Disrupting the traditional MBA may be the most tried, tested and tweaked edtech startup pitch out there. And rightfully so: Business school is damn expensive and largely reserved for a select group of people who have the time and money to invest in elite education.
While no single company has perfectly cracked the code yet, Stoa School isn’t phased. The Goa-based startup has raised millions to bring an unaccredited, high-quality alternative to higher business education in India amid a broader awakening of the country’s growing startup scene. The startup’s initial raise, a $1.5 million pre-seed party round, includes Udemy and Maven co-founder Gagan Biyani, Better Capital founder Vaibhav Domkundwar, Teachable co-founder Ankur Nagpal, NotBoring Media founder Packy McCormick, Dunce Capital investor John Danner and Zivame co-founder Richa Kar.
“People want to know more about startups and perhaps transition from working at a corporate job,” said co-founder Raj Kunkolienkar, who estimates that headcount demands for Indian startups have gone up by 40% over the past year. His co-founder, Aditya Kulkarni, added that the startup is positioning itself “as a way to [fill] startup jobs, because not everyone is accustomed to ‘what is CAC, what is GTM and what is LTV.’
The initial insight that eventually led to Stoa's formation, per Kulkarni, was the fact that students in India don't have many options to pursue a business education — unless they're able to get into the Indian School of Business (ISB) or move to the United States. At the same time, Kunkolienkar was running a Lambda School for India, but realizing that "the financing and collections infrastructure in India isn't evolved enough to run ISAs at scale."
Today, Stoa offers a six-month part-time program, StoaMBA, that combines tech relevant skills with business fundamentals for all participants. The majority of live programming happens on the weekends through cohort–based learning, business case hackathons and basic lectures with asynchronous learning happening throughout the week. On average, students spend 12 hours a week, three weeks a month with the program.
"Our idea is to give a sort of complete 360-degree overview of different business areas," said Kunkolienkar. He estimates that during the 24 weeks, about 30% of the program is focused on foundational skills such as how to work with data and research better. The remaining time is reserved for deep dives into specific in-demand roles, such as digital marketing roles or product strategy tips.
The startup admits that it's not at scale yet to be helping all of India's startups fill empty sales roles, so it's currently focused on training people to be generalists within the operations and sales world. StoaMBA is currently priced at $3,400, with the majority of students paying upfront. Stoa has partnerships that allow it to offer EMI-based financing options, in which students can pay on a monthly basis.
In order to truly become an alternative to the traditional MBA, Stoa will need to focus on quality assurance of curriculum, measurable outcomes and continuous proof that unaccredited curriculum can make a difference in students’ lives.
Understanding the unaccredited mindset
Being the first layer between job seekers and their first job in tech may help Stoa avoid competing with bigger players, but this opportunity could be its biggest challenge, too.
Between cohort 1 and 2, only 40 out of 100 people opted into the startup’s career services, 38 of which made the transition into a new role. While the co-founders leaned more on the success of those who opted in versus why 60% didn’t, the imbalance could be illustrative of other market forces. Down the road, the startup is experimenting with creating a different program for those who want to undergo a serious career transition, those who want to learn basics and understand more about tech or those who want to learn single skills to upskill within their current roles.
"A lot of people who apply to Stoa are looking for clarity," said Kulkarni. "You want a certain change, but the first step toward evaluating that is whether I want to even do the change or not."
While anecdotes and happy students can show the value of online learning, every bootcamp eventually gets to a place where they have to prove return of investment in order to scale. Flockjay, a bootcamp startup that helps laid off people and job seekers break into tech, recently cut half of its own employees amid a broader pivot to a B2B SaaS platform. Lambda School, which has juggled lawsuits, layoffs and fundraises over the past few years, has been scrutinized for shoddy marketing tactics around its job placement rates.
The startup also needs to bolster its diversity efforts, especially as a lot of its focus is accessibility. The co-founders currently estimate that 75% of its students are men and 25% are women. Given that female representation in Indian startups is decreasing due to the cost of maternity leave and inherent biases, Stoa has an opportunity to question the status quo — not reinforce it. Its cap table appears to be largely male, so having more female representation behind it could help with strategy. Kulkarni said that Stoa has offered scholarships to women but said "there's definitely something that needs to be done."
Finally, Stoa is yet another example of the growing difference between entrepreneurs who believe the future is unaccredited courses and those that believe accreditation is the only way to win legitimacy within higher education.
"We are a six-month degree, and Indian regulators are never going to accept that kind of degree or diploma," said Kunkolienkar. "There are very specific rules around what is accredited here in India." Stoa says it is set on not going the "degree way" because it wants to retain control over the brand, the curriculum and the ability to change and iterate fast.
As a result, Stoa’s brand will matter materially to its long-term health. In other words, it may be able to give a stamp of approval to a solid number of folks, but without the sign-off from regulators will hiring managers care about that stamp?
"India is obviously a society [and] culture that values credentialism a ton, but I think they have a cool opportunity to rebuild what an MBA does, means and delivers for the entire country," said Ankur Nagpal, founder of Vibe Capital and investor in the startup. "I think they have done brand-building and [developed an] alumni network well enough that it’s become an aspirational brand to those in the know."
On Deck and Y Combinator have shown that it is possible to scale signal as a service to a certain extent, since both programs come with hints of prestige and community for those who graduate. While the accelerators are for insiders who may understand the nuances of business, Stoa thinks it can conquer those who want to enter the startup ecosystem, per the co-founders.
But landing a job in tech can sometimes be harder and more complex than starting a company. Stoa’s next, venture-backed steps will hopefully change that by removing traditional gatekeepers and teaching through example.