Interview | Byju's Co-Founder Divya Gokulnath on global listing plans, work-life balance, future of teaching, and more

The co-founder of the $10 billion edtech behemoth tells Moneycontrol why she thinks the golden age of teachers is coming back and all about her plans to take her company global.

March 05, 2021 / 09:34 AM IST

Divya Gokulnath started her career as a teacher at the age of 21, a decision that changed her life forever. She would go on to marry Byju Raveendran and build Byju’s, which is today an ed-tech behemoth, valued at over $10 billion. Divya, who had her second child a few months ago, spoke to Moneycontrol’s Chandra R Srikanth on how she balances it all, her global aspirations for Byju’s, coping with criticism and her mentors.

Edited Excerpts:

Divya, welcome to Moneycontrol and Hearty Congratulations! I just learnt you had your second baby a few months ago. How are you managing it all--running a decacorn and bringing up two little boys? How has life changed for you?

It has been hectic, but I think it's been good hectic. The younger one is just three months old. With the older one, this is the first time I've got so much time with him. I think after my three-month maternity break in 2013, this is the first time I'm staying at home for this much time and trying to manage work and home at the same time. And I'm grateful that I'm getting to spend this much time with family, which I don't think I would have ever done otherwise. And I think professionally also, it's been a fantastic year for us. As unfortunate as the situation is, the pandemic has put EdTech in the spotlight. So, there's so much awareness, and there's so much impact that we can create, I think we're very fortunate to be in a segment of positive relevance. We quickly offered multiple solutions, like one is, Byju’s Classes or Free Live Classes on our platform where children could come back and learn in a scheduled manner, something that they were missing, especially at that point of time because the schools were shut down. In a few months, we saw all stakeholders in education going online, be it the teachers, be it the students, be it schools as well. So, they transitioned to online learning. And that's been amazing because there's so much awareness now of the benefits of online learning. I think we've enjoyed the past year a lot, doing a lot of different things.

Right, and Divya, the last year has literally been a golden year for EdTech in India, We see it every day in the way children have quickly adapted to this online learning mode. But do you think this will continue even after schools reopen? Children are really missing that interpersonal connection, connect with their teachers, which is so important, such an important part of education?

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Yeah, you rightly said that. There are a lot of aspects of a school, which are very important for a child's development, and the corridor time, which they get and a lot of learning, like social skills, which happens only because you're learning with others with a group of people. Now, those are things that can be never replaced online. So, if you ask me, I think the future looks like even after the vaccine comes, it looks like a mix of online and offline learning with certain aspects of learning going online, especially subjects like math and science, and I think we've all come to realise how it can be taught more effectively online, and also aspects of learning going offline, like, the social skills, like I spoke about teamwork, sports, arts, all of these, actually, being offline remaining offline, because you need a group of people to actually get to learn this effectively. I think it's going to be a blend of both online and offline. But the best part is, people have realized the benefits of online learning. So, it’s going to be blended, and it's going to be better.

And do you still see the appetite for people to use a Byju’s to supplement the online learning that they already have in school? Because a lot of classes have gone online, teachers have gone online, assignments are coming online. So over and above that will people also use a platform like Byju’s for their kids?

So, where Byju’s comes in is to create self-paced learners, self-initiated learners. And it's always used, as you rightly said, to supplement what they learn in school, to reinforce concepts better. So, if anything, I think the awareness for a product like Byju’s has gone up, because the parents are realizing, and are more aware of how technology can help the child learn in a more engaging manner, learn in a more effective manner and learn to retain concepts beyond an exam. So, the place that Byju’s holds in the learning cycle, will be as relevant now, as it will be in the future.

So in India, you have sort of become the preeminent EdTech app. But now in terms of going global, what are your aspirations next? Is this one of those India-first innovations that can go global?

Yeah, so I think there is massive potential. And I think the golden age of teachers is coming back, we have 11,000 women teachers. So, yes, in 2021, we do aspire to go global. And I think there is a lot of potential for a company made in India to take this kind of a product to the world, because there is a need, like you rightly said, for a learning product that completely takes care of a child's learning from end to end. The right kind of learning programs, and learning platforms and learning products can help create products that can take India to a global level.

Any countries that are playing on your mind and how you're going to go about this, because, again, in terms of languages, will you explore foreign languages or English first, just curious on how you plan to go about?

I think the simplest decision at first would be to start with English speaking countries and Commonwealth countries because there are a lot of overlaps in terms of curriculum syllabus, and even as you said rightly--language. But then I don’t think language is a barrier because there is a scope to create teachers in multiple countries. We can have teachers teaching from different parts of the world to students in different parts of the world. So, it's not going to be restricted to English. But then we are looking to create a global product, which is agnostic of language, agnostic of geography.

Divya, one of the most inspiring visuals or images that I saw recently, was that of Bumble Founder and CEO, Whitney Wolfe Herd, who rang the NASDAQ bell, with an infant in her arms. I'm tempted to ask you if we will see you doing something similar this year or next year?

I think it'd be great for our country. And to set up an amazing example, if we can, to list globally. And definitely, we aspire to do that, sooner or later, it's bound to happen. And I think the most important part is that it will set a precedent for many more companies to follow.

I remember reading an article of yours a couple of years ago, where you spoke about how your mother, who was a working mom herself, is a huge source of inspiration for you. But, in a hyperconnected world like ours, is it really possible to draw these boundaries? And in your case, you're the co-founder, you have skin in the game.

So, one thing that has definitely worked for me is creating artificial boundaries. It’s important to create some sort of an artificial boundary for yourself, because that way, you are giving 100 percent attention at one point to one thing, so 50-50 never works, right. It's 100 percent or a zero. So, I've been a teacher first, like you introduced me, and I wear that label with a lot of pride because that was my first job. And, when my first son was born, I was actively teaching for the videos on the learning app. And I used to do it whenever he was sleeping. I think all of us have managed to balance the sort of work and life because I enjoy both. That's very, very important. Now neither of them can be a chore, right? If you really love something, you're on a holiday every day. So, I think you enjoy both, but give time to both and do 100 percent at one point of time, try not to mix because we women are very, very efficient at multitasking. So, since we're so good at it, we try to do it at the same time. But that typically doesn't work, because then you won't know which one to give priority for at that point in time. And also, I know that it's important to have yearly goals and all of that, but I think it's more important to break them down to weekly and daily goals as well and plan your day. I'm very proud to say that, our founding team is the same even today what it was. And that's only because there is a family kind of spirit between all of us.

There are two ways people look at the post-pandemic situation for women professionals, working women. On the one hand, people say it's very positive because remote working has gone mainstream. But on the other hand, people are talking about how this multitasking thing has really hit women world-over because they are exhausted. So, how do you really see the situation evolving?

I've seen both, in the sense that I've seen families where there is complete support for the woman when she's working. I'm lucky to be from a household like that. And then there is the other, where a woman is expected to take the responsibility of both the household as well as office, that's where it is a little difficult to do. I think post-pandemic, the situation will be better, where we’ll see families being able to be with each other at least, and then there will be a lot of support for women to grow. But you're right, if that doesn't happen, it is very difficult. And maybe then women can choose to either opt for remote working or, go to the office and work. I would still prefer going to the office and working because I feel I can actually cut off, focus on work and then go back. And then there may be women who would like to do it from home so that they have the flexibility of managing work and home at the same time. So, I think it's very person-centric. We can't generalize this. It depends on the kind of person you are and the kind of support you have.

Are there mentors or women entrepreneurs who you turn to occasionally when you face some challenge or there's just too much happening around you? How do you cope?

So, if you ask me my biggest mentor, my biggest source of inspiration has always been my mother, because I'm the only child and she's kind of set an example. She’s the one who inspired me and all of that, and I’ve not realised it, but it's mentally being playing in my mind. And considering the fact that I didn't have any siblings to play with, my mother was always there. I've been swimming since the age of five. I've been singing since the age of five. I've been into gymnastics; I've been playing basketball for my college. So, all of this will not happen, at least in the very early years until you have parental support, right. And she's encouraged me to do whatever I want to. She instilled in me the importance of reading. That’s how I want to bring up my children today. I want to give them the exposure to do what they want, give them all the resources to gain knowledge. Both me and Byju (Raveendran) very strongly believe that playing is as important as learning. The other thing is, if you ask me for mentors, I look within my team and my team looks within each other. There are a lot of us who talk to each other a lot.

You started as a teacher at the age of 21. And then Byju’s just became this huge enterprise. But as you've scaled, the spotlight increasingly will fall on all aspects of Byju’s for positive and negative reasons- be it acquisitions, be it work culture, be it other things. Byju’s is now a decacorn that has global aspirations, that has ambitions of going public. So, people are going to question you on various things. How are you preparing for that?

Yeah, and I think it is important because when you go from zero to one, and then you start going from 1 to 10, it's very different, how it happens, the things you do, and like you rightly said, you're in the spotlight for everything be it good, be it bad. But I think it's important also for a start-up to take criticism in a positive way and grow from it. And as long as you do that, you're on the right path. Now, you can either live in absolute denial, or you can take it positively and grow from it. And I think we've opted for number two, which helps us because be it any of the things that you pointed about, any start-up while growing so fast can make multiple mistakes, there's nothing wrong with that. But it's important to learn and grow from it. So, as you said, I think we are gearing up to go to the next level.

Is there something that you particularly learnt a lot from in the last year in terms of mistakes, or challenges, or spotlight or criticism, or anything else that you would like to share with us?

I think when you grow this fast, you realise the processes can be better, you realise that you could have done things in a better way, in a more efficient way. And that's what we're looking into now. And we're trying to build it in a better way. But overall being said, you should look at the speed with which a lot of things have been executed. And if you ask me, that's been one of our biggest strengths. We don't keep planning. For us, our ideation to execution time is extremely fast. And that has been and remained one of our biggest strengths. And I think that's for any start-up, not just being agile, being on the top of things, having skin in the game, being in very close contact with your customers to understand feedback and implementing it quickly. All of this is really, really important as you take the leap ahead. And I think it's important to stay like that, whether you're going from zero to one, one to 10, or 10 to 100.

And how difficult is it Divya to stay this agile and nimble because as you said, one of Byju’s greatest strengths is the way you were able to quickly scale from idea to execution? How difficult will this be going forward? Byju’s is in the news for acquisitions. So again, there will be integration issues, cultural issues, how are you planning for this?

Yeah, if you ask me, we call them integrations rather than acquisitions. Because, in any of the integrations that we've had so far, the founding team has always stayed on, because I think there is a lot that we can learn from each other, all the companies that have become, you talk about Osmo, or whether you talk about WhiteHat Jr. It's about minimum intervention and maximum support.

Do you think it's easier for a woman entrepreneur or a startup led by a woman to start, scale-up, raise funding today compared to before?

So, Chandra like you rightly said, I think the percentage of women in boardrooms has gone up, that's an indicator. And I think there is a lot of focus on bringing up women to the next level, because there is a dismal representation of women, especially in leadership levels, so you would see a healthy representation at the entry-level right after graduation. And if you look at the numbers, more than half of our graduates are actually women. So, there's a lot of scope for women to climb up the ladder, but then, unfortunately, that starts dropping around I’ll say, our age; that's typical because of family commitments, having children at that point of time, and then the studies actually show that only half the women join back, and then a quarter of them leave again. So, keeping all of this in mind, I think, if there is a lot of mentorship within the company if there is a lot of support within the company to create flexible policies for them to continue learning, a lot of women will take it. Also, you mentioned the Bumble founder. I think there are so many women role to look up to today. It's about not being an opener, but continuing to stay till the end of the game. And that's what is important is not let them fall off. So, if women can surround themselves with more women, and if they can mentor them, encourage them to come up and be there with them when they go through this difficult phase where they sometimes have to make a decision being flexible with them at that point of time because beyond that, they can again come back to work.

Finally, Divya, what keeps you awake at night, apart from your three-month-old, in terms of the problems that you want to solve or what motivates you, what keeps you awake?

So yes, like you rightly said, the only thing that wakes me up is my three-month-old. But apart from that, I would say, both me and Byju, we love what we do, we have fun doing what we do. So, there's nothing that we worry about when we go to sleep because we know that we're making a difference. We aspire to do a lot. But that's not something that keeps us awake at night. That's something that when we do it, we have an absolute 100 percent fun while doing it.
Chandra R Srikanth is Editor- Tech, Startups, and New Economy
first published: Mar 5, 2021 09:34 am

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