Coming to America: An Indian Ed-tech Founder’s Ambitious Growth Plan with Shreyasi Singh, Founder & CEO, Harappa

“Every quarter, I feel like I’m running a different company because the context of the world is changing so quickly.”

– Shreyasi Singh

“82% of Americans are likely to quit their jobs because of a bad manager.” The managers are often the unsung heroes of our workforce – yet they get a bad rep. On this week’s episode of the On Work and Revolution podcast, Debbie speaks with Shreyasi Singh. Shreyasi is the Founder & CEO of Harappa, an online education institution focused on helping individuals, teams, and organizations thrive by developing social, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills. This conversation emphasizes the significant impact middle managers have on the workforce, especially in today’s hybrid work setups.

Debbie & Shreyasi dig into:

✓ How to develop your Thrive skills – those essential cognitive, social, and behavioral skills we all need
✓ What is shaking up in Ed-tech across 3 segments of the Indian market: K-12 tutorials, test prep, and professional skilling
✓ The huge and often underappreciated impact middle managers have on team engagement and productivity

About our guest Shreyasi Singh

Shreyasi is the Founder & CEO of Harappa, a learner-centered institution of the future that is committed to delivering programs that drive transformative career success using Thrive Skills—an essential set of cognitive, social, and behavioral skills to enable individuals to continuously succeed, at every stage of their career. She has also written two books on entrepreneurship, including a children’s book called The Girl Who Thinks In Numbers, and was part of the founding team of a women’s only management program. She often jokingly refers to herself as the 2%, to nod to the dismal number of women CEOs in India.

Helpful Links:

Follow Shreyasi on LinkedIn

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman  00:04

Welcome to On Work And Revolution where we talk about what’s shaping up in the world of work, and EdTech right now. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman and today I have as my guest Shreyasi Singh. Very honored to have Shreyasi Singh who is founder and CEO of Harappa Education, which is an online education institution established in India that aims to become the premier high quality learning destination for all young professionals. That’s quite an ask. Harappa is described, love this, by the way… Harappa is described as an organization which helps people to accelerate their personal and professional growth and drive transformative career success. That’s cool. Shreyasi has 18 years prior experience across broadcast and print journalism. She’s authored two books, being the editor of Ink Magazine in India, as well as a teacher and immersed in higher education, administration and entrepreneurship education in India. I read about Shreyasi and Harappa in a media release, I think it was December 22, and immediately reached out because I wanted to know more about this visionary female founder of an organization that has already made incredible traction in the education sector in India, and now intends to penetrate the US market. So today we’re going to talk to Shreyasi about her journey, about Harappa. And what it’s going to take to achieve this formidable growth step into the US and into the EdTech market. So welcome, Shreyasi.


Shreyasi Singh  01:47

Thank you so much, Debbie. Honor to be here. And thank you for having me. And thank you for the lovely warm introduction.


Debbie Goodman  01:54

So firstly, let’s talk about Harappa. So there are, I mean, there are so many online learning organizations these days, what is so distinctive about Harappa and its programs?


Shreyasi Singh  02:11

So I think what’s distinctive about our apprentice programs is we focus only on what we call are thrive skills or skills that are needed for individuals, teams and organizations to thrive. And by that the academic description of the skills are social, cognitive and emotional, and behavioral skills. And we feel like these become more and more important as you go through life, they become more and more critical in your life as a professional and in life as an individual and also in the lives of teams and organizations. So I think our deep focus and deep personal conviction that beyond technical skills, beyond domain specializations is really the most powerful area of growth and potential and performance for us as individuals or societies, and us as enterprises. And our other belief is that most higher education systems, certainly in India, which is where we began, but my sense is in many other parts of the world as well, and even our school education system, do a criminal injustice by not focusing on thrive skills enough. Thrive skills, whether it’s how to negotiate, how to lead yourself to discover your own voice, you know, how to resolve conflict, is just under served in our education systems. And we’re very, very passionate and driven and determined to take a stab at that large, fundamental civilizational issue of skill.


Debbie Goodman  03:44

Yeah, that is so true. I mean, in my work, I’m CEO of Jack Hammer, we’re an executive search firm, and where we see people really fall down in their careers, is less about their ability to do the task at hand, they usually have you know, they’ve acquired by the time they get to sort of mid and senior level management, they’ve usually acquired the skills to do the job. But their advancement in their careers in their lives is so very much more dependent on their inter relational skills in how they engage with all of their stakeholders, how they negotiate how they get seen, how they navigate politics. I mean, all the things that you’re speaking about. I mean, those are the things that really trip people up. So let’s just talk about what’s actually happening in the Indian EdTech ecosystem, because we’ve seen so much investment from the US into India. Now there seems to be a little more contraction, a little more conservativism. The markets are not quite as buoyant as they were even a year ago. So tell us more about what’s happening with your peers and competitors in the Indian EdTech market.


Shreyasi Singh  04:54

So I think the Indian EdTech market is such an exciting market. I think I would say that after the US and after China, the India, EdTech market is probably possibly the third largest export market in the world and a great hotspot for innovations, new models, new products being created. I think a way to think about the Indian EdTech market is it started at we’ll look at three segments. One is around K 12, and remedial tutorial support for core curriculum, core subjects in curriculum, you know, mandated curriculum, whether it’s maths or science, and I think a lot of the large EdTech companies in India, which are quite well known, highly scrutinized, constantly followed, because you know, the value that upwards of $10 billion $20 billion.


Debbie Goodman  05:44

No names mentioned, we know those, yes.


Shreyasi Singh  05:46

Yes, no names mentioned. But you know, those. Are essentially in K 12 tutorials for core curriculum subjects. So there’s that segment. The second segment is very unique to India, which has also been really big for the EdTech market is what’s called the test prep segment, right. And in India, right after school leaving exams to get into, you know, your engineering, college of choice. So your college of medicine for choice, or architecture, and many other such central universities, you do need to give national entrance examinations, it’s not your 12th grade GPA that’s important. It is the centralized examination systems. I think Korea also has that China also has that and India certainly has a very strong history of those exams. And they’re really like, you know, coaching centers to be able to crack the exams, they’re not as much about skills, but they’re to crack these exams, which are very powerful. A lot of our large EdTech companies in India are really test prep companies. And I think there’s test prep even in the US, as well as in India, whether it’s SAT, GRE, GMAT, but these ones, the ones that are they are really like do, quote, get to undergrad because of those. So that’s been a really, really big segment. And the third segment, so Harappa is not in either of those two segments. We don’t work in K12, we don’t work on test prep. The third segment is really what’s come up a lot is in professional skilling and professional learning and lifelong learning. And even there, India has obviously seen a lot of innovation, a lot of action, because we have, you know, broken higher education systems which don’t focus on the right skills, obviously creates an opportunity for professional learning, companies like ours to come with skills. So all three of these segments have gone through different rhythms over the last 18 to 24 months, as you know, as what you were alluding to, right. I think both in K12, in K12 specifically, I think the artificial constraints of being online only, through two years of the pandemic, as even in test prep to being online only because coaching centers, tuition centers were shut. I think the hypothesis that a lot of founders made was this is what was going to continue to be the trajectory of growth. But all of us have found that certainly, I think offices don’t have workers and professionals back but I think most children in schools and most undergrad institutions, learners and students have gone back pretty much in the same way in the same manner for the same duration, as before the pandemic, right. So I think a lot of the sort of contraction that you’re seeing is after the, you know, the artificially constrained high of online only. I think there’s still much more online than there was in Feb 2020. But there’s not as much online as there was in October 2020 when the pandemic was sort of at its peak or, you know, during the delta wave. So I think we’re seeing that contraction and that rebalancing in those two segments of Indian EdTech where coming off the highs, over expecting that same learner behavior of using online only to stick, but actually seeing that contraction from the peak of the pandemic, but still, having witnessed much growth from before the pandemic. It’s I think that settling is happening. And I do think that settling will, you know, will take this year for those companies to settle down because they’re grasping at straws in some ways to try new markets to try new products right, to geographical expansion to maintain the rate of growth. Not the third one in which we see our competitors. I genuinely believe that online learning is best used for lifelong learning and for professional skilling. Because none of us as professionals have the luxury to leave everything, right? Leave homes, leave spouses, leave, jobs, leave children, you know, leave whatever it is for the opportunity cost to do another learning program. And the fact also is the way the workplaces are changing. And it seems like you know, every six months, we’re expected to do something different. You also need to skill more. So the fact that you need to skill more, and you have the constraints of not being able to just up and leave to just study, you have to manage that, and integrate that with your work and your life, right, as learning, I think has really created a very exciting opportunity for professional learning firms. And those have been much more stable in Indian EdTech than the first two segments that I spoke about. But even there, Harappa’s a bit, we need to focus on the sort of the toughest monetizable skills of the kinds that we focus on, we know that they’re the most important to have, most important to acquire, most important to practice, the ones that have really worked are the ones much more around data, digital marketing and digital transformation, and software development. So I think that segment is doing well.


Debbie Goodman  11:01

You’re spot on, in terms of where the ongoing piece of online learning has been sustained. And that’s definitely in the workplace learning environment. Certainly in the US, we see that as well, although I think budgets are certainly being affected by all big tech companies are looking at their learning budgets, it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg. Every company knows they need to keep upskilling their workforce, for all the right reasons. Considering the ongoing sustainability of your particular segment in India, I’m curious to understand why the decision to make the big leap across the pond.


Shreyasi Singh  11:39

I think one conviction comes from the fact the confidence that we have acquired in the last four years as we’ve been running the India business. And the India enterprise business, which is what you know, sort of Harappa’s large focus, even here is, is the quality of work that we’re doing the quality of the program suite that we have created and the quality of the brand that we think we’re building. Now, this could also be founder disillusion, but I think by now we’ve been told enough that you know, I think we, my co founder and I were really determined to say we’re going to build a global company out of India, right? Its soul will be Indian, it’s called Harappa. But it will look global, it will have all of the rigor and the quality standards that a global company can have. And I think after four years of running the India business, we do feel like we’ve learned that blood, sweat, tears and grit. And we said, hey, let’s take on the challenge of then really working in the world’s largest and most competitive learning market. And so it’s coming from that to see if there is an opportunity, I think two things need to come together. So when you do an expansion like this one, you think, is there an opportunity, and we feel like although the US is so competitive, it’s also add clutter, seemingly cluttered, we feel like we have an opportunity to come in with something and then the second is you have the confidence that you can do it. And I felt like this year was over the last couple of months, we were obviously had always seen the opportunity. I think we’ve gained the confidence in the last three, four months and said what are we waiting for? Because I think it’s only when you get in that you also accelerate your pace of learning and really experience it and no point putting it on for longer if it is the eventual destination as well.


Debbie Goodman  13:30

You know, you can’t know until you actually do it and the doing may take several attempts and go down different roads but I totally identify with where you are, saying we’re we’re best in class in India, and now the next step is to test ourselves in the most competitive market and we believe we’ve got something unique and fresh and new. And we’re going to just go for it. You know, I’ve had something similar with my own company where we started out as this tiny little company in Cape Town. And then eventually over the years we’re like we’ve actually got something unique and special. Yes, the market in the US is so competitive. There are I mean, it’s just a few, It’s just unimaginable until you actually land and see how competitive it is and how entrenched many of the incumbents actually are, but the self belief to say we’ve got something special, we believe in ourselves and we’re going to go for it, is really what’s what’s going to take you into the big wild ocean of the US market and it is a wild ocean. It is so competitive. And I’m interested to know more about your go to market strategy because that you know the planning and the thinking and the strategizing is one thing, having a great product and having a great brand as your base in India is another, but then what’s going on, what’s happening with the actual go to market plan?


Shreyasi Singh  14:57

So I look at go to market plan in two ways, right? One is sort of really, how are you positioned? And when you think, you know, you’re referring to the fact that, hey, you had the confidence that we have something cool and let’s try and of course, you don’t come to learn till you try. The big positioning that we’re going out with and the skills or the expertise, if you think we really acquired which we think is a distinctive expertise, even if we see all the large learning companies, is being able to scale cohort based blended learning journeys in enterprises, right. Because there are lots of light… 


Debbie Goodman  14:59

Wait, say that again.


Shreyasi Singh  15:31

Scaling, cohort based blended learning journeys. And the US has lots of very large and again, names that we all know, listed learning companies, which are very powerful repositories or libraries of asynchronous self paced content, right? And, you know, there are obvious names that come up there and very well established, or they have very, very expensive, bespoke programs or, you know, through business schools, managerial development programs, which are your classroom or live only. I think what we have developed at Harappa and that’s actually been one of the key reasons for our success even in enterprises in India, the cohort based blended learning journey that we put together, which has many formats of learning, it has asynchronous self paced courses, which are video based, it has a practice suite of, you know, guided activities, reflections, journaling. It has live master classes online, where the cohort can come together as a group, it has one on one coaching online. So I think the magic of us being able to bring this together and being able to scale it at prices which are value for money for the quality that we are offering. And the fact that we’re in India and that we can do this, is the big go to market, right. So we’re not positioning ourselves as a library, we’re not positioning ourselves as bespoke, we’re commissioned for you and things like that. It is the promise is cohort based blended learning journeys at scale, right. And I think that’s one strong go to market positioning. The second big decision we made really, from having spoken to founders, like you and others, you know, in my conversation is to say, Hey, you can’t have the arrogance to think that you could sit in Delhi and do this. You do need the council of people who, who understand a market as complex as rich, I mean, even within the US, there are just so many regional differences in such a large economy, who get it and, and you know, sending one person as a country manager who’s sort of, you know, living in the airplane with the suitcase, is not the model. You have to find the right partners. And there we took decision to work with a US-based team who’ve sort of come in as a go to market advisor as well as a fronting the conversations for us with enterprise clients. And I think that I mean, time will always tell about whether how good ones decisions are. But I feel so good about having done that, because I think there’s such a, you know, we are much better off for the very honest and forthright counsel that we get from our team there. And you know, I think, a lot of humility to say that, you know, we can’t do this without you. And we need you. So I think that was the second very big thing in the go to market. And the third go to market positioning, was we’ve that our women’s programs in India, right, we have these two programs in enterprises in India, which have been really popular. And I think we are known in many of our enterprise partners in the enterprise ecosystem for these two programs, as well. The women’s accelerator program and the women’s leadership program. We said we’ll take both of the women’s programs and we have to manage your program, you know, which is for younger, tenured managers, people who’ve recently become managers and the other is for the other is for managers with slightly more work experience. And I really do believe it’s the bulgy middle in any enterprise that really gets most of the work done. And the leadership development budget is so often over indexed on the C suite and the C suite minus one, and not in this bulgy middle and we said we will only go with the programs which are in the bulgy middle. So that sort of became a third.


Debbie Goodman  19:29

Just anecdotally but also data, I’ve have a sense that 2023 and going forward really is the year of the middle manager, the first stage manager and the middle manager particularly because almost all organizations these days are some form of hybrid in the US all over the world. And the variance in team engagement is hugely dependent on their first line manager. And so it’s all very well to train your top leaders, but if the the individual contributors are not having great interaction with their, with their direct manager, the variance in team engagement is something like 70%. Meaning that it’s irrespective of where you’re working from the office or home or some satellite offices or some shared office space, the differential in how engaged, how productive and how effective your team is, is primarily due to the quality of your manager. And those managers are early stage or middle managers, for the most part. So I’ll give you a big thumbs up on where you’re targeting these programs. Because I think that’s definitely where the biggest ask and need is. I was reading another data, I think it was in one of your media releases, actually that 82% of Americans are likely to quit their jobs because of a bad manager, and 44% of managers feel unprepared for their jobs. I’d say that that’s I mean, I’ve got no way of verifying that on my end, but it sounds pretty accurate.


Shreyasi Singh  21:01

Yeah, I know, you’re so right. And the data also speaks to the fact that I also genuinely believe that Oh, my God, managing people is the toughest job in the world. And, you know, we’re constantly, constantly everybody’s dissing on managers, as if, like nobody else has ever been, none of us have been crappy managers. We all most of us, right, I think, you know, when you’re manager for the first time, 90% of people do a poor job of it, because it is a genuinely tough thing. I feel like you know a manager is the big bad evil wolf, which is sort of become contemporary workplace literature and stereotyping. It’s just, it’s not very useful. Because all of us have been managers, all of us have had bad managers, all of us have been bad managers. And I think, also the notion that you’re just naturally going to be a manager without any preparation. And without consistent preparation, constantly, you’re going to do a good job. It’s like, you know, some instinct that you’re born with. It’s so not true. And I think all of these myths around the manager is what has created the greatest attrition in managers, which is attrition, because of managers, missed goals because of managers. So I’m like, Oh, my God, the manager occupies such a central place in this workplace literature and all what’s terrible with workplaces around the world, let’s just focus on them. And let’s also have empathy for how genuinely challenging it is to lead and manage people.


Debbie Goodman  22:28

Oh yes, my favorite saying of 2022 was managers are human too, because there’s so much pressure and stress and lack really, that managers got for pretty much everything. And granted, some were just unskilled. Some are unskilled and inexperienced. And absolutely, if I have to think back to my first, oh, my goodness, the first few people that I managed, I’m kind of embarrassed. If any, if any of you are listening, I apologize. I was a crappy manager first couple of times round.


Shreyasi Singh  23:02

She didn’t have the Harappa programme, right? 


Debbie Goodman  23:04

It was a long time ago. So Harappa didn’t exist at that point. But okay, we’re, we’re going to shortly run out of time, unfortunately, Shreyasi. Of the many challenges that you have encountered to get to this point. What’s shaking up in your world right now? And what’s shaking up? What’s exciting? What are you looking forward to?


Shreyasi Singh  23:28

Too much is happening. I feel like I hope things will stop shaking as much as they have been. And I think, you know, to have been a founder, and a CEO, the last three years has been one heck of a ride because you feel like the world has changed on you. Eight times over, right? Like we began in very, in a meaningful way sort of went live to the world in September of 2019. Four months later, boom, you know, obviously COVID happened, then the whole politics of over whether people come back to work or not, or great traction and online. Now everybody wants to go back to offline, crazy funding expectation. So you just showing high revenue growth. I mean, I genuinely believe that every quarter, every quarter, I feel like I’m running a different company, because the context of the world itself and the context of what Harappa needs to do to adapt to the world keeps changing. So it’s been, you know, I’m happy to have a boring day or a couple of boring weeks, because the one thing that Harappa exceeded expectations, my expectations on, is the interesting that it has has given me right. So I think a lot going on. What’s challenging is really to keep pace with this agility to always really be able to define what is needed in a short term and a midterm. I think, you know, we all talk about the long term and I’m actually less worried about the long term at Harappa because now after four years, I wouldn’t have said that because I feel like our founding principles are in place. I think I, you know, our conviction on this, the need for this curriculum and as well as the conviction and the pedagogy and the way that we do things I feel much more confident about. So I’m not worried about the long term, at Harappa, much less I feel like these skills are not going to go out of fashion. People will always need. But in the short term and midterm to constantly be able to really define exactly what you want to do. And what you need to do. You know, and switch gears is really challenging. The second thing that’s really, really challenging is now the way of the world has changed. The currency of success, as founders of young high growth companies, is that now it’s not just about growth, it’s also it’s good growth. And while that’s bigger, and that sanity is much welcome and much needed. The fact is that from only looking at one parameter and metric for success now one is looking at many more parameters and metrics for success. I’ve understood now finding that balance of others profitability cost models, right cost models. So that’s the second thing.


Debbie Goodman  26:11

Of everything that you’ve just shared with me, what’s most extraordinary is the fact that this organization was established in 2019. That is like a blink of an eyelid ago. And here you are having established something pretty impressive already in the Indian EdTech market, which is huge in itself. I mean, just to get to a place of prominence, there is one massive hill to climb, and then to go. Okay, now we’re going to take this big leap and play in the biggest EdTech market of all, I just absolutely applaud your boldness and your courage and your ambition. And I wish you absolutely everything of the best and it has been a delight to speak with you and really have an amazing 2023, Shreyasi.


Shreyasi Singh  26:54

Thank you so much, Debbie, that’s so kind. We need all the luck, but that’s really, really kind. Thank you so much. And thank you again for having me. Your lovely conversation went by in a jiffy.


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