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11 Jul

Forests, not trees.

Yesterday, while discussing India's Demographic Dividend, I shared that India’s population size will only accelerate economic growth if access to education, formal job opportunities, infrastructural development, and relevant policy choices are made in alignment with its surplus of youth.

The list of things we are meant to get right as a country, to say the least, is Herculean. But where I place myself in this complex equation and what I'm trying to do with Stoa is fairly simple.

The reason why I posted these two screenshots is to show that my nonchalant and sometimes supportive attitude with respect to what people might consider my competition, is rooted in a sound explanation:

I seriously believe that looking at education and up-skilling courses from the lens of competition does no one any good. And the simple reason for that is:

The market needs more of us.

India is supposed to triple its GDP over the next 12-15 years. It is not going to happen unless there is human capital that can make it a reality.

In this context, education will play a pivotal role in contributing to the economy’s growth. There is so much that is wrong with how learning happens currently, and it is good that more teams and organizations are working towards solving the problem.

Do you know when an industry is really stagnating? It is when you see everyone in the space settle in a local maximum and fight in a race to the bottom. And with post-graduate education, I'm happy that this isn't the case, yet.

But the moment I mention post-graduate education, and that too business education, I am attacked for picking the easy battle. The usual rebuttal is,

“Why aren’t you solving education in rural India?”


“Why are you going after the already privileged and not helping those poor kids instead?”


“Why are you trying to do MBA differently when it works just fine?”

Firstly, I think it will be useful to understand why I should not be solving education in rural India.

The simple answer is the context difference is way too large for me to affect the ongoing situation in any meaningful way. I'm simply not fit to do justice to that segment of the population based on the skills and know-how I possess.

Let me illustrate two anecdotes that help me show you why this is the case.

In a village near Jalgaon, Maharashtra, a global research organization was conducting research on the job readiness of youth aged 18-25 years.  Through the study, they found that the students were well versed in using technology, primarily mobile phones, but failed the tests that checked for their competence in IT (Industrial Training), for which they had undergone a three-year long training period.

After the results, the research organization created a short six-month training for the students, which they could opt into and become job-ready. However, most of the students didn’t register for this stint despite the prospect of getting a white-collar job.

Eventually, the researchers found out that the students were trained for industrial training jobs, but their communication skills remained underdeveloped, which hindered them during interviews.

A few of the students shared that they came from farming families and spending three years training for a job, which they finally couldn’t land, made their parents apprehensive of any such course. They didn’t show up for the re-training period because they didn’t think it would add any value or make a difference to their job prospects.

My friend who conducted this research told me that education in rural India was fundamentally misaligned because it didn’t make meaningful additions to expected workplace skills, and the training that was provided in the curriculum left the students worse off.

This was a conversation from 2021.

On a separate occasion, I spoke to students who run The Campus Bicycle Project (CBP), aimed at providing bicycles to children in rural India so they could get to school faster. The volunteers at CBP would collect cycles from donors in cities and distribute them once a month within the village network they had established in Maharashtra.

When these students went back after a few months to check if the cycles made any difference to the attendance in schools, they learned that more boys were showing up to school than girls.

Through further interrogation, they learned that girls were discouraged from using the cycles donated to them because they would have to cycle alone to and fro from school, and their families didn’t prefer that arrangement.

The students who ran CBP felt bad to learn that after a certain age, families were averse to educating girls because it meant figuring out menstrual health, notions around freedom, and fewer hands at the farm. It wasn’t feasible for these families to expend more effort on getting the girls educated, even when resources were made available.

I had this conversation sometime back in 2015-16.

From both these instances, I felt that as an outsider, I can’t just pick the battle that seems more challenging or noble and employ top-down solutions claiming to “solve education in rural India.”

Because to solve education in rural India, you have to solve ten other things first — post which education can become a priority for the families you're trying to serve.

It's a hairy problem.

The number of structural and societal issues a founder solving education in rural India has to contend with are extremely complex and tied to many other issues which a for-profit business can’t solve at scale. Some of these changes require socio-cultural reform and government intervention, both of which can’t feature in a business’s growth trajectory.

By saying this, I do not mean to downplay or disregard not-for-profit interventions that are solving issues around education at the local level. I am merely acknowledging that I am far too removed from that reality.

The way I see it, education in rural India needs to go from a 0 to a 3 or 4 on a scale of 10, whereas I am more equipped to help people who are already at a 5 or 6 to level up to an 8, given my competence and educational background. Making a shift from 0 to 4 will require more than just a founder with a mission.

And if your question is about why I am trying to do MBA differently when the original already works well, here’s how I think about it.

The entry criteria to get into top MBA colleges requires being in the 95th percentile or higher in CAT or GMAT, which for reasons good or bad, is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Should these people be shunned from understanding how businesses operate? I don’t think so.

Students, even if they live in urban cities, don’t always come from privileged homes. Some have to support families while they are studying and more so as soon as they get a job. Does that mean they can’t learn about businesses because they can’t spare two years and focus on the MBA?

I don't think that should be the case, either.

And if the original MBA format does work better, that’s all the more reason for more people to do it. It isn’t as if businesses can only be created by students from a certain business school.

My point is: business education, for a long time wasn’t as accessible as it is today. And on the flip side, the economy could flourish faster if more of us were well-versed in business fundamentals.

I understand that being persistent in resolving complex problems does help you arrive at solutions, but my time to produce results here is limited. And I have no qualms in accepting that I have chosen the easier path as an entrepreneur.

My business is for-profit. I am training individuals who already have a preliminary level of competence. My task is to ensure that they are adept at business thinking, can be reliable professionals, and if at all they decide to run businesses, they have a head start and a support system within the Stoa community.

Given this motivation, the concept of competitors or what they are doing or how that will impact my business is something I am not focused on. If we can collectively make the productive age group (15-64 years) competent in their skills and enable them to be job creators, we will reap the dividends for years to come.

But we won’t reap this demographic dividend by getting on the high horse of solving noble problems via armchair activism or by gatekeeping knowledge. We need to create conditions where people in the productive age group from different strata of society find gainful employment in their lifetime, thereby helping the economy grow.

We are at that juncture of economic growth where we can’t miss the forest for the trees.

More avenues need to be created where mid-career professionals can pursue learning alongside work, and that is why I bet on running Stoa the way we currently are.

We have a long way to go so far as outcomes are concerned, but being persistent at problems that I have full context and competence in, outstrips the gnawing from any competitor.

Another reason, albeit a selfish one, is that the more players doing well in the up-skilling category, the more new forms of learning get validated.

Thinking about it any other way is myopic. And I would much rather play the long game.

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