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This man's mission is a university

By Anjuli Bhargava
June 14, 2019 12:24 IST

India needs a 1,000 more Ashoka universities, Naukri.com Founder Sanjeev Bikhchandani tells Anjuli Bhargava.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Observing what's unfolding around you can be rewarding.

It was while working as a young executive on the Horlicks brand in erstwhile Hindustan Milkfood Manufacturers that Sanjeev Bikhchandani, founder of job portal Naukri.com, noticed two things.

One, the office copy of Business India?, the magazine with close to 40 pages of appointment advertisements, vanished within minutes of arriving.

A journalist in that magazine would have spent hours and days producing articles she hoped readers would pore over, but readers seemed far more interested in job openings, where these were and how they could apply for them.

Second, in the open office environment at Horlicks, he couldn't help but overhear conversations between his colleagues and headhunters all the time.

For almost every job that was advertised, there were 10 that were not.

Headhunters would call his colleagues and they would have long conversations and sometimes his ears were with them instead of where it ought to be.

That's when the seed that became Naukri.com later was first sowed in his head.

At the time, it was only a notion that there was an opportunity here, one he wasn't sure how to make most of.

This was the early 1990s and there was no Internet to speak of.

 

Bikhchandani and I are meeting for lunch at the India Habitat Centre's The Deck.

He orders a couscous and lettuce salad and a grilled fish.

I order a mushroom soup and a bowl of rice with baby spinach, falafel and feta, one of the best vegetarian options at the recently revamped restaurant.

He has a fresh lime and soda while I stick to plain water.

Bikhchandani has been part of the founding team at Ashoka University and holds clear and strong views on the state of higher education in India.

I am aware that he has even stronger views on the state of his alma mater, St Columba's and St Stephen's.

He says he doesn't want to discuss these more controversial issues and I try my best to bring them up.

After trying in vain, I let him hold forth on the subject he's most comfortable with.

He begins with spending a few minutes on his background and life story.

The son of a government doctor, Bikhchandani had a regular middle-class upbringing, growing up in the government colonies of Delhi while studying at St Columba's.

Since "good boys study science" and "good boys get into IIT", he took the IIT entrance test -- oddly twice -- and cleared both the times.

But unlike the herd, he paused at some point and questioned whether he actually wanted to be an engineer.

"I realised that I wanted to be an IITian, but not an engineer," he explains.

It was a blessing in disguise because once he passed out of school, the option of studying economics at St Stephen's opened up before him.

He followed this up with an MBA from IIM-A, a decision that has stood him in good stead.

After he finished his MBA and worked with HMM for a little under two years, there was a phase -- six/seven years -- when he just "drifted".

Although married and with a small child, he struck out on his own with a partner and worked on a few small ideas, none of which succeeded.

He remembers those days of struggle, staying at his father's house without paying rent, supported partially by his wife who had a good job.

But "those days were different, needs and aspirations were much lower", he remembers.

Time passed, but the idea of Naukri stayed with him.

By 1996, technology seemed to provide an answer.

Even in those days, the Internet and e-mail were a new animal to the world (there were only around 14,000 direct e-mail connections in India); but he could see a very real possibility of bridging the gap through a Website.

Put up a listing of jobs available even if they were just aggregated from newspaper advertisements.

Hopefully, job seekers would approach the site when they are looking for jobs.

He roped in two partners on a part-time and stock option basis -- one helped with the technology and the other with operations -- and by 1997, Naukri.com had got off to a patchy sort of start.

In its early days, Naukri was more like a one-sided listing in which the team simply rewrote newspaper appointment ads and listed them.

Soon, job seekers started coming on to the site to look for opportunities.

In a while, companies started listing their offers on the site and Naukri started charging to host that information.

In the first three years, the operation was bootstrapped.

But by 2000, the site had acquired a life of its own and the team was able to raise $1.7 million from ICICI Ventures.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

In 2006, the site listed, and the share price doubled in a day.

On any given day, the market price was almost 20 times the price at which it listed.

After Naukri.com -- in which Bikhchandani holds 27% -- had reached a certain size and scale, the company launched a whole host of ventures under the Info Edge umbrella including JeevanSathi.com, Shiksha.com, Quadrangle and 99acres.

JeevanSathi and 99acres are both known brands in their industry now although 70% of the revenues of the group still come from recruitment.

I interrupt to ask if people take these Web sites seriously and actually look for jobs through them.

I don't know if anyone has landed a job through it.

If he's surprised at my ignorance or affronted by my frankness, he does a good job of hiding it.

The site carries an average of 500,000 job listings on any given day and around 12,000 new resumes are added daily.

As many as 80,000 clients hire through the site.

Naukri.com, with over 4,000 employees, has an impressive market capitalisation for a business that actually started with Rs 2,000.

A lot of the credit for this, he argues, goes to his senior team and to his partner and present CEO Hitesh Oberoi, who has been at the helm of Naukri after Bikhchandani stepped down in 2010.

We are approaching the end of the lunch -- the food is excellent, well above average.

We decide to skip dessert, but he orders a cappuccino, giving us more time to finish our conversation.

Since 2010, he has adopted a more hands-off approach and focuses on how to invest the money earned through Info Edge.

It has placed large strategic bets on Zomato, Policy Bazaar and a host of smaller start-ups.

Besides evaluating start-ups, a large chunk of his time now is spent on mentoring start-ups.

Often those who are starting out on this journey find him out, seek his advice and that is what he enjoys doing the most.

His involvement with higher education came about later in his life.

"When I finished with St Stephen's and left Delhi University, I felt the whole experience could definitely have been better," he explains.

Although Stephen's back then was a cut above the rest, he could see the benchmark for excellence at DU was rather low.

"Completing the year's syllabus was considered excellent. St Stephen's, LSR and Miranda House were considered excellent as they completed the year's coursework," he adds.

As he started travelling overseas and visiting universities around the world to give talks and take classes, he could see the yawning gap between institutions in the rest of the world and those back home.

That's why when the idea of Ashoka came up, he bought into it with Ashish Dhawan, Pramath Sinha, Vineet Gupta and others.

"I had earlier dismissed all these misgivings convincing myself that this is not my problem. At some stage, I realised it was as much my problem as it was anybody else's." Bikhchandani -- like a hundred others -- became one of the founders of the university, contributing both time and money to the effort.

He's convinced India needs a 1,000 more Ashokas, arguing that when Indian students leave India to study abroad at the undergraduate level, they lose their network.

"The friendships, the interaction with peers at college and the network it gives you through your life is lost," he explains, arguing that people often don't realise how critical this is.

I agree as my college friends remain a more integral part of my life than friendships struck in school or at any other stage.

As we reach the end of our discussion, I enquire about his other interests -- what he likes doing when he's not working.

He reads, used to write a blog and spends most of his energy mentoring entrepreneurs.

His own personal journey with Naukri may have come to an end, but the success of every youngster he mentors will, in part, be his own.

That's a full-time naukri!

Anjuli Bhargava
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