CEO Q&A: a conversation with Ashwin Damera from Eruditus


Every once in a while, we sit down with a CEO of a Prosus-backed company and ask them ten big questions about their work, their career, and the challenges they faced along the way. Read our Q&A with Ashwin Damera, CEO at Eruditus.

1. What challenge are you trying to solve and why is your approach unique?
Our mission is to make high quality education more accessible and affordable. Many people on the Eruditus team have benefitted from high quality education, including myself and my co-founder Chait. But we know that high quality education is out of bounds for most people. The ‘Ivy Leagues’ in the USA accept about 5% of applicants. In India, the IITs and IIMs accept less than 1%. We wanted to work with these institutions to make their courses accessible to the thousands who can’t learn in their current model. From the student’s perspective, the challenge we are solving is the “upskilling challenge”. The world is being driven by AI, data science, digitization, quantum computing and other trends. To continue to be successful, professionals will have to imbibe new skills and knowledge. Upskilling is going to be the differentiator in the knowledge economy. That’s the education challenge we are solving, and we solve it in a unique way, by partnering with top ranked universities.

2. What or who inspired you to start the company?
My own experience at Harvard Business school and what it did to my career was my inspiration to start the company. I never dreamt that I would become an entrepreneur. I don’t come from a business family. But through my journey at Harvard, I met many entrepreneurs and learned a lot about starting up, including writing the business plan for Travelguru, my first startup, and most importantly, developed the confidence that I can start something. The alumni network was also very helpful in raising capital, finding advisors and hiring great people.  My co-founder, Chait, had a similar experience as a result of his time at INSEAD. Our business school education had a profound impact on us, so we asked ourselves how we could have the same impact on the thousands who can’t come to a 2-year MBA program. That was the inspiration for Eruditus.
3. What has been the hardest challenge and the most pleasant surprise along the way?
In the early days the hardest challenge was to convince top schools to work with us. In our first 5 years, we were able to convince only 5 schools, mostly due to word of mouth. INSEAD was our first school partner. They had a partnership with Wharton which became our second school. And so on. In the initial days it was really a school a year signed up mostly through word of mouth. Now, the biggest challenge is about people and execution. What is the best way to manage globally dispersed teams? How do you motivate them? How do you ensure they deliver at a high-level year long? Finally, given how fast we are growing, the challenge is also how do we hire strong people who can scale.
The biggest surprise has been how global the business has become. When we started Eruditus, we thought of India as the focus market, and while it is still a very important market for us, we now enrol students from 80+ countries. We didn’t imagine that when we started the company.
4. What’s the best advice you ever got and what advice do you regret not following?
As an entrepreneur the best advice I got was from Prof. Bill Sahlman at Harvard. He said the best form of fundraising is from customers. It’s a very profound statement, and one I regret not following with my first startup, Travelguru. We were reliant on raising capital from investors and eventually, post the financial crisis in 2009, funding was scarce. This stressed the company and me a lot and we had to go through a very tough 12 months. It’s a tough mistake I have learned from, and at Eruditus, I absolutely followed his advice! For a startup cash is paramount and if you have product-market fit you can get paying customers to fund growth. That means if you get to the point of looking for external money, investors will love your business. It’s a virtuous cycle.
5. What are the future implications for education of the technology you are developing?
Due to the pandemic, everyone is learning online. This leads to a much greater acceptance of online learning than ever before. We see this across all age ranges, from kids to working professionals to seniors. This throws up many implications - not just for new technologies like AR/VR but also for new business models.
6. How do you stay one step ahead of the competition?
We like to believe that we can adapt to market situations quickly. Being a global business, we have different competitors in different markets. We learn from them, because we have a healthy respect for what they do, and we can learn something in one market and replicate in another market. That give us an edge. And we are never stuck on our success. We are always thinking “what next”.
7. What top tip for success would you give to other aspiring leaders and founders?
Each entrepreneur’s journey will be different. But a few things may apply across the board.
First, enjoy the journey and focus less on the ultimate outcome. There is no guarantee that a venture will succeed, but if you enjoy what you are doing, if you are passionate about the problem your startup is solving, you have a better chance of success.
Second, hire A+ people from the start. As a startup, this is difficult to do - why will those people want to join you? But your first 10 hires will make the company.
Third, think 10x. Don’t solve problems incrementally. Don’t be incrementally ambitious. Don’t hire people who are incrementally better than you. Don’t launch a product that’s incrementally better. Foster 10x thinking across your startup. An example of this from inside our business is course creation. Usually in a year we may create 50 new courses. 10x thinking is asking what it will take to created 500 courses a year from our university partners. While this may not be possible, it opens up possibilities. We may end up creating 300 courses instead of 500. But if we started with 50 courses and tried to build from there, perhaps we would have ended with 80-100 courses. The difference is huge.
8. How has partnering with a company like Prosus helped your business to flourish?
We have always wanted to work with investors who are value added and who have a long-term view, and Prosus meets both these criteria. Prosus has already made connections to its portfolio companies which has been mutually beneficial, and the team has also helped us hire key people. And Prosus’ long term view is really helpful to us as we think about building a very large outcome in EdTech.
9. What other technology or societal trend will have the largest impact on our future?
With the advancements in life sciences, it’s expected that people will live well past 100 years in the near future. This will change society and our way of life profoundly. Imagine, someone working from age 25 till 80 and the impact that will have on family life, social connections and generations. Professionally, this will mean people will be active in their careers for longer and will also mean they will need constant upskilling. We need a new paradigm for education to enable such profound change.
10. With less travel this year, what have you been doing with your time? Have you picked up any new hobbies or fine-tuned any old ones?
I have found more time to spend with my kids, which has been great. And I have also found more time to sit back and meditate. It clears my mind and makes me engage better throughout the day.

About Prosus

Prosus is a global consumer internet group and one of the largest technology investors in the world. Operating and investing globally in markets with long-term growth potential, Prosus builds leading consumer internet companies that empower people and enrich communities.

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