Dr Santanu Paul, CEO & MD, TalentSprint

“India’s talent story is skin deep. The top 5-10% youth have a lot of opportunity. For the rest, it catastrophically drops in terms of what avenues are available to even be employed.”

May 18, 2016 03:05 IST IIFL Anil Mascarenhas |

Dr Santanu Paul, CEO & MD, TalentSprint
Dr Santanu Paul, CEO & MD, TalentSprint, drives overall strategy, growth, and execution at TalentSprint. From 2003-2008, Santanu worked at Virtusa Corporation as Senior Vice President for Global Delivery Operations, and Head of Indian Operations. From 1999-2003, Santanu worked in Boston as Chief Technology Officer of Viveca and Openpages, both venture-backed technology firms. He began his career in New York as a Research Scientist at the famous IBM T.J. Watson Research Center. His technical work spans more than 20 international papers and 2 United States patents. Santanu has a B.Tech. in Computer Science and Engineering from IIT Madras and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where his academic performance in computer science earned him the prestigious Rackham Doctoral Fellowship, IBM Canada Fellowship, and LaCroute Fellowship. He is a member of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO), the elite global network of young CEOs, a Distinguished Fellow of IDRBT (set up by RBI) and Adjunct Professor at IIT-Hyderabad.
 
TalentSprint is among India's leading Career Accelerators for Youth. Its technology-driven platform attracts youth with high aspirations and equips them for exciting careers in the knowledge sector. Funded by Nexus Venture Partners and the National Skill Development Corporation, TalentSprint aims to empower ONE MILLION young job seekers to pursue careers in Information Technology, Banking and Financial Services, and Education. TalentSprint has enabled 100,000+ Youth from 200+ colleges find their career with 650+ employers since inception.
 
In an interaction with Anil Mascarenhas of India Infoline, Dr. Santanu Paul says, “India’s talent story is skin deep. The top 5-10% youth have a lot of opportunity. For the rest, it catastrophically drops in terms of what avenues are available to even be employed.”
 
A lot is spoken about India’s talent story and given the demographics, much has been written about the India advantage. What is your take?
A big lesson we learnt in our corporate life is that India’s talent story is skin deep. The top 5-10% youth have a lot of opportunity. For the rest, it catastrophically drops in terms of what avenues are available to even be employed. I headed Virtusa India and we used to interview close to a hundred candidates to make just a couple of offers. The supply-demand mismatch is massive and the skill gap is huge. There is another underlying phenomenon which we call the aspirational gap; our youth do not necessarily want the jobs that are available. For example, even though there are many lucrative and challenging sales jobs, most MBA graduates seek the comfort of a desk job, and not the thrill of winning in the field with customers. 
 
What got you started on this venture?
The trigger came when we realized that both our youth as well as employers need better answers to the employability question. We launched a Youth Career Platform for first time job-seekers on the supply side and started to aggregate as many jobs as possible from the corporate world on the demand side. We started with the Information Technology sector given our deep roots in it. We figured out how to monetize in this sector and carved out a sustainable business model. The secret sauce was our blended learning program, a combination of two parts of technical skills mixed with one part of soft skills, and judicious use of contact and digital learning. Another favorable factor in the early days was that the co-founders came from a blue chip corporate background and it gave us a lot of credibility among employers. Today, over 700 IT employers recruit from our platform, and to put that figure in perspective, NASSCOM has 2000 member companies. 
 
What’s in it for the companies?
As candidates fund their own training, the companies save significant training costs by recruiting from us. Importantly, what we realized as we went along was that companies greatly appreciated the just-in-time availability of talent on our platform. 24 x 7 x 365, the platform has a ready pool with industry-ready skills. This brought us recognition and acceptance among employers and we became a potent force to reckon with.
 
Where did the next push come from?
Having established our model in the IT sector, we scouted around and the banking sector was the next obvious choice, because that again is an aspirational sector for our youth. Unlike IT where an attempt to create a common assessment test has met with limited success, banking is quite uniform in terms of common assessment tests and standardized scores. This allowed us to target a job-linked test preparation model.
 
Did the digital push make things easy because often getting a faculty is a challenge?
Yes. We took a strategic call to go digital with our banking products and banished brick and mortar classrooms. We disrupted the traditional classroom with live online 'classrooms' which aspirants could access from anywhere at any time. Job seekers now come to us to enhance their employability quotient. We help them prepare for aspirational jobs in the IT and banking sectors, and link them up with exciting career opportunities. Our moment of truth came in the last one year when we realized that the success rates of our trainees seeking bank careers was over 54%. This is unprecedented in a sector where the opportunity:aspirant ratio is as low as 2%. We also found, to our major surprise, that 60% of our trainees today are learning digitally from non-urban areas. It is a testament to the fact that digital platforms can go where traditional classrooms cannot. 
 
What was the logic between tying up with colleges when you have a B2C model?
We are a Youth Career Platform. Where do our customers from? From the colleges. We felt the need to go upstream and spread the message of employability early in the academic cycle. That project has had interesting results. What we realized is that there are different kinds of colleges. Many colleges are not willing to invest for the betterment of their students. They are just happy with their existing business model of printing degrees. Then there are progressive colleges which go the other way to underwrite high quality employability courses for their students. Moving forward, colleges will remain an important marketing channel for us. This will help students experience the TalentSprint brand in small doses.
 
What is your marketing approach?
Over 60% of new enrollments come through reference.  Alumni seems to be the biggest contributor in adding to our numbers. Then there is digital marketing and we are leveraging it to reach out to a much larger target audience. We enjoy high recall on critical digital and social platforms such as Google, Facebook, and YouTube. 
 
Given the PM’s Digital India campaign, what is your suggestion to maximize the synergies between the Digital India and Skilled India?
Great question. I think the two strategies are inseparable. There is no pathway to a Skilled India unless we embrace digital learning as the primary channel. Despite beliefs and efforts to the contrary, conventional classrooms and centers just won't be able to keep up with the volume and velocity of our demographic dividend. Similarly, we cannot build a Digital India unless our youth are digitally sophisticated. The two Indias need to converge. 
 
What trends are you seeing in online learning especially in the tier 2/3 towns?
We are seeing very encouraging signs. Broadband and mobile connections are penetrating faster than most urban people realize. Rural and semi-urban India want to emulate urban India. These days, it is quite common for us to find job-seekers preparing on our platform hailing from towns we had never heard of previously. It is a remarkable transformation that is underway. 
 
In terms of fees, what benefits do you see from digital? To what extent is it getting more affordable?
First and foremost, if a young person does not have to leave his or her home to get the best quality training, that itself saves a lot of money in terms of costs not incurred in terms of travel, boarding and lodging. That apart, in a digital world, the marginal cost of delivery over time goes to zero, which means it is theoretically possible to lower costs dramatically as scale builds up. However, one must remember that digital marketing is still a very expensive proposition. However, once a digital brand is fully built out, fees will be considerably lower than that of conventional classroom programs. 
 
Comment on your financials. What is the shareholding pattern? How much have you raised so far? Any plans to sell stake?
As a privately held company, we do not disclose our yearly financials. That said, since our inception, we have grown at a CAGR of 60% and have raised venture capital and venture debt to the tune of Rs. 30 crore. We are funded by Nexus Venture Partners and NSDC. We expect to raise additional capital in the future to expand our digital platform to reach ONE MILLION youth. 
 
What will be the triggers for growth?
We are merely scratching the surface of the IT and banking sectors today, and intend to leverage our digital platform to radically deepen the market in the coming years. Apart from that, we have a third bet in the education sector, where there is a tremendous gap in teachers and lecturers across the country. Just be reaching out to Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns, we will be on course for ONE MILLION youth by 2020. Over time, we see our platform going global as well, since unemployability is no longer just an India problem, it is a global issue. 

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