Move over IITs and IIMs! These entrepreneurs show that academic pedigree is not a precursor to success

7th Sep 2018
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Who said entrepreneurs who don’t belong to the prestigious IIT, IIM, or BITS-Pilani clubs can’t succeed? These founders show they can, and how!

Think IIM or IIT, and you often think success. That seems to hold sway in the Indian entrepreneurship circuit as well. In 2014 and 2015, startups like Flipkart, InMobi, Housing, and Ola – founded by people from elite IIM-IIT club - grabbed major rounds of funding and met success.

Research by YourStory in 2014 showed that a third of the funded startups came from pedigreed institutes. Apart from the illustrious IITs and IIMs, the findings also included founders who graduated from BITS-Pilani. In 2015, another assessment by YourStory revealed that close to 60 percent of entrepreneurs who raised funding in the first half of the year had founders from the IIT-IIM club.

It is possible that a strong alumni network and focus on entrepreneurship (through initiatives and incubators) are the reasons why so many of these founders found success. The “top institute” tag also could have helped.

But the scenario has changed and the Indian startup ecosystem now has examples of many successful entrepreneurs who don’t belong to the prestigious IIT, IIM, or BITS- Pilani clubs, and have still climbed the crest. These entrepreneurs don’t have any fancy degrees, and show that it takes more than academic pedigree to create and run a successful business.

Byju Raveendran, Founder and CEO, BYJU's

BYJU’s Byju Raveendran

The man who created one of the most successful education technology ventures in the country never went to an IIT or an IIM. Coming from a humble background, Byju did his schooling in Azhikode village in Kannur district of Kerala; his medium of instruction was Malayalam. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, but Byju went on to graduate from Government Engineering College in Kannur.

Interestingly, he appeared for the Common Aptitude Test (CAT) twice, in 2003 and 2005, and ended up with a 100 percentile. This made him eligible to pick any IIM for further studies, but Byju had appeared for the exam “for kicks”.

He started his teaching career in 2006, and eventually went on to hire his own students (IIM graduates) in 2011 when he founded Think and Learn, the parent company to BYJU’s App.

Today, BYJU’s is one of the newest Unicorns on the block. It has 2,300 employees and its investors include Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.

Ashish Hemrajani at TechSparks 2016
Ashish Hemrajani at TechSparks 2016

BookMyShow’s Ashish Hemrajani

If you ask the startup ecosystem about Ashish Hemrajani, many people will say he is an astute businessman. But those who have seen him up close focus on the character, ethics, and practicality he brings to the system.

Speaking about culture fit in an earlier interaction with YourStory in 2016, Ashish said, “I don’t care where you come from, where you have worked before, and what school you have attended. I don’t have a single IIM graduate in my company, at this point in time. For the first time in the history of BookMyShow in 18 years, we’ve hired six IITians.”

The Mumbai-based entrepreneur pursued his under-graduate degree from Mithibai College and went on to pursue his MBA from Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics. Ashish used to travel as far as 30 km for two years to pursue his master’s degree.

Ashish himself interviews candidates for senior positions. He says, “For me, a culture fit is very important. I never look at a CV.”

Girish Mathrubootham
Girish Mathrubootham

Freshworks’ Girish Mathrubootham

To most people, Girish Mathrubootham shines bright as an example of small-town dreams going big.

Hailing from the temple town of Tiruchirapalli, Girish Mathrubootham started Freshworks with co-founder Shan Krishnasamy in October 2010. Just last month, Freshworks became the country’s latest Unicorn after it secured $100 million in fresh funding in a round led by Sequoia and Accel.

His humble beginnings did not stop him from forging his own path. Girish completed his engineering degree from Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology, and Research Academy in Thanjavur in 1996. In an interview with FactorDaily, Girish said his father took a loan of Rs 75,000 to pay capitation fee, then taken by the college to auction admissions.

In 1998, Girish completed his MBA from University of Madras in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

NItish Mittersain, founder - Nazara Technologies during the launch of Bang Bang film with Hrithik Roshan

Nazara’s Nitish Mittersain

Mobile gaming company Nazara Technologies’ Founder can be called a non-traditionalist. First, he chose to start a gaming company in 2000, when the technology revolution in India was still at a nascent stage. The internet had not reached a majority of India’s working population and smartphones were unheard of. Second, while his family was in the textile business in Sangli, Maharastra, Nitish Mittersain had his eyes on the gaming industry.

Nitesh graduated from Mumbai’s Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in 1999.

Today, his firm has received a nod from markets regulator SEBI to float an Initial Public Offering, which is reportedly expected to value the firm at Rs 3,000 crore.

Pepperfry's Ashish Shah (L) with co-founder Ambareesh Murty

Pepperfry's Ashish Shah

The advent of businesses like Pepperfry and UrbanLadder changed the way India bought its furniture.

It was 2012, when Ashish Shah left his job with eBay Motors India to start online furniture brand Pepperfry. Today, Fortune states that Pepperfry commands 63 percent market share in the organised furniture space, making average gross margins of 45 percent.

What seemed to have worked for Ashish is his uncanny ability to spot the right sellers. That can be attributed to his early days in B2B procurement when he was working for one of India’s first marketplace Baazee.com, not an IIT-IIM pedigree.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Ashish graduated as a chemical engineer from Savitribai Phule Pune University in 1998. He later did an advanced diploma in materials management from Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad, now one of the premier management institutes in the country.

Today, the founders claim that Pepperfry is on path to profitability as they have been successfully able to narrow their losses.

Jaypore co-founder Shilpa Sharma

Jaypore’s Shilpa Sharma

Shilpa Sharma, the Co-founder of curated ecommerce platform Jaypore, saw a huge gap in the handcrafted products market. This led her to start Jaypore in 2012 along with Puneet Chawla.

But this wasn’t her first venture. In 2011, she had started Breakaway, a travel venture that focused on offbeat learning-oriented and curated experiential tourism concepts.

Serial entrepreneur Shilpa Sharma didn’t need an IIT or IIM backing to turn entrepreneur. She graduated from Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College in 1987 and finished her post-graduation from Welingkar Institute of Management in 1989. She’s now a guest faculty and mentor at IIM-Ahmedabad. Her LinkedIn bio says she mentors young entrepreneurs in four-and-half-month workshops.

Other mentions

These are not the only examples that prove entrepreneurial success isn’t dependent on where you graduate from.

Practo’s Founders Shashank ND and Abhinav Lal graduated from National Institute Technology, Surathkal, Karnataka, in 2009. After college, the duo built doctor discovery platform Practo, which has received more than $200 million in funding from the likes of Tencent and Sequoia.

It is no secret that India’s youngest billionaire, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, never went to an IIT or IIM. The youngest in his batch, this Aligarh boy graduated from Delhi Engineering College.

What’s interesting is that he freelanced his way through college and started up in his second year at college.

Freecharge’s Kunal Shah has had one of the biggest exits in the Indian startup ecosystem, selling his payments business to ecommerce player Snapdeal.

A graduate of philosophy from Mumbai’s Wilson College, Kunal went on to pursue a management degree from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, but dropped out eventually.

Clearly, fancy degrees aren’t everything in the startup world.

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