us to find an institution. We had a goal to have the program funded end to end, and finally we made it to Canada after hundreds of people told us it's not going to happen and it's not possible.

The process was very brutal. The process was very time-consuming and not much transparency. So after we kind of finished this scope, this thought always stuck with us. How can we make it easier for other folks? How can we make it less painful than it was for us? So in 2015, we said, "Hey, we are going to create a platform for any students that want to go abroad and help the students with their international mobility."

And since then we managed to help close to a million students in the past eight years of the business so that they can find the best institution, best program that suits their future and their opportunities that they are seeking in the main English-speaking countries. And now we continue to support, in a simpler way, a platform that helps the students' mobility around the world. So helping any students from anywhere in the world that want to come to English countries to study.

Clint Betts

That's incredible. What has the response been from your customers? And I am assuming your customers are these students but also these universities and these institutions, right?

Meti Basiri

Certainly. So we kind of have been a marketplace. We of course have a few stakeholders, a few customers. On one angle we have institutions that are seeking talented, qualified and diverse students from around the world. And on the other hand we have these students that are looking for the best match for them abroad. So as I mentioned earlier, because the process was very manual, very not transparent — students now have far more transparency around the decision, and it's far more affordable because they can choose the institution wisely.

And maybe for people to kind of get the understanding of it as simple as let's say you wanted to book your travel and you wanted to go from point A to B and you didn't even know whether you're going to have a flight ticket, which cities you got to end up. They were so uncertain, it wasn’t as simple as going from A to B. That has been the case for international students. So I think for the student side now during the self seller polling, they can make a much more transparent decision, a wiser decision that puts a lot of money back in their pocket and hopefully become far more successful, which is part of our mission of success stories.

On the other side, schools and institutions around the world are seeking talented international students to come and study different programs, different majors, and international students bring a significant financial advantage to this institution. So we would be able to support this institution to recruit the students from a hundred plus countries, but sitting at their desk. They don't have to travel, they don't have to go city by city, island by island to attract the students and bring the advantage of their institution in front of the students.

So it's been that marketplace, we're trying to bring more transparency but making it far simpler and much faster for students' mobility. And for the folks that might not know this, there would be about 10 million international students' by the end of the decade. So the market is growing, there is a significant demand and supply, but unfortunately not many platforms that can support and enhance this mobility and lead in this marketplace.

Clint Betts

What does a typical day look like for you? I mean this sounds like a lot and it sounds like a lot to keep organized and to stay focused on. What does your day look like?

Meti Basiri

My typical days might sound boring, but if I'm not traveling and I'm home, which is my preference, and home for me is Kitchener-Waterloo, an hour to Toronto, in Canada. So if I'm not traveling and I'm home, I tend to wake up at 6:30, 7:00, not a very good person to wake up early in the morning. Mornings are not my best friend. I have my cup of tea or coffee by 7:30, 7:00-ish and then start with the day.

And if I have a few meetings in a day, I'll try to tackle those, connect with my senior leadership, and chat with the folks or customers. I'm usually done with meetings by 6-7:00 after having spent some time with my family and doing some unwinding, spend some time checking podcasts or documentaries or anything that can get my mind off of work for a few hours. And then maybe another hour before I go to bed I'll try to catch up with a few other things and plan the next day. So it might sound boring, but that's pretty much it is. And because I try to catch up with work, but nothing crazy.

Clint Betts

No, that sounds like you're the CEO. It sounds like you're a leader. I mean that sounds like a full day every day there. I wonder about ApplyBoard, how are you thinking about artificial intelligence, the rise of artificial intelligence, how it might affect these study abroad trips or even just education in general?

Meti Basiri

I think AI is significant, it's something that we've been utilizing for the past few years. Before that it became widely more distinguished than what it used to be. So we have been using AI, specifically when it gets to that matching algorithm that I earlier explained because it takes about 200 billion combinations for students to go from anywhere into the program of their choice because there is so much complexity in the process. So how can we utilize AI and other technologies to maximize that potential and success?
So I think it's going to be accelerating with the emphasis around AI. We're going to accelerate using AI. We're actually recently launched our fully co-pilot that can effectively become the advisor of the students, any part of their journey at their fingertips. So that’s going to utilize AI. But I would say more than anything, I'm more excited to see which AI tools we can use internally to do our job more effectively.

And I will give you an example. For example, ChatGPT now lets you pretty much upload any graphic or any document and tell you, "Describe it for me." Then arguably do we need a technical writer if something that can be that effective? So I'm more excited right now to figure out what are the tools available that we can utilize so we kind of use our resources on where we can become more impactful. Those are the areas that I'm very excited about because I think there is some stuff arguably in less than 12 months we shouldn't do. The tools and AI will be able to do and how we can utilize humans in a more human way and processes that require more of a human touch than simple tasks.

Clint Betts

Yeah, that's fascinating. How's that working out for you so far and how are your customers responding to that?

Meti Basiri

So it's a very interesting thing. I think not many people notice that we are using AI every day. And we've been using AI every day. If you have an iPhone, the messages that you're writing, how it knows your grammar or your talking points and all those. So I think all of us, we've been around AI for a very long time. I think one day your customer will know this is AI, one way your customer doesn't know AI but that is the technology that's supporting them. And we have been utilizing the second point, which is they don't have to know this is fully AI driven. Because again, student mobility is something that requires a lot of empathy, is a big decision for anyone, packing your bag and going to another country for a few years.

It's not a small decision that you're taking lightly. Parents are involved, a lot of emotion involved. So we're trying to utilize AI where we can support the students better, but it doesn't have to be, "Hey, it's AI decision making" or is it the technology that makes that best decision? We're trying to not lose that human touch throughout the process because it's a significant decision. For me, I came as an international student, it took me a few years to feel comfortable in Canada, a few years to feel like I belong in the society and be part of the Canadian culture.

Clint Betts

What do you read? What do you spend your time reading on? What
recommendations would you give us?

Meti Basiri

I try to read three types of books. One is more relationship related, how you can influence other people, talk with people differently, whether that's personal or external. Two, it's more business books or anything which gives me a better perspective around the economy or the world. And the third piece is very random stories that I enjoy. For example, now I'm reading Elon Musk books. And perhaps I should say I'm listening to Elon Musk books because I don't read, I listen to audiobooks.

So I kind of rotate it once a book finishes, I go through different categories of books. I really enjoy hearing the stories. I feel like a lot of the decisions we make in our days, someone has done it before so we don't have to be the first one. And I think something that is definitely hard to learn and people tend to not emphasize is your EQ or your empathy. It's something that you have to be very careful and mindful of as a leader.

So I'm also always trying to kind of find a way that I can have a better awareness about my EQ and better awareness around how I can be a better effective leader. So I tend to spend a lot of time around those. But my way of digestion of the food, the digestion of the content is more through video or audio rather than reading. That’s certainly something that has become far more available, which is good for me.

Clint Betts

Yeah, audiobooks are incredible. I listen to those a lot as well. What do you think about or even define culture inside of ApplyBoard? How do you keep your employees happy and motivated and thinking about the company?

Meti Basiri

Certainly is a great question. Certainly something that I'm very passionate about because I think people are the most important part of any of the company's success. And I would feel we've been lucky enough that we had amazing, wonderful ApplyBoardians this past few years. So certainly something that we have been taking advantage of. I think one thing which is very unique to ApplyBoard, because of our global footprint, we have a very diverse background at ApplyBoard, which has played significantly in the role of our success. Which is something not many companies unfortunately can manage to approach. As a result of having diverse background, I can walk to our office from end to end here. 10 different languages, 20 different nationalities in our office has created a very inclusive company to work with and very close friendships, professional partnerships that our team has.

I would say sadly COVID messed it around a little bit. Before COVID, we tended to be much closer. Unfortunately I think this virtual word has its own advantages and disadvantages. So I think that's something we're certainly trying to figure out. How do we come back to that close community that we were as one company? Because you spend more time arguably with your colleagues than your partner at home or your family at home. So how do we make sure that you enjoy the people that you work around?

And the other standpoint I think again, which is thankfully we never had a challenge, is we're a very mission-driven company. We don't have to wake up and tell people, "Hey look, we're making a big impact in people's lives." We do make a big impact in people's lives. Every day we help thousands of our students choose the best journey. And it's very tangible to people and our team and how much they can make someone successful in their future.

And again, my own personal story, my life has significantly changed because of my status study abroad journey. So I think because of that it is mission-driven, it allows us to talk to people and it allows us to really target the right candidates. So if someone comes here, if their initial goal is not supporting and helping, very fast, they wouldn't last long enough. So I think that's the second advantage that we don't have to pretend that we're making a big difference in people's lives. We are making a big difference in people's lives. And that mission-oriented vision has helped us significantly to bond better with our team, do better and innovate much faster.

Clint Betts

Yeah. How have you thought about this whole work from home debate and issue that so many companies, every company's going through, whether you bring everybody back to the office, do some sort of virtual? I mean, how have you thought about that?

Meti Basiri

It's so funny. So this is a few weeks back. We recently announced that we're going to do RTO two days in a week and we're going to ask our team to kind of work two days in the office. And for me, what was this tipping point was when Zoom announced that they want their employees three days back in office. I think that was an aha moment. Wait a second, if the company that we're using as a virtual tool to connect is asking their team to come back to the office, then we're missing a big part.

But besides I think what is coming out there is a huge advantage of being around people. Again, I feel like we're missing out that people touch and we have a huge millennials and gen Z's at ApplyBoard. We have to recognize it's easier to be isolated and not talk to people.

So I think there is a significant advantage. Arguably, I think the first few months when you come back to office might not be as productive as what it used to be before the pandemic. But I'm a big people person. I think being around each other, talking to each other, innovation goes up, collaboration goes up, and even efficiency eventually goes up.

And then I don't know how many times you can just walk to your colleagues and say, "Hey, five minute question." Now if someone wants to come to me and talk to me, they might need to wait two weeks to find a 15 minute time. So I think there are a lot of advantages around working in an office. But again, we have teams in 30 plus countries. So before the pandemic we had a virtual standpoint to our culture, but then all of a sudden we went to virtual.

So I think there is the right hybrid balance of it. Two or three days in office, give flexibility to people. People really want flexibility around when they come, when they go, but not lose that culture. And culture, it's a strategy. I always tend to say, you could have the best video strategy. If you don't have a good culture, you fail. So by utilizing it in the office you can improve your cultural significance. So if it was up to me, I would say three days in office would be my most ideal way.

Clint Betts

One question as you're talking here that I've been thinking about is you must be thinking a lot about the state of the world or turmoil in certain countries given how focused and how important traveling to various countries is to your business. What do you think about the current state of the world?

Meti Basiri

I would say unfortunately there are a lot of challenges we are seeing around the world and I'm really hoping those challenges go away as we're living in 2023 or almost 2024. So we should have learned from our previous generation that this conflict tends to leave nothing but disadvantage for the next generation. So that's my personal opinion.

Going back, I think education is the biggest tool that we have in our toolbox. I feel that we educate people more. We bring different nationalities, different perspectives, and create more diverse sports. People at the end know we're all the same. We share the same color of blood. No one's blood is blue or green. We all have the same backbone or DNA or core values at the end as a human. So I'm really hoping with the work that we're doing, educating more people, student mobility can enhance those challenges in decades to come. That we don't have to have conflict.

If my classmate could be from 10 different nationalities or religions or whatever it is, then why can't we not do it as a country? The borders, we define the borders, someone sat down says, "Here's the line, this is mine this is yours." We define that. No one else came and said, "This is yours, this is yours." I think humans have such wonderful powers and we have demonstrated in a lot of countries that if we work together there are a lot of significant challenges, whether it's from climate change or there's so much technology that could change or take us a hundred years ahead or a hundred years backwards. So how can we work as one society, as one global citizen of the earth rather than that?

So that's what I'm hoping for. I think with education we can really enhance that and we try to not get into the details because those conflicts tend to come and go. So rather than that motivates us to do more, help the students to go abroad, change the students, let's take students from America, send them to India. Let's take the students from India, send them to Vietnam. If we can truly have that mobility around the students' education, I think we're going to see a far better world than it is today.

Clint Betts

Is there a moment where you failed or didn't quite live up to your own expectations that became like a catalyst for who you are as a leader today?

Meti Basiri

Oh, many times, man. I think I tend to say any leader has attitudes of, do you want to be a coach or do you want to be a student? And what do I mean by that? I'm a student, meaning that even though there is a title attached to what my roles and responsibilities are, I'm still very eager to learn and very eager to understand what I could have done better and what could have done differently.

So I feel like as long as, and there is nothing wrong with being a coach too, there are a lot of mentors that I have that leave that experience, they get years of experience in their journey and then they tend to say, "Now I'm going to pass that experience back." So as being a student mindset, I feel I'm hardest on myself. Always, my first question, and a lot of times in my one-on-one I ask my team is, "Give me feedback. What do you think I could have done differently." Then feedback is a gift.

So I would say yeah, there's so many things that I've done that I would've not done if I could have gone back to the old farm. And there's so many things that I've said that I would've not said if I knew the impact of that on people. So I still very much have a student mindset, and very much want to learn and grow. And I feel like as a first sort of entrepreneur that had the privilege working and building a unicorn in 1500 employees in 30 plus countries, your fastest mentors are people that you work with. That's the fastest mentor.

I try to learn one thing at the end of the day. What could I have done better today? And it's not that you can't pause yourself or appreciate the work that you do, but I think you need to know, you should be aware enough around the areas of improvement. So yeah, that answers many things that I could have done differently or not failed, but that's okay. I'll try to fix the day tomorrow. That's what I control. Today's gone, yesterday's gone, but tomorrow is in my hands.

Clint Betts

Meti, I can't thank you enough for joining us. We end every interview the exact same way with the same question. And that is this: at CEO.com we believe that the chances one gives are just as important as the chances one takes. And I wonder when you hear that, who comes to mind that gave you a chance to get you to where you are today?

Meti Basiri

A lot of people, man. I think there are a lot of early mentors that gave me a lot of motivation. But I would say the biggest thing that keeps me going today is knowing other students, man. Like 12 years ago I could not even afford a slice of pizza. And that's the longest story to tell because of the challenges that we were facing. And today, now I'm privileged in a lot of standpoints. So I think helping the students and giving people an opportunity is the most motivating and gives me a chance to lead to where we are going to be tomorrow. So I'm very excited for the work that we're doing and the impact on people's lives.

Clint Betts

Meti, thank you so much. Seriously, an honor to be with you. Best of luck with everything. I appreciate you coming on.

Meti Basiri

Thank you so much. I appreciate it, folks.