Turning executive education into a class act

Paran Balakrishnan May 11 | Updated on May 11, 2018 Published on May 11, 2018

Mohan Lakhamraju

Great Learning offers re-skilling courses in big data, machine learning

Mohan Lakhamraju has been both an entrepreneur and a global venture capitalist and he knows which one he’d rather be. “ As an investor, you’re always in the passenger seat, never in the driver’s seat. So I realised I can do more in the driver’s seat,” he said.

Today, Lakhamraju has both hands firmly on the steering wheel as the founder and CEO of Great Learning, which offers advanced courses in subjects like data analytics and machine learning for working professionals.

Launched in 2013 with 30 students, it now has some 5,000 students across six cities. Lakhamraju is also Vice-Chairman and CEO of the Great Lakes Institute of Management, which was started a decade ago by management professor Bala Balachandran, and now has campuses in Chennai and Gurgaon.

Lakhamraju timed his entry into the education business to perfection. Corporate India has been getting a rude awakening about the need for digital-age skills and insights into subjects like big data, machine learning, cloud computing and artificial intelligence. “These are all key areas of the digital economy,” he said.

Great Learning’s students, in the first years, were almost entirely from the infotech world. But, today, others are returning to the classroom, especially executives from the auto industry, pharmaceuticals, consulting and banking and financial service industries (BFSI). The digital training company offers both six-and 12-month courses with classes conducted every weekend.

The company is very much a digital-age product. At the core, it’s about using technology to serve quality to large numbers. The company has just 10 full-time faculty though that’s supplemented by several hundred more — a mix of academics and industry experts — who teach students across India.

Great Learning is a reflection of the gig economy. “This is the shared economy for knowledge. Classes happen over the weekend and many teachers are part-time,” he said. The urgent need, as he said, is for reskilling in this time of technical churn. “Everybody’s seeing the opportunity — the ability to use all of the technologies to do better at their business. It’s about using this as a critical enabler of things that weren’t possible earlier.. And everyone’s realising the opportunity because they’ve seen others benefiting,” he said.

Lakhamraju has been a star performer in the world of business and technology almost from the time he started out.

Entrepreneurial move

His first independent move was to drop out of his PhD at Berkeley, California, and take a leap into the start-up world.” It was my first independent decision —- dropping out of my PhD because I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he said. He then became a founding member of Stratify, a SoftBank-backed start-up that used machine learning to understand text and automatically figure out what it meant. It went through what Lakhamraju describes as “a couple of pivots.”

He finally turned into a winner by developing what’s called legal discovery software. He said: “Our system would automatically figure out what documents were about and classify them, enabling lawyers to look at them in a very intelligent way.”

His first entrepreneurial experience convinced him of the gaps in his business knowledge. He later headed to Stanford for an MBA. “Stratify basically showed me all the things I didn’t know about business and all the mistakes we made. I went to business school to fix that.”

He, though, wanted to return to India, and made a smart decision to get into the venture capital business. He started by joining Draper Fisher Jurvetson and visited India every couple of months. Then, he moved to Tiger Global and returned to India to set up the company’s office. “Coming back as an investor was good because being an investor gives you lots of access,” he said.

But, by 2009, the thrill of being a venture capitalist had faded, particularly because the investing action slowed sharply after the 2008 financial crisis. That’s when he decided to get back in the driver’s seat and he looked seriously at the education sector. At Great Learning, technology is the force multiplier every inch of the way. A mobile app automatically tracks attendance and knows when a student is present . An app also sends out a curated daily digest of articles for the students to keep abreast of what’s happening around.



The result

Great Learning has an almost 90 per cent completion rate for working professionals doing one-year courses. What’s more, he said around 60 per cent are able to change jobs within six months, either in their existing company or to another one. “That’s a phenomenal metric.”

In the near future, Lakhamraju said, there’ll be huge changes in the world of education. “We believe higher education’s future is going to be very different from what it’s been,” he said. But he is not quite sure about the upcomg changes at the school level. “In school education, you need a lot more ‘eye touch.’ Young kids will not have the same sense of responsibility. I’ve no idea how to automate for young kids, which is why we don’t do that.”

Lakhamraju spends 70 per cent of his time on Great Learning and 30 per cent on the well-established Great Lakes. Next on the class timetable could be a foreign foray. Great Learning is scouting for opportunities all around Asia and the Middle East.

So far, the company has been debt-free but it might need to raise cash if it spots an asset worth buying in one of these places. With the technological revolution moving at a brisk pace, there’ll be plenty to teach executives who want to get ahead of the pack.

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Published on May 11, 2018
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