Highlights from our recent Chai & Chatter on ‘Future of Work’

The Panel (from L to R, Niranjan Nakhate, Diksha Madhok, Sunitha Vishwanathan, Nisha Ramchandani and Shashank Murali)

Why do companies exist? Why is the gig economy growing? What will the firm of the future look like? These were some of the questions with which we kickstarted Blume’s 7th Chai & Chatter on the theme of ‘Future of Work’. Chai & Chatter, or C&C as it is commonly called within the Blume team, is a ~monthly initiative to bring together entrepreneurs, investors, members of the startup ecosystem, and just about any curious mind, to talk, discuss, debate and exchange notes on a particular theme of relevance to the startup world. 

The event started off with Sajith Pai, Director – Blume Ventures (and also my boss), laying out how Blume views the future of work.  According to Sajith, gig economy and flexiwork (refer to Image 1 to understand how are they different) constitute the Future of Work megatrend, which is driven by factors such as increasing penetration of smartphones, growing tech literacy and the pioneering of new business models by startups. There is also compelling business logic behind the megatrend– employing freelancers or recruiting individuals to perform tasks, is about 20-25% cheaper for the corporate’. You can read more on Sajith’s view on Future of Work in these two articles here – 1 & 2. (For the purpose of this article, I’ve used the phrases future of work & gig economy interchangeably.)

How Blume defines the’Future of Work’ segment –

Image 1

Post Sajith’s presentation, we had a fireside chat between Sandeep Sinha, Co-founder & Managing Partner, Lumis Partners, and Mohit Kumar, Ex-COO, Zomato Food Delivery (and also Co-founder & Ex-CEO of Runnr, which was acquired by Zomato). While Sajith’s presentation gave the audience a broad framework to look at the future of work, Sandeep & Mohit’s conversation went deep into real life problems, challenges, & examples of gig economy & flexiwork. Questions around hiring & attrition were raised which made Mohit go back to his Zomato days and recall how not just incentives, but also well targeted content marketing & well designed loyalty programs played a crucial role in helping Zomato onboard & retain their delivery staff. 

On a different note, Sandeep brought in an interesting perspective that there needn’t necessarily be a dichotomy between full time workers & gig workers – full time workers may very well do a part time gig to enhance their income. The fireside chat ended on the role of government in designing effective regulations for the gig economy. According to Sandeep, one cannot have conventional regulations apply to the gig economy. The challenge is how does one design less strict regulations for the gig economy, and make sure that the regulations leave no room for exploitation.

The final event on the agenda was a panel discussion. The panel consisted of Niranjan Nakhate (Co-founder & CEO, Frapp), Sunita Vishwanathan (Senior Associate, Unitus Ventures), Shashank Murali (Co-founder & CEO, Tapchief), Nisha Ramchandani (Outreach, Axilor Ventures & writer of ‘Future of Work’ series on CNBC TV18), and Diksha Madhok (Director & Editor, Quartz Platform, India), who moderated the panel. Shashank started off the conversation with the thought that the gig economy is not something new, but has existed for centuries – a classic case in point are Indian ‘pandits’! It was only during the Industrial Revolution that corporates started organising people (read hiring employees), largely to cut transaction costs. Sunita chipped in with the idea that the time has come for the ‘power’ to go back to the individual. Sunita also stressed on the importance of skilling and asked can the gig employer provide an ability for the gig employee to command a premium in the future? On a different note, Nisha touched upon jobs being taken away by technology & how the gig economy may help people figure out what to do ‘next’. Lastly, Niranjan highlighted how certain people are skilled at multiple things, and hence can do multiple micro tasks, thereby taking full advantage of a gig economy. Juggling between questions from the audience and points raised by the panelists, Diksha did a wonderful job of directing the panel to as many nodes as possible in the ~50 odd minutes the panel lasted.

Finally, I’d like to end this note with a quick food for thought. Bill Gurley (of Benchmark capital), one of the earliest VCs to back Uber, singles out the thing he loves most about Uber – no driver partner is ever told where or when to work. Which also means that the driver partners can decide when not to work – which ultimately means that driver partners can fit their jobs into their lives, and not the other way around. I believe that this ability to enable someone to fit one’s job into one’s life, and not the other way round, is one of the most powerful characteristics of a gig economy. What do you think is the most powerful driver of the gig economy? Is the driver more supply driven (companies pushing for it?) or more demand driven (people want it badly)?

Putting the ‘Ed’ back in EdTech

Every month, Blume Ventures’s Delhi office hosts an event called Chai & Chatter. We bring together investors, entrepreneurs, founders, hustlers and dreamers and engage them in an honest conversation about what we can do better. It allows us to embody what Blume has always aimed at doing– fostering a sense of community and working with it to support a diverse, inclusive, and equitable ecosystem.

Each Chai & Chatter is devoted to a single topic. The event starts early evening with a brief presentation on this topic, followed by a panel discussion on the same, and is wrapped up with informal interactions between attendees. We had our fifth Chai & Chatter yesterday; this one was dedicated to EdTech, and was themed around the topic of Putting the ‘Ed’ back in EdTech.

Why did we pick this theme?

As EdTech takes its place as one of the most exciting investment opportunities in India, we were keen to understand whether funding and impact moved hand in hand. Was the focus on scaling and monetization missing out on equity and inclusion? Will the edtech startups of tomorrow focus as much on the problems that impact millions of ordinary Indian such as skilling? And so the stage was set for a conversation on the EdTech sector, between, as my colleague Harnidh Kaur puts it, between the people who created its foundation, and those will to break it to jump ahead.

The Panel

To enable and sustain a diverse set of views, we put together a panel of two entrepreneurs Akshay Chaturvedi of Leverage Edu (a Blume portfolio co) and Shreyasi Singh, Harappa Education, an investor Pranjal Kumar of Bertelsmann, a large business-owner and investor, Gaurav Jhunjhnuwala of S Chand, and finally Meeta Sengupta who “works at the cusp of policy and practice in the areas of education and skilling”.  The panel was moderated by me, given that I oversee investments in edtech for Blume.

The hour plus panel discussion had many diverse threads. It is hard to capture all of this in a single article. So what we will do is to extract key highlights and learnings from the panel discussion. What has been included, is of course subjective. But we hope it will serve as an initial scratchpad to list learnings, and use it as a base to explore topics around this space.

We have divided the highlights into three key themes which emerged across the evening. Let us start with the first.

Ed and Tech are joined at the hip

Pranjal Kumar of Bertelsmann took a shot at the theme of the panel, Putting the ‘Ed’ back in EdTech, by saying as far as he was concerned, the two were tightly joined. Education needs scale he said for it to truly transform lives. In a country like India, scale comes with affordability, and for affordability to work, unit economics become critical. And for unit economics to work, we need tech to influence costs. And that is why tech is an integral part of EdTech. Ed and Tech are so integrated per him that we should take all that worked in traditional education and replicate it in EdTech.

Meeta Sengupta raised the point of whether in trying to replicate traditional education in EdTech, whether we are underselling the disruptive potential of EdTech. She also challenged the prevailing paradigm of education being transformed by tech stating that ”20 years of education data has proven that tech has not yet delivered the outcome it was supposed to! “

Shreyasi Singh shared a wisecrack stating that education is the only service or product that someone will pay the full price, often in advice, but not utilize. This indicates how complex the challenges of EdTech are. It needs two hands to clap.  She also alluded to the futility of asking EdTech to take on more than it can chew. Not even the best universities, she said, can articulate life outcomes. At best they can help in job outcomes. If that is the case, then to expect Edtech to create magical impact is futile.

Look at the demand side, or think of the teacher

A key theme in yesterday’s discussion was on the lack of interest by edtech startups in solutions aimed at Indian teachers. At ~10m, the Indian teacher community is not a trivial number. So why aren’t there products like classdojo or edmodo?

Meeta Sengupta suggested that one reason is that much of the prevalent education discussion is being approached from the supply side, and not the demand side, i.e., we don’t ask the teacher what she needs, rather we thrust the solution down his or her throat.

Pranjal described three personas of the teachers – the born-to-teach ‘career teacher’, the fence sitter and the stopgap teacher. An increasing number of products need to cater to the fence sitters and the stopgap teachers, and enhance their productivity, in order for them to be able to be effective at their job. Gaurav Jhunjhnuwala described two products that S Chand is working on and how they were aimed at the fence sitters and the stopgap teachers. The first helped the teacher coordinate between the smart class courseware, the S Chand textbook, and the Byju’s app. It allowed her to navigate the same concept across all of these three formats. Another was an app that broke down the course to bite-sized chunks and gave detailed instructions on how to run the classroom.

One challenge in this area, Meeta Sengupta shared, was that these worlds, that of educationists and business-tech managers were entirely different. Even their vocabularies were different. The business managers spoke in terms of efficiency, while education was anti-efficiency; it concerned itself with individual growth and potential. Hence there is greater scope for misunderstanding.

What opportunities are edtech startups not building?

Following on from the discussion about teachers and how there isn’t enough products aimed at them, one key axis of discussion was around enhancing teaching or increasing the supply of teachers.

Shreyasi Singh felt an app that could bring non-traditional, high quality part-time teachers to the classroom, an uber for teachers, could be a winner. So could student-mentor platforms, she said to which Akshay chimed that, in Leverage Edu he was building one! Leverage Edu’s mentorship platforms allowed an applicant to be mentored by an alum of the school he was applying to and thus get an edge in his application.

Meeta Sengupta saw an opportunity in the number of civic projects and internships that students in Classes 9-12th have to undertake in order to build an attractive profile for college admission. She wondered whether a startup could intermediate between students and corporates / civic organizations. Perhaps the actual onsite component could be as low as 20% and the rest of the work could happen online, thereby reducing costs and enhancing con: in the study abroad space- 9th-12th civic projects.

Pranjal had a long list of microsegments in the EdTech space that excited him such as the gig economy, online program managers such as 2U in the USA but for India, bootcamps, english language training etc. The overarching theme he offered was whether you are building for India or the world? He felt education was one product that can actually become global coming out of India. If you have solved for India, you can solve for the world, he said.

And on that optimistic note, let us call it a close here!

Chai & Chatter: ‘Build Better: Diversity and its challenges’

When Blume Ventures kicked off Chai and Chatter in late 2018, we had a simple goal. We wanted to have the conversations the startup ecosystem usually doesn’t. In a space hallmarked by an oversized emphasis on efficiency and a near-chronic paucity of time, we wanted to create time and ability for larger, deeper topics.

On 29th March, 2019, the fourth edition of Chai & Chatter: ‘Build Better: Diversity and its challenges’, veered away from the previous iterations. Instead of focusing on a single sector, we decided to pivot to the people behind the scene. I moderated a panel with Mausmi Ambastha of ThreadSol, Seema Avasrala of OyeHelp, Shweta Singh of SRI Capital and Anisha Singh of Mydala and SHE Capital as panellists. There was definite selfishness to this composition. As a brand new member of the ecosystem, I had questions for women who had set the stage for people like me to enter. This was the most efficient way to ask them.

The panel discussion kicked off with the most fundamental question- what’s in a story? The panelists went through their own experiences as founders, funders, and hustlers. This lead to a larger conversation on the state of the startup ecosystem, the realities it functions under, and what, exactly, is the stakeholder’s role in changing the status quo. From Mausmi’s foray into textiles, a traditionally male-dominated industry to Seema’s work with healthcare, where she had to assert herself as a founder more vociferously than most men around her had to- one thing was clear. The conversation needs to move beyond celebrating the limited number of women in the ecosystem and needs to ask what can be done to replicate their success. Keeping this in mind, we curated the following takeaways from the evening:

1. Things are changing- albeit slowly.

All the panellists agreed to the fact that the ecosystem has become a lot more conducive to women at the helm over the years. As Seema pointed out, there were barely any women when she started her founder journey, at that has definitely changed. Shweta Singh of SRI Capital said, “While more women founders have come into the ecosystem, the funding story is still lagging behind.” According to her, the shift in the investment side of things will take another 8 to 10 years to catch up.

She pointed out that funders often lack support systems and mentorship. In her words, ‘It’s assumed that I know what to do because I’m a funder.’. She pointed out that despite enthusiasm for a fund she was previously raising, a lot of LPs were hesitant to fund two women partners. Anisha Singh of Mydala agreed. Her new fund, SHE Capital, is geared towards addressing these very gaps in funding and support for entrepreneurs working on ideas that target underserved markets of women

2. We need to reframe our ideas of entrepreneurship

There was a strong pushback on buzzwords and cliched ideas of ‘correct’ entrepreneurial behaviour. All the panellists expressed displeasure against a hankering young founders display for mentorship. Both Seema and Mausmi spoke from a founder perspective and described how mentorship doesn’t emerge from a single source- it’s a culmination of perspectives. Anisha, as both a founder and funder, urged younger founders to move beyond formal mentorship. In her words, ‘bohot ho gaya!’

3. Diversity matters!

Although hackneyed, the process and implications of diversity and inclusion did come up multiple times during the panel, with everyone taking their own, contextual stances. While Mausmi said it didn’t matter to her if her funding was lead by a woman, Anisha pointed out the specific, targeted support she could provide founders through SHE Capital. She talked about how she, as a founder, struggled with funders undermining her because she did want to start a family, and how a woman funder would have possibly presented her with more options.

4.Policies need to keep up

Anisha pointed out a peculiar problem- in trying to make workspaces equitable for women, policies like the maternity leave policy are acting as immense deterrents to the faith-building women entrepreneurs and funders have invested themselves in. She and Shweta both had anecdotes of the lack of trust men at the helm had in them initially, especially because they both were honest about their eventual plans to have a family. Policies, in their words, need ti be dynamic and should champion choice. If a woman doe snot want to take leave, or does want to work from home, or needs guidance to create a workplan that suits her- she should have access to tools that help her do that, not rules and belief that relegate her back to domesticity when she wants to create her own personal priorities.

5.   Lessons and growth

At Blume, we learn from founders every day. When we asked them the one piece of advice they’d give themselves when they started off, the answers reminded us of why we do what we do. Mausmi wanted to tell herself to do it all over again, Seema wanted to tell herself that she should jump in and start much earlier than she did, while Shweta wanted to tell herself that she’s allowed to enjoy life beyond work. Anisha had nothing to say to her younger self because “I enjoyed every minute of it, the good and the bad.”

For me, personally, this panel was a reminder and a clarion call. It was an impetus for me to think beyond what I presumed being in venture capital meant, and ask questions about what it can be. It reminded me of the impact of conversations had with intention, and the way stories can shape realities far beyond numbers on an excel sheet. As this industry grows and shapes the future, it’s always good to realise that I will eventually have a hand in shaping it too. These maudlin sentiments sometimes feel out of place in what is constructed as a space that values only harsh logic, but yet again- it’s good to remember that I’m allowed to feel them.

On that note, we concluded the sequel to chai & chatter. Follow @BlumeVentures for more updates.