“What a small world.” We both might have said it together. At 9 am on a Saturday, I got Divya Gokulnath out for an interview. It was my first meeting with the Byju’s co-founder but we hit it off instantly and realised how much in common we had. As daughters of armed forces officers, we grew up in familiar spaces of Bangalore. In fact perhaps literally across a boundary wall along the HAL Office on Old Madras Road.
I had stolen some time from Divya’s three month old to get this interview going just past its feed time, and so we made the most of it. From global listing aspirations to building a unique teaching philosophy, from buying one’s own diamonds to women being women’s best supporters, in this conversation, meet Divya Gokulnath in an avatar you haven’t before.
Shaili: What’s got you until here, and what does the future look like for you?
Divya: What’s really helped us is that we have been very fixated on our mission and flexible with our execution. If you asked me ten years ago what is it that you guys want to do, the answer would be: we want to create an impact in the way child learn. If you ask us today, the answer will be the same. If you ask us tomorrow, our answer will be the same. So very focussed but we have flexible with the way we have done it and positively disrupted the space. So the future for us looks much more impactful than it is today. We have 80 million children on our platform. COVID put EdTech in the spotlight and all stakeholders transitioned online overnight. There are a lot of subjects that can be taught more effectively online.
The aspiration is to go global. Initial pilots and tractions is great. We also want to go deeper in India. One fast track effort last year was launching the app in many more vernacular languages. Also many more products, we had math and science, now we have social studies and English as well. We want to ensure when the child learns on their own, they learn in the best way possible.
Shaili: COVID was an aberration. But how is the future of Edtech when things come back to some normalcy with schools opening. How does the strategy change?
Divya: We should see what is it for teachers and what is it for students. For students, there are a lot of things which are beneficial. For example, every child gets a front row seat, no back benchers. But they would miss out social skills which they would pick offline like playing in teams, going out, or it’s difficult to teach a child how to hold a brush online. So for future of learning for K to 12 students will be a blended form of learning – online and offline.
For teachers there is a huge potential. Golden age of teaching has come back, especially for women. 15-20 years we created software engineers for the world, we now have the potential to create teachers for the world. Our recently integration with White Hat Jr got 11,000 female teachers online and they are working from home. This is a huge opportunity for women to go online and get a very good and respectful career.
Q : Specially what kind of potential can women unlocked as you springboard in the global market?
A : One is definitely teaching. Women have an excellent connect with children. They have a natural chord with kids.
Q. For someone who has just recently had her second child, and has a roaring career, who is your biggest support system?
A: My biggest support system are my mother and my dad. We live in a big joint family. For my elder one I am very thankful to my in-laws. I am actually here today able to do the many things I want to do because I have a family that supports me. I go on stressing on the importance of a support system because it’s really helped me.
I also feel the biggest mentor to a woman can be another woman. It can be her mother, mother-in-law, sister, or sister-in-law or whoever. My mom used to be my sole inspiration. I took it as a given for myself growing up that will have a career, I will have my ambitions, I will work. I have seen her do the same. She was in Doordarshan as a program executive and all through my childhood I have seen how beautifully she managed me and her work. So I have grown up to assume that this is also possible for me to do as well.
Working on creating unique and personalised learning experiences for students globally. My job is to ignite the passion and energy of my teams to deliver on BYJU’S’ purpose of ‘Making children fall in love with learning’ – Divya Gokulnath
Q. What’s your big aspiration for the company?
A. I think for a company like ours from India to go list globally, I think that’s the aspiration. It is something that will happen sooner or later. It sets an example for others to follow.
Q. Taking risks at different milestones of your journey. How did you go with them?
A. In 2015 when we launched the app, we have always been on the side of the students. We wanted to be different than the conversation on toppers and focus on the love for learning. We knew our subjects well as teachers and wanted to keep students engaged with the same. The first television campaign we did, we boldly spoke about fall in love with learning. If you think about that was a risk. It brought 2 million students on the platform. These were intuitive gut feelings on what we so closely believe in and in what we are doing. That helps us take right decisions at the right time.
Q. Is being intuitive a big part of how you lead?
A. I am definitely about intuition and also about numbers. I deeply look into numbers because that ensures we value money. Anything we do, we track every RoI. That’s very important for every startup and it keeps you grounded because you know you are never going to go wrong.
Q. What was your first salary like and what did you do with it?
A. I bought my father a shirt and I bough my mom a saree and then there was no money left.
Q. Being a couple at Byju’s, and also being life partners. How do you navigate that?
A. We are actually like a family. It’s not like we don’t have different opinions because only if we have diversity in the boardroom will you ensure a multi dimensional approach to things and solution creation. We do have different ideas, not just about me and Byju but within the founding team but what works is that when we take a decision everyone roots for it. It’s very important to debate, discuss and use data and reasoning to find the way forward.
I believe that education is one of the most powerful tools that shapes and moulds the way our youth think – Divya Gokulnath
Q. Importance of women being financially independent.
A. It helps you stand on your feel and be strong enough to come out and say this is what I want to do. It’s lovely to have a husband who will buy you a diamond ring but its very nice and very proud moment to be able to get your own diamond ring yourself.