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Meet Sarvesh Agrawal, the mind behind Internshala

March 29, 2017 15:34 IST

"What the industry wants is not taught in the classroom, and what is taught in the classroom is not what the industry wants." 
Sarvesh Agrawal hopes to change that with Internshala. The entrepreneur tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier about how he built a start-up "of the interns, by the interns and for the interns."

Internshala Sarvesh Agrawal

IMAGE: Sarvesh Agrawal started Internshala as a blog in December 2010. Today, it is a web site that generates ₹3 crore a year.

 

The general complaint the Indian industry has is that students who graduate of colleges are not employable. To address this, the All India Council for Technical Education and the Human Resource Development Ministry recently decided that engineering students in all colleges across the country would have to do mandatory internships to get their degrees.

The ongoing Online Summer Internship Fair -- March 20 to March 31 -- is aimed at making this possible.

Internshala, the organiser, has partnered with companies like Larsen & Toubro, General Motors Technical Center, Bajaj Allianz General Insurance, Aditya Birla Retail Limited, Uber, OYO Rooms, Alibaba Group's UCWeb, Chumbak, Jabong, and Paper Boat; educational institutions like Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay and Indian Institute of Science-Bangalore; and non-profits like CRY, and World Wildlife Fund.

Internships are being offered in sales, marketing, content writing, fashion, engineering, product management, design, volunteering, human resource and finance.

Sarvesh Agrawal, founder and chief executive officer, Internshala, tell us more.

A science lover in a family of businessmen

I am from a Marwari family in Rajasthan.

My father had a departmental store and an oil mill in Nawalgarh, which has a population of around 60,000. He bought mustard seeds from local farmers, produced mustard oil in the mill and sold it in the local market.

In all Marwari families, in fact in all business families, the elders ask children to take care of the shop during school holidays, perhaps to prepare them to take on the business later. From the time I was in 6th standard, I used to take care of the customers coming to the shop, and also collect money from those to whom the family had lent money.

I don't know why I always felt business was unethical, and I used to tell my father that I would never become a business person. I hated business.

In my family, everybody studied commerce to be a business person. There was no engineer or doctor. I wanted to be different, and preferred to study science and be an engineer.

It was also expected of a bright student to pursue engineering, and I was a bright student in school.

Coming from a small town like Nawalgarh, I knew about the University of Rourkee and not the IITs. In our town, those who wanted to study engineering wrote the state exam and those who were bright wrote the exam of the University of Rourkee, and I was aiming at that.

When I was in the 12th standard I came to know about IITs from a friend who was with me in school but had shifted to Jaipur when his father was transferred. He was in Nawalgarh on vacation and told me that the IITs were better and that he was preparing for JEE. He also told me about Kota, where students got training to write the JEE.

I then decided that I would try for both IIT and University of Rourkee. After my 12th, I took a year off and went to Kota to prepare for JEE.

I wrote both entrance exams next year and got selected for both. I chose IIT, and joined IIT Madras in 2001.

Leaving Nawalgarh

Moving from a small town in a northern state to a southern metro was a total culture shock, but I wanted to come to Chennai for the kind of exposure it would give me.

I joined the 5-year dual degree program at IIT-Madras.

I had studied in a Hindi medium school, so my conversational English was not good. I landed at IIT-Madras where the medium of instruction was only English. In the hostel, a good number of students spoke only in English. Communicating in English was a struggle for me.

I used to carry a dictionary to class to translate from English to Hindi and Hindi to English. I had so much difficulty in speaking to friends in English that I used to construct the sentences first in mind and then speak! Even when I spoke in grammatically correct English, my pronunciation was very bad.

Luckily, my friends were supportive. They spoke to me only in English and corrected my mistakes. Nobody made fun of me.

I didn't suffer from any inferiority complex. I knew I was a good student as I had scored very good marks; I only lacked the ability to speak in English. I was confident that I would pick it up fast.

It took me a year to master the language, and soon I became confident enough to give speeches in English at public forums. The high point was when I scored the maximum marks in the GRE exam. After this, I became so confident that I started writing a blog.

I got admissions in three universities with scholarship, and also a job as a business analyst with Capital One in the US. I decided to take up the job. But by the time I got the degree certificate, the quota for the H-1B visa was over so, Capital One sent me to their UK business office and posted me at Nottingham.

Working in the UK

At that time, I had no plans to be an entrepreneur. My work with Capital One was very exciting. I was enjoying it thoroughly.

After working in a country like UK, I learnt that business could be dealt with ethically. That is when I understood the real meaning of shubh laabh, which is written in many Marwari shops -- auspicious profit.

It is a powerful statement. You can make auspicious profit and not obscene profit by doing business in an ethical way. There is nothing unethical in a customer paying you when you solve his problem.

At that time, my flatmate was a guy from IIT-Bombay who had also joined Capital One. He was quite charged about becoming an entrepreneur and used to tell me a lot of start-up stories of his classmates from IIT-Bombay, which I found very exciting.

Somehow, the idea of becoming an entrepreneur started exciting me too. I got the feeling that it would be a good career option for me a few years from then; I started reading a lot about entrepreneurs and start-ups.

Internshala

IMAGE: Sarvesh Agrawal hired interns to build Internshala. Till December 2012, he also ran it only with hired interns.

Returning to India

In 2008, I felt that if I didn't go back to India soon, I would become addicted to the comfortable life I was leading in the UK.

The idea of starting a business in India also began to appeal to me. I understand the consumer psychology and people better in India than in the UK. I decided that if I were to be an entrepreneur, I would do it in India and not in the UK.

Though it was my flatmate who by talking about entrepreneurship and start-ups kindled the entrepreneur in me, I moved to India first.

But I didn't jump into entrepreneurship immediately.

I joined the Barclay's Bank in Mumbai as I needed to clear my thoughts and decide on which idea I should take up.

I had so many ideas at that time -- like starting a restaurant, a heath food chain of kiosks, etc. None of those ideas stayed with me long enough to make me pursue it.

By this time, two more friends from the UK also moved back to India and joined the business analytics team of Aviva in Gurgaon. They wanted me to join them to set up a team and I did. I was with them for a year.

The birth of Internshala

It was here that the idea to start Internshala, a platform for students who wanted to do internships, came to my mind. I felt there was LinkedIn for your professional life, Facebook for your social life, but there was nothing for your academic life.

As a student, you may have many academic queries, but you don't have any platform where you can ask questions and get answers. Then I started thinking about the things that students need help on -- board exams, various competitive exams, internships.

As I was pondering over various ideas, a friend from IIT, who was doing MBA in London, wanted to do an internship in India but couldn't find what he was looking for. I was aghast. If somebody with that kind of qualification could not find an internship, what about others?

That was how Internshala was born.

I also felt I should help students with the other needs in the long run. To express this vision, I decided to name the company Scholiverse -- Scholar's Universe -- but kept the brand name as Internshala.

I was also of the opinion that if an idea did not stay with you for a month, it was not worth pursuing. All my earlier ideas disappeared within a month, but this idea stayed with me and that was when I realised that I had to pursue it.

I started Internshala as a blog on internships in December 2010.

I had studied civil engineering, so my programming knowledge was zero. Ankur Khator, a friend from IIT-Bombay, who was working with Microsoft, agreed to work with me part time.

We became the co-founders of Internshala; he took care of the technical part and I the content part. 

I used to collect information on various internship programs, both within and outside India. Once the blog was up, I reached out to colleges all over India and they started circulating the link among their students.

Two incidents that changed the course

In 2011, March, two incidents happened.

One was The Hindu contacting me to cover Internshala. I was excited as I had improved my English by reading The Hindu when I was studying at IIT-Madras.

The next event was, when I contacted IIT-Madras. They said they would not only circulate the link among the students, but also among the alumni. They had the email ids of around 18,000 old students who were CEOs, deans, or HoDs, etc somewhere around the world.

The email about Internshala went to them one evening and the next morning I found 700 emails in my inbox. That was when I decided to plunge into entrepreneurship full time, but Ankur was not ready to take the plunge.

By October 2011, I resigned my job and became a full-time entrepreneur.

I had saved enough money for a year, and had also bought all the insurances before I took the plunge.

It's not that I woke up one day and decided to be an entrepreneur; I prepared myself fully. It was a gradual process, one that happened after I studied the field thoroughly.

As I was a one-man army -- working as a peon and the CEO -- I didn't have to invest a lot of money in the business.

In my mind, I gave myself two years to work it out.

My family was also very supportive; nobody was dependant on me and I had the freedom to do what I wanted.

During this period, I learnt a lot about content, sales, market, etc.

Initially, I hired a few interns who worked remotely to build the website. I would say Internshala was built by interns. In fact, Internshala is of the interns, by the interns and for the interns.

First break

One of the emails sent by IIT-Madras reached the career education initiative at IBM. They wanted us to run an ad on our website on a training program they were planning.

They were ready to pay us. That was the first time we got paid. Till then, I didn't have a real business model as such.

From then on, our revenue model has been charging companies who advertise their training programs, competitions in colleges, etc.

Slowly, companies started registering on our website calling for interns and interns use our platform to contact those companies.

We don't charge anything from anyone. But we make sure that interns are paid a stipend by companies. From day one, I was certain that we would not allow unpaid internships on our platform because I had seen companies use interns for free work. Internshala didn't want to encourage this.

Till December 2012, we ran Internshala only with hired interns.

Then I hired my first employee, Shadab Aalam. I moved out of my study room, took two co-working seats on rent, and we started working from there. He still works for us; 13 people work under him now.

Today, we have 50 people working for us.

It was only in October 2013 that our actual website went live. Till then, it was only a blog.

In May 2014, we got an angel investment of ₹15 lakh from some friends and relatives, and we moved to our own office.

Along with the website, we also launched our own online training programs -- which were paid courses -- for students. We designed these programs to help students prepare for internships.

Our revenue comes mainly from the training programs and advertisements.

We have been growing 300 per cent every year; from ₹15,000 a month in the beginning, our revenue this year will be ₹3 crore a year.

Bridging the gap

The industry's complaint about students being unemployable is true to a large extent. What the industry wants is not taught in the classroom, and what is taught in the classroom is not what the industry wants. Our curriculum is outdated. Academies do not move as fast as the industry.

The problem is not just at the college level; it exists at the school level too.

From the statistics we have, it has been found that only 8-10 students out of the 100 who apply for internship, get it. While 15 lakh students register for internship every year, only 80,000-1 lakh get it.

This is where Internshala plays a big role. There are 30 million college students in India and our mission is to provide at least one meaningful internship to every college student whether s/he is an engineering, arts or science student, before s/he graduates. 

Shobha Warrier / Rediff.com