In India, we have never had a crisis that redefined skilling; this is that period: Arjun Mohan
Arjun Mohan, CEO – India, upGrad, has charted an inspiring path to become what he is today. While many of us struggle to find the perfect ingredient for being successful in our career, Arjun is one of those rare kinds who had found his passion and strength early on and decided to go with them.
The fact that Arjun began his career in Edtech as a teacher and went on to become the CEO of India's leading online higher education company at a young age speaks volumes about his prowess and spirited attitude.
In this exclusive interview with Human Capital, Arjun discusses how online education is getting assimilated into the mainstream and how upGrad is changing the game of the Indian Edtech ecosystem.
You joined upGrad at a time when the COVID-19 crisis was deepening. The experience of becoming a new CEO in an organisation is not without its learning curves and challenges, and when you add COVID-19 and work-from-home to the equation, it seems even more daunting. Please share your reflections on the first few months at upGrad, which have been inevitably shaped by the pandemic.
I joined upGrad when the company, with its unique brand proposition and result-oriented offerings, was already on the growth trajectory. Owing to our online model, we never really felt the operational challenge that many companies felt when we switched gears to remote working.
Thanks to the complete trust the organisation put in me and the unconditional support of the employees, we were able to pivot into a 100% online company. We moved our sales, delivery, production, etc. online in no time.
Our sales team that used to physically meet customers moved seamlessly to doing these meetings through video calls, and to our surprise, they showed substantial improvement in performance. The SMEs and artists were trained to shoot videos of products and campaigns at home, which our team remotely edited to keep the flow going. We even did a professional ad shoot via Zoom.
So while the first few months were challenging, we are proud to have achieved what we have done so far. We grew 100%+ from Q1 last year, and marginally from Q4.
The Edtech space was witnessing growth at breakneck speed even before the pandemic, with the Indian online education industry poised to reach INR 360.3 billion by 2024, according to a pre-COVID estimate. With the catalyst of the pandemic, online learning is bound to skyrocket even more. How do you see the scope and opportunities for online learning in India — now and after COVID-19 abates ?
Edtech has accomplished more in the last 100 days than it had in the previous five years.
upGrad, after the pandemic outbreak, launched the whitepaper with FICCI, in which research indicated that 92% of learning leaders had confirmed the adoption of online learning journeys, up from 68% in the pre-COVID-19 period. Most of these leaders are in the areas of data sciences, AI, ML, full-stack software engineering, digital marketing, and MBA courses.
Even before COVID-19, online education in India was on the rise, and people were making a gradual shift from offline to online. However, with COVID-19 hitting the world suddenly, the pandemic has steered everyone towards online learning, making it mainstream rather than just another option for learning and upskilling.
Online education has hit the fast track, and with various universities and colleges adopting edtech platforms, we think the demand will be sustained even after the COVID-19 era. In India, we have never had a crisis that redefined skilling; this is that period. The comfort, safety, and flexibility offered by online education will continue to steer the demand.
We are enabling 100+ universities and colleges, which includes MHRD’s NIRF Top 100 universities, to seamlessly replicate their classes online, and forecasting an INR 1200 crore annual run rate with profitability, a game-changer in the Indian edtech ecosystem.
Most recently, we graduated a batch of 2859 learners, which marked IIIT Bangalore’s largest convocation in the history of 21 years and perhaps India’s largest convocation for any online course. The batch included learners of Post-Graduate Programs in Data Science, Machine Learning (ML) & Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Software Development/Blockchain.
Therefore, the online learning sector is not temporary but here to stay, and with the growing popularity, it will continue to rise in the future, equipping India for a more competitive world that lies upon us.
At upGrad, which course enrollments are seeing a spike in interest among professionals in India since the pandemic struck?
The pandemic proved to be counter-cyclical for edtech. At upGrad, we have witnessed significant uptake in terms of traffic on our platform and revenue (we are considering Q4—Jan, Feb, and March—the pre-COVID-19 quarter and Q1—April, May, and June—the post-COVID-19 quarter for the below data).
While all verticals have grown in Q4 vs Q1, the MBA vertical has grown by 63% in terms of revenue and 82% in terms of learner base, making it the biggest winner. The MBA vertical includes the global MBA programs we launched earlier this year in partnership with the renowned Liverpool Business School (LBS) and Deakin Business School.
Data science vertical, which has always been on a growth trajectory for us, continues to grow with the Master of Science in Data Science, having grown by more than 60% in terms of both revenue and learner base, making it our bestselling data science program in this quarter. This program, with India’s renowned IIIT-B and the UK-based Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), offers a globally recognised, fully online master’s degree.
Closer to home, our PG Certification in Digital Marketing and Communication with MICA has grown by 70% in terms of both revenue & learner base. Perhaps the program has grown to be the leader with around 40% of the market share.
In terms of interested candidates, sheer organic interest for our programs went up by around 120%. Women seem to have taken up slightly more of an interest in upskilling, having grown by around 32% quarter on quarter, as compared to men who have grown by roughly 28%.
Both youth and older individuals have been considering upskilling. Our website saw a 42% increase for the 45–54 age group in the AMJ quarter, which is the highest amongst all other age groups, followed by the 18–24 age group, which grew by 40%.
On the recruitment front, upGrad wears two hats, one to recruit for your own teams, and the other to build a talent pool of upGrad learners from where other companies can source talent. How are upGrad’s programs differentiated to make learners job-ready and more employable?
We follow an outcome-oriented approach and offer our learners the best personalised content, which in turn complements their professional growth.
We offer programs in the areas of tech, management, data, and law, which acquaint learners/ professionals with new-age skill sets and have them meet the rapidly-changing industry demands. Moreover, our rigorous program structure and steadfast mentorship end up enhancing learner’s employability quotient at large. Our program completion rate stands at 80%, which otherwise is around 3–6% for MOOCs, and we have onboarded 32,000 paid learners so far, thereby impacting half a million individuals globally.
Honestly, we live in an era when edtech is mushrooming and has become a crowded place. Yet, in a price-sensitive country like India, we are in a position to command an ARPU of INR 2.5 Lakh, which is the highest across the Indian online education space.
In the last quarter, we have seen a learner who enrolled for our Data Science program achieve the highest salary hike of 250%, along with other learners across domains, who have achieved more than a 100% salary hike. These numbers, indeed, bear testimony to our robust outcome-based delivery approach.
India offers a huge labour market, and, for upGrad as a recruiter, we have not faced any shortages. While skill and experience for a role are critical to us, what is equally important is that whoever joins us is able to see the multitude of career opportunities as well as the learning and growth we offer at upGrad.
Believing in our purpose, fitting into our entrepreneurial culture, and rallying around our growth targets is a prerequisite for us. We have seen active solicitation as an employer, and we believe in the right talent and the right experience at the right compensation for a long-term commitment. With that said, we have experienced a bit of a surge in talent availability given the current economic slowdown across sectors.
While organisations in several sectors continue to swing the axe on jobs to deal with the current situation, upGrad, on the other hand, plans to double its employee base to capitalise on the boom in the Edtech space. What are your top business and talent priorities for the coming months?
Our plans on hiring are based on our long-term commitments. We continued to be cautiously optimistic during the pandemic, onboarding 40% of our leadership team in the midst of COVID-19 knowing fully well that we wanted those senior leaders to enable our long-term growth plans. For the rest of the organisation, we delved into the right mix of talent and competence, ensuring that our growth plans are amply supported by continuously raising our organisational capability.
We were prudent for some of our financial decisions as well, but we quickly realised that, as much as we wanted our consumers to commit to learning with us, we wanted our employees to commit to the mission and purpose of upGrad. Our salaries, bonuses, and benefits continue to be the same for our employees, and we are continuously evolving how we can support our employees through this ‘work-from-home’ transition.
We will most likely double our headcount by the end of this fiscal year while being equally focused on getting the right talent mix into the organisation and staying true to our growth plans. We ensure that our talent comes from diverse backgrounds to provide us with the advantage of curating unique experiences and bodies of work that make upGrad the most exciting startup to work with.
The career opportunities we offer range from technology to sales and marketing to operations – we welcome college graduates and experienced professionals who believe in the purpose we serve at upGrad.
What’s something outstanding upGrad has achieved during this period of extraordinary challenge?
We have helped 100+ offline institutes and universities to go online since the pandemic outbreak, enabling thousands in India to continue their education with minimal disruption.
Migrating to an online ecosystem is not a mere matter of placing a webcam in front of the teacher.
Quality of education will plummet if sessions, participation, and evaluations are not supervised with equal precision as they are in an offline setup. Quick to gain the advantage, upGrad—India’s edtech leader—had promised access of its proprietary tech platform to all colleges and universities at the very onset of COVID-19 pandemic, before Lockdown 1.0.
Over 100 colleges and universities, so far, are using upGrad’s platform to replicate their offline classes online. These institutes include Jamia Hamdard University and Lovely Professional University, which are among the MHRD’s NIRF Top 100 universities, with the former being recommended as Institute of Eminence by the Government of India.
I would not refer to “upGrad Live” as merely a “tech platform,” because it’s much more than that. It’s a digital campus we have built for universities and strengthened for over half a decade with investments to the tune of 100 crores. “upGrad Live” supports multiple assessment formats, including coding tests, in its inbuilt coding console, quizzes, and projects for individuals and groups. Plagiarism checks and proctored exams allow for fair grading. Session analytics provide an alternative to class monitoring in an offline setup. We provide our partner universities with the complete LMS (Learning Management System), allowing a seamless transition.
The Litmus test for any tech platform is the volume it can handle without crashing.
Around 100,000 learners are logged in to our platform as we speak with over 8500 hours of live sessions conducted in the past three months, and we are ready to take it to 1 million learners.
Up-Close and Personal
What has changed the most for you since the COVID-19 outbreak?
No more travel; I used to be on the road four days a week. Work schedules have become a thing of the past; it's as if I am working all the time.
Which hard-won lessons will this pandemic have taught you?
Don't wait for things to get back to normal. Adjust to the new normal or risk becoming irrelevant.
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
I started my career in edtech as a teacher and still take classes for IIT JEE Physics and Math students in my leisure time.
♦ Favourite quote: "If ignorance is bliss, why seek knowledge."
♦ Complete these sentences:
→ Life is … exciting
→ I strongly believe in … fairness
♦ What comes to your mind when you hear these words?
→ Resilience: Never Say Die
→ Self-Discipline: Winning
→ Inclusion: Teamwork
Are you comfortable working with dispersed colleagues?
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