Stereotypes are often problematic if not outright racist, but there is one India-based startup that is happily embracing the stereotype of Indians being good at maths.
Founded in 2013 by Manan Khurma, Cuemath is an edtech platform focused on teaching children essential maths and coding skills created by experts from Cambridge University and the Indian Institute of Technology. Backed by Sequoia Capital, Google and Abu Dhabi’s Alpha Wave Global, Cuemath has so far raised $64.5 million with plans to raise another $100 million this year. The company is now headed up by CEO Vivek Sunder, who is tasked with growing the platform around the world. Since the onset of the pandemic, current chairman and former CEO - Manan Khurma - and Sunder (who joined in October 2021) have managed to expand Cuemath to 50 countries, and Sunder is now focusing his efforts on the Middle East.
“The pandemic made us go abroad, suddenly, geography became irrelevant,” says Sunder. Cuemath originally began as a tutoring company, offering students one-to-one lessons offline in India, it eventually incorporated online learning, but it was only with the pandemic that the company went fully digital.
Going digital increased accessibility, overnight the platform was available to anyone with internet access and the ability to pay online. Cuemath landed in the UAE in June 2021 and the country has rapidly grown to become one of its main markets outside of India, growing 600 per cent to amass 180,000 subscribers.
“We didn’t even spend much, [the growth was] almost entirely organic,” says Sunder, who says the company benefitted from word-of-mouth, but also a general perception that Indian teaching methods for maths are better than those available in the West.
“For us, the fact we’re from India is hugely relevant,” says Sunder. “Many believe Western education is weak on maths, there is a strong believe that maths is poorly taught in the international curriculum, they focus on personality development.”
Teaching in many parts of the world still relies on rote learning - a method that discourages the development of critical thinking capabilities. Children prefer to learn through “tangible stuff” according to Sunder and benefit most from one-to-one teaching methods.
“We’ve got a proprietary technique, the ’Cuemath way’ that is conceptual clarity through the visual representation of math. Children can see or feel a ball, but they can’t visualise X or Y,” he says. This helps with maintaining the student’s attention and allows for the teacher to customise the lessons according to the student’s requirements.
The UAE was a logical first step to expand to the wider Middle East thanks to the large Indian diaspora community and is now also present in Qatar and Saudi Arabia
“Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they’re such a massive melting pot, everybody is there. There is a very large workforce of knowledge works - doctors, engineers, technologists - the need for them to give high quality math education [to their children] is already there,” says Sunder.
About 85 per cent of the teachers on Cuemath’s platform are women, of whom more than 80 per cent are non-maths teachers. Sunder argues that becoming an online tutor is a viable income stream for women, particularly mothers who may be on a career break. So far, almost all of the teachers on Cuemath’s platform are based in India, but the company is considering bringing on board teachers from around the world given the rise in international students.
Cuemath is among the increasing number of Indian startups that have expanded to the GCC. Many of these startups have strong financial backing, and increasingly, they are raising from regional investors. In the past month alone, six India-based startups raised investment from investors in the GCC, including Swiggy, Dealshare and Zuddl with Abu Dhabi’s Alpha Wave Global participating in four rounds. Over the past year, relations between India and the UAE have strengthened, especially in the startup space, leading to the establishment of the India-UAE VC fund, launched with commitments of $150 million with “a purpose to source, invest, and nurture promising ventures through an accelerator to fuel the growth of India and UAE startups”.
India’s startup ecosystem is one of the more sophisticated in the world, counting 81 unicorns with the potential to add another 45 this year, among them Cuemath. As their home market becomes more saturated, they have expanded, typically starting with the South East Asian markets, US and Europe. Many are now looking to the Mena region, and in particular the GCC thanks to the high GDP per capita and substantial Indian diaspora who provide a comfortable landing spot.
But so far, few startups in the Middle East have expanded to India, with the flow of both capital and growth benefitting Indian startups. Even in edtech, where investment boomed with the onset of the pandemic, the Middle East’s edtech startups while gaining greater traction, did not receive the boost that other sectors like fintech and food delivery did. In 2021, 38 edtech startups based in Mena raised $51 million while 96 fintech startups raised $521 million.
This, argues Sunder, is because the region’s education sector does not have a global market and are too focused on their own local markets.
“There is no such thing as UAE education [so] UAE edtechs don’t they think they have got a global market. The local population is too small and not that lucrative to be educated to,” he says.