Ronnie Screwvala – A man who dreamt with his eyes open

 Ronnie Screwvala – A man who dreamt with his eyes open


Ronnie Screwvala, the first-generation entrepreneur, knows his customers too well. In Spite of coming from a humble background, his net worth stood around 2000 crores back in 20212 when he sold his UTV stake. His life is an inspiration to many out there, who are way too scared to jump into entrepreneurship. He has tried his hands in multiple unrelated fields and succeeded.  Today, he is an award-winning movie producer, a prominent philanthropist, and most importantly a determined entrepreneur.

Coming from a Bombay-based Parsi family, Ronnie Screwvala naturally had an inclination towards movies which grew even more because he used to live in a small apartment house on Grant Road that faced one of the city’s top movie halls. They premiered the red carpets of many movies and the celebrities were so close in vision from his veranda that one could easily be star-struck. Ronnie observed an opportunity when he was just 10 years old & sold tickets to people to stand in his balcony.

His father wanted him to be a Chartered Accountant but he had an entrepreneurial spirit from a very young age. And when he failed his college his belief grew stronger that he wasn’t meant for textbooks, instead, he wanted to do something on his own. That’s the time he joined a job of a copywriter to fund his entrepreneurial experiments.

He organized a rock concert when he was 18 along with his friends. The concert was a massive hit, but they lost 50000 rupees due to incorrect pricing of the tickets. It took him almost a year to pay back his share. He failed but never gave up. He knew to get to the nerve of the customer but learned the technicalities through such adventures. Being a first-generation entrepreneur, he faced many issues like- lack of capital, building his brand, and getting licenses in the much regulated Indian economy.

He started his entrepreneurial hustle in the late 1980s when he aimed to create a toothbrush company called Laser. This venture taught him the importance of having and working with co-founders.

But how did he come up with the idea?

On a trip to the UK, he was invited to accompany his father on a working visit to a toothbrush manufacturing plant. During the tour, Ronnie Screwvala saw 2 machines that were sent to scrap, even though they had the capacity to produce top-quality toothbrushes for at least 10 years. He analyzed the situation and trusted his gut to make an offer for buying the machines and getting them shipped to India. This when he had zero money, zero knowledge of the personal care industry, and no clients. Over the next 4 months, he managed to get many brands including P&G and Colgate interested in buying toothbrushes from him which helped him to loan an initial capital from the banks and a company was born. The company manufactured and sold more than 5 lakh brushes in the first year.

Later in the year 1981, he started a new venture, his first business on cable television. Back then only government-owned Doordarshan existed. He realized television can have more than one channel giving people choice, so he set up a local cable TV network, called Network. He started the company in the year 1990 with a little capital of 37,000 rupees and a small team in a tiny basement office in Mumbai.

In 1990, along with two co-founders, Ronnie Screwvala built an entertainment and media conglomerate, UTV Software Communications (UTV), which diversified into areas including film and documentary production, a children’s channel called Hungama TV, advertisement production, airline entertainment, and dubbing for all foreign animation studios that came into India. A win-win situation came for the company when Rupert Murdoch purchased 49% of the company, effectively branding UTV as part of his hugely important Star Group in India, but left Screwvala with the operating and equity control. It was a shift like moving from a B2B company to a B2C company. In 2006, after successes such as Hungama TV becoming the number one children’s channel in India, US-based Disney purchased nearly a 15% stake in the company, which became full ownership by 2012.

UTV faced its share of competition too. In 2009, when ET NOW had partnered with Reuters in March and NDTV was a week away from tying up with Bloomberg towards the end of the year, Ronnie Screwvala realized that UTVi wouldn’t survive without a global partner. He got on a flight to New York and briefed friends at Fox and Disney to put in a good word for him. Sure enough, he clinched the deal. UTVi became UTV Bloomberg. The former UTV head believes that many CEOs spend too much time thinking about plan B and all the other options that would be available if things didn’t work out. “Just focus on plan A, because many times there is no real alternative.”

He divested his stake in UTV to The Walt Disney Company in 2012 at an enterprise valuation of $1.4 billion and set up Unilazer ventures which have invested in Dogspot, Zivame, Lenskart, Shopclues, among others. During that time he along with Supratik Sen U Sports, one of its kind, and launched it in 2014 with an objective to provide a new emerging space fostering offline and online or e-sports. U Sports is a sports company spanning Kabaddi, Football, Moto Sport + ESports – via the league and team ownerships as well as grass-root training programs.  Their first venture here was U Mumba – the Mumbai Kabaddi that plays in the Pro Kabaddi League. They were the runners-up in this First-year and winner of Pro Kabaddi League 2015 and Kabaddi has become the second most-watched sport in India on TV after cricket.

In his ongoing second innings, Ronnie Screwvala has authored a book on Entrepreneurship titled, ‘Dream With Your Eyes Open‘ and targeting high growth and impact sectors. UpGrad is the epitome of his motive.  It focuses on creating an Online Education Company, of scale – focusing on the post-graduation, higher studies, and specialization areas. The higher education platform claims to have impacted over half a million people globally and has collaborated with universities like IIT Madras, IIIT Bangalore, MICA, NMIMS Global Access, Jindal Global Law School, Duke CE, Deakin University, Liverpool John Moores University, and others.

Additionally, he is inclined towards Social Welfare. In 1990, he started a not-for-profit called SHARE, standing for the society to heal, aid, restore and educate. SHARE evolved into the Swades Foundation in 2013, which has the goal of lifting one million people out of poverty every five to six years. He is very much active along with his wife Zarina as Founder Trustees of “The Swades Foundation”, which operates through a unique 360-degree model with verticals in Water, Sanitation, Health, Nutrition, Community Mobilization, Education, and most importantly Agriculture & Livelihood, to lift them out of poverty permanently.

Demonstrating an innate ability to merge creativity with commerce, Newsweek termed him the Jack Warner of India, Esquire rated him one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st Century and Fortune as Asia’s 25 most powerful. He has been listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by the Time Magazine for the year 2009. This man built one of the largest toothbrush manufacturing operations, then went on to create a Media & Entertainment conglomerate, and now is all ready to conquer the dotcom through U Sports and UpGrad.

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We manifest the entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem for enthusiastic entrepreneurs by helping them build their entrepreneurial skills and encouraging them in job creation rather than finding ones. These episodes aim to provide much-needed guidance & motivation among the youth and bridge the knowledge gap.

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