Eventful. That’s the word that comes to mind when I look back at my summer. When I met Jerry and the other Blakeley Fellows earlier this April, I thought I had a solid plan – to work with a crop based microfinance not for profit in Bihar, in Northern India. With 15 days left to go, there was a massive heatwave in North and Central India, with temperatures going up to 120°F; a drought and an outbreak of encephalitis. The monsoons had failed, so had the crops and with that, the microfinance rollout we had planned.
The next two weeks, I was back home in Bangalore, for my sister’s wedding when I bumped into Surga. Surga is the founder and CEO of iSTAR, a SME working in the skill development space in Bangalore. Twenty minutes and a coffee later, I walked out of the café hired as her Executive Assistant. She had been looking for someone who wanted to do a ‘bit of everything’ and loved working in ‘messy situations’, for the next few months to execute few projects on hand.
Surga is more of a friend than a CEO. I know her since 2010, when I joined her firm as a founding employee. I was the ideating guy in a startup that had 4 people – 2 founders, an office assistant and I. I had also worked on content, training and fundraising for them, intermittently between 2013 and 2015, before I came to Fletcher. Having an opportunity to work with iSTAR again was like homecoming – to see something that you once created grow into a flourishing enterprise is a joy that is inexplicable. From having no physical office in 2010, iSTAR had grown into a swanky, three floor office building that had over sixty full time staff, thousand trainers and worked in 8 states, skilling around 60,000 students. And I was going back to a much bigger, better organized enterprise than the garage-startup I had left a couple of years back.
By way of a brief introduction, iSTAR works at the at the skill gap that exists in the Indian economy. Coming from an academic setting characterised by outdated concepts, rote learning, poor infrastructure and underpaid, underqualified teachers; young students are unable to find gainful employment in a buoyant economy that demands superior skill sets. In a country that adds 10 million people (which includes 4 million graduates) to the workforce every year, less than 2% receive any sort of training. This means what should have ideally been a demographic dividend is unrealised, because the labour force of the country is not adequately trained.
iSTAR attempts to fix this skill gap through its product iLAB – a tech based e- learning platform that offers interactive, gamified pedagogy to students, delivering a skills based curriculum designed in consultation with industry leaders and recruiters. This in-college skill lab is closely linked with each semester of undergraduate and graduate education, and we provide recruitment services to students who have completed all our certifications. Our low capex, B2B model ensures scalability and replicability while our innovative revenue model based on attracting existing stakeholder spend on skills trainings ensure profitability. Since 91% of our students come from low income backgrounds, our skills training is an effective poverty alleviation intervention that have increased monthly disposable incomes through livelihood creation.
Coming back to my summer escapades, I decided to take up Surga’s offer and reported to work in early June. I spent the first day taking stock of the ‘mess’ I was supposed to deal with. Broadly, I was expected to handle two lines of work, simultaneously. The first one, was to expand our iLAB product to tier 2 towns, on a pilot basis, as we wanted to increase the reach of our interventions and target semi urban populations. The second, was to raise money for our scaled up operations.
How, When, Where and What I would do was left to me entirely – and this entrepreneurial spirit of the organization is what I love the most about it. Occasionally, Surga would check in with my progress but otherwise, I was on my own time and place, with everyday seeming like a marathon.
The first two weeks of June went in identifying potential candidates for our pilots, and involved extensive travel. I visited about 24 colleges in 6 cities and we zeroed in on 4. 2 were in Northern Karnataka (Dharwad and Badami) and 2 were in Central Tamil Nadu (Tirunelveli and Ambasamudram). As a personal habit, whenever I get to travel on work, I make sure to be touristy around the city I’m visiting and explore its cuisines. None of these cities disappointed me – From the mouth watering Tirunelveli halwa (Wikipedia calls it a sweet, gelatinous flour based dessert – but it quite never captures the magnificence of the sweet!), to crispy murukku (again, for the benefit of the uninitiated – a savoury, snack), and Dharwad pedas – my taste palate was pampered. I also had an opportunity to visit the breathtaking Badami Cave Temples, testimony to human skill and might – a series of sculptures and paintings carved inside a huge, monolithic hill, in 6th Century AD!
I spent most of June and early July travelling to our pilot sites, drafting MoUs and getting the necessary approvals for the courses. I had an excellent operations team working out of Bangalore that supported me in critical areas like empanelling vendors for tech support, screening and recruiting freelance trainers, training the trainers, updating the content – lessons, assessment etc. and procuring hardware. After writing papers and exams in Fletcher, it was quite exhilarating to be back to leading a team and getting things done out there!
We piloted skills training for 4 job roles:
- Financial Analyst
- Mutual Fund Agent
- Retail Sales Associate
- Voice Based BPO Call Operator
We had an encouraging enrolment of 1700 (610 in their final year) students across the four pilot sites. As I write this blog now, they would have completed 2 months of training, with 3 more to go. We also tied up with 23 companies who will recruit the graduating students this December. By late July, the pilots were running seamlessly and I could formally hand over the project to the Operations team.
Fundraising is never a fun task. And before I began work on that, I decided to take a week long break and spent time at home.
I went back to work 1 August and started preparing for our Series B funding. The thing with fundraising is – it requires tons and tons of data and oodles of charisma. Unfortunately, both of them are mutually exclusive! Anyone who works with data can vouch for the fact that it leaves you tired, bored, grumpy and the last thing you want to be doing is meeting your investors over coffee and dinner, talking about something you’ve obviously never heard of, until that moment. But raising $3 million calls for superhuman efforts.
It was great fun for me, because it felt like 2010 all over again. Surga, I and the other co founder were at the drawing board – furiously debating and discussing how we would structure the deal. Unitus Seed Fund’s Board had approved an initial due diligence for this investment and we had to supply them with mountains of data – student and college numbers, tracking data about salary, geography, number of lessons/courses we had, number of exams, number, industry and job role break up of recruiters, how many laptops/mobiles/tablets and projectors we had, whether our trainers had minimum educational requirements and so forth. While collecting and checking the integrity of this data was one thing, the more interesting aspect was structuring the deal itself. How much equity would we give them? How would it affect our Board structure, voting rights? When would the equity be infused – what classes of stock to give? All of this meant heated arguments more than convivial discussions. On an ideal day, we’d be shouting at the top of each other’s voices, trying to convince the other, until food or coffee arrived to calm our souls.
On 16 August, Surga and I pitched our Series B requirement at USF’s Bangalore office. The presentation itself lasted only about 30 minutes, but we were grilled with questions for the next 3 hours. Late evening on the 16th, when we were out for dinner, we got an email from USF. They wanted to fund us! As exciting as the news was, this meant more questions, more data and more work. Since I will be heading back to school in ten days from now, we decided to have a fundraising task force that would do the groundwork from now until December, when the deal is expected to close, while Surga and I will work over email and Skype to draw up the term sheet.
Looking back, while I tried to work with someone and someplace new, in the weird ways of life, I ended up working with people I’d known very well, for a long time. Perhaps, it is for the best. Yet again, this summer, I realised how much I love working with people, leading teams, being on the field and getting things done. My personal faith in social entrepreneurship and career interests in working in the intersection of business and government, needless to say, have augmented exponentially. Coming back home to India, travelling to many cities, meeting the aspirational young minds of my country has been a source of joy, learning and pride. We have to be doing something right, if it works this well. And if it works this well, it will all be right in the end.
Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy