Entrepreneurs share their views on India's edtech sector and how they got into the space
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According to a joint report by KPMG and Google, the global online education industry is slated to grow at a healthy 8x rate to become a $1.96 billion industry by 2021. Categories like supplemental education, test preparation, reskilling, online certification, gamification, and language and casual learning have been cited as the ones with great potential.
Today, women entrepreneurs are making their presence felt across sectors such as travel, retail, hiring, commerce, and the edtech sector is no different. These women entrepreneurs believe that edtech issues can't just be solved by opening hundreds of schools and colleges around the country. Their startups have a key role to play in the growth of the edtech sector, not just in India, but all around the world. Read to know how they ventured into the edtech space, and where their journey has taken them thus far.
Sreepa Prasannan, Sailaja Akkala, Aparna Thakker, Savita Garg, Riya Sinha and Shraddha Varma, Sheetal Kapoor and Shubhada Dayal Basuray (Top left to bottom right)
Riya Sinha and Shraddha Varma, Fuzia
Mumbaikar Shraddha Varma always dreamt of creating a change, no matter how small. As a management student, when she was applying for jobs, she landed a few great offers, but didn’t feel right going ahead with it. “I always had an inner voice which told me that I can use my potential to do something meaningful and big and creative,” she says.
Around that time, she came to know about Fuzia, which started as a writing group in 2012. Fuzia began when its founder Riya Sinha had published a book and was in a local book store talking to readers. A little girl approached her, asking if she could be a writer, and if so, how? Riya began to think about how girls and women can be given a platform where they can realise their literary ambitions, and Fuzia was born. But soon Riya realised that a writing group wasn’t enough. So, she approached Shraddha, to co-found in 2015 the Fuzia of today, a wholesome social media network for women to go out in the world and create an impact.
Fuzia offers a world of creativity and expressions for women and girls focused on sparking meaningful discussions, helping people learn and grow while building a strong creative portfolio that can help them in their careers as well. “It’s the right time to appreciate creativity in our fast-paced world,” says Shraddha.
When they started, it was a challenge to hire the right people who believed in equality and had the willingness to uplift others. Today, they have a passionate team of people from across the world. “As women entrepreneurs, setting up an entire business was a struggle, but our strength is our grit. We are not fazed by challenges staring us in the face, we work with our hearts,” she says.
Shraddha believes that competition is significant for improvement. “If you are the only one out there, you might become self-indulgent and profit-minded which would lead to deterioration of your products. You need a core value system, and competition helps you understand what is it that your work lacks, or what is it that people love about you.” She adds that India is observing a renaissance when it comes to startups and technology, “It’s wonderful to see people trying to make a mark, the innovative ideas and startup stories leave one truly inspired. But it’s also followed by stiff cut-throat competition, so you need to be committed to your idea.”
The Fuzia team is excited about social media impacting billions of lives in the future by reaching those who really need it, those who find it difficult to make their voice heard otherwise.” She adds that women do not feel safe on a majority of social media platforms, as there is a constant threat of emotional and psychological bullying. “Nobody should be threatened for following their passions and through Fuzia, we’re ensuring that this doesn’t happen,” she says.
Today they have a strong support group of more than 4.5 million followers, and they were recently felicitated at the Women Economic Forum (WEF) as ‘Young Entrepreneurs Building a Better World for All’. They are also trying to shed light on crucial topics related to women empowerment through platforms like Facebook SheLeadsTech, TedX, and WEF. “These discussions are an important part of growing as a society and helping people learn about the importance of building an equal world,” says Shraddha.
Aparna Thakker, Empowerji
When Aparna had taken a sabbatical from work for her daughter’s birth, she started her first venture in education technology called KoolKampus, which focuses on creating virtual classrooms where faculty can share academic material with students to access anytime, anywhere. In 2018, she came up with an idea to make technology more accessible to senior citizens and Empowerji was born.
Aparna observed that senior citizens shied away from using technology. “For most of them, using apps, sites and devices does not come naturally. And because of this, although there are easier tech alternatives, they continue doing things the old tedious way,” she says.
Mumbai-based Empowerji conducts live workshops to teach older adults how to use everyday apps and sites. “Since older adults need repeated help to master new tech processes, we created the Empowerji app which teaches them how to use technology in video form which they can play anytime, anywhere,” says Aparna.
A personal challenge she faced while starting up was taking risks. “Being conservative by nature, I may have missed out on opportunities in the past. I have overcome this challenge over time,” she says. Another challenge they faced being a unique offering, is that there were no role models to learn from. “Empowerji promotes a mindset change – who says technology is only for youngsters? We had to create awareness in a generation that was not comfortable with change,” says Aparna. But the advantage is that because it is so different and solves a common problem, people are curious to know more. “Seniors needing help with technology is a problem every household faces, so people are open to giving Empowerji a fair chance,” she adds.
The size of their target market, i.e. people above 50 years, is over 175 million, and she feels that there is a need for more products and services catering specifically to this audience. “Healthy competition always pushes you to go beyond your limits. Then it all depends on your USP, quality of service and the actions you take to stand out from the competition,” she says.
She says that it’s a good time to be in the edtech startup space, as there are several incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces to support you. “When I became an entrepreneur, I really did not miss my corporate job. My contribution to society as an entrepreneur would be much more than I could have ever done being at a corporate,” she says.
She also feels that India has witnessed an amazing acceptance of technology over the past few years. “Every sector has been influenced positively. Take cabs -- from hailing down cabs on the road, today they are a fingertip away.” She’s excited about how ML and Deep Learning will evolve to shape how we do anything. “Older people need to be technologically empowered to live in the new world that will be ruled by technology, and Empowerji can help,” she adds.
Today, they have over 10,000 users on the Empowerji app, and over 1,000 seniors trained at their workshops. Aparna is also part of the Startup Leadership Program in Mumbai. Her plan is to keep pushing the user base to 1 million. “We plan to introduce revenue-based services shortly. With these ‘anytime learn’ options we will be able to reach more people and make them digitally savvy,” says Aparna.
Savita Garg, Eclassopedia
Savita, an educator with over 15 years of experience, founded Eclassopedia in 2016 out of her personal need of searching for e-tutors for her children. She has always envisioned fabricating a common platform on which tutors and students could interact easily. “I wanted to remove the hurdles of long-distance communication between the learner and tutor in online education,” she says.
Based in Delhi, Eclassopedia is a platform for learning through online classes in a personalised and customised manner. It aims to be a bridge connecting students to the most suitable tutor through a well-conceptualised platform. The platform brings together tutors from different streams that believe and work in the underlying concept of transparency and satisfaction. Multidisciplinary courses are planned for providing different sessions on various subjects, courses based on a range of entrance examinations and extracurricular classes on a single platform. “We take a unique and innovative approach to teaching that helps students connect with the subject matter they need to master. Through personalized and focused teaching processes, our students develop the tools they need for ongoing success in their fields of study,” says Savita.
Expanding the team and incorporating technology into her business were some of the challenges she faced initially. She believes that to stay on top of competition, one needs to provide quality education according to students’ needs, pace of learning and at an affordable price. “Content pricing, availability of employable opportunities and connectivity are the key challenges faced by students adopting online education,” she says.
According to her, the intrinsic characteristics of the online medium are the key motivators for students to adopt online education. Students count convenience, ease of concentrating at home and reduced travel time as their top reasons for pursuing online courses. She says that going forward, test preparation is likely to grow the fastest by 2021, and this is driven by the need for professionals to continuously reskill to stay relevant in the job market.
Today, they have expanded to 40 countries and have around 500 users onboard. Savita feels that the technology landscape in India has transformed in the last decade, and that e-learning is the future of education. “I’m excited about AI and ML technologies as they will surely reduce human involvement in this sector,” she says. Savita is also part of the Women Entrepreneur Empowerment (WEE) programme by IIT Delhi.
Sailaja Akkala, Infinizy
Sailaja always wanted to be an entrepreneur and build gamification in learning.
In 2017, she started Infinizy Global Solutions, which caters to the needs of various industries for HR and training, with the objective of bringing about a change in training methodologies. Based in Hyderabad, they work in areas like corporate training, recruitment, content management, hiring, training, deploying and HR consulting.
Initially, funding and identifying the right employees was a challenge for Sailaja, but these have evolved over time, and she now works with a very dynamic team. “Like any other startup, we had our own set of challenges, but I was confident that things would stabilise. Nothing comes easy, we need to work hard and smart to stay on top,” she says. She adds that every challenge gave her an opportunity to learn and unlearn, and that competition is a healthy opportunity. “Learning is limitless, and through the lessons we learn, I’m sure that Infinizy will stand tall among existing competitors,” she says.
She feels that edtech startups in India should focus on teaching methodologies different from the existing ones, and has designed a programme exclusively for school children. The curriculum includes real-time scenarios, latest technologies, soft skills, situational leadership, activities to encourage hobbies, and so on. “Today’s children are tomorrow’s employees or entrepreneurs. If they are trained right from the beginning in these skills, at a later point in life, they will be ready,” she says.
Sailaja is excited to be a part of this tech revolution and believes that Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence are the future. Her vision for Infinizy is to be a one-stop solution for any HR and training need, and they want to extend to development and corporate events as well.
Shubhada Dayal Basuray and Sheetal Kapoor, Brainologi
Shubhada Dayal Basuray joined Kotak’s marketing team at a point when it was about to convert itself to a bank. That was her first experience of working in a business at an early stage of development. After working across functions, the entrepreneurial bug got to her and along with Sheetal Kapoor, she started Brainologi in 2014.
“While I had been contemplating creating something of my own for a while, there were two catalysts. First was becoming a mother of two children. It gave me an opportunity to engage with the primary education system and realise that each child is unique with their own learning styles. The second trigger was meeting Sheetal. She and I had engaged professionally earlier. It was a meeting of like minds and we share a common passion for unlocking the learning potential in children,” says Shubhada. Her background in business, and Sheetal’s experience of over 25 years in the area of pedagogy worked well.
Their product has been designed on the insight that 80 percent of a person’s cognitive development happens by the age of six. Couple that with the fact that technology is changing the world at an unprecedented pace, those who are lifelong agile learners and problem solvers are the ones who will have a higher probability to be successful. Their products stimulate cognitive development in children under 10.
“We have designed our products to be enjoyable since children learn best when they have fun and our products allow each child to learn at her/his pace. Also, our products do not supplement school curriculum but are meant to enhance a child’s capacity to learn and apply concepts, and through that improve the level of education attainment,” says Shubhada.
During the app sessions, the child applies logic, reasoning, and spatial memory to analyse and solve problems. Parents also have access to a dashboard that makes them aware of their child’s progress and gets them involved in the development process.
She says that while starting up, they faced challenges similar to those faced by early-stage companies. But the way you respond to these challenges sets you apart. “For example, we see collaboration and alliance as a big opportunity area that we have developed for ourselves. It allows us to stretch our resources to reach a far wider audience. We have grown from testing our first curriculum in small preschools to now collaborating with educational aids companies to bring out hitherto unseen products in the Indian market,” Shubhada says.
They feel the startup ecosystem in India has evolved into a nurturing environment since the time they started. Founders today are more confident in their journey and the ecosystem is also evolving to provide the right kind of support. They believe personalisation and teaching unstructured problem-solving will change the way we look at education. “While two kids may sit in the same class, they will each follow a learning journey that is unique to them. Also, the world is coming around to the fact that the world’s problems require a healthy mix of logical and creative abilities. To develop solutions that can do the above would require a mix of AI and visual recognition.”
They estimate that the educational attainment market in India is worth around Rs 7000 crore or USD 1 billion+. Sheetal says, “Research has shown that learning disadvantage, once set in primary years, continues to have an impact on professional outcomes in later years. Our dream is to eradicate this difference between the few who get an excellent education and the many who are less fortunate.”
Brainologi was recently shortlisted by Reimagine Education Awards 2018 by Wharton from 1,200 firms worldwide. “Such recognition, whether from industry or consumers provides us with the impetus we need to keep growing,” says Shubhada.
Sreepa Prasannan, Thivra
Sreepa started her career as a hardware engineer in a small firm in Cochin, and then moved to Linux as technical server support. She also worked as a support analyst for a US-based insurance firm. Her long-time desire was to be an entrepreneur and use her engineering knowledge to change the education industry. In 2016, she, along with her father P K Prasanna Kumar and brother Sreenath Prasannan started Thivra Info Solutions, with her husband Praju Thampi S as the gaming mentor. Their solution is a purely fictional narrative game, which is also a learning app. “To reduce the size, we’ve planned and designed the game in such a way that players can access it even with minimum network speed,” says Sreepa.
They also offer game development and design services for other firms. Their apps are used by pre-schoolers, school students, MBA students, for startup mentoring, corporate training sessions, and so on. In 2017, they even developed a simple soccer game to promote the U-17 World Cup.
When she started, she faced a major challenge to convince investors and financial institutions for funding. She also says that as a women entrepreneur, it was initially difficult to get support. “I learnt that to be successful in business, we can’t have a soft corner, but need to be bold,” she says.
On the state of edtech startups in India, she says that while the Indian education system has a large amount of content, 95 percent of the schooling system is not concept-oriented. “Schools and entrance coaching centres are only focused on grades and scores, than on concept-oriented learning,” she says. She feels gamification will bring about a change, and students will get clarity on their capability when it comes to making career decisions. She adds, “The right choice of education leads to the right choice of career.”
With a five-member team, she dons multiple hats as a director, voice-over artiste for narration in apps, sales, supporting her art team with the sketching, programming, recruiting, accounting, and so on.
Till date, they have released four gamified learning apps in languages like English, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Malayalam and Hindi, and have approximately 20,000 online users for their apps. Going forward, Sreepa wants to change how they present the app to customers. “We’re going to adapt to how customers want the app to look, rather than how we want to present it. The technology will be the same, but the look will change as per the customer’s vision,” she says.
The Facebook SheLeadsTech experience
All the featured women entrepreneurs are members of Facebook's SheLeadsTech, a programme to support women entrepreneurs in India by providing access to community, tools, resources, mentorship, and more. The founders have benefited from the networking opportunities they get through workshops and meetups held in various cities.
"It's a wonderful platform connecting people across the globe. It taught me to believe in myself, and stand and fight against the odds," says Sailaja.
She adds that women are born entrepreneurs, they just need the right guidance and support to lead tech, India, and eventually the world. For Shubhada, the network gives them access to domain expertise and avail feedback on their product.
"Startups don't have the resources to engage domain experts otherwise. In a group like this, the challenges faced are common, so it's sort of like a support system,” says Shubhada.
Sreepa believes platforms like these make women entrepreneurs more confident. "Such programmes should expand to the village level, where you will find a lot of creative women running small businesses to manage their homes," she says. Shraddha emphasises that this is a much-needed programme in India, "Running a startup that aims at empowering women, I can deeply connect with the idea of SheLeadsTech and I believe, we need more such ventures."
If you’re a women entrepreneur looking to scale your business, click here to be a part of the Facebook SheLeadsTech Programme.