A job can’t be the end result…you may be redundant in 3 years: Ronnie Screwvala

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October 13, 2019 10:15 AM

Ronnie Screwvala says, "The next big wave (in education) has to be the online way because then you can take the best faculty, put them in an environment, take the training to a different level, and your learning experience can be high”

Ronnie Screwvala, Ronnie Screwvala Film producer, indian entrepreneurs, entertainment industry, Ronnie Screwvala, online education venture, Ronnie Screwvala upGrad, TED Talk, UTV, Uri, Love Per Square FootFilm producer and entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala explains how his online education venture upGrad is more than about skills, insists entrepreneurs have to break the glass ceiling to grow, and says film audiences now want entertainment that comes with a context

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Health and education are focus areas for the government. What is the opportunity you sensed here and how has your experience with the establishment been so far?
Swades (a not-for-profit foundation that has been working in more than 2,000 villages in Maharashtra’s Raigad district) being a non-government organisation , our first instinct obviously was not to work that closely with the government, primarily because we were very clear we do not want to take money from them. But then we realised that to really scale up anything in the non-profit space, you do need the government to be a partner. During three years, our interaction with the government at the ground level was quite incredible… we believe they come there and are more of a hindrance, but the people working on the ground have got the highest levels of motivation.

One of the first visits we had was to a government hospital in Raigad. The head of the hospital had left behind her one-year-old child in a place 200 km away, but wanted to work in this sector. She told us, ‘Look, I’ve got a 100-bed hospital and only two or three patients at any given time. There’s only one gap, and the word is trust. So you, as a not-for-profit and an NGO, can build trust between the community and the government and be a catalyst.’ It resonated with us very strongly because when you are looking at doing something in the social sector, you think it’s a given that you want to do something good and the other person is absolutely ready to accept it. It is not really true. You have to build an incredible amount of trust.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: What are the areas in education that your for-profit venture, upGrad, can change?
In the education space, the reality is that most people start working at a very young age — mostly after graduation or sometimes in Class 12 — and they are now stuck in their careers, for two-three reasons. One, you know that there are younger people coming in, overtaking you. Number two, you can’t get out of that job to take a year off to study because you don’t know what it is you can study and the opportunity cost is too high. The third is that we don’t have the faculty and the teaching skills in this country yet at that level. So for me, the most non-linear thinking in education was to focus on the working professional and to focus on online. Now online for most people is suspect because most people relate online to content — okay, I’ll look at something like a TED Talk and learn something. No. How do you make online equivalent to a learning experience? The next big wave has to be the online way because then you can take the best faculty, put them into an environment, take the training to a completely different level, and your learning experience can be high. So we have been very non-linear to focus on the learning experience more than the content.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: So to some extent it complements skill development, which is at the lower end of the spectrum?
Yes, except that I have a bit of a problem with the word ‘skills’ because it kind of down-markets everything that we do. We need to find a different word for ‘skills’, which to most people sounds very basic. If we want to create a country which is going to be more driven by intellectual property and innovation and thought leadership versus being a permanent outsourcing arbitrage country, I think we have to use a word better than ‘skills’.

Sandeep Singh: You exited from UTV in 2012. What stops Indian entrepreneurs from taking the company to the next level, and why do they choose to exit?
We have been too obsessed with the concept of control. At a 100% (shareholding), it’s your company; at 99%, it stops being your company and you should be able to differentiate between being a shareholder or an investor or a CEO and managing director. That obsession for control sometimes leads you into taking decisions that are much more limited. Also, every market has a glass ceiling, but the reason it’s called a glass ceiling is for you to break it, and it takes a lot to punch it and break it because you’re going to bleed in the process. The glass ceiling in India is either price-sensitive or volume-sensitive or geography-sensitive — South versus North versus East versus West. Having seen the older business groups diversify horizontally, the mental mindset is, we should diversify, versus let’s go stronger on a vertical (level). If we can change this mindset, a lot can change.

Coomi Kapoor: You’re one of the biggest film and television producers, but you were an outsider when you began, with no family to fall back on. Was it a handicap?
After 2012, I’m pretty much out of the media and entertainment business. But yes, I was the outsider and no, it wasn’t a handicap. To me, it was a blessing in disguise. It was a handicap in the sense that one couldn’t penetrate that thought process, but because I was the outsider, it challenged me even more because if I did what everybody else was doing, I would have done a lousy job of it.

Harish Damodaran: A country like Bangladesh has several social entrepreneurs and a lot of its achievements have been because of its NGO sector. But here we have a sort of distinction between business and CSR/philanthropy. Why is that?
Here, we get mixed up in entrepreneurship — either you’re a not-for-profit or you’re a for-profit… That confuses entrepreneurs, confuses people who want to put in money. In a country like India, we need to solve problems at scale. Let me give you an example from a micro housing finance company that I invested in with three very savvy entrepreneurs. They were giving loans for less interest and my first question to them was do you want to give out 10,000 loans a year at a low interest rate of 11% or give a million loans to people who can’t avail of a loan, say the autorickshaw driver, but at a slightly higher rate of 14%? Their answer was, ‘we’re looking at the 10,000’. I said, that’s the flaw because let’s do a million people at 14% versus 10,000 people at 11%. Actually, the autorickshaw guy won’t mind putting the 3% more because he won’t get a loan anywhere else to do what he wants to do. If you’re doing it for profit, then do for-profit on a regular scale. Don’t do a 50-bed hospital and say all my beds are subsidised. Nobody will give you the next `500 crore to build 50 hospitals. Then you’ll be stuck at that one hospital.

Mimansa Shekhar: As a film producer, what goes inside your mind when you pick a project and back it?
If you’re looking at a producer as just being a financier, then it’s only about ‘backing’. But for me, understanding the script and relating to it, asking if it is a story I want to tell, is important… What my 15 years in media taught me was understanding consumers and trends, and pre-empting trends. When you take a call on a script — we call it a gut sense, but actually gut is not waking up in the morning and saying, chalo, ‘I’ll do this’. Gut is a lot of experience and a lot of failures that allow you to hone your judgment in a very different manner and then you apply your gut. Second, if it’s a story I think I want to tell, we do a fair amount of research and focus groups. You still get it wrong four out of 10 times.

Mimansa Shekhar: What is that one biggest change you have noticed in your audience?
In the last two-four years, people have started seeking context and a little bit of reality. So if you take out the entertainment, it won’t work, and if you make it out of context and give only suspension of reality, that’s also not working. So the change that has happened is entertaining with suspension of reality versus now entertainment with a context.

Aakash Joshi: There have been many films, including your Uri, that deal with contemporary political issues. What is the danger of movies crossing the line from entertainment to propaganda? The ‘How’s the josh?’ line from Uri came up a lot during the elections that followed.
I don’t see this as propaganda at all and I can say it with an absolutely clean conscience. Firstly, when we decided to do Uri, this script had been floating around for a year-and-a-half and had nothing to do with the elections. Movies take at least a year to make. Somebody can’t say there was an attack day before yesterday, can you give me a movie in 60 days because we have got elections coming up. I can only speak firsthand as far as Uri is concerned.

Devyani Onial: Your Love Per Square Foot was the first original Hindi film to premiere on Netflix. Was it a risk you took or a trend you spotted early on?
It was a lovely story … When I spoke to the Netflix guys, they said India is an important market. I said, then tell stories from here and here’s a movie. So I think it happened partly opportunistically. There is nothing we created for Netflix. It was a movie that was going to go out to the theatres.

Ravish Tiwari: We may be a huge population, but for entrepreneurs, India is effectively a 100-million market, that is, if you look at people with purchasing power. Have we plateaued as a market or do you think there is scope for growth?
You can look at any industry and sector and then figure out how high is your glass ceiling. Do you want to diversify or do you want to penetrate the ceiling? Because the ones who break the glass ceiling are going to be big-time winners, but it will be a longer-term view on things and requires a lot more courage, a lot more guts. You may need funding, you may need three years of everyone poking fun at you saying what the hell are you doing. Take e-commerce, for example… We all thought India won’t be won by online, everyone wants to touch and feel. But now that has changed because you started with credible products where touch-and-feel was not important. A market that could have been 30 million is now coming up to a 100 million. So if 30 can get to 100, 100 can get to 400. That’s something that we need to push for.

Pooja Pillai: Last year, a number of people in the entertainment industry were accused of sexual harassment. What are the systems of redressal that can be put in place?
I can’t speak on behalf of the entertainment industry because I don’t represent it any more, but I would think this is not a segment— or a sector-prevalent one. It’s not an India problem as much as it’s a global problem. One of the positive aspects of the media bringing it out is the fact that it is the first step towards people feeling that I need to be a little bit more mature, I need to be a little bit more accountable. It has happened at the level of the President of the United States and it has happened even at a very incognito level. So it’s out there in the open. It’s not something that can now be hushed up at any stage.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Considering that the Indian industry has not really created products, services for a vast swathe of the population, do you think the slowdown in growth that we are witnessing could be in some part due to this?
I can say in the education business, where we are scaling up, I have not seen a sense of a slowdown. But if I look at the automobile sector, what is happening is the amount of capex people put in because of the massive competition, combined with the entire context of the electronic cars… and then you don’t see a growth-level expansion that everyone thought this market would have.

And whether you like it or not, the debt overleveraging of entrepreneurs and founders and promoters… has created a very deep-seated thing. Some of them have obviously been black sheep and misused it. Some have done it because businesses haven’t worked, but that whole matching your vision with debt just doesn’t add up. The mindset is, I have this big vision, but 90% of that will come through capital that I don’t need to feel obliged to repay. That mindset has to just go away from the Indian ecosystem.

Ankita Dwivedi Johri: In the absence of something like BARC for broadcasters or box-office numbers or TRPs, how do you tell if a show or a film has done well on OTT platforms?
From a content creator’s point of view, the best benchmark is if they’re giving you a Season 2 or they continue to do business with you, or if they are increasing your price for the next season. I think from the platform’s point of view, it’s a competitive environment and I think they are not disclosing numbers, but they are obviously taking their business decisions on growth and renewing it in a very different manner. So just because the information is not public, doesn’t mean both ecosystems are not comfortable with their benchmarks. For content, it’s renewal and for the platforms, it’s a subscription model.

Ravish Tiwari: From your experience with upGrad, was there anything that came as revelation to you about the Indian education market?
People are questioning today if an MBA is relevant. Not in a bad way, but they are asking, well, what does that get me, because for most people, education is a route to a job. Your working professional life can’t be the end result because now… the next big challenge is to retain the job. You could be redundant even three years later. At the same time, I think the younger generation is flawed in thinking that they need to change jobs every two years. You need to have a certain sense of learning and even learn within an organisation. You need to be in a place long enough to be able to bring something out of it. In six months, you should decide and know whether this is the place where you are going to learn and grow, and then maybe spend at least five years.

Anil Sasi: In terms of commercial viability, where does upGrad stand given that IIT Bombay, for instance, has spoken-language tutorials. Then you have courses offered by Udacity and Coursera that are on the higher end of the spectrum and are free.
Udacity and Coursera are great companies with free content. But their track-record of people completing courses is less — statistics say it’s only 5% to 7 %. We spend 40% of our money not on marketing and content but on the learning experience. The mentorship programme — where any week you haven’t logged on we call your spouse or your daughter, your father, your mother and tell them what you missed out on — that’s an incredible amount, not in a sales way but in an environment way. Second, from a cost perspective, we are 1/8th the cost of everybody else. The cost is much less in terms of opportunity cost.

Anil Sasi: Are there specific courses that are seeing traction?
We are focused more on what we call careers of tomorrow — data, digital machine-learning, artificial intelligence. We have found an incredible amount of push in data science and data analytics.

Sandeep Dwivedi: On the kabaddi league, in which you are a key stakeholder, do you think it’s too much of a soap opera in the way the sport is presented?
One, there is too little sport in India. Two, we’re never going to win Olympic gold medals in this country unless we start at a much younger age and all of us believe that sports is a career option and not a hobby. Third, we have only one sport in this country right now and that’s cricket and the whole world has moved on from cricket… When you’re taking a sport and you want to evangelise it, you have to build a certain drama. It is one of the shortest sports, with so much action. 30 % of the kabaddi viewership is female and that’s partly because the men are dressed in tight costumes. Now, we’ve worked on them to make them look hot. So yeah, we have to have drama.

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