These entrepreneurs aim to transform one million graduates into future ready ‘smart generalists’

Mumbai-based startup X Billion Skills Lab has curated a B2B2C ‘non-technical’ skills programme for graduates, especially in Tier II and III cities, to help them imbibe soft skills. It has partnered with over 50 colleges and claims to have over one lakh learners signed up, to date.
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Human intelligence is becoming the most important asset in today’s time. Gone are the days when a coder or a finance graduate were required to stick to their technical portfolio and work on just codes or numbers. Given the pace of the business activity, paucity of time, and the dynamic business models of organisations, even entry-level employees are needed to participate in the overall working of the business and apply their non-technical skills to deliver outcomes or conclusions for their respective companies.

This introduces us to the concept of ‘smart generalist’. In simple terms, a smart generalist is someone who is not limited by his/her technical competence and has the ability to operate outside their specialisation, typically around areas of communication, emotional intelligence, problem solving, decision making, and other skills. 

Understanding the importance of the concept and the need for these skills for creating a future ready workforce, Mumbai-based X Billion Skills Lab (XBSL) has curated a 21st century workplace skills course for college students and aspiring entry level job seekers. The course is not restricted to just increasing the probability of getting hired, but also to contribute on a larger basis to an organisation, effectively climb the ladder, and take on bigger career roles. 

Incorporated in 2017 by serial entrepreneurs Samyak Chakrabarty and Gaurav Jain, X Billion Skills Lab has partnered with over 50 colleges and universities and claims to have reached out to over one lakh learners to date. 

In terms of growth, which includes addition of learners and colleges every month, the startup is expecting a 120 percent CAGR and a compounded weekly growth rate of 180 percent in the next four months. It has raised a pre-Series A round from family office of Anita Dongre, Deep Master (family office of Jagdish Master, cofounder of ENAM) and Sarjan Shah, Managing Director at Satellite Group.

Addressing the need of the hour 

The organisational structure of companies has evolved tremendously over the years and so has the expectation and contribution from an employee. 

Today companies, especially startups, are moving at a much faster pace. Companies are pivoting by the quarter and employees have to keep up with those changes and have a broader mindset to understand, align, and deliver to those pivots. Employers are expecting their workforce to come with non-technical skills as there is no time for handholding and mentorship. 

Hence, generalist skills have become a ‘must have’ rather than ‘good to have’. Moreover, as businesses automate, most of the functions that don’t require much intelligence or creative thinking or problem solving abilities will be automated. 

The founder breaks down the term ‘smart’ into five components — storyteller, multitasker, analytical mind, risk taker, and thinking creatively. Samyak elaborates on these skills with an example of a finance graduate’s role in a corporation. 

“A CA’s job today is not limited to their financial or technical skills. For instance, there is no hard and fast rule or anything in the accounting rule book when it comes to deriving the valuation of a data-driven company, especially startups. In such a case, a CA will have to have the ability to ask the right questions which are outside his technical competence,” he explains. 

Besides, they also need to have the emotional intelligence while talking to a young founder from a small city, who is being exposed to the business world for the first time and doesn’t understand the technical jargon.

The generalist programme 

Following research, the startup came up with a three month-course for college graduates and entry-level job seekers. The online course includes foundation modules, which includes top-10 21st century skills, as recognised by World Economic Forum (WEF) and National Education Policy (NEP), like analytical thinking and innovation, active learning and learning strategies, complex problem-solving, critical thinking and analysis, creativity, originality and initiative, leadership and social influence, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility, and so on. 

Based on these models and consultancy from over 4,000 working professionals on how they use the generalist skills in everyday life, the platform has created ‘how tos’. These include tasks that any entry level worker has to do when they join a workplace. It could be as basic as WhatsApp manners, including what to say, what not to say to a vendor or a client.    

The course also has ‘must reads’, which includes articles from across the mediums as employers expect their employees to be well informed. This is followed by a ‘Masterclass’ where startups bring speakers from various domains, including World Bank, Unilever, Kotak Bank, and others. 

Once the user finishes the programme, the startup uses Machine Learning and algorithms to assess if the candidate possesses these skills. Before signing up, the platform undertakes a pre-assessment of the candidates and also evaluates them during the course with random questions. They are given over 200+ situations where they have to choose from the smartest and the least-smartest options. 

The data is then fed into the system, which computes how an individual stands on their skills. “Instead of just giving out a certificate, we actually give out this data, which is further used during the hiring process,” he says. 

X Billion Skills Lab dashboard

Business and revenue model

The startup follows the B2B2C model where it partners with autonomous institutions and integrates the course as a part of the academic calendar. The course fee of Rs 3,000 is also integrated into the overall tuition fee structure of the student and is not charged separately. 

It has partnered with P2P lending platform Finance Peer that provides interest free financing to students. The platform provides the money collected from the institutions and gives to the startup after a certain haircut. 

In case a college is governed by a university, the course is made optional and placed as a ‘highly recommended placement dedicated’ programme. Under this structure, the students are directly charged by the startup. 

To date, XBSL has partnered with over 50 colleges and universities, with 30 others in the pipeline, and claims to have reached out to over one lakh learners. Though the generalist course is not restricted to any particular field, the maximum demand comes from IT and engineering and is gaining traction among law, commerce, and arts graduates. 

The first paid learner was enrolled in 2019 while the 2017-18 was the pilot testing phase. The course can be completed in three months, however, the startup is planning to add more content and will extend it to six months in the near future. 

Aiming to customise the programme for different sectors, the startup is co-creating a course for commerce and finance  institutions with Grant Thornton called ‘21st century workplace skills for finance professionals’.

The startup faces direct competition from Delhi-based Harappa Education, which also operates with a similar business model and focuses on ‘Thrive’ skills. 

Taking the programme to Tier 2 and 3 

The startup doesn’t aim to target elite institutions in bigger cities, but wants to take the course to Tier II and III regions. 

“The purpose with which this company was started was why should youth from elite colleges or big cities have preferential access to aspirational jobs. Why can’t someone from a smaller city aspire for the same. They unfortunately do not have the quote-unquote skills required,” he says. 

To the founder’s surprise, the audience in the smaller region has greater willingness to learn and pay for learning softer skills. Striking instances of its partnered colleges in rural areas like Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies, Basar, a small village outside Hyderabad, and Finolex Academy of Management and Technology, Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, the founder takes pride in helping a farmer’s son bag a job as a coder by providing him soft skills.

“We were told by certain authorities that we are being foolish to partner with institutions in these areas as the students will not understand the concept. I was shocked by the results and the enthusiasm of the students. Future-ready skills have the potential to change the lives of many,” says Samyak, who faces the operational challenge in smaller institutions rather than ideology. 

Future plans

The startup aims to have four lakh learners and 100 colleges signed up on its platform by the end of first quarter FY22. It is in the middle of its Series A cycle and will soon be raising funds.

“We would also like to take our platform to other developing economies like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nepal, and more. We have already started our pilot in Colombo with 50 students. We are also looking at data-driven recruitment consulting,” he says.

The startup is also working towards ‘gamifying’ the entire programme where the 10 skills will be “superpowers for candidates to win a business challenge”. 

“We have already started writing the script of the game and will soon get into the production depending on the funding,” he adds. The startup aims to reach school level and start the learning journey from the basic level of education itself. “We aspire to enable one million Tier II and III graduates to build successful careers by 2025,” the founder signs off. 

Edited by Megha Reddy

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