Journey from Traditional Corporate Roles to an EdTech Startup: Ritesh Malhotra

Through this blog series, I’d like to share parts of my professional journey with readers. My emphasis will be on career choices and opportunities that lie ahead of us all. We just need to reach out and make the effort. I hope this is of interest to those looking for a transition in their careers; who are not enjoying ‘more of the same’. Also, those pondering between starting up and working with a startup.

In February of 2007, at the Indian School of Business, I met a wise industry stalwart. He said, “If you’re not creating something, you’re wasting your time on the planet, some create and some manage, don’t waste your time being the latter.” The words stuck on, I worked with this thorough gentleman of Bengali origin for several years. I see him as a mentor who taught me the art of navigating corporate corridors. Ever since then, I’ve tried to lead my life by that simple rule he suggested. This year, on the cusp of the winter season and over the long weekend of Diwali, I look back on my journey of the past 10 years. If you find this blog somewhat interesting, drop me a line at (ritesh.malhotra@upgrad.com). It’d be very interesting to know your views.

Up until last year, I lived the ideal Indian professional lifestyle. Get your engineering degree, then double dip on success by layering it with an MBA. Put in 90-hours work weeks with large corporates and reflect over your life riding 16-hour flights. I spent my formative years in the Indian IT and Telecom sector and was fortunate to witness its growth phase.

Journey from Traditional Corporate Roles to an EdTech Startup: Ritesh Malhotra

A Start For Start-Ups

 

In the winter of 2016, over the course of one such long transit flight from Auckland to Delhi, I debated with an accomplished Kiwi investor. He was in a dilemma with educational choices vs career choices of Indians. His arguments were based on the number of Indians who use education as a mean to migrate and not a career-shaping platform. It led us to an interesting discussion on the need for education to evolve faster and keep pace with the changing needs of industry. We were talking about unfavorable jobs and the growth scenario globally. We also discussed the declining relevance of traditional corporate roles and structures. The need to acquire skills before steering through automation and digital transformation.

“Those in the business of creating more of the same will soon be out of business” is how we concluded our discussion.

For a long time, I had been thinking of changing course as I wasn’t enjoying ‘more of the same’ anymore. After this conversation, I decided to walk away from my routine to build something with a deeper impact and wider resonance. Over the next 6 months, I spoke with few individuals whose opinion and guidance I valued most – they all saw the merits and supported my decision. To my surprise, my decision of walking away from a traditional corporate role was unintentionally aided by someone who strongly recommended against it. That narrow mindset (which in fact helped me) is an interesting subject for a later blog on leadership!

I’ve built businesses at the intersection of technology and communications.

I’ve seen the digital transformation in the industry landscape like nothing else in the past. It’s a form of industrial revolution.

If not larger, then at par with the transforming impact of the invention of personal computing in the early 80s. Digital is rapidly transforming conventional businesses. Consumer businesses will have to transform their interfaces (Stores, Dealerships, Branches et al). Enterprise businesses (IT sector) will need to transform their core offerings. They have to ensure their ability to serve the changing consumer demands. Also, there is a dire need to establish standards and guide industry on the transformation. With this understanding, I was clear to make my future in the digital businesses, disrupting conventional models.

What After IT? Top 5 Transitions You Can Make

 

As I dwelled deeper, I felt that visible long-term change in India was imminent in 3 sectors – Agriculture, Education and Clean/Renewable Energy. Both areas, Agriculture and Education have seen limited change over the past few decades. I had no background in Agriculture and saw a very limited application of my background. Education was a different matter though. Given my background in ITeS, I often thought of India’s reliance on services led revenue. We had not done enough to future-proof our talent pool. I felt the Indian services sector had to upgrade. For that to happen, both education and career markets would need to transform over the next few years. Our workforce had to re-skill and acclimatise to the change mandated by automation. With these thoughts, I narrowed down to ‘Online Education/Ed Tech’ as an area of interest and relevance for the future.

Journey from Traditional Corporate Roles to an EdTech Startup: Ritesh Malhotra

I started laying the groundwork for an Ed-Tech business around February of 2017. The details are again a matter for a separate blog on early stages of entrepreneurship. During this period, as the word got around, I was approached by a few organisations for serving their aspirations in various markets. I discussed with all but politely turned them down and continued with my exploratory work in the education sector. I took a few trips to education hubs in India and over my usual business trips to ANZ and ASEAN. To admit it openly, over the course of these dialogues if there was one doubt creeping up it was my understanding of the core education business. I was confident of building digital businesses and even more confident about positioning and taking them to market. My fundamental understanding of the industry was a different matter though. That takes time and one must never ignore its importance when starting up.

As fate would have it, I received an interesting phone call exploring my interest in building the enterprise business for an EdTech. What I knew of ‘UpGrad’ till then, was limited to it being one of the ventures promoted by a leading Indian entrepreneur and visionary, Ronnie Screwvala (who needs no introduction). The organisation was amongst one of the most reputed EdTech’s that had sprung up over recent years. I then looked up the pedigree of the founding team. I realised they brought a strong background in education, which peaked my interest in UpGrad. A discussion with their co-founder on a Saturday morning in Delhi turned me in favour of UpGrad.

The Idea Called UpGrad: Why Education is Serious Business

 

For the meeting, I had put some thoughts down in areas that could be relevant to their enterprise business. From my point of view, I was looking to get some insight into the purpose, values and culture of UpGrad. These attributes of organisations shine through conversations with their leadership.

Get those parameters right and over time all business metrics will fall in place, get them wrong and you’ll be grappling with a long winding ‘more of the same’ dilemma that so many of us battle through the corporate ranks.

During this discussion, they had clearly set purpose and goals, yet were flexible in their approach, and maintained humility at the core.

Let me also say that a lot of organisations profess these very values but very few executives practice or display these attributes.

That first meeting certainly peaked my interest, as I met more of the UpGrad team, the hypothesis I drew from the first meeting started to firm up.

Always approach that first meeting with an open mind, talk about your dreams and aspirations, but also listen carefully, there will be enough cues to help you assess an organisation.

Journey from Traditional Corporate Roles to an EdTech Startup: Ritesh Malhotra

There were 4 broad criteria that I used while deciding in favor of working with UpGrad over starting up on my own:

  • The net impact that I’d be able to create, working with an accomplished team instead of starting fresh. I knew how to create digital businesses, but the team knew a lot more about education than I did, there was a lot to learn.
  • Operating in a startup ecosystem is very different from the philosophical presumption we have while working in large corporations. It’s better to experience this in a setup being closely observed by one of the most seasoned entrepreneurs in the country.
  • Track record of building and growing businesses for a long term with an active interest in operations, not seeing them as mere investments. There’s an opportunity to create something great. Great things take time and need a certain mindset to appreciate and realise. Someone who doesn’t have the heart and sweat invested in a business will never appreciate this.
  • Finally, the open-mindedness that an organisation’s leadership displays – which tells you whether it’s a place where opinions and alternate thinking will be respected. It becomes a congregation place for great minds and ideas to come together.

I feel, above 4 attributes are crucial yardsticks for anyone looking to partner/work/starting up with a new team. It’s often said that winning is a mindset. You often win/lose based on how you think of a certain challenge at a certain time. Before you embark on a new professional journey, use the above 4 criteria; they may help.

Nothing is guaranteed in life, but qualifying opportunities on certain yardsticks could better your chances!

I decided to work with UpGrad and build their enterprise business. It has turned out to be that congregation place of great minds that I imagined it to be. There’s a sense of openness, transparency, and respect that has aided my transition from a large corporate ecosystem to a truly entrepreneurial one. The team has built a stunning consumer brand over the past 2 years and now, we want to do more with and for corporations in India and abroad.

Towards the end of October, I will complete 90 days with the organisation. These 3 months have given me a good peek into the aspirations, opportunities, and challenges that lie ahead of us. The transition from traditional industry roles has been every bit the exciting journey. It is lathered with learning that I thought it to be. How we translate this into a great enterprise business over the next 90 days, as we build the teams, partner ecosystem and position this business is a topic for another blog!

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