Anil Nagar - making peace with adversity
Of Raingods, IITs, GIM… and a startup with revenues of 50 crores
For all their aspirations to the finer things in life, there are some things that will remain beyond the grasp, or even comprehension, of the “haves” of India. After all, when the bare necessities are a given, there’s a high percentage of rising to the top of “the game”. Even the laggards in “the game” will probably live with some disappointment - roosting whatever remains of their life in comfortable, pill-popping depression. So when an absolute “have-not” –a Dhirubhai Ambani or a Narendra Damodardas Modi – makes it to the very pinnacle, it will for some time confound the lot. After all, dreams are not supposed to run on an empty stomach. But then, like good “haves”, they’ll quickly recover from the surprise, and, with practiced casualness, get in queue to shake the Ambani or the Modi by his hand. All the while believing it to be an aberration, and that sooner than later, one of “their own” will better the underdog at “the game”. What the “haves” do not understand is that when you start from the dungeons - at a petrol pump or a tea stall - it is not about winning or losing ….it is about surviving.
At the helm of Career Power, a 6-year old education start-up, raking in close to 50 crores a year, Anil Nagar might not yet be an Ambani or a Modi. One thing he surely is, however, is a survivor.
Born to a farmer in Dankaur - a small village back in 1979 - Anil knew instinctively that if there was one thing that could salvage him from a life of perpetual dependence on the raingods, it would be “cracking the IIT-JEE”.
“None of my parents ever went to a school,” says Anil Nagar with a noncommittal smile. “Cracking IIT JEE was a mad race for me. It was the only challenging thing I could hear all around.”
Hearing of a place is one thing; getting there is another. In Anil’s case, even his teachers did not know how IIT-JEE was cracked. In the non-internet era, there was no way of knowing about coaching institutes. In his first attempt at IIT-JEE, Anil failed. But rather than brood or sulk, he did the best thing he could think of: catch a train to Delhi.
“I didn’t know whom to turn to, so I came to IIT Delhi. After all, it was the surest place to find those who had gotten into IIT! I roamed the campus and quizzed students on how to crack the exam.”
Anil learned about a coaching institute right next to IIT Delhi and immediately went back home to tell his father about it. The next day the household was a few cattle short, and Anil’s father handed over 22,000 Rupees, the necessary amount needed for a few months at the coaching centre.
“I got through IIT-BHU in 1998. It was here that I first got a sense of life beyond struggle…. beyond survival. I began introspecting on what I really wanted to do with my life.”
While this remained a mystery, the introspection did reveal to Anil a strong sense of injustice. He did not want to see another Anil Nagar, another boy from Dankaur or thousand such villages, stumbling blindly in dark alleys in search of a way to his dreams.
“I completed my B Tech in 2002 and I joined Jaiprakash Associates as an Automation Engineer commissioning a Hydro-power project. Yet after 2 years, I still hadn't found the answer to ‘what do I want to do with my life?’. I decided to take a break and reflect on this existential dilemma.”
The answer eluded him. But he decided on the next best course.
“When my destiny is revealed, I should be well-prepared to pursue it,” says Anil, Zen-like. “It is with this conviction that I decided to equip myself with basic management skills. Because, whatever I’d do, ultimately, I’d still be leading a team, I’d be managing finances, marketing and so on.”
With characteristic doggedness, Anil prepared for MBA entrances and cracked quite a few that were right there at the top.
“Frankly speaking, the main reason for choosing GIM was Goa. I was looking for a serene and calm place, with natural surroundings, where, along with learning management, I could also reflect on my life and perhaps find the road ahead. It helped immensely that I bumped into Prof. C M Ramesh. During the admission process, I got a chance to interact with him in my GD and Interview in Delhi. He was impressive. I got to know GIM better through him. At the time of joining, I had very few expectations from GIM, but it turned out to be a life-changing event. I could see my thought process change completely. I had a technical bent of mind. GIM made me think from business perspective.”
In the summer of 2007, Anil Nagar joined Cognizant as a Business Analyst. That he was offered a shift to the U.S.in barely two years of service speaks volumes of his work there. But while many would’ve jumped for joy, the offer had a shocking effect on Anil. He resigned.
“During my two years at GIM and two more at Cognizant, I had figured out that I wanted to venture out in the education sector. The question was - “When?”. When I got a call from my manager about the urgent requirement in Cognizant USA, and that I had to relocate to the U.S. for atleast two years, it was a clarion call to action. Going to the U.S. would be a dream-killer, and I would miss out on my startup opportunity.”
By a twist of destiny, Anil met Saurabh Bansal, a finance graduate from Delhi University, who was exploring entrepreneurial ideas in the field of education. The two found that they complemented each other's skill sets and, in 2010, with barely a lakh in pooled savings, the duo kick-started Career Power. In the initial phase the plan was to focus on helping graduate students clear bank recruitment and Staff Selection Commission Exams.
Family, relatives, friends…. everyone was livid with Anil. There were heated arguments, to the point where conversations ceased completely. On the business front too, operations had taken on an excruciatingly slow pace, since education is heavily cash flow dependent for growth. From opening the office to dusting the desks and counseling students, it was just Anil and Saurabh.
“Start-up is a leap of faith. Neither can you prepare yourself for your start-up, nor can you be 100% sure of what your startup is going to be like, unless you take the plunge. You have to go out, take risks, fold your sleeves and dirty your hands.”
Anil Nagar, in his attempt to abate the fight for survival of others, was back to where he started - fighting for his own survival… finding his way through the unknown.
“On a daily basis we found new ways to survive; and slowly we learnt to ride the waves… and we started loving the journey.”
Career Power is a 500-strong organisation with 70 branches across the country, with close to a lakh enrolled students in classroom programmes and its online platforms (bankersadda.com and sscadda.com) and more than 2 crore users. Of these, nearly 30% are from villages, a number which Anil believes will continue to grow.
“The penetration of smartphones is rapidly increasing in India. Internet data services are getting cheap and internet speed is getting better. Technology is central to our goal of taking quality education to every home in the farthest reaches of the country.”
Education is changing and the industrial revolution methods are constantly being questioned. Slow and sure movements against examinations have gained momentum, with many educational systems - CBSE included - doing away with the need for examinations and conventional assessment at the Primary education level. Some like the Waldorf system are almost anti-technology in their approach, focusing intently on guiding students to work with their hands - gardening, painting, pottery etc. - and building the right ‘core’ in students.
“Boards might not be very relevant in coming years, as these have rote learning at the heart of their philosophy; as opposed to natural learning,” agrees Anil. “But things at professional levels are different. We will still need resources to run our industries. Over time, exposure to practical learning is going to increase, but examinations will still be relevant. Examinations will remain the core for selection UPSC, IITs, since these are conducted for specific roles/specializations.”
Anil is particularly gung-ho about the opportunity in education through videos and live online classes. For him, learning through mobile devices is the future, one in which 90% of his business will be carried out through online learning. He also plans to diversify beyond preparations for examinations into a full-scale education-technology company providing the whole gamut of educational services to all kind of educational needs.
Anil Nagar knows that if he has to get there, he will have to delegate the responsibility of constantly fretting over burn-rate, bottomline, infrastructure etc. In other words, he will once again have to shed the survivor-mode, to be able to think beyond survival. It’s going to be tough, but as they say at Career Power - “tough” is Anil Nagar’s middle name.