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Ronnie Screwvala, co-founder, upGrad.
Ronnie Screwvala, co-founder, upGrad.

‘Covid-19 has created a crisis for all the average companies’

Yes, there is always a herd mentality whenever things look hot in a sector. But the edtech sector is not for the faint-hearted, says Ronnie Screwvala, co-founder, upGrad

NEW DELHI : Online education is one of the few lucky sectors that have been spared by the virus crisis. Education technology had been witnessing high growth and adoption even before the pandemic, with global edtech investments reaching $18.66 billion last year and the overall market for online education projected to reach $350 billion by 2025. In an interview, Ronnie Screwvala, co-founder of edtech startup upGrad, spoke about the development of online education, the challenges the virus has posed to the startup world and the ways to overcome them. Edited excerpts:

Has there been a drastic attitude shift when it comes to online education?

Yes, both an attitude and acceptance shift. Universities and colleges have realized it’s now and not tomorrow; faculty have seen the clear advantage of their teaching experience being augmented, and corporate HR heads and CEOs have been pushed to accept that online or blended learning will actually make their future workforce more job-ready. For the aspiring graduate, this is a boon as now it does not matter which city you live in: you can have access to a degree of your choice from a college of your choice. But most of all, I see the massive impact on our 100 million in the workforce in the 25-50 age group now looking at “lifelong learning" as very accessible and also urgent to stay relevant and in the top 50% of their organization.

With the increased focus on online education, there’s bound to be a spurt in edtech startups. How well is UpGrad prepared for the competition?

Yes, there is always a herd mentality whenever things look hot in a sector. But the edtech sector is not for the faint-hearted—it’s a long-term commitment, it’s a high-impact and a high-repeat business and I think companies that build their moats with this in mind will stay the course. The market is large, but the outcomes we have on graduates or working professionals will differentiate the great companies from the competition.

How has the virus affected your business?

Great organizations are those that create their own crisis from time to time and then respond and improve, and form a permanent culture of being nimble and sharp. I think what the covid-19 crisis has done is create a crisis for all the average organizations and pushed them to review everything—from the way they do business and their cost model to the way they view their consumer, their price points and their value proposition.

At upGrad, this is the moment where we step up and look to disrupt the market forever. While we have had some great tailwinds and overall our 1,100-plus strong team is working efficiently from home, our focus is how do we make “lifelong learning" really affordable and accessible to many and yet build ambition levels and a sense of urgency in working professionals. This DNA change will help us focus.

The present conditions have made us realize that we can, in the next 18 months, do whatever we could have taken four years to do in a pre-covid world. So, we need to make every day count.

Do you think the startup community has received enough financial support from the government?

Why should the startup community get sops from the government when it has many other bigger priorities? Yes, the SME sector does need support because many of them are in manufacturing or social enterprises. B2B businesses, which have experienced a slowdown, need a line of credit to see them through the next two years. But the startup community should not have that sense of entitlement. This is a good time to test who all are building long-term sustainable businesses not predicated on permanent funding, discounting or non-justified marketing spends. What the government can do more of is to make it really easy to do business in India, and right now it’s tough for most, especially those starting business for the first time.

The challenge of demand matching supply will continue for the next two years and will test entrepreneurs, but many will become stronger because of that.

What can the founders do in hard times like these?

You need to break tough times into a couple of things. If you think there’s a sense of uncertainty, remove it. I think the reason many are having a tough time right now is we are thinking too short-term. Most of us are looking for an external cue, whereas what is called for is our own sense of conviction and clarity of thought and then demonstrating true leadership by inspiring others to believe in you.

My mantra has always been scale, but with that I have added a strong filter of “less for more". That has given me incredible focus on what I need to do in every aspect of work and personal priorities.

One of the prime concerns when it comes to online education is that internet technology hasn’t reached many remote parts of our country. Doesn’t a shift to online learning put certain sections at a disadvantage?

Online learning is not about having a camera in front of you or doing a live lecture. Online learning has to be equivalent to being in an offline environment, even better. The whole learning experience is as important as the lecture. In rural India, where we work with our Swades Foundation, we work with 1,200 schools and 800 angadwadis, and I can tell you, with 80% of them we have been able to do WhatsApp voice and videos calls.

In our upGrad courses, we also have the option that when you have a bandwidth problem you can switch to a lower resolution and still get going.

For the 100 million people who should be getting into online learning—graduates, post-graduates, working professionals—I think 60% of them do have good access to bandwidth.

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