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Ronnie Screwvala on the future of edtech, global ambitions and 3 unicorns in 30 years of entrepreneurship

Education, specifically edtech, will constitute the next set of global companies emerging out of India, much like what IT did in the 2000s, says Ronnie Screwvala. But it should be a global map coming out of India, rather than trying to become a western company looking to list on foreign stock exchanges, he said.

October 29, 2021 / 11:08 AM IST

Ronnie Screwvala’s in-depth understanding of the Indian entrepreneurship space, especially in the post-liberalisation era, spanning over three decades and multiple sectors, makes him an ideal candidate to do a deep dive with. On matters of risk-taking, identifying winning businesses and continuous upskilling, very few entrepreneurs can hold a candle to him.

In an exclusive interview done over two sittings, the Chairperson and Co-Founder of edtech unicorn upGrad, talks extensively about his life, work, successes, failures and the entrepreneurial nous that enabled him to straddle multiple businesses and three unicorns across media (UTV), consumer play (Lenskart) and technology (upGrad).  Excerpts from the interview:

Hello Ronnie, why do you think the Indian edtech space is attracting so many players? The investments into the sector continue to soar.

The sector needs massive disruption and hence so many people see opportunities here. And wherever you read about a disproportionate amount of investor interest and easy and large money flow, partly driven by FOMO, a herd mentality follows.  Having said that, this will not be a winner takes all market. Education and learning are not aspects that grow because someone throws money at it. However, some great entrepreneurs, technology and platforms will emerge from the sector that will benefit working professionals and careers of millions.

What changes do you foresee happening in the education sector in the coming years?

Education is no longer an ‘event’ of school followed by college and the eternal quest to have a degree on your CV. How you learn, how often you update and upgrade yourself, and more importantly how you adopt soft skills to make you a rounded professional, are going to be key. We will need to solve this problem on a global scale as the problem of redundancy is now everywhere. University, campus and offline learning are great but it’s a very selective process, where few get the choices that they need and this decade will change most of it; not by replacement but by augmentation, not by competition but by collaboration and not by narrowing your perspective to one location but broadening it to the best practices and courses globally.

Disproportionate investment in the development of teachers and faculty is an issue and that’s where private enterprise can play a big role. Right now, the curriculum is so heavy that just getting it done itself is such a strenuous process. Sadly, we don’t teach aspiration in our schools. In this century, it won’t be about what you learnt in school or college, but what you learnt later in life. Just because you graduated and threw that cap up, that does not mean that’s the last time you ever learned anything.

Also Read: UpGrad enters unicorn club; raises $185 million from Temasek, IFC

Generalist or specialist? What’s the way forward for the corporate workforce?

My point is you need to be both. I don’t think you can survive in today’s working world without soft skills that round you as a person and most don’t realise that. You can’t say I am a PhD but I can’t communicate. Even research projects need great leadership, communication & collaborative skills and today you need to access and be accessible to anyone in the world. There are no boundaries for knowledge or learning. In some ways, I love the way we taught and learned in school the Indian way - sit around a tree and participate, communicate and be amongst equals vs the classrooms of today.

Ronnie, you have been an entrepreneur for more than 30 years in India. If you were to sum up the entrepreneur of the ‘90s, how would you describe the person?

In the 90’s it was mainly about ‘which family or business’ you came from. First-generation entrepreneurship up was for strugglers. Entrepreneurship was frowned on, more like a last resort if you could not land yourself a good job. It was the era where family businesses wanted to be in everything so that they left nothing for anyone and in that process, there was never a focus on any one business for them, because of that scale suffered as most felt comfortable to have their finger in many pies versus being a king in one. So, in short, it was a really tough time from someone who wanted to be the first in his or her family to set sail. It all did seem very formidable but that created very hardened and real entrepreneurs too.

In what way did the situation change in the 2000s?

As fruits of liberalisation set in, the first rays of new ambition and aspirations started showing up. First-generation entrepreneur became a term people started talking about. While it was still difficult to do business in India, people started respecting the term. Most people were comfortable running small scale industries till then. While the shadow of failure or victimisation was still around, there were few examples of successful breakouts during this period.

It was still a protective thinking era - there were hundreds of industries that were protected and classified as small or medium-scale (partly for good reason), so that new entrepreneurs could emerge. It did not become the land grab of the big industrialist houses (most of them are extinct today) but it also seeped into the culture that you needed to think small and you need protection to really run a successful business.

And then came the true, modern era of Indian entrepreneurship driven by technology and risk-happy new-age entrepreneurs. Right?

The 2010-20 period saw the old world & old mindsets of the term industrialist getting truly threatened. When that environment gets threatened, you know you are on to something. Being a ‘Conglomerate’ was no longer fashionable. Also, most of these businesses that were built on debt were really feeling the heat as the new gen entrepreneur did not care about ‘control’ or if she/he owned 51% of his company. They did not have debt in their vocabulary. Capital flowed into the country, first-gen entrepreneurship got built, wallet share changed and accessibility to capital became easier. The decade brought out hunger.

Ambitions and aspirations changed in this decade of 2010-20 more than in the previous five decades. Also, in the last five years, the concept of job security has changed. Unless you were working for the government, your job came without any security. This placed entrepreneurship in an even better place. It was like, if not now, then when? But I have to say that we still don’t think big. When we say global, it’s still just a word. Thinking big is about laser focus, shattering glass ceilings and being relentless at what you do.

What has entrepreneurship taught you? It’s probably difficult to put that into a nutshell because of your long innings in business but what would be the key learnings?

Entrepreneurship is a lot about sticking it out. Most people think the buzzword is exit but the real buzzword is sticking it out. For some people, entrepreneurship is a momentary journey. For them, it’s like, let’s try it out and if I don’t see results soon, then move on.

Secondly, I want to talk about the obsession for scale and bigness. Here in India, we are not looking at a market that is homogeneous, it’s so divergent. If I am looking at Africa, I would look at it as a continent. In India, whether we like it or not, we are a continent. If you look at it as a continent, then the whole is much bigger than the sum of its parts. But if we look at it as a country, then you see the Hindi belt, or this belt and that belt. You can see that there is a great opportunity to think big but very few people have necessarily done that.

I think to that extent, full credit goes to the Reliance group and specifically Mukesh Ambani. They are one of the largest in the world, one of the most valuable companies, but they never fooled themselves about wanting to be global. They just looked like they wanted to be a dominant player in the market and wherever there was no market they would go ahead and make a market. That’s one element of looking at scale.

Lastly on this one, I think building a successful business and being a successful entrepreneur in spite of all your failures, is outlasting the others. When you think that way, you build lasting businesses, companies, teams and organizations. There is just too much noise and chest thumping about the here and now - who raised what capital, who became a unicorn, who killed what competition just by being absurdly funded - none of this can build companies that outlast others. I think the reason you picked me to interview for this article, in some ways, is because I feel I stayed the course and outlasted even myself. For this you need to reinvent yourself every day - but how can you if you’re so busy worrying how green the grass is with everyone else.

During your tryst with the media in the 1990s, with UTV, you were regarded as one of the pioneers of entertainment content. How difficult were those early days?

At UTV, we had failed a number of times and had almost gone bankrupt. But at that stage, your own level of self-confidence and your ability to bring the team together and manage the crisis is something that will stay in my mind forever. In my media days, at UTV we were always going against the grain, in my opinion. Being a visionary is only in hindsight. When you are actually doing it, everyone says you are mad. When you do it, they say you are a visionary. You are so lonely between your ‘mad’ and your ‘visionary’ that you can’t even spot a deer on that road.

There were so many nay-sayers telling me ‘don’t do this or don’t do that’. They were like, don’t start a movie studio, what the hell do you know, you are a South Mumbai boy. Don’t start a kids’ channel because Disney, Cartoon Network are here, so what are you doing with this Hungama. By the way, in some cases they were right, and in some of them I was right. That’s how it should be.

The opportunity to make a difference to India’s visual impairment market would have been an important reason for you to invest in Lenskart, right?

We are one of the biggest visually impaired markets in the world. About 50% of some form of visual impairment in the world comes out of India. That’s not because of some biological reason, it’s just that we don’t look after our eyes or have access to eye care. We don’t do enough tests and don’t look for preventive measures. We go directly from no tests to cataract. Nothing in between. To take a market like that, build it and consummate it and to take a commodity like spectacles and convert it into a brand play was important. Which is why I backed a great entrepreneur and someone who really felt impact and value creation go hand in hand.

And then came the big edtech opportunity with upGrad.

Just the opportunity to think so fresh in a landscape that’s so ancient called education, was so exciting. Online education is a much more eliminative process, while offline learning is more of a selective one. Institutions are built by creating a shortage, by creating a brand, letting 10,000 people apply and letting just 100 through the door. But the power of learning today is that instead of 10,000 people, 100,000 apply and almost 90,000 get through and the rest 10,000 will get counsel on how to do it another time.

At upGrad, 24/7 and 365 days a year, one is looking to open up the market and do concept selling of the importance of life-long learning to parents, faculty, corporates, teachers and to everybody else. When you are market making and you are pioneering, it involves a very high level of communication and conviction. While in the media, I had to be obsessively ahead of the trend because you’ll succeed only if you are three steps ahead of your audience, in terms of what the trends are. Staying ahead of the curve is a mastery by itself.

What are your goals and objectives at upGrad?

Impact the global workforce, that is pretty much it. Make them more job ready. Make them better with their career options. We're building an absolutely global edtech company and to us education and ed-tech will be the global export from India. A little bit like what IT was in the 1990s. In ed-tech specifically, we'd be on the global map. But it should be a global map coming out of India, rather than trying to become a western company trying to list on foreign stock exchanges.

How do you see the corporate world transforming in the near future?

The corporate world is going to be defined by the culture of each corporate - unfortunately, everyone feels it’s either a chaotic, innovative, mad paced culture or a process-driven, steady growth culture. The future will not be good for either. An uncanny mix of both and those who create that culture will succeed 100x than others. But that starts from the top leadership. The problem is most will not be comfortable with a combination of both. But, without that, the expiry date on growth for many companies will be put up where their Vision Board at the reception desk was otherwise hung.

The other aspect is that the geographical boundaries are going to collapse completely. That does not mean the world is going to be flat. The potential market, accessibility for talent and the compensation of the workforce will not depend on where you are headquartered or where your staff can be hired from or where the bulk of your office is. Imagine the eclectic definition, therefore, of an organization where it doesn’t make a difference where people are residing. This has nothing to do with Covid. This will be based on competence.

And gig economy? What would be its future?

Gig will be a 10-year phenomenon. It’s a loosely used word and classification.  When our parents were in job cycles, they did three jobs in their entire lifetime, but now people change three jobs in one year. Today that too is gig working. I think the concept of the gig economy is not about your sense of freedom, flexibility and freelancing. It’s going to require that you are that expert who can come in and impact things around you and that person’s value can be 10x. Right now, gig sounds like freelancing where that person is not earning 10x.

I think gig will go away because when you don’t have geographical boundaries and you don’t have that discipline to get to that one particular place or position, it can end up becoming passive. The real impact of not being in a full-time job is when you impact more for less - not less for less (which is gig) and so maybe the new word will be the “focus’ economy where you’re a heavy hitter (the expert) who comes in and in lesser time, with less cost and less team members, leaves the biggest mark.

What would you want to communicate to a college student who aspires to become an entrepreneur in future?

It was difficult for me to back somebody else’s vision and build on it. That’s what drove me to become an entrepreneur initially. It’s important that I enjoy what I do and have fun doing that. If you look at it as a job and as a pay-cheque that’s the first sign that you are not going to have fun. Enjoyment at work, to me, is not overrated. Try something new. A sense of innovation is important. And doing it, at scale, is important. The minute it’s not at scale it’s not fun.

I would tell college students to do it step by step – don’t run till you can walk first. There is a process and a way of learning. There is a sense of maturity that cannot happen overnight. Be willing to stick it out. Don’t find excuses all the time, like, you tried your best but it didn’t work. You have to try your best 100 times before it works. When it starts working, it is magic. But that doesn’t mean after that, you won’t have another thing that won’t work. And finally run to outlast!

Working with all these young co-founders at upGrad, you surely are not feeling 65-years-old.

They are just bindaas. They are wired differently. They are not intimidated. They don’t take no for an answer, which I think is fantastic. It took me a long time to do that because I came through the ‘90s where it wasn’t that practical and you felt things were not in your control. These youngsters think differently, look at the market very differently and also look at the opportunities very differently. Their ability to innovate through technology is quite incredible. If you are 40 and have a stuck mind, you may not have the ability to do a pivot. For these youngsters, pivot is just a word or a verb. The agility of these young entrepreneurs is a huge learning for me.

Read More: Ronnie Screwvala: 'I can’t twiddle my thumbs with the growth ambitions that we have'
Darlington Jose Hector is a Senior Journalist
first published: Oct 29, 2021 11:08 am