Administrator | April 14, 2016

Menterra invests in skill development startup Leap Skills

Menterra makes  its first investment in the education and skills sector – Leap Skills Academy, a skill development organisation headquartered in Delhi. Launched in January 2016, Menterra Social Impact Fund I is an impact investment fund that invests in early-stage social enterprises working in the sectors of education, health, and agriculture. Menterra collaborates closely with social enterprise incubator Villgro to support and fund for-profit social enterprises operating in India.

Co-founders of Leap Skills, Megha Aggarwal and Ankit Durga, talk about the company, its impact and their plans.

What does your company do?
LEAP Skills Academy is a skill development organization headquartered in New Delhi.

Problem:
* There is a mismatch between student aspirations and employment opportunities
* Industry-skill development linkages are tenuous at best
* It is critical to build an employer-led, demand-driven system for skill development using a ground-up approach

Solution:
* To work with motivated students in non-Tier 1 cities and help them achieve their career aspirations by creating a high-quality large-scale solution with a sustainable cost structure
* Focus on students enrolled in post secondary formal education

LEAP, which stands for Learning, Employability and Progress, aims to bridge the gap between the skills that students have and those that employers require in the hiring process by carefully researching the needs of a region, and providing both life-long skills as well as sector specific skills, to allow students to create careers of their own choice.

We believe that motivated students should work in jobs that are deeply connected with their dreams and aspirations. Given the paucity of awareness around potential career pathways in India, LEAP works closely with industry and employers to give industry relevant skills to students and also fulfill the needs of industry by connecting these skilled workers to employers.

With a young and dynamic team, we are focused on creating an organization of the highest quality. We use innovative and interactive learning methods to deliver high quality course content and have a strong commitment to excellence, inclusivity and uncompromising integrity.  LEAP is trying to create a young workforce that is highly motivated with a strong work ethic by understanding student aspirations, informing them about potential opportunities and matching them with employment opportunities and the needs of industry/employers. Every one of our students is important to us and we work hand-in-hand with them to get them one step closer to their aspirations – but more importantly we aim that each LEAP student starts to believe that nothing is out of reach!

How did it come about?
We were fortunate to get the opportunities to be a part of some of the best institutions and live and work in different countries. It made us think that in any country, where one is born seems to determine the opportunities one gets. This is starkly visible in a country such as ours. We believe that in India, the real challenge facing us is our failure to provide highly motivated youth with the appropriate skill sets that enable them to participate in the Indian growth story.

Why are you excited about this space?
The Indian growth story is an exciting one and we believe that every young person who is motivated and willing to work hard should have an opportunity to be a part of it.

This is not a new issue, and policy in India has shifted to strongly promote the formation of a skilled population. However, despite the influx of participants in the market, there seem to be few models that can break the trilemma between high quality, low costs and a large scale, with most participants so far being able to create models that fit one or two of these criteria, but not all.  Additionally, this is currently a noisy space. With government subsidies, there are a large number of ‘skill development’ initiatives coming up.

At Leap, we believe in putting our heads down and working hard, constantly innovating and developing a deep understanding of the communities we are working in – we are in this for the long run. Every decision we take, every process we are putting in place is with an aim to create a high quality, sustainable organization that can scale to its full potential.

What is innovative about your service?
* We are building Leap ground-up. It is critical for LEAP to innovate – If we are not innovating, we are not going to be able to meet our vision
* For us, innovation lies in our ability to fail cheap, fail fast and fail often

Private and public sector skill providers have focused on creating courses without understanding student demand, and in doing so, faced the failure of actually getting students into the workforce. Unutilised capacity is a huge challenge for skill providers, placement rates are low in leading colleges, and once placed, workforce attrition in India is as high as 25%.

Unlike conventional providers who accept students based on ability to pay, we screen students through their motivation levels, and can accommodate diverse educational and economic backgrounds. In our programs, we actively match student aspirations to employers, through training and counseling. By providing a motivated and highly focused work force, we expect to reduce work force attrition

What is the impact you want to have?
LEAP’s intended impact is summarized in our vision – To help motivated students in non-tier 1 cities achieve their career aspirations”. We believe that each and every student deserves the opportunity to work towards the careers he or she dreams of. Hurdles such as lack of exposure to industry, limited awareness of opportunities available or access to high quality training or funds cannot come in the way of aspiration. We want to ensure that LEAP can provide this opportunity to as many students as possible across the country.

What successes and challenges have you seen till now and what is next?
Since starting out in 2013, with a pilot batch of just 60 students, we’re now operating in over 10 institutes across 2 districts in Haryana, and expanding to 4 more this year.  We believe our students are the only reflection of our success.

The challenges faced are plenty. We work with multiple stakeholders and face unique challenges with each of them. Some of these are:
* Students often have limited awareness about opportunities available to them
* Aspirations are deeply influenced by societal trends and there is often a mismatch between these aspirations and opportunities available.
* A deep-rooted cynicism in students and their parents often leading to an unwillingness to invest in ‘skill development’
* Employers are often unwilling to pay a premium for skilled workers
* Finding high quality trainers is a challenge

In the short time we’ve been around, we have focused on developing local credibility by focusing on providing the highest quality to all our stakeholders – students, institutions and employers. This has resulted in a range of high quality partnerships at an early stage in LEAP’s journey.  We are working with a range of employers – high quality local industry as well as industry leaders like the Aditya Birla Group.

What keeps you motivated?
The success of our students defines the success of our efforts. For every offer letter that that a student receives, that student is more independent, and in some cases is uplifting his/her family’s economic status (sometimes by almost four-fold!). These are our moments of celebration. This year, 70% of our students are young women – this is very exciting for us.

The fact that LEAP may have played just the smallest part in the story of a motivated student and, if lucky, got them a few steps closer to their dreams, is the single most motivating factor for us, and it drives us to do even better and work even harder. Our classes are full of incredible students! They inspire us every day.

We are lucky to have an amazing and passionate team of trainers. Their jobs are so difficult – but they are relentless!

How do you think Menterra and co-investor Artha Initiative will help?
It is exciting to find investors like Menterra and Artha who are aligned with our vision, understand the impact and recognize that returns exist but are slow to come. It is almost like having new additions to the team, as they are able to see our organisation from the outside in and work with us.

Read about the announcement in Economic Times
Also read about Villgro's newest incubatee Vahan