We were inspired by the stories of so many women we work with and are wrapping up Women’s History Month with an interview with our CEO & president, Renait Stephens.
Personal & educational history
Q: Where did you grow up, and what did you study in school?
“My parents moved to the U.S. from England when I was in college at the University of London, and I was doing economics, public administration, statistics, and business. I actually REALLY hated it. I wanted to do art and visual communication — stuff like that. I didn’t get to do that.”
“My parents were over here [in Seattle], and I would visit for the summer, Christmas, and stuff like that. I loved it in Seattle, and decided I wanted to stay.”
Q: How did you end up studying in the U.S.?
“Jane [production manager at Study in the USA] and I traveled around the world. We backpacked on about $50 a week. We went from Seattle to New York to Paris to Egypt to India, Africa, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and then finished up in Hawaii… it was a really great trip, and it changed my perspective on life.”
“I knew that I didn’t want to take a traditional business job, going into a corporation, etc. What I really wanted to explore was art, photography in particular. It was actually a really great time to be in Seattle. It was when the Seattle music scene was exploding, and I ended up going to Evergreen and doing anthropology and visual art, which is as far from economics and business as you can possibly get.”
Early work life & career at Study in the USA
Q: When you first started working, what were you doing?
“While I was in college, I was waiting tables in the evening. I was also doing music posters for people and album covers — earning extra money by falling into graphic design, which was really, REALLY fun. I did loads of stuff around Seattle. We did fashion shows, we did significant events, we did all kinds of stuff and some really fun things. They set up photo shoots, and I had a lot of confidence back then.”
Q: How did you go from, at one point, doing photography to working at Study in the USA?
“I ended up deciding it was probably time to get a real job… I was lucky enough to get recruited by someone at Nordstrom, and I ran the digital imaging department. Again, this was when they used to put photo shoots together on film, and it was so exciting.”
“And so, I was in charge of that, and I was also still doing freelance design on the side — kind of more artistic stuff — gallery openings, music, art, and then working at Nordstrom. I managed to get moved to help launch their very first websites, which were Nordstrom.com and NordstromShoes.com. I was also doing stuff for the catalog, which was print, so I knew a lot about print.”
“I didn’t like the corporate structure at Nordstrom. It felt like so many meetings and so much internal drama. There was some great stuff about it, but a lot of internal drama. I could see my life kind of flashing in front of my eyes, like, ‘Get a promotion, and you go here, and you go here, then you go here,’ and it didn’t sound very appealing.”
“Another friend of mine had just started working at Study in the USA, which I’d never heard of. He was a production manager, and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, you would love this company. It’s magazines,’ which, at the time, I was in love with magazines and print.”
“He told me, ‘The group of people are amazing. Everyone uses Macs, and there are fairs being set up in Latin America,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, if there’s an opening, let me know.’”
“December 1998, I had an interview with Peggy, who was a founder, and she offered me a job doing creative direction for the [Study in the USA] magazines. It was really interesting because I said, ‘I have to be in London to do this art show — is it OK if I start in February rather than now in December?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine. Great. Love it.’ And I was like, ‘Wow. This is really flexible. This is a great little job.’”
Q: What was international education like at the time?
“Things were really changing with the company. Print was starting to become less popular. Peggy was a single mom, and she started the company in her basement. She had two babies. She started with one magazine and took it up to eight magazines by the time I was working, and they were so profitable. They were the only magazine of their kind. People would wait for their copy of Study in the USA.”
“Because you didn’t have the internet or anything like that at the time, people would wait for these magazines; it was one way of learning about studying. People would fill out little postcards and send them to schools to show that they were interested in that school.”
“By 2005, the internet had started to take over. We’d been one of the first in the field to have a website. We decided that it was time to start concentrating more on the web because instead of being 80% print and 20% internet — it was moving towards 60% internet and 40% print. And again, we were one of the first in the industry to have this website, so a lot of schools didn’t have their own website at that time. It was so expensive.”
“We decided to really start building out the website, and I took over the creative direction in 2008 as the full-time creative director of the company. 2010 is when we did a really huge redesign on the website because before that, it didn’t have any content, it just had school profiles and a few articles.”
A changing world and a changing Study in the USA
Q: Did Peggy Printz, the former CEO of SUSA, have any words of advice for you when she decided to retire, and you became CEO?
“Peggy retired, and as we signed all the papers, she said, ‘Good luck. I’m going to go have my first good night’s sleep in 30 years.’ She said, ‘You will never rest again,’ and I was like, ‘Oh. That’s absolutely true.’ You take on a lot of responsibility that you don’t really realize, even as someone who’d pretty much been managing a lot of the business. You don’t realize until you step up to the position of owner, the sense of responsibility is huge.”
Q: What was happening in international education at that time, and what were the early days like being a business owner?
“At that point, I really burnt new neurons into my brain. I thought I was really prepared. I was doing what I thought was so much. When you actually buy a corporation, you become a corporation. You have to set up pension plans, healthcare plans — none of that stayed with the company, it all had to be set up anew. Suddenly, I was really happy that I did economics, statistics, spreadsheets. That became a lot more of my life than the creativity.”
“The internet was expanding. People were able to do video. Facebook was just starting. Social media was just starting. I think one of the things that everyone’s always loved about SUSA is that it’s a really flexible workplace, and people who have good ideas can put them into place. So we had a lot of fun in that office.”
“I would probably say 2010-2014. It was really the time of lead generation. We were probably getting a million visits a month on the site and a lot of inquiries. We were still doing fairs. We were still doing magazines. I think probably 2015 and 2016 were the best years we’ve ever had at SUSA.”
Q: Skipping forward a bit, what are some changes and challenges in international education over the last 5 years?
“In 2017, there was political upheaval in terms of international education wasn’t quite as attractive. A lot of schools got their budgets cut, and a lot of travel was curtailed. It was a pretty difficult time for universities.
We were able to expand our print during this time with American Campus and Chinese stuff. We were able to make it through. We did a big renovation in 2019 when we were like, ‘Yes! We’re going to put everything in, all of our systems, and we’re ready to go for 2020.’”
“Everything has changed significantly. The pandemic was a really tough year, and it made us pivot in ways that we’d never really pivoted before. I really owe so much to both Chelle [director of brand strategy] and Mildred [marketing manager] for their go-to attitude and ‘Let’s make this work. Let’s make a podcast. Let’s make a live event. Let’s do a webinar series.’”
“We really went all out, and it was scary for a while, particularly as a business owner as well — you’re looking at your people, and you’re like, ‘What’s going to happen here?’”
“So it was a really stressful time, and we made it out. And during 2021, we were actually approached by a number of companies for acquisition. I decided that for me, it was time to allow that to happen and maybe take on a little less responsibility. Study is still here; it’s a challenging environment, but the team is amazing, and it’s been quite a journey.”
Advice for women and leaders
Q: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that women face in their careers today? And do you have any ideas for how we can work through those challenges or overcome them?
“I think one is being underestimated as women. You really have to prove yourself. Even now, even today, every day. You also have to censor yourself a certain amount. What might be a firm-and-confident man might be considered a difficult-and-demanding woman. That can be a difficult battle, but also, being underestimated can be a superpower. Because you can sometimes slide your way through in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily expect because someone didn’t see how great you are.”
“I also think women, sometimes, take on more responsibility than they should. They don’t delegate enough, and they don’t ask for enough. One thing that we could all do is try not to do everything — we do everything far too much.”
“I have a hard time saying no, and most of the women I know who are in these positions also have a hard time saying no. I don’t think we ask for enough in terms of compensation or respect, and that’s a hard thing. And I see it even within my team — people don’t ask enough.”
“I think for women, it can be hard. They say, ‘I’m going to sacrifice this, I’m going to sacrifice my time, my energy, I’m going to be responsible for more than I should. It’s ok because I want this to work, I want this to help.’ Women can help themself by setting more limits and asking for help.”
Q: Renait, in general, what do you think is one of the most important things to know or practice as a leader?
“Empathy and communication. Everyone has different desires, but I want to work with a team who enjoys working. I want to hear their ideas. I want to know what’s going on. I want to be involved, so that means communication and being empathic. But you also have to build in some accountability too because sometimes, if you’re too empathic, you find that people aren’t necessarily doing what they should be doing. You have to kind of strike a balance of empathy and communication with some kind of accountability.”
“I really love to be able to collaborate as well. I’m a collaborative leader. I don’t want to do it all by myself. I love hearing other people’s ideas and being able to see them go into practice.”
We’re really happy to have had the chance to sit down with Renait and share her story and the story of Study in the USA during Women’s History Month.
Don’t forget to read about other amazing women we work with and are celebrating this month.