‘Our aim is to create lifelong learners’ says Divya Gokulnath, BYJU's co-founder

At the Qatar Fifa World Cup, there was one edtech brand that stood out in the gallery. Most of us are aware of the Indian online tutorial/coaching module and app portfolio but many don’t know too much about its co-founder.


Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 13 Jan 2023, 12:34 AM

Divya, on a recent visit to Dubai, chatted with Khaleej Times about how she’s never stopped learning, about being an entrepreneur with a social conscience, a woman and a mother… and how technology can be harnessed for meaningful — and impactful — engagement.

The ‘accidental’ educator

The first thing I ever wanted was to be an astronaut. And I think every little girl wants to go to the moon at some point of time in her life. I’d been a very STEM-focused girl… math, science… academically very strong. My father’s a doctor, and he was my first teacher. Growing up, I knew that I wanted to pursue sciences, maybe life sciences, and I got into all the medical colleges in Karnataka. But in the last minute, I went for biotechnology at RV College of Engineering in Bangalore…

In my final year, I applied for a Master’s abroad… I had to prepare for GRE, so I attended math classes at BYJU’S [in its pre-technology, offline avatar]… a short two-month crash course in 2007. I was supposed to move abroad in May 2008, so had some time on hand and Byju [the owner and now husband] asked me to teach in his classes. I took my first class in reasoning and verbal ability for students preparing to crack aptitude tests at job interviews… they were students who would be core breadwinners of their family… So, obviously, the impact I felt was immense. I remember wearing a sari to class because I had to look a little bit older than them: I was 21 and these kids were like 17. There were 100 students seated in a gallery style…

And after that, there was no looking back!

I really love teaching because I feel I am making a difference. The kick you get when a group of students come and say ‘thank you’ is unparalleled. So, the other day, I was at the ice skating rink in a Dubai mall, when I see this boy with his parents… the boy was continuously staring at me… Then the dad came to me and said you are his teacher on the BYJU’S app, he wants to take your autograph. Even though this was a class I probably recorded four years back, the impact just stayed! The boy took a photo with me and my day was made!

When I meet students who have now gotten amazing jobs, and they say ‘thank you so much’ to me, I feel I’ve made a difference in their lives… the gratitude a teacher and a doctor gets is something else… A doctor saves your life and a teacher sets you up for life.

On technology, the great enabler in education

If we had done a lot of research and studies and tried to understand what the best product fit is, what the market is looking for, we would have never launched the app… a lot of things we’ve done, especially in the initial years, were driven by intuition. It’s almost like what Steve Jobs said: you create something which the market did not know that they needed, but when it comes out, they understand the value it adds to human life… In 2015, we launched the app. In 2011, we started the online education module, creating [teaching module] videos… but prior to that, we were anyway taking classes — at BYJU’S Classes, in offline classrooms… at times, we took classes in stadiums with 25,000 students at one time… From there, we transitioned to online. So, in 2015, when we launched the app, we literally stopped our entire offline presence and went completely online. That’s because we knew that the core of the model was the content that we created… It is this great content, which is what is the enabler, which is what creates a difference in a child’s life, and helps them learn better.

There are so many edtech companies but ultimately the ones that will stand out are the ones with great content, the ones that leverage tech in the right way. Tech is not about digitising a textbook... tech is about bringing together content pedagogy in such a beautiful way that ultimately you’re creating something phenomenal out of it.

With the app, when we spoke about falling in love with learning, it was a big risk. In India, you don’t talk about falling in love with learning… you speak about ranks, you speak about toppers, you think about how you will become number one in the class… But we knew this is how learning had to be because if you love learning, you will anyway do better.

Speaking of technology… there may be 50 students sitting in a physical class, but one can never give personalised attention beyond five students or six students — you cannot personalise it to the style, the size and the pace of each and every student. And that’s where technology really helps you, with the data that you collect. Let me give you an example. If, say, a student marks the wrong answer out of four options, I can — in real time — suggest a recommended video based on that mistake… but this cannot happen in a classroom, because the teacher will never know till they check the student’s answer sheet… All of this is what technology can help you identify, it can personalise much better and it can empower a teacher. Today, after the pandemic, teachers are actually utilising tech tools in the classroom to personalise. Also, tech can help create different learning experiences based on a student’s need, but everyone learns the same topic… in different ways. This can never happen in a physical classroom.

Having said that, in school, the amount of learning a child gets is amazing, it goes beyond the classroom and factors in social skills, people skills, sports skills — all of these can never be taught online. But where we fit in is after school. Where we fit in is in that time where a child needs to reinforce a concept where they need to visually understand.

On the globalisation of education

Any product that we have created is created in such a way that it’s positioned as a global product… it can be localised to every country and personalised for every learner. And that’s very important because education doesn’t make sense and will not create impact unless you have scale. If you really want to see a shift in numbers, if you want to see a shift in lots of different important metrics, you need to ensure scale… in fact, it’s easier to scale up in education because math is math anywhere in the world, science is science anywhere in the world. When people ask was it a good thing that you started in India as a company, I say it’s the best thing because when we build for scale, we build for 1.4 billion people… we already understood how to create diversity in our product and how to make it inclusive…

Likewise, in the Middle East… you can easily create something for the UAE which will work for the rest of the world, because of the diversity of the place… you have literally every diaspora here. So, a place to start your global footprint is the UAE… In fact, whatever new products we launch, we will use this market as a testing ground… And also, there is a lot of focus on education by the government here, right? Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence is the world’s first university for AI... this is emerging as a hub for innovation, for development, for growth.

How the pandemic cemented the BYJU’S model

I think one reason that during the pandemic we were able to have such a successful model running was that in 2020 we were ready for 2025. Or you can say that we were five years ahead of the curve in terms of what we had created. And what tech had done to education is because of that [Covid] disruption we were able to ensure that learning didn’t stop during the pandemic.

So, yes, it was overwhelming at one level because we probably didn’t expect that kind of scaling up suddenly. But it changed the mood in the market… I guess more people were absolutely okay. I mean, it became the new normal.

Creating an army of self-starters

Our aim is to make every student love learning. Because the minute we do that, they become self-learners, they become learners for life… that leads to better learning outcomes, which creates a better future. And you can do that only if you’re a continuous learner in today’s world. It’s not about memorising, replicating, forgetting… if you want to thrive in today’s work environment, you need to be a collaborator, you need to be a critical thinker. And for that you need to be a continuous learner and to do that you should love learning.

On learning from her kids

My older son is nine and the younger one is two. The older one has played an integral role through my work life. Do I teach him? Yes, early on, I did, and today while he still enjoys learning from me, he’s a big fan of BYJU’S… and he especially loves the live math classes. We are entrepreneurs who believe in our product so much that we are sure our children will use them… In fact, a lot of exploration of our suite of early learning products have happened through my elder son.

I learn every day from him on how to be happy, how to be positive… children can teach you so much… not just him actually, all my students, I draw so much inspiration from all of them, as much as I have drawn from my parents and my mentors.

BYJU’s social impact and Messi

BYJU’S has appointed football star and global sports icon Lionel “Leo” Messi as the first global brand ambassador of its social impact arm, Education For All. This association is in sync with the expanding global footprint of BYJU’S and its commitment to make education accessible, equitable and affordable for all. At the recently-concluded Fifa World Cup 2022 in Qatar, BYJU’S made history by becoming one of its the official sponsors.

BYJU’S sees Lionel Messi as ‘The Greatest Learner of All Time’ whose passion for continuous learning has redefined the meaning of what is possible in football. “We are honoured and excited to collaborate with Lionel Messi as our global ambassador,” says BYJU’S co-founder Divya Gokulnath. “He is a once-in-a-generation talent whose pursuit of excellence, all-in mentality, humility, and reliability resonate deeply with BYJU’S brand values… It is not really surprising that the greatest player of all time is also the greatest learner of all time. I am sure this partnership will inspire millions of people around the world to dream bigger and learn better. As football fans know, with Messi on your side anything is possible.”

BYJU’S launched its social impact initiative Education for All (EFA) in 2020 (byjus.com/educationforall/), with the aim to democratise education by ensuring that children across all economic backgrounds get equal access to quality learning opportunities. EFA serves to enable students from underserved and economically deprived communities with a better chance at upward social and economic mobility. With over 175+ partners like American India Foundation, United Way, Right to Live, Magic Bus, SOS, Save the Children, CRY and more across 400 districts in India, the programme has created a positive impact and reached over 5.5 million students in the last one year across the country. BYJU’S has also partnered with NITI Aayog to provide free access to its tech-driven learning programmes for children from “aspirational districts” of the country. Nearly 50 per cent of beneficiaries are girls.

“EFA was born out of our dream to cultivate an equal opportunity education ecosystem… Our technology-first education tools helped us bridge the gaps widened by the pandemic,” says Divya. “With each passing day, the number of children continues to grow. It is heartwarming to know that we have been able to restore smiles on the faces of children.”


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