Deeksha Integrated, started by G.Sridhar Managing Director, Ace Creative Learning Pvt. Ltd. is a network of coaching institutes that seeks to eliminate the disconnect between academia and real-world scenarios while maintaining performance in standardized examinations. Sridhar goes deep into his beginnings, the origins of his passion for teaching and what led him to drop lucrative offers from some of the largest companies in India to pursue his own ambitions.Join YourStory.in in conversation with G.Sridhar and read on to uncover his story.
So, did you start out as a teacher in 1997?
No, let me tell you how it began. Back when I was in school in Vizag, I prepared for and cleared the JEE, then went for their chemical engineering course at IIT Kharagpur.
Did I want to do chemical engineering? No. That is what the people around me did and what was expected of me. We were the first batch from Vizag that cracked the JEE and it was really humbling to see so many more smart minds from all across India. I switched over to mechanical engineering after my first year.
I then gave some serious thought as to what I wanted to after my course: my options were a job, an MBA or go abroad. I did my internship at a pure mechanical company to get a feel for what it is to be a mechanical engineer and I didn’t like it. My choices were reduced to either an MBA or a life abroad. I opted for a direct PhD in Fluid Mechanics at Johns Hopkins University.
Again, did I want to do Fluid Mechanics? No. I did learn a lot. I had a lot of discussions with friends and when you’re 25 with the world’s time at your disposal, you tend to philosophize and wonder often. I was in this exploratory frame of mind till I was about 28.
Something I realized was that I couldn’t justify being in the U.S. These were wonderful people living within an excellent system and a great working environment but I couldn’t reconcile my decision when an American came to me and said, “Hey, you took my job”. It was clear that I would have to come back to India. I could have taken a job like everyone else but when I considered my personal fulfillment and philanthropic aspirations, this path fell short of being the answer.
I decided to work for underprivileged children and teach them. I did not have any prior teaching experience but I wanted to see how far I could take it. Naturally, this surprised those around me but my feelings were quite strong about this. My father had already sent my profile to TAS for an extremely prestigious position. They zoned in on two candidates after an exhaustive interview process of which I was one. I asked my dad, “If the Tatas think I can eventually run their company, why not start my own business?” So he said, “Okay, one year. Give it a try”.
And there I was in 1998. There’s a place in Bangalore called BASE which is a bit more than an hour from Indiranagar and they had good material. So I thought, why not try out a more accessible form of what they do? I went to the National Public School and ask them if they could spare their premises after school hours, which they agreed to. I started out with 30 kids and had classes twice every week. It was a great experience. I met my wife around this time as well. She being a CA herself, was confident about getting a job after marriage but both, she and her dad liked the idea of something born of passion. So we worked together and how we started out with ACE.
How has the growth been so far?
We started with a batch of five and by the end of the fourth year we had six batches in Bangalore. However, the hours were getting stretched and the students were having a hard time sparing hours to study. They were burning out and we had to look around for solutions. We had some of the resources required so after 5 years, we decided to bundle it all up and start up Deeksha College in 2003 on Kanakpura Road. We did not have enough money to buy the land and set up the entire infrastructure but in a fortuitous moment, we met Dr. Jaiprakash who readily donated one acre of his land to the college. Construction began and it was complete by 2005. We started out with 40 children.
Soon, we had to face our next issue: Changing the unproductive mindset that had grown in our students. They would go to the college but there was no teaching happening. They bunked lectures and went for tuitions outside which were taken by the same college professors. This was unacceptable.
Agreed, this change is necessary as the whole concept of education in college is being killed.
We wanted the teachers to know the students and ensure that the student learns everything. We managed well and in the first year, two students cleared the JEE. This number went on going up and by 2010, we had quite a few students clearing AIEEE. We also got an AIR 1 and the results were starting to show. But down the road, I realized that clearing the exam is important but this is not all. The students were burned out by the time they made it to the IITs and they couldn’t leverage the opportunity there. We wanted something that would change the environment, make the students apply themselves and work with a sense of responsibility.
We had about a 100 students and by then we knew we had something good. That is when I met Chandrashekhar Chandraswamy who lent us some money along with Mr. Balaji and we built two more campuses. There were challenges like maintaining the standard and the levels of teaching but we managed that all and at around the same time, Accel Partners showed an interest in us. By 2011 we had 11 colleges.
This is when it starts to get a bit tricky. You can still micromanage when you have 3 colleges but with 11, you can no longer do that.
That is where technology came in. What usually happens in classes is you lay out the toughest problems and solve them. But I wanted my teachers to bring down the difficulty level, make it more interactive, put in videos and anecdotes and by the end of the class, the student should be capable of solving it on his own.
What we’re coming up with next is a tablet for our students. Even if the teacher does a great job, there might be occasions where the kid did not understand and is too shy to put up his hand. On this tablet, he’ll have all the lectures as videos so he can go back and have a rerun. Also, it would store e-books, so he can go to the book and solve a few practice questions.
What we have currently is a platform which shows the students growth curve in its entirety and this is doing great. Then there are occasions when an excellent teacher is at one of the campuses so, we have e-lectures at every campus so as not to exclude any of our students who may be interested.
If you had to segment operations, how would you do it?
2) Deeksha Integrated - School+Coaching
3) Tablets and technology.
Revenue wise, earlier 80% was ACE and 20% was Deeksha.
Now, 70% Deeksha, 25% ACE and the rest would be online.
I see tutorial (ACE) going away. The colleges (11) belong to the trust and there are 13 tutorial centres there. We also offer a product called Deeksha integrated. Currently used by several colleges in Bangalore that pay for it as a service. It provides these colleges with a platform that enables them to educate students in a better way.
So are the colleges open to this kind of a new setting?
We faced some Initial some resistance and so, we had to do some hard-selling for our first two clients. However, with the reputation of ACE and the 11 colleges in existence, people know about us and we’ve developed a kind of a trust so people are more receptive to our services now.
What about expansion and scaling?
We’re planning to move on to Maharashtra this year and Tamil Nadu after that. We’ve got many colleges in Bangalore already and strategically, there’s enough in Karnataka itself but we want to prove that this is a viable system outside Karnataka as well. It also helps to have your presence across multiple states when presenting a company portfolio.
How do you see the online component going?
Three years ago, we experimented with the Internet (Online question papers, etc.) but it never worked out. People take online to mean free and eventually, we had to shut down that project after having invested quite a sum in it. But something big is definitely going to happen in education about three to four years from now and we want to be ready for it. Technology will definitely play a role but at this point, it’s just about figuring out a viable model.
Is managing eleven colleges difficult?
It’s difficult with eleven colleges but we have a team at each campus which manages all the technicalities. We’re working on a system that would give me an update on everything that’s happening at each of the campuses. As in, which teachers are doing well, areas of improvement, etc. basically a system that would allow data to flow in from all quarters.
Do you still continue to teach?
I gradually had to cut down from six hours a day to four to six hours a week. But now, it’s more about making motivational talks and sharing my experiences. The second batch of engineers who will be graduating soon have gone through all the processes and I know they’re technically very strong so I’d have to meet with them, share some more and encourage them to turn in entrepreneurs.
What was the motivation behind taking in funding?
Yes, taking in funding is challenging as they influence you and people have a say in what you’re doing. But if I was alone, I couldn’t have done more than 200 students. That was the trade-off and the choice I had to make. In this way, I’ve been able to make a much wider impact and the whole process has been challenging and rewarding as well. And the investors have really been angels. They’ve been very supportive.
You’ve been in this space for ten years. Other than technology, what other trends do you see?
One big trend I’m seeing is an acute shortage of teachers. No one wants to be a teacher. Something is going to happen in this field. Maybe technology will entirely take over the role as a teacher but this is highly unlikely as far as the near future is concerned. A company of teachers is a huge business opportunity. It’s like another Infosys in the making.
Personally, how has it all been for you?
I am a businessman but still a teacher at heart.
So you came back to work with the underprivileged, do you have any specific programs to do that?
There are a couple of programs that are going on. But the main challenge is to come up with ways to teach these kids better. I’m not being able to devote as much time as I’d have liked to, but we certainly are working on methods that would work better in the rural setup.
Do let us know your thoughts by commenting below. Find out more about Ace and Deeksha on their website here.
- Jubin Mehta and Vallabh Rao