Ali Dastjerdi ‘19
Employer: Harvard Student Agencies
There are many student employment opportunities with university departments and other on-campus employers, but what’s it like to work in a company that’s entirely student-run? Ask Ali Dastjerdi, the Fiscal Year 2019 president of Harvard Student Agencies (HSA). “One way to view HSA is that we’re not like a regular company. Our fundamental mission is to employ students, give them experiences, and have them learn.” Ali talks about his responsibility as the president in relation to the mission of HSA, “The way I think about this company is that we need to build a company that’s exciting and great for students and one that is a learning experience that’s worthwhile to spend the year doing.”
Founded in 1957, Harvard Student Agencies has grown into a multi-million dollar company that has 12 separate agencies and that hires more than 650 students annually. This umbrella organization includes agencies that provide a wide range of services, such as private and group tutoring, bartending courses and services, publishing services, and in-store and online retail. As per the mission of the company, students gain a variety of important business skills and experiences during their employment at the company.
Ali first joined HSA as a freshman during the annual fall recruitment cycle, starting as the Delivery and Logistics Manager in the HSA Cleaners and Dorm Essentials business. The main responsibilities of Ali’s role included managing the door-to-door laundry service across campus, water delivery services, and rentals for microfridges and other dorm essentials. “Customer service was the main skill that I learned. We do our jobs well and we’re proud of the work that we do, but there’s always that 1% that goes wrong and we need to fix those things… Managing that relationship with the customers is not always the easiest in those situations, so customer service, there was a lot of that.” This role also pushed Ali to quickly pick up indispensable organizational and management skills. “I remember that summer, I had to deliver 1000 fans to Harvard dorms, and that was a logistical challenge to rent a 26-foot truck, load it up, handle a staff of 12 people, open up stores, deliver them to rooms, and that whole crazy mess was a test in logistics. And those were all valuable things I learned during my first year.”
During his second year in HSA, Ali served as the company’s vice president, getting the chance to start a new agency himself. Realizing that there was a lack of professional software engineering opportunities for students on campus, Ali pursued the creation of HSA Dev, an agency that hires students to provide software development services for local individuals and businesses. “That was a crazy bootstrap process. I remember that we ran our very first bootcamp during my sophomore J-term… I was at the bootcamp literally learning coding with everyone else there. We’d do that from 9 AM to 5 PM, and from 5 PM to 10 PM every night. I would take the people we hired to be the new managers of the agency, and we would meet and strategize and build business plans, and start doing customer outreach at night for 3 weeks over J-term. So that was an intense way to start a business.” After a year of growing this business, Ali proudly reports, “HSA Dev is now 25 students upstairs doing half a million dollars in revenue, and we’re so excited about that business.” Additionally, he had the opportunity to oversee an acquisition, as HSA purchased a usability company called Campus Insights that year as well. “That was another foray into something I had never seen before, a venture into the higher levels of business where I got to start a company and acquire and transition another company - that was a super interesting set of skills that I got to learn that year.”
Now in his third year with HSA as its president, Ali has a clear vision for the direction of the organization, a vision shaped by his experience during his two previous years in the company. “A lot of time that I spend with the General Manager and vice president is brainstorming how to advance the company, whether we’re making the correct investments in the company, if the kind of culture we’re building is good for setting the proper precedents, for valuing new ideas, for being entrepreneurial enough - these are all the things that spin in our heads all the time.” Ali particularly values that last statement about entrepreneurship as a guiding principle of the company. “I really value entrepreneurship at HSA - not because I think entrepreneurship is solely necessary for profitable or growth or whatever - being entrepreneurial is a great skill for the company to have. So if we’re on the bleeding edge of the technologies we’re using, the methods we’re using, that means the skills that we’re teaching are also on the bleeding edge.”
However, he always circles back to the core mission of HSA - to provide students with the opportunity to be gainfully employed and to gain business experience. “One really important thing for anyone who comes and works at HSA is to be able to say that ‘I changed the company in this way’ - that’s kind of the unique value proposition. If you go to a regular internships, you get to say, ‘I watched someone else do something for the company.’ But HSA, you get to take ownership, you get to build something relevant, and you learn a lot from that.”