“What are you gonna do after college?” asked the executive director of the nonprofit where Kaneisha Grayson was volunteering the summer before her senior year.
The black studies major mentioned her one-year scholarship in Africa, but after that? Her future was wide open. That’s when Grayson was told she had a “keen business sense” and should consider going to school for it.
“I literally Googled ‘What is business school?’” recalls Grayson, now 32 years old, from her workspace in Austin’s WeWork University Park.
Harvard Business School’s website instantly popped up, asking all of the right questions.
Do you want a transformative experience? “Yes!” thought Grayson.
Do you want to be in class with the world’s leaders? “Yes, I do!” she agreed again.
Grayson was ready for the new challenge, despite lacking considerable experience in the business world. The “closest thing”?
“I was a scanning person at the grocery store, and I was the popcorn person at the movies,” says Grayson. “And I worked at Sylvan Learning center filing papers in high school. But I just had that entrepreneurial drive. I was like, ‘If I’m gonna go to business school, I want to go to the best business school.’”
Which she did. And after helping many prospective students for free—answering questions about applying to Harvard—a friend commented, “That is a business. You need to do it as a business.”
During the last few weeks of graduate school, in 2010, Grayson submitted a business plan to Harvard’s entrepreneurship center. She was given the green light and awarded $10,000 to start The Art of Applying, as well as a Kickstarter for her self-help books. “I am a writer who’s not currently writing, but it’s not abandoned,” she stresses.
At The Art of Applying, Grayson and her team of consultants help people from all over the world apply to Ivy League policy schools, business schools, and law schools.
“Our biggest win in hiring was getting Judy Kugel,” Grayson says. “She worked at Harvard for 33 years, and she was on the admissions committee at Harvard for 25 years.”
This year, they’ve extended their counsel to include helping high school students apply to college, as well as career coaching.
How does The Art of Applying “help prepare the next generation of the world’s leaders” exactly?
“One of the ways is just helping them feel like this is something that they can do,” Grayson says. “Like, look at me. I don’t look like the people you see on Wolf of Wall Street or whatever. So you can do it, too.”
Another crucial part of Grayson’s job is encouraging people, especially women, to aim for the stars.
“A big part of my job is helping people admit that they want to be rich and/or powerful,” Grayson says. “I feel like a huge part of my job is to get people to admit what they really want to do, but A) not being judgmental, but also just letting them know: you are applying to Harvard. These are the most ambitious, driven people. So this is not the time to be shy.”
Grayson is proud of pushing herself to receive both a business degree from HBS and a public administration degree from the Harvard Kennedy School. But what she regrets is the “huge burden” she accumulated in student loans—“Debt is detrimental to artists,” she says.
Since its inception, The Art of Applying has advised hundreds of students—that means a combined millions of dollars awarded in fellowships. Sure, sometimes clients aren’t awarded any money. But sometimes, they get $10,000 or $20,000. And often, clients will announce they got “three full rides”: Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton.
“It is like my redemption,” Grayson says, “or my amends to myself—to help people understand the gravity and the seriousness of student loans and take on as little as possible.”
Photos: Adam Saraceno