Divya Gokulnath’s seven-year-old son Nish is a happy camper these days. Like many professionals, his mother— the co-founder and director of Byju’s, India’s largest education technology (edtech) company—is at home a lot more. “And my son loves it,” she says with a smile. Why wouldn’t he? Before the restrictions on movement imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the 34-year-old worked 12-hour days, leaving for the office at 8.30 a.m. and not getting home until 8-8.30 p.m. “Besides my maternity break, I have never stayed at home for this long!”
Because, by her own admission, Divya is a workaholic, continuing to juggle board responsibilities, team calls, and her online live classes even during the lockdown. If anything, her schedule has become more gruelling. She had been closely involved in launching Byju’s free live classes for students as schools across the country were shut down. In March, 6 million new students joined the online platform for free live classes, while another 7.5 million signed on in April. “Students were missing the regularity that schools provide. We wanted to bring that back,” points out Divya, who has been conducting daily live classes on biology for students between grades 8 and 10, and mathematics for grades 4-7.
Like her husband Byju Raveendran, the 39-year-old founder and CEO of his eponymous edtech company, Divya has strong academic prowess and a keen willingness to share her knowledge. As Raveendran puts it, Divya is a “teacher foremost”. And that helps her bring “compassion and business nuance” to their shared vision for Byju’s, the company they co-founded in 2011— under the aegis of Think & Learn Private Ltd. “She’s been with me on this journey since the beginning and, being a teacher first, has got her priorities in place—a seamless learning experience and student betterment is at the heart of every decision she takes.”
This has helped Byju’s become India’s most-valued edtech company with 70 million registered users and 4.5 million paid subscribers. Not surprisingly, given the nature of the business, Byju’s has raised just over $1 billion in equity funding this year alone, despite the pandemic, according to data from analytics firm Tracxn.
Divya’s pivotal role in her husband’s journey from Azhikode, a coastal village in Kerala, to becoming one of the youngest billionaires in India, goes back to her own early days. Growing up in Bengaluru, where her father is a well-known nephrologist with Apollo Hospitals, and her mother, a retired programme producer with public broadcaster Doordarshan, Divya’s upbringing was academically inclined. She studied at Frank Anthony Public School, and later went to R.V. College of Engineering to pursue her B.Tech in biotechnology.
After graduating in 2007, she decided to take the GRE, an admissions test requirement for graduate schools in the U.S. That’s when serendipity took her to the preparatory classes conducted by Raveendran. “I heard from my classmates in college that there is this crazy mathematics teacher who teaches maths in a very different way,” says Divya. Her first experience with him as a teacher was in Bengaluru’s Jyoti Nivas College auditorium. It was a jam-packed room, but her constant questioning during breaks caught Raveendran’s attention. “We like people who are curious. You should teach some classes here,” Raveendran told her.
The plan to go to the U.S. for a postgraduate degree was aborted, despite offers from top colleges like Harvard. Divya had chosen to learn at a different kind of school. Raveendran’s offline coaching centre allowed her to see the successes and failures of early-stage businesses from close quarters. She still remembers the first class she taught back in 2008. It was on logical skills for campus recruitment training. “It was an auditorium style class with 100 students. They were just a couple of years younger than me so to look mature I wore a saree to the class,” she laughs. As it turned out, age wasn’t an impediment and the students loved her class. Divya started teaching mathematics, English, and logical reasoning for competitive examinations.
From offline coaching classes in 2007-08 to a pure-play online model in 2015 with the launch of its learning app, Byju’s has come a long way, posting revenues of ₹2,800 crore for FY20. According to Tracxn, as of October, Raveendran, along with his wife, and brother Riju Raveendran, holds close to 31% in the company with a total net worth of $3.3 billion.
In May 2019, the edtech firm noted it had turned profitable on a full-year basis for FY19. Though it didn’t share the financials, regulatory filings with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs show a net profit of ₹20 crore for FY19 on a standalone basis; it also narrowed its net loss to around ₹9 crore on a consolidated basis as against ₹37 crore in FY18.
At present, the app provides learning content for K-12 and test preparation courses for engineering, medicine, IAS, and other competitive examinations.
Divya, who currently oversees user experience, content, and brand marketing at the Bengaluru-headquartered company, credits her understanding of business fundamentals and building a company with a sharp focus on customers to her teaching stints at Byju’s during its formative years. “Her style in simplifying concepts, be it for the educational materials that Byju’s produces or for presentations she makes, has helped the company excel,” says Dev Khare, partner at Lightspeed India Partners, which funds early- and growth-stage technology companies; it has so far invested about $20 million in Byju’s, currently valued at around $11 billion.
Another key investor, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the philanthropic organisation backed by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, put in an undisclosed amount in Byju’s in 2016, its first investment in India and Asia. Vivian Wu, managing partner-ventures at CZI and a board member at Byju’s, points to Divya’s multi-faceted contribution in building the business over the past decade. “Apart from being on the board, she has served many roles since the early days of the company,” Wu tells Fortune India in an email. “From helping develop content, to teaching from morning to night during the initial launch of the learning app; from ideation and strategising, to launching different departments as the company scaled from 500 people to 5,000; to constantly working on improving upon the app.”
This is the kind of reputation that has placed the founders just a phone call away from investors. Take the string of marquee global players who have backed the company in the last few years: Private equity firms Silver Lake and General Atlantic, BlackRock, the world’s largest fund managers, former Wall Street securities analyst Mary Meeker’s venture capital firm Bond Capital, and Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner’s DST Global, among others.
The investor interest is self-evident. According to a September report by Indian Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), the country has one of the largest K-12 populations in the world with 250 million school-going students. “The total addressable market will grow as digital will make education more accessible and affordable across India. Will the current leaders such as Byju’s grab the entire market or will there be several new unicorns created is the main question that needs to be answered,” says K. Ganesh, Bengalurubased serial entrepreneur and promoter of BigBasket, Portea Medical, and HungerBox. With a massive war chest for expansion, Divya has not been worried about competition. The bigger challenge has always been to transform parental mindset towards online education. That, however, is changing due to the pandemic-led norms of study-from-home. “The current situation, as unfortunate as it is, has put the whole need for online learning in the spotlight,” she says.
The other concern has been to contend with criticism about Byju’s sales push strategy: To log in new paid users who have to take loans to pay subscription fees. Divya isn’t fazed by this brickbat. “What is the percentage of people who are criticising compared to the students that we are servicing?” she asks. “We have 70 million students on our platform and that shows the trust in us. We are most worried about student feedback.”
Byju’s recent acquisition, WhiteHat Jr, also came under fire on social media in August, for its aggressive targeting of parents of young children. An ad depicted WhiteHat Jr teaching coding to children as young as six, and features celebrities such as cricketer Shikhar Dhawan. Her overarching response to the fingers pointing at her is that Byju’s does what “we promise to do for our students”, and admits that they “don’t have a rule book for success”.
“It is all built on our first principles so there can be mistakes and we learn from that.” Also, she has her partner-in-all-things to traverse the sometimes tricky path of entrepreneurship. “We have common goals, interests, and passions, and I think that’s what worked for us. Our mission is aligned,” Divya says. Of course, outside the organisation “our son is our complete focus”. And to their credit, and satisfaction, both Byju’s and Nish are happy campers now.
This story was published in the November 2020 issue of the magazine.