An edtech entrepreneur’s learning journey

Parul Gupta, co-founder and president of Springboard, talks about how to build a trusted education brand, cultivate a growth mindset and unlock the big opportunities that lie ahead in edtech

Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya

Parul Gupta is co-founder and president of Springboard, a Bay Area-based online learning platform that prepares students for “new economy” skills such as data analytics and AI/machine learning with its comprehensive, mentor-led online programmes. 

Parul has worked to build the company from the ground up while leading Springboard’s product, project management, programme operations, and course-development teams out of San Francisco. Most recently, Parul has been leading Springboard’s growth through new products, verticals and markets like international markets and university partnerships—and, by her own admission, always learning in the process herself! 

It was exciting for me and a live audience of students from IIT-Bombay to engage with Parul, especially since she is a proud alumna of IIT-B as well. We had a free-wheeling conversation about everything from:

  • How to build a trusted education brand

  • What it takes to cultivate a growth mindset as an entrepreneur 

  • What she thinks the biggest opportunities are in the edtech sector

What gives Parul Gupta her “hustle fuel”?

Highlights from the conversation

Start with the end-user to improve outcomes and build a trusted education brand 

“The key is to focus on the outcomes. In the world of workforce development, you have to work backwards from what the employers hire for. When we develop new programmes, we start from employer research and labour statistics research.”

When customers pick an education brand, a key decision metric is credibility, or how much they trust the brand. Parul said that understanding the key personas, motivations and pain-points of learners has been key to building this trust and driving improved student outcomes in the long run. 

Being an end user herself opened Parul’s eyes to the opportunity ahead of Springboard and helped her co-found the company though she had a non-education background herself. Back in 2012, Parul was working at IBM research and needed to learn machine learning for one of the projects she was working on. With a full-time job and a toddler in tow, it was difficult for her to step out and learn the new course. She took a few MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on learning platforms like Coursera and Udacity, which got her thinking about how powerful the e-learning space was.  

For a professional learning platform such as Springboard, being user-centric translates into building products for improved employment outcomes. Parul highlighted two key differentiators—one-on-one mentoring and virtual internships—that enable Springboard to deliver better student experience and outcomes. For example, every single learner is matched with an expert mentor who’s a practitioner in their target industry. The mentor provides one-on-one tailored support every week including goal-setting, progress tracking and technical feedback. The virtual internships/capstone projects almost represent a real-world culmination of all their courses offer and truly allow their students to “learn by doing”. These projects then become meaningful portfolio pieces that can help land full-time jobs, where employers want evidence of mastery, not just credentials. 

To develop a growth mindset and adapt to new challenges, push yourself out of your comfort zone 

“I stumbled upon the concept of “growth mindset” late in my life. In India, how we grow up, an almost “fixed mindset” is beaten down in our heads. It was only when I started my entrepreneurial journey that I really pushed my boundaries…. It was unlearning of everything I had lived my life by.” 

Parul said reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, a Stanford researcher, was life changing for her. Dweck coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” decades ago, based on her research into how kids and adults respond to challenges. Dweck describes a fixed mindset as the belief that your basic intelligence and abilities are unchangeable—you’ve got what you’ve got, and have to utilize them the best you can. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is a belief that your abilities can be developed and improved over time. Parul reflected on how her early years and education in India had ingrained a fixed mindset in her, which she had to unlearn to cultivate a growth mindset—that thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.

Parul emphasized how the zone that you choose to operate in has a lot to do with your mindset.  In her journey as an entrepreneur, operating outside her comfort zone has helped Parul to constantly learn and grow from her experiences. Whether it was pivoting from a long career in technical research at IBM to being an “accidental entrepreneur”, or recently taking an online finance course to broaden her skillset, or encouraging employees at Springboard to regularly take courses in domains that might be completely unrelated to their career, Parul’s choices and the Springboard culture embody the growth mindset ethos. By pushing beyond her comfort zone, Parul hasn’t always had all the answers but exploring new information and ways to perform has meant unparalleled growth.

The pandemic has been a catalyst for innovation in both higher education and the workplace—in the new paradigm, learning will be lifelong

“The shelf life of skills is decreasing, and the reality that working professionals need to continuously invest in their development is very much the truth of today.”

Parul emphasized how the next generation of the workforce will need to embrace lifelong learning, as the skills they’ve acquired will get them only so far in their careers. She cited how the average millennial is expected to have 15 jobs in the course of their career to illustrate that the shelf life of skills is decreasing as the pace of tech evolution is increasing. Parul underscored how the workplace of the future will require innovative education programmes that offer shorter and more flexible timeframes, one-on-one human-support, and high-ROI to enable multiple career shifts. 

Much like other domains affected by the pandemic, an agile, hybrid approach to education will likely best accommodate the new realities of how we live and work. Parul’s belief is that this will likely be achieved through a synthesis of the old (traditional universities) with the new (online learning platforms)—so that “learning can fit the learner’s life”. As much as this suggests that the higher education sector is ripe with opportunity for future entrepreneurs, Parul’s views also resonated with me as a tech professional—each of us should focus on continuous upskilling and reskilling to stay relevant in the new world. 

(Hustle Fuel represents my own personal views. I am speaking for myself and not on behalf of my employer, Microsoft Corporation.)

About the Hustle Fuel series: Hustle Fuel, a Founding Fuel series, looks at the world of work and entrepreneurship from a woman’s lens. Building a company or a meaningful career is brutal, and role models for a path less trodden are always invaluable. The Hustle Fuel series is relevant especially for women—but not just for women. 

Thriving in the evolving workforce demands ‘hustle fuel’. It demands having to punch above one’s weight to earn a seat at the table—not because you are a woman but because you are the right person for the job. Interestingly, it just so happens that this hustle fuel is precisely the attitude any entrepreneur needs to survive. Whether a man, woman, or from an ethnic minority community.

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About the author

Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya
Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya

Product Strategy & Monetization

Microsoft Azure, Seattle

Aparajita Bhattacharyya (Opu to friends) is currently based in cloudy Seattle, advancing the goal of bringing Windows to the Cloud. She leads product strategy and monetization and brings together multi-disciplinary teams at Microsoft to scale the virtualization business in Azure. 

Prior to Microsoft, Opu’s work experience as a strategist and investor spanned the US and India and across multiple sectors, including technology, healthcare, consumer and education.

In her previous role, she was a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in the US. During her time there, she advised numerous healthcare and consumer clients (ranging from F-500 companies to pre-IPO firms) on how to build and drive large-scale digital transformations and on their corporate development strategy. 

Deeply passionate about the growing market opportunity in emerging markets, Opu spent the early years of her career working across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors in India. She connected the dots across the investing, marketing and operations functions of HDFC Asset Management Company, as part of a three-year rotational leadership development programme. As a legislative aide to Dr. Ashok S. Ganguly (former chairman and CEO of Hindustan Unilever), Opu led his venture philanthropic investments (as a Member of Parliament) in quality education and healthcare for the bottom-of-the-pyramid. 

Opu holds an MBA (with Honors) from The Wharton School, and bachelor’s degrees magna cum laude in Mathematics with a focus on Statistics (from Bryn Mawr College and Harvard College) and Linguistics (from Swarthmore College). She serves as one of the youngest board members of her alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, where she is an evangelist for the power of technology to transform society and for increasing the representation of STEM-trained women in technology. 

Outside of work, Opu is a dim sum devotee, a novice glamper (exploring the beauty of the Pacific Northwest) and constantly curious about what makes people tick.

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