June 16, 2021
Licensed to Skill
Carnegie Mellon alumna is using tech to democratize the workplace
By Tina Tuminella
As a teenager, Bhakti Vithalani was fascinated with Microsoft’s mission of putting “a computer on every desk and in every home.” That idea of reaching the masses with technology left an indelible mark on her, and strongly influenced the mission of her own startup years later.
Raised in Mumbai, India, Bhakti was part of a family of entrepreneurs and was inherently curious and self-aware from a young age.
“At age 10, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and, by age 15, narrowed it down to be a tech entrepreneur,” she says.
At age 17, she was among the first women from India to be accepted to Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. She graduated with university honors in 2000 with a degree in computer and electrical engineering, and later attended The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania as a Joseph Wharton Fellow to earn her MBA.
The idea of utilizing technology to deliver education at scale took hold of Bhakti during her time as a student. She soon saw the potential it had to really make an impact, at both an individual and societal level.
“I’ve always intended to play a role in helping the world move toward equity and progress,” she says. “People need access to education to move toward a better life. I found myself writing about a technology venture that enables this in my business school essays.”
“I’m one of the few people doing what I wrote about in my grad school essays,” she laughs.
In 2017, Bhakti founded BigSpring, a mobile-first skilling platform focused on delivering lifelong learning for productivity and employability. Her company was born from a decade of work in workforce development and skilling across sectors, job types and geographies. With locations in New York, San Francisco, Singapore, New Delhi and Mumbai, BigSpring boasts a client list that includes Google, Uber, Samsung, Carbon, Tata Steel and AXA, among others.
Learning by Doing
Bhakti founded BigSpring to fill two significant gaps she saw in the market. Traditionally, training has been measured in hours, test scores and certificates, but BigSpring focuses on metrics that matter: job placements and productivity gains. Also, most platforms focus primarily on white-collar roles, which comprise a thin sliver of the global workforce, while BigSpring reaches every segment of the workforce — white collar, frontline, small- and medium-business teams, independent workers and everyone in between. The company provides pathways to employment and productivity for any user through relevant content, opportunities to learn by doing and receiving feedback from the learning community. It’s a bit like a digital apprenticeship, which used to be a hallmark of education and training for decades.
“BigSpring is mobile-first because today the smartphone sits with 50% to 60% of the population and that is only moving in one direction, so everyone can be reached,” she says. “I’ve always found it curious that people will frequently ask who BigSpring trains and what we train them on. No one’s asking technology platforms like Netflix and Amazon that. BigSpring is a content-agnostic skilling platform that delivers market-relevant skills to anyone.”
Skilling Is a Verb
Under Bhakti’s leadership, BigSpring has grown to over a million learners globally and was selected by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as a Technology Pioneer for 2020.
“The World Economic Forum is an awesome platform to engage with thought leaders and change agents across the world. It’s been fantastic,” Bhakti says.
Bhakti is active with the WEF’s Reskilling Revolution platform, which has a goal of upskilling a billion people by 2030. Before the pandemic, upskilling was a key topic due to automation and artificial intelligence. Post-pandemic, upskilling has only become more relevant due to worker displacement and accelerated digital transformation.
“I think people understand that addressing the skills gap is mission critical,” she says. “We need to solve [the disparity between supply and demand] by moving people from test-ready to job-ready. This is important to drive the economy, to drive society, to drive progress.”
What a Difference a Year Makes
Last spring, Bhakti was eight months pregnant, living in India and working with a third of the team she has today.
Currently, she’s up and running with her new team (she’s never met some of her team members in person due to the pandemic) and living in Singapore with her husband and two children.
Reflecting on the tumultuous year, Bhakti says, “We’ve experienced amazing traction, and I think it's really about being uncompromising about your long-term goals. But in the short term, just keep thinking about what’s the next best move.”