Edtech entrepreneur and one of India's youngest billionaires Byju Raveendran talks about how he ended up at the forefront of a major shakeup of the country's education ecosystem.
Byju Raveendran's tale has all the markers of everyone's favourite rags-to-riches story: humble beginnings, a touch of serendipity, and superlative success. Educated at a small village school in Kerala, it was during his work as an engineer that Byju decided to sit for the CAT exam. He was "taken aback" when he received his score: 100 per cent.
Word spread quickly after that, and he was soon helping friends prepare for their exams. As they too found success, more people began signing up for Byju's test-prep classes, which scaled up to workshops and, eventually, stadium sessions for more than 20,000 students. When it was evident that education, not engineering, was his calling in life, Byju quit his job to take up teaching full-time. Today, his eponymous education app has catapulted him into the company of trailblazers - not to mention, one of India's youngest billionaires at the age of 39, according to the Forbes India's Rich List 2020.
Ask the man who learnt to speak English from the "English commentary during cricket matches" what his journey so far has taught him, and he says, "I understood that there is no real playbook for success." If anything, he adds, his humble beginnings only made him "grateful for every single resource" he had at his disposal - and gave him his mission in life: to help kids fall in love with learning.
The numbers, 10 years on, are evidence that Byju's determination to shake up the education landscape is paying off. At a valuation of $10.5 billion, it is India's second-most valuable startup after PayTm. During the lockdown, in order to ensure "uninterrupted access to quality learning for students", all content was made completely free. As a result, the app saw 25 million new students sign up, with a total of 70 million students on the free platform.
All this came from a realisation that the education ecosystem in India had three major challenges, Byju tells WKND: lack of access to high-quality content, a one-size-fits-all approach with no personalisation and, most importantly, studies driven by the fear of exams and not the love for learning. "Students today are being trained to solve questions, but they are not being encouraged to find problems or ask questions," says the edtech entrepreneur. "The focus has been on complete spoon-feeding, rather than encouraging children to learn on their own. With close to 260 million enrolments, India has the largest school-going population in the world - but we still rank low in major global assessments because learning is driven by the fear of exams, rather than the love of learning."
Byju's method of teaching involves creating learning solutions that are both highly personalised and interactive in nature. And a quick perusal of their YouTube tutorials is enough to demonstrate why kids from kindergarten to Grade 12 find them so engaging. Theoretical concepts meet real world applications here, with simple-to-understand teaching scripts, animation, and even some good ol' humour. The brand's success has itself become a teaching point, with Harvard Business School using it as a case study since 2017.
Byju believes tech-enabled learning is the industry's best bet, with an emphasis on critical thinking, creativity and stronger conceptual understanding. "This is much needed for students to acquire skills that will prepare them for the unseen jobs of tomorrow," he explains.
While India remains their largest market, global expansion is a priority for the startup. In the UAE, the app already has a presence, with a team of experts available for a free consultation and to suggest customised learning plans for students. "We are convinced that, with the right platform, the aspect of online learning is not limited to a specific geography," Byju notes, pointing out that the "innate nature of learning is universal".
There's certainly room for more players too, he believes. "Every crisis creates so many challenges that there are enough opportunities for new ideas to come up. Especially in terms of the education sector, where technology has just about started making an impact, so much more can be done. It's a great sector for entrepreneurs to start innovating in."
A pandemic is no reason to put those pursuits on hold, according to the pioneer, who adds that many reports show that startups launched during a downturn tend to be far more resilient than those started in a better economic state. His key advice to aspiring entrepreneurs would be to find their own mission. "Entrepreneurs need to keep in mind that a business cannot be driven by the passion to make money," says Byju. "The passion to change society is far more important."
Despite his runaway success, the billionaire has no plans to sit pretty on his own fortune. "We are often referred to as the world's most valued edtech company, but we truly believe we have a long way to go before we can call ourselves successful," he says.