Published: Nov. 30, 2016

Cynthia Banks in AustraliaCynthia Banks didn’t have the opportunity to study abroad as a student. The summer after graduating in 1989, she helped a marketing professor take a group of undergraduates to Australia to study at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. The experience was so successful she was asked to take more students back to Australia.

That led the Colorado native to launch an international education organization a year later that would eventually send 30,000 students to 27 countries and offer 150 programs worldwide. Today, Banks is sharing her entrepreneurial insights with CU Boulder students as an instructor in the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at the Leeds School of Business. 

“I found out there was a huge market for international education,” Banks said. “Starting a business like this when I was 24—had no money and people didn’t believe I could do it—despite all the noise that goes on around you, the best advice I ever received was to trust myself and stay the course. That has provided so beneficial throughout my life.” 

Banks founded AustraLearn in 1990, which took students to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. The company expanded to become GlobaLinks Learning Abroad and provided worldwide internships and semester and summer programs across all majors. 

The logistics of getting an international business up and running in 1990 were challenging. With no internet or email at the time, Banks used fax machines and made international phone calls at $10 a minute to communicate with people in other parts of the world. Getting forms signed and mailed added days of delays.

Other considerations she had to focus on when sending students overseas included ensuring their health and safety, making it an affordable and meaningful experience, and having a reliable support system in place. 

Banks discovered a rising demand for international internships that offer transcendent career experiences for students. Internships were facilitated in such far-flung locations as Shanghai, Argentina and New Zealand, and became wildly popular for both students and businesses. 

“Students loved getting work experience abroad and receiving academic credit,” Banks said. “Companies would take students in and give them real work. For instance, in China, our students were viewed as extremely capable and were often given large projects within a few days of arrival. The overseas company would just say, ‘You’re now in charge of marketing for the entire project.’ 

“Students really had to step up, think on their feet and practice the skills they had learned in their classes,” she said. “Some students received full job offers at those companies after they graduated.”

Living and studying abroad can be a challenging experience as students learn to navigate different academic and social environments, often in a second language. Stepping outside their comfort zone serves as a catalyst for increased self-confidence and helps them to be respectful of other cultures and political systems. 

“That first-hand experience of living and studying in another country affects their career choices and their worldview,” she said. “Our students need to be prepared for a diverse workforce and to engage in meaningful problem solving. Studying abroad is a real-life road test for those skills.” 

This is Banks’ first semester teaching entrepreneurship classes at CU’s Leeds School of Business. The entrepreneurship program aspires to make CU Boulder the leading public university in entrepreneurship. This comes about from their desire to help all CU students learn about entrepreneurship regardless of their major.  The business school and its faculty want to empower students to think in an entrepreneurial way, as an exploratory thought process of entrepreneurship that does not just live in the world of business, but can be infused into many aspects of their lives. 

“It’s about being willing to go through the process of thinking and problem solving,” she said. “It’s being willing to pivot and try new things until you get something to work.”

She already sees the impact of this in her students and looks forward to contributing to the global and innovative entrepreneurship program at CU. 

Banks, who has a master’s degree in management and an entrepreneurial certificate from CU Denver, shares her knowledge and expertise in a variety of advisory roles, including recent
board service with NAFSA: Association for International Educators and has stated a new entrepreneurial adventure for women’s leadership called the Global Leadership League. 

“I want to help other people figure out their journeys and make sure they get the opportunities I was given,” she said. 

In 2014, after 24 years at the helm, Banks sold the company, an exit strategy giving her freedom to now teach at CU and give back to the community.

She feels so strongly about the benefits of an international experience that in 2011, Banks, her husband and their two kids moved to a tiny town in north Queensland, Australia, where they lived for a year.

“It was a great experience for all of us,” Banks said. “It was the best thing I could have done for our son and daughter (now 18 and 15). They developed their own sense of resiliency that I think has helped them with high school. It is never too late to study abroad, live abroad or just travel. A global perspective is good for ourselves and our communities, and that just never goes out of style.”