Ronnie Screwvala has been disrupting long before 'disruptor' became a trendy word. As a first-generation entrepreneur, he dabbled with manufacturing toothbrushes, entered TV production, and eventually growing the business into the mega entertainment conglomerate UTV.
After divesting UTV to Walt Disney Company in 2012 for $4.1 billion, he had a body of work that would have sent most into content retirement.
Not Screwvala though.
In his second innings, the 58-year-old Mumbai native wanted to do something that could be game-changing for millions, not just for him. Screwvala's time and talent are now dedicated to education (via upGrad), sports (through U Sports) and social work (through The Swades Foundation with wife Zarina).
As upGrad made a big push into the Middle East market recently, Screwvala explained the pivot from entertainment to edtech in an exclusive interview with IANS.
"Firstly, it was to roll up my sleeves and start something new from the ground up. Secondly, it needed to be a sector with scale, needed disruption and it had to be something India could take externally to the world. Thirdly, there was the need to use some of my strengths, like building brands and pre-empting trends. The idea was to take the path less trodden and find a new way of doing things where the past was not that relevant," said Screwvala.
He was also keen that his second innings should be high impact. As chairman and co-founder of upGrad, Screwvala is tapping into the demand for continued education from career professionals.
Focusing on the post-graduation, higher studies and specialisation areas, upGrad offers courses to over one million total registered learners in more than 50 countries across the world in in-demand subjects ranging from management to machine learning.
Screwvala sees huge potential in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Middle East, where countries have deep digital penetration.
"We're committed to expanding to new international markets as we march forward with our goal of offering affordable, accessible, and relevant higher education. We're thrilled to bring upGrad's global expertise to the region in the form of our tailor-made online courses," he adds.
"Our expansion efforts have also recently been strengthened with Temasek's $120 million funding. We'll be leveraging this fresh capital to make a positive social impact in the Middle East region."
Recent buzz around edtech has also been driven by Indian startup, Byju's. The darling of venture capitalists, it is one of India's most valued startups at $16.5 billion after a slew of fundings recently.
Unlike Byju's, which serves school-going students, upGrad has focussed on professional upskilling and has been very selective in opting for external capital.
Asked if success in raising funds has become a benchmark for startups and edtech firms, Screwvala said: "For many, unfortunately yes. However, for others who are focussed on building long-term businesses, this is not always the case.
"Take us at upGrad. For the first five years, we grew exponentially at close to 100 per cent each year and we did not raise any external capital. It gave us a lot of flexibility to do what we wanted to do."
Screwvala confirms that upGrad does not have any plans to move into the K-12 segment.
"That the school education market is bigger is more perception than reality. There are over one billion people in the workforce across the world that need to upskill and upgrade. There is another massive number that want to get through college, but cannot afford it or need to be the family earner, who will turn to pursue a graduation while they earn.
"Therefore, what upGrad is catering to is a massive market. Higher education will very soon be a much larger market than anyone may have envisaged, and I see zero reason to re-think on this at all. We do not follow the herd. I learnt very early that when you follow the herd all you can see is the back side of the one in front of you.
"There are successful companies everywhere and in every sector. No one needs to emulate some other model, as it never works out. Also, the true test of a successful business is its long-term business, revenue, profitability, impact to its customers and community," he added.
Screwvala recently turned author with the release of his book on entrepreneurship, "Skill it, Kill it". He said his ability to think unlike the crowd helped him stand out.
"I feel I am a product of non-linear thinking. I was a first-gen entrepreneur with zero resources. Therefore, doing more of what was being done, would have got me nowhere. Most of the businesses I started, many that I failed at, and some that I succeeded at, were all non-linear. Pioneering cable TV back then was non-linear, which is what we did by launching channels in crowded spaces and taking a non-linear approach to connect the content and consumer.
"When we started our movie studio, it was all non-linear as I was the outsider. Hence, doing more of what everyone did, or leaning on past trends would have got me nowhere," he noted.
Screwvala's final advice is to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit and develop the ability to take risks.
"The past will no longer be a reliable guide to the future. This was certainly true prior to the pandemic, and it is certainly evident today. Last year's milestones, business logic or, even, achievements, may count for little in the future," he says.
"There is nationwide interest in innovation and entrepreneurship because of the pandemic. It has also inspired individuals and entrepreneurs alike to rethink their attitude towards risk."
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