Article: Lessons from the learning industry: Women edtech leaders on their journey

Entrepreneurship

Lessons from the learning industry: Women edtech leaders on their journey

Today, women have made a considerable impact, if not having taken a commanding position, in various sectors, including edtech. And in this field, their strong showing stems from consistent effort, and community support, say women edtech leaders as they weigh on the challenges in the way ahead.
Lessons from the learning industry: Women edtech leaders on their journey

Everybody agrees that having more women on board is a great idea. Today women have made their dent, if not taken over, in all sectors including edtech. A lot of this stems from support and community but challenges remain, say women edtech leaders.

Bridging gender gap in edtech

“Gender diversity is not a destination but a journey of inclusion... can definitely say, we are getting better. Not like we didn’t have qualified women before, it’s just that the environment to startup is more conducive now. Plus, edtech has been the biggest disrupter of the last decade and all new age startups are trying to make workplaces equitable. This, in turn, will create more gender diversity,” says Divya Jain, Co-founder, Seekho, an edtech startup that is India’s first career accelerator that combines learning, mentorship and employment seed-funded by Sequoia’s surge fund.

Jain is an active contributor to policy making across ministries and the NITI Aayog and was also named among India Today’s 50 most powerful change-makers under 50.

Divya Gokulnath, co-founder of edtech major BYJU’S, believes that gender diversity in the workplace - be it in any sector -  must be an indispensable part of the corporate agenda that is imbibed from inception, and not as an afterthought.

“Change begins at the top, and at BYJU’S, we have had a good representation of women since the beginning within the core leadership and the founding team. This balance has trickled down and today 33% of our board is made up of women, and so is 33% of our top management. In fact, gender diversity has seeped throughout the company with 40% of our entire workforce being made up of women. And one of the most important aspects in achieving this has been to hire without bias,” she says.

Gokulnath, who started out as a teacher, was part of the founding team of BYJU’S which meant that she had to manage multiple things that would contribute to building the brand. Throughout her decade-long journey at BYJU’S, she has worked towards building, sustaining, and growing the company by spearheading various verticals. 

“I feel gender diversity and inclusion (D&I) is an ever-evolving phenomenon in the corporate world. Slowly, but steadily, corporate agendas have begun to prioritise D&I. Today we are seeing a lot of women entrepreneurs and leaders across the world and that’s an empowering feeling. At BYJU’S, we believe that women can both take care and take charge, and this is the notion that needs to be internalised to truly set the wheels of gender diversity into motion,” she adds. 

However, Gokulnath says while she has been fortunate to have built a career around her passion for science and technology, this isn’t the case for most women in our society. However, things have steadily been changing with key stakeholders such as policy makers and investors making room for women-owned businesses.

“I have seen a meaningful shift in organisations’ attention to gender inclusivity and equity, including real commitments and investments in doing better. I am certain that this will continue to grow and we will very soon witness corporate equality,” she adds. 

Edtech and women entrepreneurs - a perfect match?

Rachna Bahadur, Senior Vice President, Global Expansion, BYJU’S, says education is a segment with the potential to change the world, create a real impact, and shape the minds of the next generation, and edtech amplifies this.  

“It is a sector full of opportunities to disrupt and influence, to create value, the ability to bring change and touch lives - and that is what attracts people towards it. At BYJU’S, we have more than 12000 women teachers who are empowering children each day, every day, and a 40% representation of women in the entire workforce,” she says.

Jain says: “Historically, women have dominated the education and teaching segment. Take K-12 or colleges. The push towards going digital with edtech was only a natural progression. Perhaps, that’s why women's representation in edtech has increased. I don’t think there exists any competitive advantage, per se in edtech.. Maybe, the history of the founder in education has some role to play, but not enough to call it an advantage. Women edtech entrepreneurs face the same challenges that men in the same industry face.”

Women entrepreneurs' edge in edtech

Women entrepreneurs come from a place of understanding and detail, and Jain says they naturally gravitate to working towards causes that level the playing field for budding women entrepreneurs. This can mean creating a network, community and ecosystem which is women-led and women-oriented.

“Women are making businesses which are addressing real pain points these days in other industries. Many edtech companies which are led by women are coming into limelight, especially when it comes to future skills and modern subjects, most of which are focusing on critical thinking and impactful communication,” she adds.

Striking a balance between education improvement, financial success

Gokulnath says in education, if you do well, you do good and if you do good, you do well.

“So I think striking that balance becomes a part of our DNA and not something that needs to be achieved as an add-on. We are fortunate to be a part of a sector with a positive relevance, one that creates impact and empowers people. We are working to build an ecosystem that makes education accessible, engaging and possible for all through technology, and we have been doing so in a sustainable manner,” she says.  

“As a company, we are very conscious of the capital we have and also about where, how and how much to spend. We are paranoid about return on investment and have always qualitatively and quantitatively measured the impact of our decisions. In this effort, we have continued to onboard the best and brightest founders and entrepreneurs to come into the fold for organic and inorganic growth.  Additionally, we have been very capital efficient and our fund-raise is mostly used to create better products and expand our partnerships,” she adds.

Jain says the focus always needs to be on value creation, and financial success will follow.

“We cannot start looking at this from a profitability lens, but from the lens of creating a product that’s affordable and has a unique value proposition. We have to think of it from the angle of 'techno-socialism'. Tech has allowed education to be truly accessible to all and success will ultimately be the outcome measured by increase in skills and productivity of the consumers,” she adds.

Is funding for female-led ventures bleak?

Between January 2018 and June 2020, funding raised by startups with at least one woman founder accounted for only 5.7%  of total funding across 378 deals, while female-founded startups received only 1.43% across 80 deals, according to the Makers India Report 2020 (YS) – State of Women in Tech Entrepreneurship in India.

Jain says traditionally, female-led ventures are mostly seen as serving a niche female population.

“On the contrary, EY calls women the next emerging market as they will have the highest consumer spend. The entire start-up ecosystem is largely male-dominated in the way they network, connect and invest in each other. Wouldn’t particularly say that it’s bleak but yes breaking in for women entrepreneurs is more difficult than men. Largely, male founders find stronger support during the entire product lifecycle,” she adds.

Gokulnath believes “if you keep value creation and impact at the heart of a business, it does not matter if it is led by men or women.”

“When you truly believe in what you do, when you are solving for real needs and doing it with passion and conviction, investors will find value in your offerings and funding will flow. It isn’t the gender that defines a business but the skill and will to do good. A large number of new-age investors are viewing companies from a gender-agnostic perspective and that is great news for investors, founders and employees,” she adds.

Lessons from the entrepreneurial journey

Jain says solving the conundrum of striking the right balance between family life-work and moving from a brick-and-mortar single founder business to a VC-funded startup are two things which gave her immense learnings.

“At the end it is about reaching our own 'Ikigai'.

"Ikigai is an ideal destination where we all tend to reach but nothing comes linear in life. Gradually inching towards that perfect trajectory is what one can do. Purpose of why you are doing what you are doing is the answer for everything we do on a daily basis,” she stresses. 

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Topics: Entrepreneurship, Diversity, #BreaktheBias

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