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The long and winding road to success

Amala Balakrishner
Amala Balakrishner9/16/2021 8:31 PM GMT+08  • 13 min read
The long and winding road to success
Screwvala believes there is an urgent need for more entrepreneurs as the world grapples with economic uncertainties
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An outsider in the media industry with a lower-middle class background and no start-up experience, Ronnie Screwvala feels he had zero right to win. But the veteran entrepreneur’s track record tells a different story

Ask any fan of Bollywood movies and chances are, they would have heard of Ronnie Screwvala. One of India’s most prominent media entrepreneurs, the 65-year-old was an early pioneer in the country’s nascent cable TV industry. He subsequently built a series of businesses in television production, making movies and even toothbrushes, before moving into the education space recently.

Given his track record in establishing strong businesses, one would think he comes from an illustrious family of seasoned entrepreneurs. His surname — a common Indian portmanteau that combines an ancestral profession with the word wallah, meaning vendor — hints at an industry that his family could have dabbled in. “I have spoken to my dad and grandfather [about this] and we guess at some stage, we used to sell screws,” he chuckles.

Jokes aside, Screwvala tells Options in a recent interview that he hails from “not even a middle class, but a lower-middle class background”. Growing up, he lived with his extended family — his parents, brother, grandparents, and two aunts — in Mumbai. Albeit a little crowded, he says, he had a warm and loving home. “Whatever we needed, we got by with,” he recalls.

Screwvala did exceptionally well in school and earned a place to study commerce in college. However, he performed badly in his second year. “I was an arrogant young boy and had a little bit of swagger. I thought, ‘oh, I did well in school’ and was smart enough, so I took everything for granted,” he reflects.

His poor results gave him a much-needed wake up call. For one, it made him realise that his parents had given up a lot to put him through school and college, and he was letting them down. Oddly enough, Screwvala did not feel like he had let himself down. “I knew I had not given my best; since input is equal to output, I knew that the probability of me not getting the best outcome was high,” he says.

No Plan B
During his college days, Screwvala realised that what he really wanted was to start his own venture. This was far from popular with his parents who preferred that he pursue an MBA or a chartered accountancy qualification first.

To make things worse, Screwvala — who was around 20 years old at that time — had no inkling of what kind of venture to start. He also did not have any entrepreneurs to look to for advice. His father was formerly the managing director of British company J L Morison and Smith & Nephew, while his mother was a housewife. His brother would go on to pursue a PhD in human resources.

“Everyone in India believed that you wanted to be an entrepreneur only if you didn’t get a good job,” he says. “It reeks of instability.” To placate his parents, he took on a role as a copywriter at an advertising agency. His time there was short-lived and reaffirmed that he could not implement someone else’s vision.

Taking a leap of faith, Screwvala set up a cable TV service in 1981. The catch was, he did not have a plan B in case he failed. Looking back, he admits it was a daunting move especially since the media and entertainment industry was still in its infancy back then. TV sets were being sold without a remote since there was only one channel being telecast.

Called Network, Screwvala’s service offered a second channel playing Western and Indian TV shows on a loop for four hours each evening. His inspiration was the diverse options he enjoyed at hotels’ TV channels during his travels. The take-up was slow and despite going door to door to introduce his product, it took him a full year before he got his first customer. The business picked up thereafter, with around 60% of Mumbai being cabled up in four years.

Stiff competition pushed Screwvala to sell off Network after five years. However, he admits that he would probably have given it up much earlier after the fourth month if he had “put logic into the odds of success”.

Toothbrushes to soap operas
Given his five-year stint in the media industry, it would seem likely that Screwvala’s next stint would be in the same line. Instead, the entrepreneur ended up seizing a serendipitous opportunity to manufacture toothbrushes.

See also: Temasek supports lifelong learning with latest investment in edtech company, upGrad

However, six months into the new business, he realised that this was not something he could see himself doing for the long haul. Soon after, Screwvala, along with his wife Zarina, launched the UTV Group in 1990. The platform started off with channels offering content from around the world. It eventually went on to create original content ranging from soap operas to documentaries. The brand also bagged projects to dub content into the different Indian languages.

A key challenge was pre-empting changes in consumers’ tastes, says Screwvala. To him, production houses need to realise such changes before the consumers, to roll out new offerings when the time comes. Other challenges he faced included attracting talent to build a team.

To better cater to consumers, he expanded the number of channels offered on the UTV platform from three to 10. He also offered interactive games and started making movies. “Movies get more attention and talk compared to TV programmes, so we wanted to be a business-to-consumer [platform] and have that aura,” he says.

Little did he know what he was getting into. Calling himself an outsider to Bollywood, Screwvala says that connections are needed to break into the industry.

His first movie — a romance film entitled Dil Ke Jharoke Main — was “a complete disaster”, he describes sheepishly. Anyone after that movie would have decided “yeah, movie-making was a huge mistake and we should shut it down”. The next three to four movies he produced were also — in his words — lacklustre.

Without a plan B, Screwvala was forced to stay the course. After an internal audit, he realised that he was making a mistake by competing with the producers who had been in the scene for close to 30 years. His new strategy was to work with a new breed of directors and focus on telling stories with a little more realism.

This strategy paid off, for his subsequent movies were well received. These include the hit film Jodhaa Akbar, starring Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai. Set in the sixteenth century, the story is about a political marriage of convenience between a Mughal emperor and a Rajput princess.

Screwvala’s efforts in UTV helped win an investment from media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Soon after, the group floated on India’s stock market. It subsequently caught the eye of Disney India, which took up a substantial stake.

While Screwvala offered to stay on in the company to see the deal through, he soon realised that it was not in him to work for others. He thus divested his stake in UTV in 2013 at US$1.4 billion.

The hit film Jodhaa Akbar starred Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai (image credit: UTV)

A 19th century word
Following his big exit from UTV, Screwvala was once again left pondering on his next venture. This time, he was clear that he was not going to start another media company. “The worst thing is to do the same thing and compete with UTV — that’s when the learning curve stops,” he says.

Screwvala used his time to explore other passions, particularly opportunities in the not-for-profit space. The entrepreneur was already familiar with this, having set up a trust alongside the UTV Group. The trust started off as a 1,000 sq ft space housing an orphanage and old folks’ home.

“I don’t know what drove me to set this up then, especially since I had been living on borrowed money for the most part of my life,” he chuckles. He goes on to challenge assumptions that acts of good can only be done once an individual has lots of money in the bank and is above the age of 55. “I don’t like the word philanthropy. It sounds like a 19th century word,” he says.

Screwvala’s trust eventually morphed into the Swades Foundation — a name inspired by his film featuring Shah Rukh Khan. This time, his goal was to pull one million people in India out of poverty. The aim is not just to help villages and schools “here and there”, but rather to solve an overall problem, he explains.

Screwvala soon realised that this was not going to be easy. For starters, he needed to “solve mental poverty” — or the financial literacy gap of beneficiaries. He explains this with the example of a farmer who has 1 acre of land. Often, these individuals are content if they have two square meals a day and can take care of their necessities. So, telling the farmer that he can triple his earnings with better quality seeds and water for irrigation may not sit well with him.

“Unless you change aspiration levels, you cannot change poverty,” he stresses. As such, a huge part of his work involves reaching out to beneficiaries and explaining how earning a higher income will allow them to be better providers for their families.

Schools are one of the beneficiaries of the foundation (image credit: Swades Foundation)

Lifelong learning
Screwvala’s work with Swades brought to light another realisation: it takes time for acts of good to reap results. For instance, students from schools he had equipped with better facilities saw only a mere 10% pick-up in their grades four years later. “Our hearts sank [when we heard the news],” recalls the proponent of lifelong learning.

“It is a slow process but you cannot say that magic will happen just because I gave the kids computers and a chemistry lab. It doesn’t work that way.”

Interestingly, Screwvala is not so much a fan of the word education — he says it paints the picture of a straight-jacketed process. Instead, he believes that learning should happen throughout one’s life.

Hence, the serial entrepreneur set up upGrad, an online platform catering to individuals between the ages of 18 and 60. Launched in 2015, it offers over 100 courses in collaboration with universities like the Michigan State University in the US, Deakin Business School in Australia and IIT Madras in India.

So far, there are some one million registered learners on the platform. But Screwvala and his co-founders, Mayank Kumar and Phalgun Kompalli, have no intention of stopping. Just like during his cable TV days, Screwvala has been connecting with people to share the importance of upskilling. “Many may think I’m doing fine in my job now, but the point is, you will not be doing fine in two years’ time,” he stresses.

Debunking assertions that online platforms do not offer the same experience as in person lessons, Screwvala says that the upGrad platform is very interactive.

To better cater to learners, 70% of the courses are taught by industry professionals while 30% is taken on by professors. By contrast, online courses conducted by universities are typically conducted solely by professors.

More recently, upGrad has launched a mentorship segment in hopes of helping users to bridge the gap between themselves and the professional opportunities they desire.

A big win for the company was a US$120 million ($160 million) investment put forth by Temasek Holdings and the International Finance Corp (IFC). This marks the first external funding received by the platform, which was previously fully owned and funded by its founders. With this, the company joined the coveted “unicorn” club.

The founders intend to channel these funds into strengthening the upGrad team, scaling up market operations and pursuing M&A opportunities. They already have their sights on expanding their graduate and postgraduate degree portfolio and enhancing their technology and product capabilities.

Aside from these, the company is looking to strengthen its presence in Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia. The team aims to rake in US$2 billion in revenue by 2026 through these efforts.

From media to toothbrushes and now education, Screwvala has had quite an entrepreneurial journey. Looking back, he says that his background gave him zero right to win and make it. What helped him to press on and eventually make it were his soft skills like teamwork, communication and commitment.

Screwvala believes there is an urgent need for more entrepreneurs as the world grapples with economic uncertainties. The way he sees it, start-ups have the potential to create 4,000 jobs over time, as opposed to established companies which may only be able to add about four or five roles.

He does, however, acknowledge that entrepreneurship is not a bed of roses. But what will make the difference is self-conviction. “Don’t ask if you will fail and run on a timetable — then you will fail. Pick yourself up and stay true to the course — then your journey will be more rewarding,” he advises.

At upGrad, 70% of the courses are taught by industry professionals while 30% is taken on by professors (image credit: upGrad)

Cover image: Ronnie Screwvala's team

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