Ashish Munjal is the co-founder & CEO of Sunstone, a higher education startup working towards making employability based education interesting and accessible to all.
An MBA from IMT Ghaziabad and a CFA from the USA, Ashish has diverse experience in various roles. A seasoned and certified financial analyst at his core, he has worked as an investment banker with Bank of America and handled Sales and Operations at Knowlarity. Ashish has a passion for building startups. A small-town resident, Ashish has big dreams. He co-founded Crownit - an online research platform providing consumer insights into brands and enterprises across the Indian market.
In conversation with Pavin Elsa Nelson of the Free Press Journal, he talks about the journey of Sunstone, and how it is helping students with courses that makes them ready to enter the job market with talent that addresses the needs of the industry.
Can you tell us about your journey? How was this initiative started?
So we started in late 2018, and both Piyush Nangru and I have been serial entrepreneurs. Sunstone is my second startup and his third startup. And we were moving out of our last startup in 2018. After having done some bit of work in the consumer internet space, we wanted to make an impact on the education side of things primarily because I come from a very small town near a city named Meerut. I've seen the education system up close. I've been born and raised with a peer group out of that, let's say only 5% of them did engineering. Now we see that a lot of people are doing engineering. I feel that I've been very lucky to get into a good college and suddenly the whole paradigm shifted for me. I went to IMT Ghaziabad and then did my CFA from the U.S. The idea was to give back to society and bridge the gap between students and industry.
In India, around 30-40% of the students graduating don't have the right skill set to work in a corporate. With this process, which we started, we become a bridge between the Academy and the industry, We don't want to become another finishing school. Typically a finishing school, once you have completed your college, take some kind of certification course for six or seven months, and then you apply for jobs. But students have already paid what their parents have accounted for their higher education. Now, if you ask them to pay again, like 1-2 lakh rupees for those careers or certification courses, India not being a very high-income country, and problems could be solved during the formal education years, is the best thing both from a corporate perspective and the student perspective as well. That's when we decided to partner with colleges and start providing our courses. We started during the pre-Covid time, we were always hybrid. Our training is delivered in the classroom where we have our own trainers taking live classes. We don't do multiplexing as well. It exactly replicates a physical classroom, just that the person will be physically not standing in the classroom. Apart from throwing chalk, he can do everything else. In 2019 we started with three colleges. Now we partner with 50+ colleges. And the first year we had 90 students but this year we have 5000+ students.
How is Sunstone different from the other Edtech companies even when some of them are not doing well now?
This basically has two dimensions. One, when we started we were very clear not to focus on the top 10% of students like those who can go into IITs, and IIMs. The segment we target is the rest 90% because that's where the real skill gap lies. Secondly, the big factor which we believe and we have a belief that offline colleges are not going to go away. Offline colleges are something that serves a need that is much beyond education. They serve the need of like a networking human making connections. Whereas any online certification that I made is just another certification on my CV, I can do 10 certifications but I can't do 10 degrees. So we always have this belief that a physical college education is here to stay. Now the big problem is how can we fix the education industry again, within the college years itself. So that's the reason we decided to go ahead with a hybrid model but within the campus.
'Sunstone' is a different name. Any interesting story on that?
Sunstone is actually a stone. It's a type in which every stone is unique so it comes with a philosophy that every student is unique and that's how the name sandstone.
Other EdTech companies are not doing well. They all have a niche audience. So how do you plan to expand or grow?
For us, there are a lot of reasons for what is happening in the tech industry, We know that in the post-Covid world, other tech companies are not able to grow as aggressively as they were growing in the pre-Covid or during the Covid time. For us, that has never been the case because we are looking at an online play. We were always offline in a hybrid play. One other thing we realized after Covid hit is that the demand for formal or offline programs will never fade away. In fact, in the Covid time, we saw good growth.
Which geographical area are you currently located in?
We started first in Delhi, Bangalore, and Indore. That was in 2019, right now we are presenting 35+ cities across the country. Apart from two or three states, we are present in every state. In Maharashtra, we have three campuses. We have institutes in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, etc. We are yet to partner with campuses in Gujarat and a few of the states in the Northeast.
So can you tell us about your business model view and the colleges you have partnered with?
We approach the colleges and tell them about the offer we have and then we start enrolling students for the respective courses. As I said, the MBA and other undergraduate degrees and we have a revenue share arrangement with the colleges.
Is there any placement assistance Sunstone provides with its programs?
Yes, definitely there is placement support. We work very closely with students on the placement side as well. We charge a separate fee for these topper courses. Apart from the college fee, we give different options to the students. We guarantee that if you are not placed through Sunstone then you don't need to pay this fee.
How big is this market size and at what rate is it growing?
Taking the case of overall formal education, every year there are around 90 lakhs to 1 crore students who take higher education, both undergraduate (65 lakhs) and postgraduate (25 lakhs) courses. And this is when we are sitting at a gross enrolment ratio of only 27%. So as a country, we will have around 4 crore students who are eligible or who are in that age bracket and who should be pursuing higher education. But out of that only 27% which is close to 1 crore students pursue any kind of higher education program. This is one of the targets for the government as well to increase their gross enrolment ratio. And that is the reason why we see lots of new initiatives in any case regarding online degrees. Even if you look at the current number of 1 crore, the market is beyond anybody's imagination. So we are sitting at 5000+ students right now which is just 0.5% of the market right now.
What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself five years down the line?
We primarily started with one program MBA, so we were only partnering with colleges that were providing MBA courses. The reason we started small is that we wanted to prove to ourselves that we are building something relevant for the students. The MBA program is of shorter duration in the formal education arena which is a two-year program. So within 18 months, we could see the result of our effort. During the first three years, we were only offering MBA. Now from this year onwards, we are offering a lot of courses as well. We have partnered with different institutes to offer BBA, PGDM, BCA, and ONMBA. For us now the focus primarily goes to more UG Tech courses like BTech. BTech is the largest and most popular professional degree course in our country. That will be the focus area for us for the next three to four years. We, being a market leader in all of these programs ensure that all the graduating students are able to achieve a career outcome for themselves. We focus on building a module specifically that helps students to pursue higher education elsewhere.
What is the USP( Unique Sellin Point) of Sunstone?
With the segment that we have chosen and the fact that we are working in formal education, right now there is no one else in the country offering similar services. A lot of players are doing completely online programs. Our market is very different from all other possible competitors we might have. We are targeting students who want to go to college full-time or offline. Other players in the market are targetting students who want to learn online. From our perspective, we feel that the segment that we have chosen, and our foray into helping students in formal education itself is our unique selling point.
How is Sunstone performing in terms of net revenue?
We are very new in the market, we haven't disclosed it till now, but what I can tell you is that broadly the courses that we have the overall fee is in the range of two to five lakh rupees, which includes both our children college issue and we have around 5000 on student and charge on the basis of like on a percentage of So, we have a separate arrangement which movement also and then so there are two services one services we are providing to college there we are helping them in the technology tool admissions, and the secondary is you're providing training and placement sites. We have some revenue share with the college and there is a separate charge that we do to the students. We do not associate ourselves with a typical EdTech company because we are not completely online. We see ourselves as a startup in higher education still but we are less of an EdTech company. Just extending from there, we are actually a company that is generating loads of cash flows. It's not that we are not generating cash flow we're generating cash flow. Eventually, we see ourselves doing an IPO if everything is going well and the company gets listed on the stock exchanges.