tS Interviews: Alisha Mashruwala
In conversation with a young entrepreneur making waves in the education sector.
If you were in your early 20s in the India of 1995, it is unlikely that you would know too many people working on a start-up. It’s nearly certain that you wouldn’t know anyone who had a start-up that helped students get into foreign universities. Today’s young India is enamoured by the culture of young entrepreneurs working extremely hard to make their passions a reality.
So, when we heard about the incredible things Alisha Mashruwala was doing, we knew that she needed to be spoken to. Just slightly older than the majority of the team here at the Scribbler, she has started a company that works with students on applying to colleges abroad. But, that is a really reductive way of thinking about OnCourse. The work that they do is targeted more at getting students to realise their full potential - both inside and outside the classroom. This change was required. For too long the Indian education sector has pushed children to just blindly pursue results without looking at their holistic development . Students need to start exploring their potential in other spheres.Those are the skills that will really mould children into the leaders of tomorrow.
Alisha is a great example of an all rounded personality. She grew up in Mumbai, played squash for India, went on to do her undergraduate degree at Harvard (where she played some more squash), set up OnCourse soon after graduating and is turning into an authority on education consulting.
1. Hi Alisha, tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? What makes you tick?
I grew up in Bombay, and then finished my high school at the Taft School in the US. After that, I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Economics at Harvard University. I used to play squash competitively (for India and for Harvard) but now I just play recreationally. Besides that I love traveling and have been playing the piano for many years. I am passionate about the education space, and love interacting with students!
2. How did OnCourse happen? Is education consulting something you have always been interested in? Is OnCourse your first job?
After coming back from the US, we realized the incredible gap that existed between formal education and real world skills. My co-founders and I were all passionate about revolutionizing the education sector and that’s when we founded OnCourse. Since then, our mission and goal has been to bridge this gap through a series of short developmental courses along with education counseling for study abroad.
The education space is something I’ve always been interested in. I started this directly after graduating from college. So yes, this is my first ‘job’. (I can’t really call something I’m passionate about a job though!)
3. What is it like to be an entrepreneur in India? Do you think that being a female has made a difference?
It’s always a challenge, but given how India is growing as a country, I see tremendous opportunity as an entrepreneur. People now prefer to start their own business than to work for others. I don’t particularly think being a woman in business has made too much of a difference. But that being said, I do think it’s important to promote Entrepreneurship amongst women in India. We’ve realised this over the past few years, and have developed a Young Women’s Leadership Program which focuses on just this. The program has completed four editions in Delhi, and we will be launching the Fifth edition in Mumbai this year.
I can't really call something I'm passionate about, a job!
4. What are the biggest challenges you have faced? Also, what challenges do you think you may face going forward?
In the beginning of course, the challenge was our age- we were younger than most people in the Education business. Going forward, the challenge is to keep innovating- finding new products and ways for students to grow personally and intellectually.
5. I may be wrong, but I feel like more and more young people from some of the best schools in the country solely focus on earning an undergraduate degree abroad. Would you agree? If so, why do you think that is happening?
That is starting to become a trend. That’s mainly happening because the cut offs (99% and 100%) in the top Indian colleges are almost impossible to achieve! You hear of brilliant students not getting into these college because they haven’t made the cut offs by 1-2%. If you don’t manage to get into these colleges, there is a large drop off in the quality of education. On the other hand, there is a larger range of good colleges abroad. Which is why, I think most students need to keep going abroad as an option. In addition, the course flexibility that some college abroad offer are a big draw for the lot of the students. They tend to focus on holistic development rather than academic excellence only.
You hear of brilliant students not getting into [the top Indian colleges] because they haven't made the cut-offs by 1 or 2 %. If you don't manage to get into these colleges, there is a large drop off in the quality of education.
6. Getting into a University abroad is often more than just about Grades/Marks. What do children really need to make it into their dream schools? How does OnCourse help them in this process? Do you just counsel them or do you also try organising workshops, conferences etc?
All colleges want to see well-rounded applicants. They want to see something that makes the student stand out. At OnCourse, we help students identify their passions, and then give them ideas on how to pursue them further. We do this through our Life Coach and Mentoring program, which starts in Grade IX and goes all the way till college applications. The Life Coach element in the program provides personal growth opportunities and helps instill habits beneficial for success. The earlier a student starts, the higher the chances of seeing a meaningful change in the child’s persona. The LCM focuses on creating a Stand out Factor (SOF), which helps differentiate every student’s resume.
Besides the LCM, we hold a lot of workshops and short courses. Last year, we ran a summer school program in Delhi, as well as a 10-week program called Smart Money in collaboration with The Shri Ram School. ‘Smart Money’ is a financial literacy program for teens. The 10-day program covers the entire gamut from the history of money, Bitcoins, bond markets, mutual funds, precious metals, real estate, and share markets. As part of the pedagogy the program allows students to participate in a virtual online game. This platform uses real time stock prices to make the learning experiential and fun.
In addition, we have a Between the Lines course, which is related to writing, speaking and various forms of communication. ‘Between the Lines’ focuses on students’ communication skills – from writing creatively but succinctly, to speaking eloquently with purpose, to understanding the unspoken, whether body language and tone or the arts. Students learn to express themselves confidently and effectively, comprehend both written and spoken materials through interactive and experiential exercises.
7. What is OnCourse working on currently?
This year we are introducing JumpStart – Entrepreneurship for teens. It covers the key aspects of starting a business, including ideating, sizing markets, basic finance, the marketing process, the business plan and ways to de-risk a business idea. Students work on a business idea, and present their idea to a panel of High Net Worth Individuals and private equity players.
In addition, we are collaborating with universities abroad. This year, we are working on a summer program with the Leadership Institute at Harvard College. We will be hosting the Youth Lead the Change program, which is primarily based on leadership skills and focuses on social change. We will be running this program in our Gurgaon office from May 19-23rd.