Friday, July 22, 2011

Rise of the Dalit Enterprise: Harsh Bhasker

About twenty minutes into our conversation, Harsh Bhasker pauses to ask if this story will focus on his being a dalit rather than his success as an entrepreneur. "I am not very comfortable talking about that," he says. Having created one of Agra's most-recognised brands in engineering and medical entrance coaching, and a private college, Bhasker, 35, has come far enough to put caste prejudices behind him and speak about his work.



As he enters his office, parents waiting in the reception area stand up to greet him with folded hands. He is, after all, the face of Kota Tutorials, credited with shaping the careers of many youngsters in his city. He is also the rare dalit who in the knowledge business. "Harsh is among the few who have made it big in a knowledge business," says Delhi-based Dalit activist and writer Chandra Bhan Prasad. "He has done this through his own endeavour and without support from anybody else."


FINDING HIS CENTRE
But Bhasker's isn't a rag-toriches story. Hailing from the Jatav caste, he had the option to join his family's (and caste's) traditional leather shoe-making business. But a rebellious streak led him elsewhere. "I was the stubborn one in the family. I had always set my thoughts high," he says. That focus led him to gain admission at IIT Roorkee (then University of Roorkee) in 1995. "Studying at Roorkee changed my life. I discovered my talents," he says. It was a new world of activities, both on and off the campus, including Himalayan treks, rowing, rafting and parasailing. The shy, smalltown boy transformed into a confident young man.


After completing his engineering in 1999, Bhasker joined HCL in Noida as a software developer. But he found the work too routine and mind-numbing. A year later, he got together seven colleagues to start a software firm out of Katwaria Sarai near the IIT Delhi campus. The company folded up in the wake of the global technology meltdown. Bhasker returned to Agra to start a franchise of Kota-based Career Point in engineering and medical coaching. Those days tutorials were mostly oneperson shows. "I worked hard and established the concept of an organised tutorials business in Agra," he says.


Three years later, he launched his own coaching centre and christened it Kota Tutorials (KT) because "people already knew us as the Kota institute". He started out of a 3-storey building in Agra's commercial district, Sanjay Place. Soon that was falling short as the student numbers swelled. He bought an old shoe factory nearby and restored it. "We didn't have time to raze the old building and build a fresh one," he says. Subsequently, he bought another building behind it. Today, the two structures house 11 airconditioned classrooms with a capacity to teach 2,000 students. There are two hostels nearby to accommodate 250 students, most of whom come from under-privileged backgrounds in rural Uttar Pradesh.



TRACK RECORD


Build a new brand in coaching, however, wasn't easy. It took an aggressive push to uncover demand in UP's hinterland - from conducting seminars in small towns and villages in a 200-km radius to participating in live career-counselling shows on local TV channels.


"I have educated Agra on career options," he says. In a highly crowded coaching market, Bhasker attributes his success to his personalised approach, particularly in the early years. A large number of students came from underprivileged backgrounds, and were not quite focused on their careers. "Many of them don't know how to learn or study efficiently. I took personal interest in students. I often went down to the hostels in the evenings, sat with them and told them to study, helping them out with any problems they faced," he says. "That is why I have earned their respect."


Kota Tutorials is now in 12 cities - including Dehradun, Aligarh and Bhatinda - through franchisees. Bhasker declines to disclose revenues, but it is estimated at Rs 10 crore. Despite annual fees of Rs 50,000 - higher than many competitors - Kota Tutorials has 1,200 students, and growing. Demand evidently outstrips supply in Agra, which has emerged as an important coaching hub after Kota (Rajasthan) and Kanpur (UP). "When I began, the market in Agra for IIT and medical entrance test preparation was 700 students.


Now it is 8,000," says Bhasker. A former student from a nearby town drops in, touches his mentor's feet and requests to get a couple of his cousins enrolled here. Bhasker chats him up, asks him to spread the word about Kota Tutorials, and hands over two handwritten cards that entitle the candidates to a fee discount. Many of the institute's students come from other states like West Bengal, Rajasthan and Punjab after hearing of its track record on getting students into prestigious engineering institutes and its faculty. "The quality of teachers is much better here," says one student.


CASTE ASIDE


Last year, Bhasker realised another dream: he opened the Edify Institute of Management and Technology at Farah in Mathura district, using his own money and some borrowed from friends and relatives. "When I completed IIT, my father wanted people to ask what his younger son was doing so he could proudly say, 'he's an engineer'. Now I can see the same happiness on his face. I am the only one from my caste who runs his own college," beams Bhasker. Bring up 'caste' discrimination and Bhasker bristles again.


While there were no big hurdles that came in the way of his success due to this aspect, he cites several small instances where his lineage was hinted at. "When I made a mistake, people often resorted to reminding me of my caste," he says. That has changed considerably now. "My reputation in society has gone up," he says. "It has been one year (since the college opened) and I have given many interviews to newspapers, magazines and TV and radio shows." His workdays, typically, stretch from 9 in the morning to 2 in the night. "I have no timetable - I can work at a stretch for three days," says Bhasker.



"I am obsessed with work." And though he has professionals running the show, he admits to not letting go easily. "When I give work to someone, I'm not satisfied. I think I can do it better myself." This is something he needs to work on, he adds, "I have to change this habit and trust people more." Some things may not change, though. Like the large wallmounted LCD screen that streams live feeds from 16 close circuit cameras - from the reception lobby to office cabins and classrooms.


Even as he chats up visitors across his sprawling desk, he's got a sharp eye on what's going on in the building. "I see motivation and counselling as my main job," says Bhasker. "But I can teach any subject. I can walk into a class and start teaching. In business you have to be hands-on. If there's no teacher , you have to become a teacher. If there's no peon you have to become a peon." In 2007, Bhasker enrolled for IIM Calcutta's distance learning MBA programme for working executives.


More than the virtual classroom sessions, he says it was attending two weeks of classroom study at the Joka campus that helped him the most. "I was thinking I had arrived. But when I did the course, I realised I had just started." With over 250 employees across Kota Tutorials and Edify, Bhasker plans to grow the tutorials business further and promote his new college across India. His franchise manager is a former head of operations at Big Bazaar, UP, who leads 15 marketing executives in expanding the institute's footprint. Students for the college mainly come from states like Assam, Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand.




"These are key markets for college education," he says. "Instead of engineering or MBA courses, I started a polytechnic, and all seats are full." Wife Divya, an MBA, will join him next year. By then Bhasker hopes to move on to his next big idea: an agricultural university for which he's looking for Rs 35 crore funding. He's even eyeing international markets like Malaysia, Dubai and Mauritius (where he vacationed a year ago). "Mauritius has Hindispeaking Indians who want to send their children to IITs. I am thinking of opening a KT coaching centre there."


Source: Economic Times

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