The story of how 45 entrepreneurs pooled together Rs 2,000 Cr to launch a tech university and make India future-ready
Indian scriptures state River Saraswati, synonymous with learning, originated from a Plaksha (Sanskrit word for the ficus tree), which grew at the foothills of the Sivaliks. So, it made sense when Plaksha, which denotes a tree from which a river of learning flows, nurturing everything that it touches, was chosen as the name for a university.
But Plaksha University is not just another educational institute among the hundreds in India. The institute has a story like no other in the world: 45 entrepreneurs and chief executives came together to raise Rs 2,000 crore for Plaksha. This is at least four times the amount that the government spends to set up an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).
As per a recent report by Aspiring Minds, 80 percent of Indian engineers are not fit for any job in the knowledge economy. Worried about the current state of employability among graduates, 45 top entrepreneurs and CXOs built this institute to bridge the gap between employers and educators. All programmes and courses at the university are designed by the leaders along with a special academic advisory board.
The university will launch its first Tech Leaders Fellowship Programme at its Gurugram campus in collaboration with universities, including UC Berkeley, Purdue University, MIT, and University of Pennsylvania, as well as tech companies like Google and IBM among others. Their bachelor's degree course will launch in 2021. The Fellowship programme is open to candidates including fresh graduates and experienced professionals.
How Plaksha was born
Bringing dozens of leaders together for such an effort needs time and energy, and more importantly, a strong vision to implement. Mohit Thukral, Founder and Trustee of Plaksha University (and Founder and Managing Partner at BPM platform Vivtera), spoke to YourStory about the journey over the last few years.
The idea of reimagining higher education in technology was seeded around mid-2015 when Mohit got together with Neeraj Aggarwal, Chairman, Asia Pacific, Boston Consulting Group; Vineet Gupta, Co-founder and MD, Jamboree Education; Ashish Gupta, Founder of Benori Knowledge; and Manas Fuloria, Co-founder and CEO of Nagarro.
“We felt there was not only a need to change what is taught in engineering colleges in India but also to change the way it is taught,” Mohit says.
After months of meetings and brainstorming, the idea of a technology university took shape. The core team ideated on the gaps it should address and the problems it could solve.
“Every few years, there is a massive shift in technologies. Right now, there is a lot of buzz around AI and data science. But there is no educational programme to train you for it,” Mohit explains.
Plaksha aims to be not “just another engineering school”. It wants to empower students to solve challenges in the next industrial revolution, especially in India. The team researched the industrial changes possible in the next four years.
“The question was how to bring tech into key areas globally. We talked to academia in India and the US for this,” Mohit recounts.
Plaksha’s primary focus will be on problems specific to India, across sectors like urban planning, mobility, agriculture, hunger, transportation, etc. Alok Mittal, Co-founder and CEO of Indifi Technologies and Co-founder at Plaksha, tells YourStory that since India is a developing country, it needed a different agenda in research and development (R&D) than the US.
“In scaling (solutions) for a large population like that of India, tech helps bring down the price points. On the other hand, students should keep updating themselves, as what they learn today may not be relevant in 10-20 years,” he adds.
After two years of iterations, research in best practices, and discussions with experts, Plaksha was born in early 2018.
Building a team of veterans
Once the core team built its vision, they started talking to people outside the core group in 2017. “We got great support and encouragement. Gradually, people who shared the vision and philosophy started coming together, and the tribe grew.”
The current 45 members include CP Gurnani, MD and CEO, Tech Mahindra; Vineet Nayyar, former executive vice chairman, Tech Mahindra; Ashish Gupta, Co-founder, Helion Ventures; Pankaj Chaddah, Co-founder of Zomato; Ritesh Malik, Founder of Innov8; Pallav Nandhani, Founder of Fushiocharts, and Gaggan Hasteer, VP (Content Engineering) at Netflix, among others.
Pankaj, who left Zomato last year, was looking to do something new after building the foodtech unicorn for 10 years, when he heard of Plaksha from Neeraj.
Pankaj tells YourStory, “The idea of Plaksha resonated with me. I strongly believe that higher education in India needs to be reinvented, and I wanted to be part of this great, capable team.” Pankaj has been involved with creating the first batch of students for the fellowship programme in the past four months.
Having people from diverse fields have helped shape the strategies of Plaksha. Mohit elaborates, “Each one of us has built a successful company or is currently running one. Many are part of the ‘technology change’ being witnessed today and know the pulse of ‘technology change’ across verticals, including IT, ecommerce, fintech, consulting, education, venture capital, and products.”
But how do 45 people – with diverse experiences, ideas, and perspectives – manage to reach consensus in crucial decisions regarding Plaksha? Mohit says they have an internal system, wherein subgroups of founders run different work streams. “This works as everyone has one common goal: to build a world class university with collective philanthropy. Sometimes it does take a bit longer to reach a consensus; it took us nine months to decide on the name because once decided it couldn’t be changed. But mostly, things move fairly fast,” he says.
All members join in for the team’s meetings, at least virtually.
Team Plaksha believes that interdisciplinary education with computer science at the core will enable students to do better. According to Mohit, pedagogy must motivate constant experimenting instead of focusing on credits and grades.
“At Plaksha, students will be given real-world, complex problems to solve so that they learn to deal with uncertainty.” Mohit says, the curriculum will also expose students to liberal arts, design thinking, and emphasise on leadership.
Aspiring students at Plaksha have to take an online test for conceptual understanding of technical fundamentals, and attend an interview.
The fellowship programme will select 60 students through a rigorous screening process and provide scholarships to all 60 of them: 20 will receive 100 percent scholarship; 20 will be granted a 50 percent scholarship and the remaining 20 students will get a 25 percent scholarship, based on merit and financial situation.
(Merit is decided on the basis of performance during the selection process, past academic record, demonstrated passion for technology, and qualities like leadership and creativity. Means are decided based on financial background, assets, and liabilities, as well as any serious medical or personal challenges that impact the financial situation.)
The fellowship programme has collaborated with chief scientists and academicians from global universities to provide experiential learning for students. It aims to provide them with real-world challenges and access to best of technologies to learn advanced AI and ML. “Rather than specific tools, we will train them in conceptual learning so that they can adapt to any tool,” Alok adds.
The one-year programme is divided into eight academic terms spanning six weeks each. The specific modules of experiential learning are Challenge Labs and Industry Capstones. The former is developed under Sutardja Center of Entrepreneurship and Technology, University of California, and mimics real-world tech venture creation.
Alok says design thinking is devised for the context of each problem. “At the Challenge Labs, fellowship students will learn to solve problems across different tracks like health or finance (as they choose). They will make product solutions on the specific contexts, like inclusion and product designing in the financial domain.”
As the programme encourages entrepreneurship, students will work in teams to create startup ideas - to address broad needs of an industry or social challenge, conduct market validation, and pitch to an investor. Additionally, the curricuum will touch upon ethics and policy. Alok states, “Tech is fast paced, and impacts different ecosystems. Policy often lags so students must have a view on impacts on society and interventions from policymakers.”
A team of experts
The members of the academic advisory board are leaders from top global universities, including Shankar Sastry, Former Dean of Engineering, UC Berkeley; Ashish Nanda, Former Director of IIM-Ahmedabad; Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX and Professor at MIT; and BN Jain, Former Vice-Chancellor of BITS Pilani and Former Deputy Director of IIT-Delhi, among others. They design the programme and curriculum, and find opportunities of international collaboration.
Mohit says apart from academicians, industry veterans and practitioners of AI and data science will share their wisdom with students. The Tech Leader Fellowship will begin in the Gurugram campus on August 1, 2019.
Out of the total project cost of Rs 2,000 crore for Plaksha University, Rs 350 crore is allocated for phase one. Each founder has contributed, and the team is now getting support from corporates like Mphasis and RBS. They are approaching more MNCs, especially as part of their CSR projects.
The Plaksha team hopes to increase their strength of 45 to more than 100 people in the next three years. Mohit opines that this is the hardest challenge in building Plaksha. “How do we get a solid global and local faculty to teach students at Plaksha? How do we train talent from across India and later globally? How do we get more people excited about this initiative and to join us? These thoughts are what keep us ideating constantly,” Mohit says.
For a cause like this, the hardest challenge also happens to be the most exciting part.