How Liz Jakubowski created Ribit, a digital matchmaker for students and the tech industry
Tarla Lambert / Thursday, March 22, 2018
We’re told all the time about the shortage of employment opportunities for university graduates. It’s statistically true, but there’s also a hidden problem: a disconnect between business and universities. It was this problem that Liz Jakubowski first identified before conceptualising a way to fix it. Enter, Ribit — a new digital portal connecting tertiary educated graduates with tech, marketing and research roles and employers.
Part of CSIRO’s Data61, Ribit works in three ways: an online platform (a website matchmaker for students and prospective employers); speed-networking events that have a 40% success rate; and through data insights to establish where the gaps lie.
Jakubowski, the portal’s founder and director, is a firm believer “that good things come from helping facilitate positive connections”. And Australia, being a small, highly-skilled country is the perfect place for positive connections to be made and for a network like Ribit to thrive. We caught up with Jakubowski recently to get a better grasp on the business model, it’s scope to grow and it’s prospective impact on Australian women.
What was the inspiration behind or the catalyst for starting this up?
In my previous role, I was managing stakeholder relations between research academia, industry and government, where I became acutely aware of the disconnect between universities and businesses. In particular, industry working with researchers, or trying to find students that would have the skills needed, or general capability to develop the skills. So I developed the idea of creating an online platform to connect both sides — much like an Airtasker or an Airbnb. Basically, an online marketplace. Because we were a research organisation, I decided to try to connect researchers and businesses first, which is why I initially gave it an acronym as a working title: Researchers in Business IT platform (Ribit).
I went to MIT in Boston for a week (in the middle of a snow hurricane where they closed the city down) and got to work with a team of amazing people on the project, 18 hours a day in development. I had access to the vice presidents and chief executives of some of America’s most successful tech startups, who said such a platform was needed globally. They believed it was scalable, and Australia was a great place to try to make it work. After receiving advice to focus on students, I pivoted the platform to connect students to business, but kept the name Ribit because students really liked it.
The little green Australian tree frog (our Ribit logo) is a lovely metaphor for students. These frogs are incredibly resilient and versatile, but also permeable and vulnerable. They are very sensitive to the environment they live in. Like students, frogs need a healthy ecosystem that is balanced and supportive for them to thrive. And similarly, they make an important contribution to creating and perpetuating that healthy ecosystem.
My thinking was: what if we can help create this healthy ecosystem across Australian business and student communities? To create a web-like safety-netted environment for students, to enable jumping into short-term roles with different businesses while they are studying. By having this ‘net’ of supportive businesses across Australia, the student can make good industry connections and learn practical and new skills from these experiences that make them more employable. The businesses also benefit by having easy, constant access to a new talent pipeline, meeting these students early.
How many students and businesses currently use Ribit?
We have approximately 18,000 students, and around 2000 employers using the Ribit platform.
How would you like to see the business grow over the next 12 months and beyond?
We’d like to reach 40,000-50,000 students over the next year or so, and 100,000 by the end of 2020. On the business side, we are focussing on companies that are in digital transformation, startup, scaleup, innovation or growth mode. There are roughly 10,000-20,000 potential businesses in scope, depending on how you measure it.
Why do you think a portal like Ribit is so important in Australia?
First, there is a lot of evidence worldwide that good things come from helping facilitate positive connections. Australia is a relatively small country, we don’t have a super-connected innovation ecosystem, so Ribit addresses this by connecting people who want to grow or transform their businesses with enterprising tertiary students who can help them do that. This is also good for our economy. According to a recent federal government Innovation report, innovative companies make up most of the new job growth in Australia.
Students and businesses in Australia face a common challenge — connecting with each other. Students struggle to find roles and identify employers quickly, while businesses also find it a difficult to reach students across all tertiary institutions, TAFEs and colleges efficiently. Through Ribit, businesses can find students directly by searching for them on the platform, or post a role where students using the platform can apply.
Additionally, through our machine learning analytics and applied research, we study trends and provide insights to students and others about where jobs and new industries are being created, before they become mainstream. That way students can decide what additional skills they need to develop, if any. This is really useful to people in a quickly changing marketplace where certain kinds of roles are disappearing. And we really enjoy working with our colleagues in Data61 and broader CSIRO where we can share insights on what can be done to strengthen the Australian economy.
Everything that we do, we do with the good grace of other partners in the ecosystem — small and large businesses, universities, TAFEs, Government, industry associations, not-for-profits and the startup community. Everyone helps each other out. We are just a part of it.
How will Ribit help accelerate Australian women in particular?
Ribit focuses on connecting students with skills that businesses need. While a lot of these are in the STEM space, where there is still a preponderance of men, other areas like business or data analytics, communications, marketing, research and particularly digital media and web-skills, are also growing in demand. Currently, 45% of students on Ribit are female. We ensure that women are represented in roughly equal numbers at all of our events and conduct additional outreach to encourage greater uptake of women students by employers.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and can share with aspiring leaders?
Focus on doing something that you’re good at, something that hopefully does some good for other people or the planet, and have fun doing it.
What would you go back and tell your teenage self?
Back yourself. Look at every situation you come across in life as an opportunity to learn something. Be grateful for everything that comes your way. Be kind and try not to be too judgemental.
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.