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Ritesh Malhotra

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Critical Analyst / Storytelling Expert / Narrative Designer

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upGrad

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Ritesh is the Business Head at UpGrad. He's a business leader with ~15 years of Enterprise Sales, Marketing, Merger & Acquisitions experience for Telecom & IT Service Providers. He's guiding the transformation of careers & industry verticals with a focus on frugality, innovation & deep customer obsession.

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How I Transitioned from Corporate to Entrepreneurial World
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How I Transitioned from Corporate to Entrepreneurial World

The way we’ve managed businesses, thought of careers, invested time in ourselves, is changing rapidly. It’s been constantly changing but the realisation and the acknowledgement of the pace of the change and people’s response to reinvent are on an all-time high. I thought about it for a long time before making a career switch and through this post, I’d like to share my experience and learnings with those thinking, debating, planning the same – Those who are fence sitting between large corporate roles and entrepreneurial options. When I decided to transition from corporate roles to being an entrepreneur back in October 2016, I gave myself two years to acclimatise. To re-invent, one must unlearn, observe, build a hypothesis and test them in the real world. If one gets a chance to do this in the company of successful entrepreneurs, embrace it with both hands and experience the startup ecosystem from within – that was my measured call, not to rush in on sheer bravado but acclimatise by being with a successful startup and bring my experience to the table and help both business and self-growth. Before pacing this further, for a moment let’s reflect on why I decided to walk away from large corporate profiles: I had completed a decade of corporate work with 2 large brands in Telecom & IT – Perhaps I was lucky to have the experiences I did, the decade surely seemed to have taught me a lot. There was a sense of accomplishment sets in – More of the same was certainly not exciting anymore. My hypothesis that large corporate roles with hundreds of reporters and complex matrix equations would evolve – Important to learn the tricks of a younger startup ecosystem. The desire to build a business that was a balance of clear unserviced need and genuine long-term impact – Put the decade of corporate experience to use. Build a fresh young team that enjoys working together – Individuals who’re flexible, sharp and unexposed to large corporate culture. Create something with more skin in the game – Risk & reward proposition can spin wonders. It took me a few months of back and forth to finally walk from my job in the middle of 2017. Which means that come March 2019 I would complete the acclimatisation period of 24 months I set aside for myself. Therefore, a good time to plan for the future and reflect upon the transition. As I reflect upon the transition period, I’ll bucket my thoughts into two categories: (A) Experience of the transition from large established corporate roles to a more entrepreneurial ecosystem. (B) Observations about the education sector with a focus on India, challenges, and opportunities. So, how has the transition from large corporate roles to an entrepreneurial setup been? Would I recommend this to others sitting on the fence? What have I enjoyed most as part of a young nimble organisation and what do I miss about large corporations and roles? The most striking change that I noticed was just how sharp and fearless individuals starting their careers today are, the talent available today is phenomenal. At UpGrad, we have people with very strong pedigree and qualifications maybe that’s one reason OR maybe when you put a lot of similar minds together they tend to operate better but that was a striking change I noticed very early up – established large businesses better buckle up cause the wave of young talent building up surely packs a punch. The second change I noticed was a singular focus on internet businesses and models to scale. I’m not saying this is necessarily a positive because in my opinion there’s more to developing a business than pure online channels but from a talent point of view, it was good to see a large group of people thinking and acting alike – Something that’s usually missing in larger organisation’s where purposes and pursuits even within the same team are often shadowed by individual preferences, agendas, etc. It was also refreshing to see individuals who genuinely wanted to make a change, where wealth creation was not the ultimate aim but a means to an end and the end was rooted in genuine societal impact. After a long time, I found individuals balancing lives, planning vacations, having a life beyond work, working on themselves and their interests. Maybe this is just me but for the longest time I had not had a break, I find it hard to disconnect but observing this ecosystem inspires me to think of life and work equation differently. I now worry about my health much more, I plan a vacation (unlike before when I always combined work & vacation), I’m more open about my life and plans with my colleagues. I feel less guilty and more open about discussing fears, failures, and apprehensions – I’m shedding the acquired cloak of invincibility that corporate culture dresses one up in. Sometimes I discuss with my friends and colleagues about this transition period being similar to going back to school. I feel the same as I did in my first-year post my MBA, I distinctly remember that year because the experiences I had were new, fresh and invigorating for my mind. Like in any experience of the ‘first kind’ you’re most alert, active and learning – The time I’ve spent within the entrepreneurial ecosystem seems to have rebooted my head! How to Erase your activities from Google’s Data! Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum, what did I miss about large organisations. For starters, the ecosystem’s maturity to make long-term steady commitments is something the startup ecosystem in India needs to pick up. It’s fair to say that startups need near-term flexibility to try, adapt, stop and re-try to arrive at the perfect product-market fit but, each of the attempts requires a run of patience. Balancing it across lines of businesses is tricky treating each separately, touching some with baby mittens and others with raw punching mitts – Perhaps large organisations do a better job, they have the cushions to patiently absorb learnings and incubate, that’s important while building any business. Over the course of the year, I’ve had the chance to interact with several founders across industries. One thing that stands out is their commitment to the vision with which the organisation was founded. In some cases, I felt this resolve to stick to the vision was so strong that obvious signs and opportunities that the markets were throwing back were ignored – Surprisingly, today large organisations are more willing to listen, plan and adapt to existential market signs. Somewhere the pluckiness of startups keeps them from being nimble, not about daily practices but about overall vision, the resolve to protect it overshadows the need to revisit and change it constantly. This is a tricky one for founders to accept but the pace of change and evolution today is so rapid that even original ideas are passe’ by the time they are fully executed, so why to stuck on them. Be rigid about values on which you build a business, not about your vision. So, would I recommend that fence-sitters (those thinking about switching from large organisations to younger ones): take the plunge? Do it if you’re clear on what you’re looking to gain and are equally clear on what you shouldn’t. I’ve listed my reasons above, adding some more… Be clear on what you’re looking to gain: Industry change OR being in an impact sector Satisfaction of building grounds up Challenging/Rewiring your own mindset Regain focus and cut out the clutter Network within startup ecosystem Transition to entrepreneurship Testing your B-Plan and hypothesis Be equally clear on what you should NOT base your decision on: Wealth creation (Never guaranteed) Cool to be in a startup nowadays (Building grounds up is hard work) “I don’t have enough Industry experience, therefore let me try a startup role” (This mindset is fuelling the gig economy, doesn’t make careers) Looking for a flexibility and believe that reporting in a large organisation is rigid (Startups are not a place to chill) Those who are used to the ‘cabin manager’ lifestyle (Absolutely no room for that) There will always be opportunities for all types of roles within large organisations to build careers. Yes, businesses are changing fast and individuals need to evolve and reinvent themselves, for those willing to do it, there will always be opportunities – So, don’t just jump the fence for fear of losing out. Large organisations are now investing in independent growth units, these are great places to operate independently if operational freedom is what you’re after. If you do decide to make the transition, do it after genuinely weighing your reasons, and have a plan for what next. Once decided, commit for a minimum fixed tenure because, just like in larger organisations, learnings-success-rewards will need a patient investment of blood, sweat, and tears. Jobs and Careers with a Prospect for the Future! Most importantly, invest time to find the right ecosystem before you make the transition. Finding a startup that gives you space, flexibility is the single most crucial tip for those looking to make the transition from large corporate roles. The group of people you commit your time to is critical in your transition journey. Unless you find a team that you can learn from, that pushes you and is willing to be pushed back – Keep looking! I was able to find myself this ecosystem and so can you.

by Ritesh Malhotra

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19 Nov 2018

Journey from Traditional Corporate Roles to an EdTech Startup: Ritesh Malhotra
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Journey from Traditional Corporate Roles to an EdTech Startup: Ritesh Malhotra

Through this blog series, I’d like to share parts of my professional journey with readers. My emphasis will be on career choices and opportunities that lie ahead of us all. We just need to reach out and make the effort. I hope this is of interest to those looking for a transition in their careers; who are not enjoying ‘more of the same’. Also, those pondering between starting up and working with a startup. In February of 2007, at the Indian School of Business, I met a wise industry stalwart. He said, “If you’re not creating something, you’re wasting your time on the planet, some create and some manage, don’t waste your time being the latter.” The words stuck on, I worked with this thorough gentleman of Bengali origin for several years. I see him as a mentor who taught me the art of navigating corporate corridors. Ever since then, I’ve tried to lead my life by that simple rule he suggested. This year, on the cusp of the winter season and over the long weekend of Diwali, I look back on my journey of the past 10 years. If you find this blog somewhat interesting, drop me a line at (ritesh.malhotra@upgrad.com). It’d be very interesting to know your views. Up until last year, I lived the ideal Indian professional lifestyle. Get your engineering degree, then double dip on success by layering it with an MBA. Put in 90-hours work weeks with large corporates and reflect over your life riding 16-hour flights. I spent my formative years in the Indian IT and Telecom sector and was fortunate to witness its growth phase. A Start For Start-Ups In the winter of 2016, over the course of one such long transit flight from Auckland to Delhi, I debated with an accomplished Kiwi investor. He was in a dilemma with educational choices vs career choices of Indians. His arguments were based on the number of Indians who use education as a mean to migrate and not a career-shaping platform. It led us to an interesting discussion on the need for education to evolve faster and keep pace with the changing needs of industry. We were talking about unfavorable jobs and the growth scenario globally. We also discussed the declining relevance of traditional corporate roles and structures. The need to acquire skills before steering through automation and digital transformation. “Those in the business of creating more of the same will soon be out of business” is how we concluded our discussion. For a long time, I had been thinking of changing course as I wasn’t enjoying ‘more of the same’ anymore. After this conversation, I decided to walk away from my routine to build something with a deeper impact and wider resonance. Over the next 6 months, I spoke with few individuals whose opinion and guidance I valued most – they all saw the merits and supported my decision. To my surprise, my decision of walking away from a traditional corporate role was unintentionally aided by someone who strongly recommended against it. That narrow mindset (which in fact helped me) is an interesting subject for a later blog on leadership! I’ve built businesses at the intersection of technology and communications. I’ve seen the digital transformation in the industry landscape like nothing else in the past. It’s a form of industrial revolution. If not larger, then at par with the transforming impact of the invention of personal computing in the early 80s. Digital is rapidly transforming conventional businesses. Consumer businesses will have to transform their interfaces (Stores, Dealerships, Branches et al). Enterprise businesses (IT sector) will need to transform their core offerings. They have to ensure their ability to serve the changing consumer demands. Also, there is a dire need to establish standards and guide industry on the transformation. With this understanding, I was clear to make my future in the digital businesses, disrupting conventional models. What After IT? Top 5 Transitions You Can Make As I dwelled deeper, I felt that visible long-term change in India was imminent in 3 sectors – Agriculture, Education and Clean/Renewable Energy. Both areas, Agriculture and Education have seen limited change over the past few decades. I had no background in Agriculture and saw a very limited application of my background. Education was a different matter though. Given my background in ITeS, I often thought of India’s reliance on services led revenue. We had not done enough to future-proof our talent pool. I felt the Indian services sector had to upgrade. For that to happen, both education and career markets would need to transform over the next few years. Our workforce had to re-skill and acclimatise to the change mandated by automation. With these thoughts, I narrowed down to ‘Online Education/Ed Tech’ as an area of interest and relevance for the future. I started laying the groundwork for an Ed-Tech business around February of 2017. The details are again a matter for a separate blog on early stages of entrepreneurship. During this period, as the word got around, I was approached by a few organisations for serving their aspirations in various markets. I discussed with all but politely turned them down and continued with my exploratory work in the education sector. I took a few trips to education hubs in India and over my usual business trips to ANZ and ASEAN. To admit it openly, over the course of these dialogues if there was one doubt creeping up it was my understanding of the core education business. I was confident of building digital businesses and even more confident about positioning and taking them to market. My fundamental understanding of the industry was a different matter though. That takes time and one must never ignore its importance when starting up. As fate would have it, I received an interesting phone call exploring my interest in building the enterprise business for an EdTech. What I knew of ‘UpGrad’ till then, was limited to it being one of the ventures promoted by a leading Indian entrepreneur and visionary, Ronnie Screwvala (who needs no introduction). The organisation was amongst one of the most reputed EdTech’s that had sprung up over recent years. I then looked up the pedigree of the founding team. I realised they brought a strong background in education, which peaked my interest in UpGrad. A discussion with their co-founder on a Saturday morning in Delhi turned me in favour of UpGrad. The Idea Called UpGrad: Why Education is Serious Business For the meeting, I had put some thoughts down in areas that could be relevant to their enterprise business. From my point of view, I was looking to get some insight into the purpose, values and culture of UpGrad. These attributes of organisations shine through conversations with their leadership. Get those parameters right and over time all business metrics will fall in place, get them wrong and you’ll be grappling with a long winding ‘more of the same’ dilemma that so many of us battle through the corporate ranks. During this discussion, they had clearly set purpose and goals, yet were flexible in their approach, and maintained humility at the core. Let me also say that a lot of organisations profess these very values but very few executives practice or display these attributes. That first meeting certainly peaked my interest, as I met more of the UpGrad team, the hypothesis I drew from the first meeting started to firm up. Always approach that first meeting with an open mind, talk about your dreams and aspirations, but also listen carefully, there will be enough cues to help you assess an organisation. There were 4 broad criteria that I used while deciding in favor of working with UpGrad over starting up on my own: The net impact that I’d be able to create, working with an accomplished team instead of starting fresh. I knew how to create digital businesses, but the team knew a lot more about education than I did, there was a lot to learn. Operating in a startup ecosystem is very different from the philosophical presumption we have while working in large corporations. It’s better to experience this in a setup being closely observed by one of the most seasoned entrepreneurs in the country. Track record of building and growing businesses for a long term with an active interest in operations, not seeing them as mere investments. There’s an opportunity to create something great. Great things take time and need a certain mindset to appreciate and realise. Someone who doesn’t have the heart and sweat invested in a business will never appreciate this. Finally, the open-mindedness that an organisation’s leadership displays – which tells you whether it’s a place where opinions and alternate thinking will be respected. It becomes a congregation place for great minds and ideas to come together. I feel, above 4 attributes are crucial yardsticks for anyone looking to partner/work/starting up with a new team. It’s often said that winning is a mindset. You often win/lose based on how you think of a certain challenge at a certain time. Before you embark on a new professional journey, use the above 4 criteria; they may help. Nothing is guaranteed in life, but qualifying opportunities on certain yardsticks could better your chances! I decided to work with UpGrad and build their enterprise business. It has turned out to be that congregation place of great minds that I imagined it to be. There’s a sense of openness, transparency, and respect that has aided my transition from a large corporate ecosystem to a truly entrepreneurial one. The team has built a stunning consumer brand over the past 2 years and now, we want to do more with and for corporations in India and abroad. Towards the end of October, I will complete 90 days with the organisation. These 3 months have given me a good peek into the aspirations, opportunities, and challenges that lie ahead of us. The transition from traditional industry roles has been every bit the exciting journey. It is lathered with learning that I thought it to be. How we translate this into a great enterprise business over the next 90 days, as we build the teams, partner ecosystem and position this business is a topic for another blog!

by Ritesh Malhotra

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26 Oct 2017

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