Business Today

Online education is casual, that is the challenge: Ronnie Screwvala

Business Today's Taslima Khan spoke to serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala, who was in Delhi along with Mayank Kumar, former investment professional at venture firm Bertelsmann India Investments.

twitter-logo Taslima Khan        Last Updated: August 30, 2017  | 14:04 IST
Serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala
Serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala

Business Today spoke to serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala, who was in Delhi along with Mayank Kumar, former investment professional at venture firm Bertelsmann India Investments. After stints in television content, film production, sports and venture capital, Screwvala is now building his next passion, UpGrad, an education venture. As he plans to commit Rs 100 crore for the first two years, Mayank and Ronnie extrapolate on what UpGrad is all about and how they are going about it.  

Q. You have diversified from films and entertainment to education. What gives you the confidence?

Ronnie: I think there are quite a few commonalities between education and media and entertainment. At the end of the day, it is still reaching out, communicating and creating an impact. A lot of what you are doing is content, both sides, though in different forms and different people. I believe scalability in education has not happened much, given that it is such a large sector. Both Mayank and I come from backgrounds where we have built things at scale. To us, the writing was quite clear that we wanted to do something in education.

Q. Why online, not offline?

Ronnie: To create one more additional offline venture was not that challenging for many reasons. One, if you are looking at offline education, the scale comes down to 2,000, 3,000 or say 5,000 students a year. A brick-and-mortar business takes three to five years to create an institution. Two, if it is not in the top metros, attracting top faculty is a challenge. I don't want to start something with a capacity of, say, 5,000 or 6,000. Then it is a little bit of vanity business when you want to put your name on the gate of a university, touch and feel it and drive-in through the two pillars. I think that is the old-fashioned way of looking at things in life. I think online is a much more interesting way for creating a large impact on many more people. So that's why it doesn't add up to us for all the reasons: infrastructure, time to market, RoCE (return on capital employed) and faculty requirements.  

Q. Online has its own challenges: there is a lot of clutter and it is difficult to differentiate. How do you overcome these factors?

Ronnie: We know exactly how to be nimble and go forward. I think the serious challenge in online is that it is not yet a credible business. From a consumer point of view, there is the issue of gratification: it is casual, one may finish it or not. One can drop out anonymously, while dropping out of college amidst fellow students is a public humiliation. But the contrary aspect is that in India, most people who want to study at the post-graduation or specialisation level want to see that they work and learn at the same time. Most people think it is only a pricing thing...they can't afford it, that's why they don't want to study. Fifty per cent of the people, even if they could afford, cannot afford to not work. Online gives you the complete flexibility in terms of working while studying.

Q. How will it work?

Mayank: These courses are for working professionals with three to seven years of experience now thinking about 'what next in my career'. I think the way industry needs are changing, these days you need to continuously innovate and update yourself in your career. We want to provide relevant programmes, therefore we have identified three programmes- entrepreneurship, data analytics and the third one is managing digital businesses. We will think of more.

Q. What is the programme on entrepreneurship like?

Mayank: It will not be about how to teach anyone to be an entrepreneur, but to provide them with clarity of thought and thinking about the entire journey. It will be a 15-week programme. The other two on data analytics and digital businesses management will be like post-graduate programmes. Digital business management course will help those who want to join e-commerce companies like Snapdeal, Flipkart or Amazon but do not have the expertise. Also, it will help major print publications that are going through a digital transformation.

Q. How will it work? Where would you source content from?

Mayank: We will create content. For the curriculum, we are collaborating with faculty members in India and abroad. We are bringing in faculty members to sit down and brainstorm on what the curriculum will be like, apart from bringing in industry folks to think on what is needed. The programme will be delivered in a combination of text, audio and video. We are going to break away from video recorded lectures. We are recording videos with the Snapdeal/Ola* for instance founders to bring their test case alive.

Q. Can you see this developing into a billion-dollar business?

Ronnie: I do believe so. We see a massive need in people to upgrade themselves. Right now, they do not look at online as a credible medium. No one can convince their family to go out and spend Rs 50,000 to one lakh and tell what they will get in return. They want to believe that their employability is going to go to the next level. We are going to solve those problems.

Mayank: Just to give numbers to explain the demand for data analytics and digital businesses: in the next three to five years, about 600,000** to a million people will be joining data analytics and digital businesses. That is the kind of need we are talking about in the market. None of them have a captive course for themselves.

Ronnie: If you go back to 1990s when IT came into the process, they couldn't train their employees. Therefore NIIT came about. When it started, NIIT never thought it could be at the scale it is now.

Q. So what's your vision about this business, and how closely you would be involved?
Ronnie:
I will be very closely involved: it is not just an investment. My job will be to work with Mayank on strategy, brand building, credibility and scale.

Q. How big is your team right now?
Mayank:
We are about 30 people, most of the folks being on the technology and content front. There are people who are writing scripts, cameramen, pre-production, post-production guys, animators, graphic designers.

*Flipkart has been removed from the list on request of the company.

** An earlier version of this story had incorrectly quoted Mayank Kumar as saying that 60,000-1 million people will join data analytics and digital businesses. The figure has been updated.

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