Kindling the entrepreneurial spirit

Ronnie Screwvala is the founder of Unilazer ventures, Swades Foundation and UTV group, founded  the media and entertainment conglomerate UTV,  spanning television, digital, mobile, broadcasting, games and motion pictures (See: Ronnie Screwvala: Looking back at the road less travelled).
Ronnie Screwvala (left) and Mayank Kumar  
He focused his energies on pioneering entrepreneurship in India and building his next set of grounds-up businesses in high growth and impact sectors. His recent commitment to being a first-mover in sports made him lend his support to sports like kabaddi and football. Passionate about social welfare, he along with his wife Zarina have managed to empower sever lives through their Swades Foundation. Newsweek termed him the Jack Warner of India, Esquire rated him as one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century and Fortune as among Asia's 25 most powerful.

Along with Mayank Kumar, Screwvala is the co-founder of UpGrad, which is an intensive online educational program carefully designed to provide valuable insights from the best entrepreneurs and faculty in India and also help budding entrepreneurs document their learnings for their various start-ups.

Mayank Kumar is the other co-founder of UpGrad and serves as its CEO.  Before founding UpGrad, Kumar was vice president education at Bertelsmann, Europe's largest media and education conglomerate, where he oversaw the group;s education strategy and its multi-million dollar investments in India. In this capacity, Mayank further served as Board member of i-nurture, India's No.1 provider of industry-specific academic programs. 

Prior to joining Bertelsmann, Kumar was a senior principal at The Partheon Group, where he advised clients in the education sector's market potential, growth and market-entry strategies, investment decisions and revenue and profit uplift strategies. Mayank had also worked at the Tata strategic group, advising Tata's strategic direction.

In this interview with Swetha Amit, Screwvala and Kumar share their insights on their online educational program UpGrad, its benefits to budding entrepreneurs and its scalability in the long run.

UpGrad is slated to be an online higher educational program for working professionals.  So how and why did the idea behind UpGrad commence?
Ronnie Screwvala:
When we considered the educational space in our country, three challenges came to our mind after much deliberation. The first being that many people in order to support their families, start working from an early age without even completing or pursuing higher education as they are unable to afford it.  Even if they are able to do so at a later stage, they don't want to quit their jobs. Therefore we believed that online education was a good solution for those who wanted to work and study at the same time.

Second, was the time factor with regards to scaling of multiple premier institutions. We felt that it would take at least a decade to build high quality ones with state of the art infrastructure and faculty.  To save India from this time lapse of 10 years, we strongly believed that this concept of online education needs to be accelerated. Third, was the lack of high quality teaching faculty. We found that attracting the best faculty was a big challenge in some of the institutions especially in the second tier cities and interior belt. Online education allows you to recruit the best since their physical presence is not demanded always.  It could be done in a much more linear fashion, creating a larger impact in the process.

Taking all these challenges into consideration, we decided that online education was the way to overcome these shortcomings and that's how the conception of UpGrad came about. We also realised that what one learns at 21 is no longer valid when they are 41. People need to constantly upgrade their skills. Through UpGrad, we wanted to help people do the same at every stage by giving them multiple options.  

You have mentioned that it's a program for working professionals. So is there any particular criteria or background you are looking at with regards to these professionals?
Our core target is any young professional earning between Rs8-12 lakh. They can belong to any age group but should be young professionals. That does not mean we are completely eliminating students who are passing out from undergraduate schools. But yes working professionals form our core preference.   

Designing online programs can come with its own set of challenges. What are the challenges you had expected UpGrad to face and how are you planning to overcome them?
With UpGrad, we saw the cup as half empty more than full.  It was a good thing as we considered it to be both a challenge as well as an opportunity. So the first challenge was to overcome the psychological barrier and common norm in India, which is that unless we go to an office space / university, we are not considered working professionals / students.

So we had to look at breaking this particular stigma attached to working or studying out of home. The second was to combat the social factor, which people associated with a university being a place to network, interact and engage with fellow students and teachers.

The third aspect was to ensure that people do not drop out midway, which was bound to happen in an online program due to the anonymity factor and lack of social stigma attached to that of a drop out.  We found that the completion rate was less than 10-15 per cent in even some of the established online players in the US like Udacity.

So we had to look at solving this problem. The fourth concern was to ensure that we get people to pay for an online course. You see with Google, most information is available for free, albeit in an unstructured manner.  Now when someone wants to start learning, it's a different feeling altogether. So we had to address all these four challenges and make sure that our content was engaging, interactive and take out the anonymity from it to give our students the feeling that someone is watching over them, even though it is an online course.

Mayank Kumar: It's difficult to get people to learn online as what normally happens is that an offline lecture is copy pasted online. Hence students feel that it's not interactive enough. We have addressed this concern by making sure that it's not always a professor addressing the students.

We have made it more like a story which an entrepreneur or industrial professor shares about their life. Say for instance if I am learning about journalism, then first I have a faculty who explains about a particular concept followed by someone from that field who shares his / her own experience to show how that concept is applicable in real life.

We are also looking to break the myth of anonymity here by ensuring that students can raise their questions and get them clarified immediately during a lecture. We have provided a suitable platform for that.  Sometimes in an online course, people lack motivation to log on and attend or study. So we have a non-teaching associate who will nudge you, asking you about your whereabouts if you haven't logged on for say, three days at a stretch. We have also ensured student meeting at coffee shops, restaurants, chat groups and catch up sessions so that our students don't feel the void of not being able to network or interact with fellow students.

What can working professionals expect from this program? Could you tell us more about how one can enrol for this program, the selection criteria, the modules at UpGrad, the courses that are being offered, the fee structure and the faculty?
This program is all about providing clarity of thought especially to potential aspiring entrepreneurs. The program which is designed for 15 weeks will have three broad elements.

The first trimester of the program will focus on idea validation, the second trimester will focus on scaling up, which involves marketing and the third will focus on funding and legal aspects.  

It is priced at Rs50,000 and students can pay upfront. We have also given the option where students can experience the first three weeks free to get a feel of the program.  If they want to continue after this, they can pay the amount to attend the rest of the course. Our faculty consists of three - four members from educational institutions.

We have shortlisted 30 entrepreneurs, all of whom are Indians, specifically for our entrepreneurship program.  So you have the CEOs from Snapdeal and as a part of our faculty. Each of them will be talking about their problems, the parental and societal pressures that they were subjected to during their entrepreneurial journey.

Besides that we also have 10-12 guest lectures who are from law firms and venture capitalists firms. So students can expect diversity of content and credibility of communication from UpGrad. 

As mentioned earlier, there will also be meetups which will be organic. A lot of our assignments and projects involve group submissions so 5 students will be put together in a group. Each group will either meet up on Skype, WhatsApp or Google Hangouts. We are trying to create the same community feeling which offline courses and universities offer. 20 years down the line, our UpGrad students should be able to meet up and say where they are heading in their respective careers.

We don't,  however, give any kind of certification for our entrepreneurship course.

Screwvala: For entrepreneurship you don't necessarily need a certificate as such. However we may look at certification for our other courses, of course. For now we are solely focused on our entrepreneurship program.

As far as the selection criteria for this program is concerned, we have an application form, which the students have to fill in and that includes their employment and educational details.  There is an admission team which processes and reviews these applications. We also require open 300 word essays and a video blog based on which we shortlist the candidates. 

This is a litmus test to make our own subjective call to understand the clarity of thought of the candidates and what they expect. If we feel there is a mismatch in expectations or lack of clarity then we ask these people to come back again after giving it a thought for some time.

Our program starts on November 25th 2015. We already have about 500 students enrolled out of which 100 have already prepaid. The remaining 400 want to try out the first three weeks and then will decide if they want to continue or not.

Seventy per cent of them come from cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai.  We have about 12-15 international students as well.   Even if 50 per cent of them decide to continue, I think it's a good start.

Kumar: Going forward we will be offering more programs which would be in the area of data analytics, angel investing, digital marketing and production management. The last two programs would be catering to the digital eco system. Data analytics would be catering to the IT, while entrepreneurship and angel investing would be focusing on the entrepreneurial eco system.

Your program involves teaching lessons on entrepreneurship. Being a successful entrepreneur yourself, do you think entrepreneurship can actually be taught?
Well there is a yes-and-no answe. If you use the word taught in the context of talked out to and teaching, then the answer would be mostly a no. However when you use it in the context of learning and interactive teaching, then the answer would be yes; one can certainly learn to be an entrepreneur. The basic premise of entrepreneurship is that you are learning every day and it's an evolution process. What we are offering at UpGrad is that at an early stage we are bringing out things that you may not be able to learn in isolation and we feel that it will help you to avoid committing a lot of mistakes in the long run.

Kumar: There is nothing right or wrong in entrepreneurship. What is important is the exposure that you get. For instance you need to know at one point in time what Ronnie did as an entrepreneur and be able to relate it back to what you want to do when you start your own venture. So it's all about getting exposed to multiple situations and being able to take your own call at that given juncture.

Considering, there were no such facilities like online courses in your days, where did you derive lessons from during your journey as an entrepreneur?
Screwvala: On hindsight I think I should have studied a lot more. However, I chose to give even the offline courses a miss. So for me, a large part of my learning came while I was on the job and from my experience. I personally feel that there is a lot which can be shared with regards to entrepreneurial learning especially for the current generation and that's what we are doing here with UpGrad.  

Online programs are usually accessible to all corners of the globe. Do you hope to penetrate into the rural market as well?
We have a presence across 71 cities at the moment. But I think the consorted effort from us to these places will be in due course of time. Once we expand the program we hope to reach the rural market as well.

Screwvala: Out of those 71 cities, 12 cities in our very first course are outside of India. And this is only the beginning. We are yet to start marketing and once that happens we will definitely look to penetrate the rural segment as well. And this is not just entrepreneurship, but with our other courses that we offer in our program which includes Data analytics, Digital marketing and Product management as mentioned earlier.

You said there is no certification for this course. So how do you propose to bring credibility to this program?
Well to be honest, the fact that 1,600 people have applied and out of which 500 people are enrolling is a credibility by itself. Also to get 30 entrepreneurs, 10 guest lectures of leading companies and four faculty members in one room is credibility in itself. As far as entrepreneurship is concerned, what would matter at the end of the three-month course is the best word of mouth feedback. I think in today's day and age, the proof of certification is going to become lesser.

The fortunate part for an entrepreneur is that you don't need paper proof. What you need is mind proof, executive proof and the 'need to move forward' proof and that's what our students are going to get. So far there has never been any discussion or question asked on certification or proof of a piece of paper from our 1,600 applicants.  

Kumar: That piece of paper becomes irrelevant in due course, especially in today's times where a lot of things are going digital. Say for instance if I need to know whether you are good in digital marketing or not, I don't necessarily need a piece of paper from you. All I need to do is go to your LinkedIn profile and see what are the aspects you are endorsed for, from which I get a good sense of what you are capable of. So the proof of whether you have done a program or not is no longer relevant on paper.  But yes there will be a digital imprint of this where people will display it saying 'I am an UpGrad student. '

Today a lot of global schools are also offering online courses and programs. What would you say makes UpGrad unique and stand out from the rest?
I would say the way we think and our entire approach to the content and learning is quite different from other online programs. There are three aspects to this - first, It's not a cut and paste job; second, it's all original content and not aggregated from all over the place and third,  the teaching is not a one way process. We have also focused on detail and gone to the grass root level with each of our courses.

So for instance with our entrepreneurship course, when we talk about the aspect of exposure, we have ensured that we have taken this exposure element to a notch higher and another level altogether for our students.

Lastly, how do you see the scalability of UpGrad a few years down the line, considering the fact that you have invested a huge sum in this venture?
Screwvala:I think it will be massive as the learning platform is huge.  Our installed capacity is not capped with number of seats, classrooms or buildings. Neither is it dependent on the number of people who can stay in a hostel or city.  We are starting with five courses and we are looking to expanding that to 14-15 courses in another two years. Each of these courses will have a multiplicity of students and we will ensure that each of them will run multiple times in a year. It will not be restricted to just one course at a time.