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Autobiographies are the best source of inspiration: upGrad's Mayank Kumar

Mayank Kumar talks about why he didn't want to be an armchair critic and the importance of consistency for success

Mayank Kumar loves long distance running and has completed three half marathons in under two hours.  (Courtesy: Mayank Kumar)
Mayank Kumar loves long distance running and has completed three half marathons in under two hours. (Courtesy: Mayank Kumar)

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Mayank Kumar knows well the shortcomings of the Indian education system beyond the metros. After all, he grew up in a remote oil refinery town in Assam and studied in a government school. And it was this education that forced him to co-found upGrad, an ed tech start-up, with Ronnie Screwvala. “My subsidised education while I was in school and the privileged higher education (mechanical engineering from IIT Delhi and MBA from ISB) made me furious about the unwelcoming reality of education in our country,” says Kumar, the 39-year-old co-founder and Managing Director of upGrad.

Kumar, who lives in Mumbai now, started out as a consultant with Tata Strategic Management straight out of IIT Delhi, from where he moved to ISB to get himself a management degree in 2009 before entering the world of education as a consultant, which is when he fell in love with it. Even when he joined a VC after his consulting stint, he was involved in setting up their education investment arm. 

However, investment in education alone wasn’t enough skin in the game for Kumar and since he “didn’t know anything other than education” decided to start something in the education space, which is how upGrad came about in 2015. Kumar believes it’s important to always try and improve rather than giving up without making any effort and that’s how he has approached his life as an entrepreneur. “There are no shortcuts to hard work and consistency, therefore, show up every day and you will succeed,” he says.

Kumar, who loves long distance running, speaks to Lounge about why he didn’t want to be an armchair critic, the importance of autobiographies, how uncomfortable situations impact him and whether experience beats an MBA degree.

Who do you consider your mentor?

I do not have an individual role model as such but I do try to read autobiographies and learn from those who have built scalable businesses or excelled in sports.

What does being a mentor mean to you?

I’m not sure if I am good enough at mentoring yet but I always push my team and colleagues to take up challenges.

Describe your morning schedule?

I start my day at about 6am and try to spend some time with my 8-year-old son, who I drop to the schoolbus around 7am and then either hit the gym or go for a run. It’s a great adrenalin boost to start the day with. Running, specifically, helps me to organise my thoughts and keeps me away from other distractions.

What’s the one positive work routine you have developed during the pandemic?

During the pandemic I started strength training and became more frequent with gym sessions and workouts. All of it started with a clear agenda of physical and mental wellbeing because we were completely home-bound back then and as the day stretched, there was a sense of lethargy. Exercise helped me overcome it.

Any book or podcast recommendations about mentorship and workplace growth?

Autobiographies are the best source of inspiration. They are non-dramatic, to-the-point and tangible proof of someone’s success… that will give you enough inspiration to perform.

Any serious hobbies?

Running is my top hobby. It is the easiest one to pursue, especially when you have a busy schedule with lots of travel. I try and split my weekly runs into at least 6-10 km of running every time. Preparing for a marathon has never been a single-day event for me, but an ongoing process and I never usually mind going that extra mile. I managed to do my last three half marathons under 2 hours, completing the most recent one in 1 hour 49 minutes.

What are some of the productivity principles you follow that have improved your professional and personal life?

Consistency beats short-lived hard work or talent or intelligence.

Stop making excuses. You are the only one accountable.

If you are pushed into uncomfortable situations, you’ll come out stronger.

Things don’t get easier, you have to grow stronger.

What is more important: hands-on experience or an MBA?

In today’s context it's important to have an experiential knowledge and hands-on experience that will actually push you to drive business results. At the same time, structured learning like an MBA is hugely valuable for those who are picking up management concepts and skills in a shorter time frame.

Does your own education have anything to do with your current career?

I have had a very privileged higher education, which was an eye-opener in many ways. I could have pursued a traditional career but the unwelcoming reality behind our country’s education system, especially across non-metros, made me furious and I knew I could not be an armchair critic if I wanted to drive change. Therefore, I used my acquired knowledge and skills to build something, which today has the power to positively influence the lives of millions.


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