Thousands of young people in Bangladesh enroll into universities every year. While a new cohort of students make their way into different departments, another batch of graduates leave their campuses- in hopes to pursue a job.
But the "Holy Grail" known as an appointment letter, is only attained by a fraction of the job seekers. The others belong among the one-third proportion of educated unemployed graduates. In most cases, a mere degree does not quite align with the skills required at the workplace.
If an orthodox curriculum cannot teach the culture and skills demanded by employers, a close alternative is a crying need. Because traditional degrees are losing their shelf life. Employers look for candidates who can put value on the table, not the courses they scored straight As in.
Upskill, an edtech startup founded in 2018, is among the 50 plus education startups in Bangladesh. As we are moving to a new era where skills matter more than a certificate, Upskill seized the opportunity and scaled an online learning platform.
Founded by Mustafizur R Rahman, Fayaz Taher, and Samad Miraly, Upskill has a similar business model like Coursera. Experts in different fields teach serialised classes. The paid courses can be availed by enrollees, both online and offline, depending on the nature of the course.
Samad Miraly, the co-founder of Upskill, talked to The Business Standard about the finer points of Upskill, and what the platform really sells.
"Education is entering a modern era, Upskill aims to act as a catalyst at the tipping point of learning and applying skills," said Samad. He compared the traditional education mechanism to the assembly line invented by Henry Ford. "What Henry Ford did with the T-model is almost exactly like what education is doing with the students," he added.
But people are not cars. "We are living in the age of information. There is an option to move away from regular education and pursue skills that make you a better candidate in the job sector," Samad said.
So, what are the key lessons Upskill is teaching?
Samad named a few courses including coding, graphic designing, data analytics, and digital marketing among others. "These are the key skills taught at Upskill at this moment, because these courses are easy to learn, irrespective of backgrounds," he said.
Initially, Upskill was offering video lessons of different courses. However, the Upskill founders soon realised that their target demographic values face-to-face learning, even willing to pay a premium price for the classes.
Initially, Upskill was offering video lessons of different courses. However, the Upskill founders soon realised that their target demographic values face-to-face learning, even willing to pay a premium price for the classes. "In addition to our online video lessons, we have our own training space in Banani. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, we used to conduct offline classes," Samad said.
But the pandemic must have prompted people to get used to online lessons? We asked.
"We have seen a sizable increase in user base and revenue after moving to 100 percent online classes during the pandemic," said Samad while talking about how this pandemic has disrupted the behaviour of e-learning user base. "Post-covid, people will be willing to pay for online classes more than ever," he believes.
Upskill has a host of expert teachers in different fields. From "Introduction to Machine Learning" to "UI/UX designing," a large chunk of Upskill courses lean on the IT side of expertise.
If somebody wants to build a tech business in Bangladesh, the institutionalised education can barely equip them with the fundamental knowledge required.
If somebody wants to build a tech business in Bangladesh, the institutionalised education can barely equip them with the fundamental knowledge required. In this case, edtech platforms like Upskill can be a starting point for those who do not want to solely rely on university courses.
What does Upskill aspire to be? We asked Samad about how the platform wants to integrate market based knowledge for the professionals.
"There is a lot of poor information on the internet," Samad warns about the plethora of sub par learning contents that do not really add value to the learners. The platform aims to reach a very underrepresented demographic. "Access to practical knowledge should be easier. Upskill will play a role to provide relevant skill enhancing contents."
From the very beginning, Upskill founders believed in monetisation at the cost of growth. In its formative years, the platform has on-boarded more than 45 trainers. From the trainer's end, the platform is an effective way to earn money by teaching.
Upskill has an initiative called "NRB Connect" which enables non-resident Bangladeshis who are domain experts in particular fields to share their knowledge with the local talents. "It is simple. When an expat Bangladeshi of our acquaintance plans to visit Bangladesh, we try to set them up as an instructor. The local professionals can thus learn cutting edge skills these expats have been trained in internationally," Samad explains how NRB Connect works.
"There are a lot of Bangladeshis living abroad. They are doing exceptional work in the field of business and technology. They get to share their knowledge with the natives and earn extra money while vacationing in Bangladesh," Samad added.
Upskill has recently raised an undisclosed amount in pre-seed funding. The team behind Upskill is modest, but has always believed in diversity. Female employees amount to 50 percent of total workforce in sales, marketing, and tech at Upskill.
The pre-seed funding of Upskill was invested by three female entrepreneurs - an unprecedented move in a male-driven tech business ecosystem. Sonia Bashir Kabir (CEO and founder, SBK Tech Ventures), Anita Gazi (co-founder, Legal Circle), and Zinia Chowdhury (CEO, English Essence) are the participating investors of the pre-seed round.
When asked about the investors, Samad said, "We are very excited to welcome our investors. They are very supportive of the vision we have conceived about Upskill."
Samad also stressed on the importance of diversity in the start-up ecosystem. In fact, an all-female funding round is something Upskill intentionally looked for.
As students are slowly adapting to "online classes" arranged by their respective institutions, start-ups like Upskill can leverage the peak of e-learning to support the growth of edtech businesses in Bangladesh.