Anna Gray is a University of Nottingham alumna and entrepreneur behind the UK’s first student modelling agency, Model Students. Despite a modest debut, Anna now represents 170 models, owns a London-based operation for the agency and collaborates with fashion students and international photographers. Impressively, she counts big names such as Boots and Urban Males as clients. Impact sat down with Anna to learn more about her, Model Students and how she got it off the ground utilising the services provided by the University’s Ingenuity Lab located on Jubilee Campus.
“Some of the negative aspects of the industry spurred my idea to start up an agency that would only sign students”
Tell us a bit about your time at university. Did you always know you wanted to be a businesswoman?
Yes – I came to uni to study Business Management because I’d always wanted to start my own business, I never really wanted to do anything else. I just didn’t know straight away what the business would be exactly.
What inspired your idea for a modelling agency for students?
I was signed to a modelling agency myself whilst I was a student which I really enjoyed. There were some fun opportunities, but travelling around a lot for castings combined with some of the negative aspects of the industry spurred my idea to start up an agency that would only sign students. Importantly, it would be more student-friendly by finding work in your local area.
“A lot of the clients that we approached already worked with established agencies – it was about getting them to give our models and us a chance”
How did you go about starting Model Students? Talk to us a bit about the Ingenuity Lab and what help they offered you.
I took my business plan to the Ingenuity Lab when I was in my final year. They helped me start my business there for free, cutting out rent costs which was a massive help. With official university backing, potential clients trust in the business and believe in the idea. The Ingenuity Lab also advised on meetings with accountants, lawyers and other professionals – exploring these avenues would have been much more expensive without the university’s help so I was able to do it without having to take out a big loan.
What challenges did you face?
I think it’s the same for most new businesses: getting people to trust you and build a reputable name. A lot of the clients that we approached already worked with established agencies – it was about getting them to give our models and us a chance and for us to provide a good enough service so we could win their loyal business. Its only now – 5 years in – that clients are contacting us to book models.
What are three key words that you would use to describe what it’s like to start your own business?
Exciting, hard work and stressful.
How is Model Students different to other model agencies?
We are a student-focused agency. The models we represent are students – we don’t charge a sign up fee, we don’t charge them for photographs. We only ever earn once we find them paid work. What’s really important to us is encouraging a healthy attitude towards looking good. We encourage them to value eating well and exercising over just trying to be skinny.
Talk to us about a typical day at work for you.
A lot of the time, I work from home on my laptop. There are some really exciting days, like if lots of our girls get booked for a show – we’ll often get involved backstage or sometimes our clients will hold castings at our offices. I go to London more often as I now have someone running a branch of Model Students there, so there’s some travelling. There’s never really a ‘typical day’ – there is always a lot going on which is nice.
“Working with someone who also went to Nottingham is a really good feeling”
How do you go about recruiting and what criteria are you looking for in your models?
On average we receive 100 applications per month, of whom we’ll sign 2 or 3. We consider their potential for finding work, so looks are important but we also care about a well-written application; we value intelligence and hard work. We’ll look at the overall application, look at our list of clients and see where they could fit in. We would say to any students who are interested in modelling that it is so important to be confident in your own skin. It is a very harsh industry and lots of young people take it personally if we don’t take them on or if they don’t get selected for jobs. The best models we have don’t take themselves too seriously and when you are putting yourself up for being judged on the way you look this is the best way to be!
What has been your proudest achievement so far?
Securing Boots as a client is probably our biggest achievement. Also hiring José, another Nottingham alumnus who now runs our London operation. Working with someone who also went to Nottingham is a really good feeling.
Where do you see the business in 5 years’ time? How do you see the business developing?
I would like Model Students to grow its presence in London, Nottingham and Manchester – I think that these are the major UK cities for modelling. It would also be great to expand our team of staff to push the company forward.
What advice would you give to other students who want to start their own business?
It’s not an easy career choice – you have to be prepared to stick it out! My friends are employed in graduate jobs with good salaries, whereas it has taken me 5 years to earn a decent living. You have to persevere but it’s so rewarding – you are responsible for creating the job you love. It is worth it, just be prepared!
Interviewed by Habiba Katsha
Credits: Elspeth Van der Hole, Marcus Holdsworth via Model Students