The Educator at Byju’s
Divya Gokulnath,Co-founder, Byju's
A mother of two, Divya Gokulnath doesn’t have time to binge-watch Neflix or Amazon Prime. The lights are never really off at her workstation. She and her husband Byju Raveendran end up discussing work even during their free time. “We cannot afford to switch off,” says Gokulnath with a smile. But the 35-year-old co-founder makes sure she keeps 30 minutes of the day for herself, largely for exercising — swimming or cycling. “It helps me think deeply, rejuvenate and refresh. Other than that, I spend a lot of time with my children. That’s also a very big stress buster,” she adds.
From draping a saree at 21 to deliver her first lecture to a class of 100 students back in 2008 — the saree was a sartorial ploy to look mature — to co-building Byju’s into the $22-billion edtech start-up that it is today, the journey has been tough, but fulfilling, though certainly not easy for someone who had no inclination to pursue a career in entrepreneurship. “I never knew that I will be a businesswoman,” says Gokulnath.
Seven years back when Byju’s forayed into online, edtech as a concept was hardly recognised in India. The company had to create a lot of awareness and educate the market, recalls Gokulnath.
Today, Byju’s is one of the country’s most-valued start-ups, having amassed a little over $4 billion in funding from a diverse set of over 50 investors, including the likes of Tiger Global, Chang Zuckerberg Initiative, General Atlantic and BlackRock. Last year, it acquired Aakash Educational Services, a brick-and-mortar chain of test preparation centres in a near $1-billion deal. The firm has spent over $2 billion in acquisitions in the past year. It is also prepping up for a public debut. Standalone revenue from operations stood at ₹2,110.02 crore as of FY20, a year-on-year rise of nearly 65%, while net profit increased by over 150% to ₹50.76 crore, according to its filings with the RoC sourced from business intelligence platform Tofler.
As the co-founder, Gokulnath has her task cut out for the next five years: “We will continue to create value in multiple dimensions, for learners everywhere. We have and will continue to grow through both organic and inorganic routes.” India will be a major ‘focal point’ as the company crafts a deeper expansion strategy for the market. The start-up has already broadened its choice of subjects beyond Math and Science and added vernaculars. The company has also been rather quick to launch physical tuition centres, a deft move given the relevance being attached to a hybrid model across classrooms in the wake of the pandemic. “The aim is to provide multiple formats which cater to every type of learner,” says Gokulnath. Byju’s is eyeing one million students with its offline foray.
Since the launch of Byju’s in 2011, Gokulnath’s contributions have been instrumental in adding to the growth of the company. During the initial few years when the firm operated in the offline space, Gokulnath had been a hands-on teacher, delivering lessons to millions of students in multiple batches. Post its online foray in 2015, she took up the challenge of curating content and learning programmes for students. She is actively involved in segmenting various subjects into different levels of learning, which in academic terms would simply imply curating curriculums according to the learning capacity of students. It is done across all levels starting from class one to competitive exams. Over time, Gokulnath has also set up the entire post-sales ecosystem, internally referred to as the user experience team. She also drives the brand and communications strategy, besides spearheading the company’s social initiatives. She continues to head all the departments till date.
While speaking about the impact that Byju’s has created, the co-founder appears nothing less than effusive. The start-up claims to have enabled some 12,000 teaching jobs for Indian women in the last one year alone. “This teach-from-home job gives huge flexibility, creates impact and also has massive job satisfaction and growth,” says Gokulnath. Besides, Byju’s Tuition Centres are expected to create an additional 10,000 jobs.
The edtech behemoth is now gearing up for an IPO in the next 9-12 months. “We are looking at both possibilities — to either list in India or the U.S.,” says Gokulnath. The financial metrics look good — The business has been profitable since inception, claims the co-founder. “We saw 100% year-on-year growth. Our renewal rates are as high as 86%... We believe in growing our business in a sustainable manner. We are very conscious of the capital we have, also about where, how and how much to spend.”
A mother of two sons aged eight and one, Gokulnath has the perfect retort for people who constantly doubt the professional potential of women with kids: “Becoming a mother helps you prioritise like nothing else. Every minute of the day counts. You won’t waste a single minute. So, at the end of it, you are a very well planned person, a highly prioritised person and someone who is very valuable to the workforce as well.” Being a woman at the helm herself, Gokulnath has leveraged the opportunity to establish a healthy gender balance at Byju’s. “If you look at the board: 33% women. Top management: 33% women and throughout the organisation, 40% women. Very few tech companies have that. That happens because women leaders will tend to hire more female leaders,” she says.
She has a message for all aspiring women entrepreneurs: “You are different. It is good to be different, to stand out because you will be noticed more if you are.” If that alone is not enough, she has some lines penned by Robert Frost to drive her message loud and clear:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”