Charu Noheria On Changing The Way The World Learns

Charu Noheria is the co-founder and chief operating officer of Practically. In 2018, she co-founded the company, an experiential learning app for STEM, and has been working to revolutionize the education landscape for the last seven years, raising $9 million in the process.

Noheria has over 12 years of corporate experience in operations, technology, strategy and managing global teams. She began her career as a software engineer at Samsung where she developed mobile applications. Later, she joined Lumeris Inc. — one of the largest value-based health care IT firms in the U.S., as a strategic leadership development associate and quickly moved up the ranks to become the director of technology partnerships.

Most recently, Noheria was chosen to be part of Entrepreneur India’s 35 under 35 class of 2021. She has also been featured in the coveted ORF-GP report on Women in Technology, 2020.

In this Q&A, Noheria shares why she got into education, what inspired her to start her own company, advice for choosing the right investors, and more.

Charu Noheria, co-founder and chief operating officer of Practically.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I moved to the U.S. in 2010 to pursue an MBA from University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign after which I moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to work for Lumeris, where I met my co-founders and eventually started Practically. One thing I knew from early on was that I enjoyed multitasking, got bored quite easily with repetitive jobs, and always was on the lookout for challenging activities even if it meant taking on stuff outside of my job responsibilities. Though I never saw entrepreneurship coming my way, I am glad I chose this path as it gives me the satisfaction I never felt earlier.

My journey as an entrepreneur has been very exciting and an edge-of-the-seat experience, literally. It is almost like seeing a baby grow; every day is new and comes with its fair share of happy moments and challenges. But I have enjoyed every bit of it. My love of creating things and making an impact, which potentially is global in nature, gives me the adrenaline rush which is addictive. 

Q: Why did you choose to enter the field of education?

My co-founders Subbarao Siddabattula, CEO, and Ilangovel Thulasimani, CTO, and I founded Practically in 2018. The three of us were colleagues at Lumeris in the U.S. and in the hallways of our workplace is where those very first conversations of Practically began. 

When my co-founders and I were bouncing off ideas to pursue, it became apparent that we all shared the excitement for tech-based, nontraditional methods of teaching and learning. We all wanted to make some of those very dry subjects more interesting, engaging and fun for learners around the world. Education is a very gratifying sector and being able to use tech to bridge the gap between theoretical and practical application-oriented learning processes is a very interesting area of work. 

Q: What issues did you see in this field before you started your company?

In India and across the world, education is yet to see a major overhaul in keeping up with technological advancements. Traditional methods of learning lead to less than 20 percent retention of concepts. There is emphasis on rote learning, which is boring, not interactive, and kills the curiosity in students and destroys any chance to develop an interest in learning. 

Another problem we tried to solve is to make everything that a learner needs available on a single app, helping the parent pay for just one product, making it very easy on their pocket. Practically delivers everything from immersive content, simulations/AR, test prep, analytics/feedback, gamification and doubt resolution to live classes, to coding, soon-to-be launched summer programs etc., seamlessly through its single app interface.

Q: What inspired you to start your company?  

The Indian Institutes of Technology are the premier autonomous public, technical and research universities located across India. Every year, hundreds of thousands of students appear for entrance exams to get into IITs, which they have been preparing for since they were teenagers. 

Being part of the competitive rat race back in the day, all I remember from that experience was stress in learning. I dropped a year, switched five engineering streams, and changed three colleges during the 18 months I struggled to get my footing right. Unconsciously, this left a lasting mark on me. I was always attracted to unconventional ways of learning, which are different and more effective than rote learning. This is what inspired me to start Practically along with my co-founders.

Q: What problems were you trying to solve with your company?

Our vision is to reshape the way the world learns. We aim to bring modern methods to everyday teaching processes and empower teachers to use visualization and experiential content to transform dry subject areas into jaw-dropping experiences. Our objective is to enable classrooms with a “learning by doing” approach and increase the rate of retention of students to more than 90 percent for key subjects like math and science using our 3,000-plus videos and 1,000-plus simulations/AR to make learning more fun and engaging. 

Practically is built on Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Learning” that found we retain 10 percent of what we read, 50 percent of what we see and hear, and increasingly more to 90 percent when we “learn by doing.” The more dramatic the experience, the more lasting the recall, and most concepts that are harder to visualize can be made very interesting and effortless by using experiential learning techniques.

Q: What is your advice for other entrepreneurs trying to scale their own company?

I often think that we, as a company, should have raised more capital early on rather than fearing risk of dilution. Also, as I often say, the best time to raise capital is when you don’t need it so capital availability does not hinder your growth plans. Some capital should be kept aside for marketing and branding as it is important to get noticed early on while you are building the company. It should be looked at as an investment rather than an expense. 

Another lesson from hiring is to hire a team which has the right combination of passion and hunger just like you. If you hire a team that gets very comfortable, they lose the agility you need to grow fast.

Q: How did you know you were choosing the right investors? What have they brought to the company?

In early stages, you need more than just investors. You need someone alongside you to build your business strategy; someone to provide those guard rails so you do not waste time making the same mistakes other founders and companies have made in the past. When you talk to investors, you can never say whether they will be right or not for you in the long term, you just need to go with your gut. You can form your opinion in the multiple interactions you will have before closing in, but in the end you have to go with your intuition. Your hope is always to find supportive investors, especially in the foundation years of the company. 

For us, our Series A investors helped us not only with the capital, but also with brain power which strengthened the core team. Also, when your wickets are down you need some positive energy and moral support, and when you see some success, you don’t want to get carried away. Early investors can bring much-needed balance to the team; they literally become your friends and serve as a support structure in the long run.

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success?

Empathy and EQ are extremely important for leaders. We are dealing with people, not machines. People are our assets not the product, buildings, etc., and with the same people and time, you can replicate the same success again.

Never take no for an answer if you feel strongly about something. Unless you ask, you never get. In business, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate for. There is no pass and fail in entrepreneurship, just like in learning. You either succeed or you learn; what’s important is to not repeat the same mistakes. You should be married to the problem, not the solution. As long as you are determined to solve the problem, today or tomorrow, even after a hundred pivots you will be able to get to the right solution with the right business model, implementation, etc.

These are some of the traits I consciously try to inculcate in my personal and professional life, which I believe have helped me build successful relationships at and outside of Practically.

Q: How has your experience as a founder impacted those around you (i.e. friends, your community, family)? How did you network, find communities and make the connections you needed to succeed?

Entrepreneurship is not a label, it is a lifestyle. It is full of ups and downs, and you need loads of courage to walk down the unbeaten path. While pursuing your dream, you will need immense support from your immediate family and close friends, especially if you are a woman. Balancing work and home is a continuous challenge as you don’t want to miss out on either one of them. Family can be a big support if you keep them engaged in what you are doing and make them a part of your journey. 

As an entrepreneur, you have to make some tough choices such as spending time away from your family, missing out on important events, etc. For me, keeping my family updated on my startup life and having those frequent conversations have helped build that relationship where they have now become part of the support structure rather than adding to the pressure. You also need a lot of emotional support as you have more bad days than good. especially during early years; it is an everyday struggle.

The first time I heard of networking was on my first day of business school. Since then, I have never stopped. Your close network comes in very handy in business, raising funds, in getting the right resources, vendors, etc. Associating with fellow founders has done me good. Anytime I am looking for a startup solution, founder networks really help.

Q: How did you connect with VCs? Can you describe your process of raising your Series B round?

In the past, I have mostly connected with VCs through investment bankers. I have also leveraged my Linkedin connections to get introductions to investors. Another great source of  connecting with investors is reaching out to other founders to make introductions to their investors. I myself have introduced some great companies to our investors.

We have signed up one of the top investment banks in the country to raise our next funding round. We already have started pitching to growth-stage investors and hope to close the round by this summer. We will be using the funds from this round to scale our operations pan India, and also invest in direct consumer marketing in our endeavour to make Practically a household name by the end of 2021.

  • Originally published May 18, 2021