BUSINESS

The only real rainbow is digital media today

He started his career at all of nineteen and progressed from selling toothbrushes to a leader straddling different verticals of India’s media and entertainment (M&E) industry. Rohinton (Ronnie) Screwvala , founder, UTV Group, made his name as a first mover in India’s cable TV business and as a producer of TV serials and several Bollywood films. He exited the M&E space by selling to Walt Disney in 2013. He is today the managing trustee of the Swades Foundation, which is into philanthropy, and Founder & Advisor at Unilazer Ventures, a privately-held private equity/ venture capital company. Mr. Screwvala is into promotion of sports such as football and kabaddi, and co-owns a team in India’s Pro Kabaddi League. Besides, he will soon launch a digital platform, ‘UpGrad’, for online post-graduate studies. He spoke to The Hindu on a range of subjects and plans. Edited excerpts:

There was lot of optimism when Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister. Today, 15 months on, what is your assessment of the Indian economy?

I am an India bull. We (India) went through a difficult period for a fair bit of time. But today optimism is high. The review process and the rigor with which it is happening, at the centre and state level, is incredible. There is a Prime Minister, who is working like a CEO — leading from the front, building a lot of impressions by travelling, and the review mechanism is making all the difference.

The youth is optimistic today believing that tomorrow will be better than today.

In an organisation, if you are working on a turnaround, you do not always ask when it will happen. On a macro basis, there will be challenges but we have some good tailwinds going, regulations are in place, and oil prices are down, which is a huge thing for India.

What do you think of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in India? Is it changing for the better?

The ecosystem is certainly changing. Media is playing its part and evangelising it and bringing it to the forefront. Most people feel being an entrepreneur is aspirational. Role models are being created and people are much more excited and families are a lot more supportive.

India has a legacy of family-run businesses, and, for the first time, we are seeing first generation entrepreneurs who are looking at completely different aspects of their businesses or doing something else.

People are excited as we moved from hundreds to thousands of entrepreneurs. But the big challenge is that we need millions and like telecom and 4G, we need to take a kangaroo leap but that is some time away.

It also needs a mindset change. The psychometrics of people is that some still feel getting a degree is the most important aspect. And when you have that as your basic coefficient, you are still thinking of security and fear of failure. That will change in 5-10 years.

There is an absurd expectation that the government should step in and create entrepreneurship. How can they? They can only make it easier to do business and they have said they are going to do that.

We feel it is easier to do business in an outside country but it is an extremely competitive environment there. You go to a country where it is easy to do business and 90 per cent of our entrepreneurs will not survive as competition is so heavy they would not know how to respond.

There has been a mushrooming of start-ups and e-commerce platforms in India. Can we see the emergence of mega brands from here like Facebook or Twitter?

Twitter, Facebook and Google are intellectual properties (IPs) and something where they are creating a different brand. The Indian psyche is not that prone to respect copyright and IP. Therefore, we do not think patents will affect us and we do not think there is value in creating brands. Mega brands will emerge when you value copyright and IP.

If you look at the whole IT industry, which started in the late 1990s, there was incredible scope to create a Microsoft equivalent in India but we did not and went through a phenomenal process system for IT. So, I do not think we should expect that in a hurry here.

You have been a pioneer in the M&E sector with a presence across multiple verticals. What prompted you to exit the industry altogether?

You have to understand that it was a 20-year journey in media. Most people either stepped away, a lot of them folded up, some sold but not many have done the 20-year journey. So, many entered the ecosystem and moved out but you would not call them ‘exits’.

The cross-road was 3-4 things. The reality was we already had a phenomenal partner in Walt Disney Company for five to six years and were having incredible value add from them. There was no point building parallel situations when there was a commonality of vision. From my perspective, it was more about how we go to the next level. The cross-road was that media needs investment as a business. If I continued and scaled up, I would be diluted. MNCs were coming in.

It was quite a logical conclusion, and I have been quite clear that you cannot get emotional about it. I was passionate but not emotional.

As a pioneer in different segments of the M&E Industry, where do you see India’s M&E industry going from here?

It has always been a tough terrain from many points because firstly it is too advertising-dependent. India could have been 10 times what we are today if we were less advertising-dependent. The print medium always was, Radio is all advertising and TV, which could have been a lot more ‘pay’ (TV), is also all ad-dependent. That is the big challenge. Cable structure has not grown in India and the only real rainbow is digital media today.

Sports and broadcasting is coming together and will grow but till the consumer starts paying, M&E will never be a phenomenal industry.

What made you to make a foray into and invest in your new digital education platform ‘UpGrad’?

If one looks at the sectors where the high growth is, clearly education stands out. There is a need at a tertiary level, at the school level in terms of teaching faculty and in the real world in under-graduate and post-graduate levels.

The reason why everyone talks of skilling is that we have to question whether our education prepares us for the competitive world outside. The answer is no. We thought that was an interesting business opportunity. It had to be something disruptive in the education space and we have a clearly defined structure of the space we want to be in.

There is no credible option available for working people as the university system has not kept pace with changing industry needs.

Online education will play a very crucial role, and we are in talks with leading educational institutions such as IIM, IITs and even globally and are also collaborating with industry. The focus first is on post-graduation and only later will it be on under graduate programmes.

Having been at it for 6-7 months, we will launch in November. In the first two years, we are looking at a minimum Rs.100 crore of investment and are not looking for any funding.

Other than this, you have been involved in philanthropy through Swades Foundation and also in sport. What is your involvement and vision for this?

Commitment-wise what one did in media 20 years ago is what one wants to do in education, to a lesser extent in sport and to a larger extent in the Swades Foundation.

In the Swades Foundation, we are involved in providing water, health, education, sanitation and livelihood.

We have 1,200 people on the ground and our one liner is ‘to move a million people out of poverty every 5-6 years’. In the last 30 months, it was fully family-supported and going forward, we will look to raise half our corpus from outside. Tata Trusts were among the first to give strong support.

The family foundation is committed to put in half of the total outlay of Rs.700 crore over six years. As far as kabaddi and football are concerned, we cannot be a country with a single sport.Kabbadi was very interesting because it does something so different and against the grain.In football, we have taken a long-term bet for training talent. We are taking 90 kids to Germany for six years of training. If you look at the DNA of what we are creating in online education or sport, it is basically creating a competitive environment.

lalatendu.mishra@ thehindu.co.in

ramnathsubbu.r@

thehindu.co.in



There is an absurd expectation that the government should step in and create entrepreneurship.





You go to a country where it is easy to do business and 90 per cent of our entrepreneurs will not survive as competition is so heavy they would not know how to respond





If one looks at the sectors where the high growth is, clearly education stands out. There is a need at a tertiary level, at the school level in terms of teaching faculty

and in the real world in

under-graduate and

post-graduate levels.



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