Shubho Sengupta, Mission Karmayogi, Government of India
Naresh Gupta, Bang in the Middle
What remains common about the tech and the dating scene is their assumption of men as the active participants and women as the passive receivers in the play. This manifests in their (un)holy union—dating apps, which further promote heteronormative expectations of society. With the introduction of women led dating apps, Vidya Madhavan, Founder and CEO of Schmooze, helps us explore if technology, when inclusive, can help subvert dominant discourses and empower women with agency.
00.00 - Madhuleen:
How does the diversity in the product team define the product?
Does having more women in tech help us solve the gender biases in tech products?
Can inclusive technology lead to an inclusive society?
Hi, I’m Madhuleen, representing ISB’s Management ReThink- an online management practice journal, published quarterly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In this session, we will explore the peculiar relationship between women, tech, and dating apps with an engineer by education and entrepreneur by passion, the co-founder of the unique meme-based dating app, Schmooze, Ms. Vidya Madhavan.
00:44 - Madhuleen
Welcome, Vidya! We are so excited to have you here with us today.
00:49 - Vidya
Thanks, Madhuleen. Very nice to be here.
00:52 - Madhuleen
So, as we know that the tech industry is a male-dominated space. What changes do you see in the industry that you feel will help provide an inclusive platform to women in the tech industry?
01:05 - Vidya
Yeah. So, I think there are lots of changes happening simultaneously as we speak. The first is of course, the hope that there are more women in STEM in general, and I think across countries there is some effort to kind of promote it. Especially as we speak of India also, there are some efforts going on to promote more women in STEM, which is obviously a feeder to the technology industry as a whole. And obviously, I continue to believe that every time we talk about, you know, any sort of minority groups and what helps them perform better, do better, overall, I feel that role modelling plays a very important role in that. And I think as more and more women enter the workforce in the technology industry, every one person is gonna be like, now creating or inspiring hundreds of more women to enter the workforce similarly. So, I think role modelling will play a very important role and that's actually already happening as we speak.
The other thing that I find very interesting is, though not directly, you know, in the tech industry as an engineer, there are lots of managerial roles also in the tech industry, like, let's talk about product as an important vertical or let's talk about design as an important vertical. And again, even for women in management, again a feeder, top of the funnel sort of a problem, but with business schools having, I mean, with more women going to business schools, that is also a path which is increasingly seeing more women. Obviously, we won't see impact of all of this in the short run, but over the next five or ten years the numbers will start making sense and be more pronounced. Where I think as a whole the tech industry will start seeing more diversity as a whole, and not just be super male-dominated as it used to be or is as it is right now.
3:30 - Madhuleen.
You make a very interesting point there! The tech industry is not just limited to the quintessentially tech roles, but you also have the managerial and the design verticals. So, there has been some research that shows that there is gender disparity, not just in the industry, but you also see these particular biases being emulated in the technology itself. Do you think having women at the helm of the technology, across verticals, the product changes, and the way that technology interacts with women also changes?
04:04 - Vidya
Yeah, absolutely! I think that's a great question. And I'm also so excited to answer this, just given a session we had at the Schmooze office yesterday, where by design we had, you know, we had a group discussion where we had three men and three women and all of us discussing our perspectives on a particular video of Schmooze. And it was so interesting to see that the points noted by women, what we thought of the video, was very different from what the men thought about the video, and how we would change it, what the implications of those were. So, to like getting back to your question, I think there are two things playing around here. Fundamentally, there is a conscious way of solving problems and an unconscious style, unconscious problem-solving approach. And when we talk about having more women or just generally being more gender inclusive, or inclusive across so many different facets, I think the unconscious way of problem-solving, unconscious biases are kind of evened out in a way. And, like yesterday, we just realized this in our own team, and we had like just this group call where we had three men and three women like how fundamentally different, we were. And we were not even thinking about Schmooze at the centre of the problem that we were solving for. And that's where I wanted to create that distinction between conscious problem solving, consciously being more inclusive, consciously trying to be empathetic, trying to put yourself in the shoes of every single user, how many different types of people you see, so on and so forth. And then comes the unconscious thing, which I feel is the larger part of how each of us as decision makers just fundamentally interact with things or, you know, design products because like no matter how much you know, no matter how many posters you put up in an office, no matter how many like guidelines you have for everyone working at a company, where you know, you can keep saying that—Hey, you're not designing for yourself, you're designing for, something for like, millions of people who might be different from you, and so on and so forth. Unconsciously, there is a lot that's going on in every individual's mind, which is fundamentally layered by their share of experiences, their share of observations and I think as a result, like definitely having more women—not only in leadership roles but having more women and being just generally more gender inclusive across roles helps in bringing that different perspective, which is definitely needed as you try to solve for the masses. If you're obviously designing, you know, male formal wear, then you may or may not need all sorts of perspectives then. But when you're designing technology products, the intent of which mostly is to have millions of users, all across the Earth, to be using it, it becomes very important to understand how 50% of the population thinks and would interact with those products and, you know, design something which is a lot more equitable.
7:32 - Madhuleen
You are absolutely right! Keeping in mind the conscious and unconscious biases we all have, having a more inclusive workforce at every stage of a product’s growth will definitely make a difference in the final product and solution that we generate.
So, narrowing down our discussion a little and moving on to dating apps. Dating is another arena that assumes and expects a lack of agency from women. Do you think dating apps, another industry dominated by men, also emulates the heteronormative discourses around gender, dictating how women should behave and interact?
08:09 - Vidya
Yeah. So, it's an interesting question, and an investor that I had met in year ago had told me this, he said, I mean, without going into details, but he said he had met the founder of a very famous … now very famous dating company. And he said one of the biggest problems with dating apps and dating companies is that most of them are built by men. And not just built or founded by men, but has very male, I mean, top-down team of only having men which has created a set of similar products, each of them forgetting to solve problems for almost 50% of the population, which is also going to be on the product. So, I think, dating apps, definitely have been very skewed for a really long time. In fact, I think we started talking about women and men right at the beginning of the conversation. But, you know, even as you talk about just generally being more gender inclusive. If you talk about the LGBTQ community. They've been kind of left alone by many of the mainstream dating products for a really long time. And you know, like when we launched Schmooze, we saw that 20% of our user base came from the LGBTQ community. And lots of like we almost started seeing a very strong organic growth amongst the Community. And talking to some people I realized, you know, they were very small changes that we had made as compared to the other apps in our initial days. Like having pronouns, making it one of the most highlighted things on your profile, and things like that, which don't call for a massive change but just signal the fact that, hey, this product is for everyone. And that is something that we've obviously had found lacking for a really long time in the industry. Even folks in the Schmooze team constantly complain about the lack of how products just don't seem to be designed for women overall in the dating space.
10:35 - Madhuleen
In recent years, though, we have seen more women enter the tech space and especially the dating scene as well. So, with Bumble being specifically directed towards having more agency for women and Schmooze as well, is working towards more gender inclusivity on the whole.
How do you see these platforms empowering women or empowering across genders and affording them agency in the dating life, and specifically through technology?
11:08 - Vidya
Yeah. So, one thing that I've come to learn over the last couple of years running Schmooze is, the first thing that defines behaviour in the platform, be it Schmooze, or Bumble, or Hinge, or any of these different products, is the narrative around it. Like if I look at Bumble and Tinder, they look virtually the same, to the exception of, you know, the colour code and stuff like that. Where Bumble has this very prominent feature which says, like, woman makes the first move and that's one thing that Tinder fundamentally lacks. But if you look at the use case of both the platforms, the type of people coming in, the kind of interactions that someone has, they're so different. Like you would ... it is very hard to say that if you logically break down two products, the difference between one feature can cost so much of a difference between two products. So, I've come to realize that there is a lot to say about the narrative that you build around the particular product that creates a lot of self-selection in terms of the people coming to a platform. And even the same people behave very differently, exhibit different behaviours across different platforms because there is that unsaid rule of, hey, this is how you behave on a particular product because this is what this thing stands for. And that's something again like at Schmooze, we've been seeing nearly … right from our day one. The more we talk to our users, we hear things like, ‘Oh you know, on Schmooze we feel that people have a personality’, ‘They're very different from the boring interactions we've had on other dating apps’, and etcetera, etcetera. But then like you know, if you think about it, how can people be different? Like, if you look at dating app statistics, at least in the US, on an average, no one has one dating app on their phone. People have nearly two to three dating apps on their phones. Which means that someone who's using Schmooze is probably also using Bumble, is probably also using some other dating app. And what is different here is what Schmooze more stands for. At Schmooze we say, ‘Laugh your way to love’. So, I think when we say that or when you say that, ‘Hey, this is humour first’ or ‘Find someone who's your kind of funny’. We've kind of let the door open for you to exhibit your personality. People are not different. The expectation or the rules of the game on Schmooze are different. Which is why people feel a lot more open— having those conversations, exhibiting their personality on a product like Schmooze than maybe in some other places. So, I think like just going back to your question and this is coming off from a very recent LinkedIn message that I had from a Schmooze user. This person was a student at Stanford. And this guy had a very unsuccessful run on all the other dating apps. This guy was very much into dark humour and stuff, so you can imagine the kind of dates he was having. And he said, he would meet someone for the first date but never really go into, you know, a second or a third date. Like it just never happened. And he met this girl on Schmooze. They had a good chat about dark humour. So, the first, second, third, and fourth dates are all kind of similar kind of funny. And I mean, they are now dating.
So, I think what I'm going back to is the choice, the option of expressing certain aspects of your personality, the kind of rules of how do you behave on a platform is really dictated by the narrative. When you say, like, hey, women make the first move or, you know, this is how the product is, then there is that level of self-selection rule of how do you behave on this app which starts becoming different for different types of products. And yeah, I think that is something that definitely sets different products apart. And it's not just, you know, the design or the features or the colours or the look or feel. It's a lot more of the words and the positioning and the story behind these products, which say what is okay and what is not okay on a platform. And I think that's definitely changing with more women or with more diverse people leading companies like a dating product.
16:02 - Madhuleen:
Interesting! You talked about the narrative behind the product influencing the consumer behaviour. How much do you think the regional influences shape the narrative aimed by the product, especially in the Indian context. I know Schmooze is not in India yet, I hope you plan on launching here soon. But how do you view the dating app market here and what role can these apps play in the experience of women while placed in the cultural environment of India?
16:34 - Vidya:
Very, very interesting question. So, firstly, I think, so Schmooze does have plans to launch in India. We do feel that there is a very strong meme culture in India, hands down. And we do have our early sign-up forms so you can find our link lease on our profiles and sign up for it if you're excited.
The thinking about Schmooze in context of India has kind of been a revelation for us. Because, while we constantly think about how do we … I mean, a dating product is a two-sided marketplace and while we constantly think about how do we make the product more equitable for both sides in US, we realized that when we start thinking about India, it adds a lot more layers. For example, designing Schmooze in US has included us thinking constantly about our positioning. What are we really saying? How are we communicating? And that kind of, as I said in the … to your previous question, right, like it kind of sets the narrative, and the narrative defines the rules of the game for how do you behave on a particular product, which then sets the tone for what goes on, as a behaviour. But the moment we started thinking about India, we realized, and this was even coming from our own team that women fundamentally lack agency a lot more in India than obviously in US. And male behaviour, I mean, I won't say it's because of the number of men we have, because I think globally, we see a more equitable ratio only. But for some reason like the way men behave on different platforms, the way they enormously flock to dating products just makes women want to, you know, just stand back and say like, ‘hey, I'm not up for this’, like, ‘this is not what I want’, ‘not on this dating app also’, like, ‘not here too’ because that this is what I experience on a daily life on a day-to-day basis. So, we've had to think a lot more. In fact, even when we think about Schmooze launch in India, we've been through discussions where we think about, hey, does making our product like very premium product very … like, increase the bar to get in from day one. Does that kind of change how the product is going to be for women? Or is it like going through a very invite only route going to change how Schmooze is perceived in the initial days and then obviously hoping for that behaviour to kind of trickle down. Is it more about the go to market strategy like where do we go? What type of people do we attract in the initial days, change it. But I'm not going to lie, we have spent way more time thinking about how to make the platform equitable for men and women the moment we started thinking about Schmooze in India than we had in our entire journey, thinking about Schmooze in US and that definitely says something about the cultural context. It definitely says something about the way society functions. It definitely has a lot to say about the lack of agency or very less agency that women generally have in the Indian society and how it has just been passed on that way. And we are hoping to change that. And we are also hoping that more and more tech products come and change that for women in India.
20:42 - Madhuleen
Those were some truly intriguing insights into the issue.
As Vidya said, our behaviour as consumers is influenced by the narrative generated around a product. These narratives are in turn a reflection of the people behind the product. Therefore, with more women entering the tech industry in general and the dating app space, in particular, we should hope to witness a positive change in the way women engage with technology and with the world through it.
Thank you so much for joining us, Vidya. It was truly wonderful to have you here with us today.
21:18 - Vidya
Thanks, Madhuleen. It was a pleasure joining you for the podcast and hope you have a great day.
21:26 - Madhuleen
In our podcast, Harish Mehta of NASSCOM talks about the power of a self-regulatory body capable of long-standing impact, identifying the key pillars necessary to uphold such an ecosystem.
When you’re at the cusp of starting something new and trying to carve a niche space for your industry, what can be the contributing factors for its long-term growth? Can competing and collaborating really go hand in hand?
Hello, I am Rajshree Shukla representing ISB’s Management ReThink – an online management practice journal, published bi-monthly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In today’s session, we at Management Rethink are excited to have Mr. Harish Mehta with us. Harish Mehta is the driving force behind galvanising the IT industry in India by co-founding NASSCOM and is the author of ‘The Maverick Effect'.
Building upon the far-reaching lessons in the aftermath of this ‘movement’ as some call it, our conversation today is about how a single association, supported by unshakeable values has the power to become a trusted catalyst in fostering an ecosystem. Whether you’re in politics, bureaucracy or aiming to bring momentous change via new-age industries, there is something for everyone here.
Welcome to the podcast, Mr. Mehta! It's a pleasure to have you here.
Thank you, Rajshree. Looking forward to having an interesting conversation.
Thank you. Yes. So given your experience, Mr. Mehta with NASSCOM, I wanted to actually begin by talking about that. What do you think are the unique characteristics of an organisation like NASSCOM that can drive change at an ecosystem level and ensure exponential industry growth in your opinion?
Let me explain first what NASSCOM is. NASSCOM is a nonprofit, volunteering, peer-to-peer organisation. There is no binding force for anyone to be a member of the NASSCOM. But over the time, it has indirectly become a self-regulatory body for the industry. At least, all 80% of the top line of the industry is being represented by NASSCOM. So, in some sense you can say it is a self-regulatory body because everyone is a part of that group and jointly, they take the decisions. Now, the NASSCOM is a very unique organisation compared to any association anywhere in the world in my view, not only within India but outside India also. Because we started taking couple of decisions in the beginning, which laid the foundation for the industry to grow. So, to talk about some of these differentiators or values, when we started NASSCOM, we decided to focus on building the ecosystem for the software business. Now, it's a tall order to build a healthy software business. When we were young, we didn't even have an idea, we were so small, frankly. But we were very clear that we need to build an ecosystem, because at that time, what we could see was, the total market was US$300 billion. But what was accessible to us was only US$10 billion. So, we had a great potential to grow from 10 to 300, provided we all work together. And all these problems which we were seeing, let's say 100 regulations strangulating the intangible software industry where hardware rules were applied, 100 regulations were strangulating us. Now how do you work at it? And if you remove those regulations, we could see that 10 billion can become 40 billion. Similarly, when we work with the customers and the receiving country, there were certain changes they had to make. If they make, it becomes bigger, so the pie gets bigger, provided we all work together. Now, how do you work at it to make that happen? So, the first thing is, we needed a number of policy changes. There was a major trust deficit between the policymakers and the industry. And that is true in India, that is true anywhere in the world. By and large, the bureaucrats or the policymakers don't trust the businesspeople. And there's a lot of history behind it. But we believed differently, we need to build the trust. Because once you have trust, I mean, you don't require any control, any mechanisms to watch you from 15 different places, you don't need 25 compliances to follow. So, your board meetings are more focussed on business, rather than compliance. So, there’s a huge gain, if you can remove these regulations by building trust with the bureaucrats. So, that was the one thing we did by which we did a number of things to build trust between the government and us. So, we built an open, transparent, independent, neutral platform where they could also participate and join us. So, they could see very healthy debate, discussion going on every issue. They were getting educated, and they started becoming helpful to take it forward. And one example I can give is with Mr. Vittal (former Central Vigilance Commissioner), when he said, “I'm giving you software export income tax benefit for one year, provided you do US$400 million, not provided, but you should do 400 million dollars in one year. Now, we were at maybe US$150 million at that point in time. So, we did our own analysis, we found we can do only 200. So, we went back to him saying, “sir, we cannot do it.” He says, “you don't want the benefit?” “No,” we said, “we want the benefit, but not by committing to something which we can't do.” He was surprised at our honesty and sincerity. That these people I can trust. And of course, we talked to him about how, what changes were to be brought in by which we can reach 400 million, which he has to work on. And as a result, very few, in four-five years, we could cross US$400 million. And not only four, we crossed a billion dollars very quickly. So, that is the benefit of having trust between the policymaker and industry. Apart from the soft values that we have brought in, we have planted the seeds of corporate transparency, or meritocracy, or recruiting, gender balancing. If required, we'll get into some of those issues. But that's the achievement of the industry.
Absolutely, thank you for those insights, Mr. Mehta. So, I understand that there was this single-focussed lobbying that happened, and you know, you people were representing the industry, I wanted to understand how was it universal then, like, do you think other industries could also gain something from that? How did those shared values probably that the co-founders had, helped drive that change and growth? So, if you could elaborate a little bit on the significance of shared values in that sense, and, and what made people trust you people? So that is another thing.
Okay. Let's talk about the trust first. So again, when we started NASSCOM, it was very clear, there was a major trust deficit between policymakers and the industry. First of all, they didn't understand what is software, they had no idea about the potential of software services business. They were all, some of them at least, the educationists and scientists, knew about software product business. To them, software services was a low-end business, which was nowhere in the priority to provide the thrust to it. Those of us who were in the business, some of us had lost big money in a product game, and we realised India is not ready for the product game, the potential for us is software services, the labour arbitrage benefit was very apparent. And there were 40-50 companies who were in this business at that point in time in the services. But in the 80s, we found something like a 100+ regulations strangulating us. So that was the number one task for NASSCOM, as to how do we work… in this bureaucratic machinery to bring in this change? So, we decided the first thing was, and that was our collective wisdom, that we will not bribe for any policy change that we need. So sometimes we waited for five years, for certain policy change to happen. Now how do you build trust? So first, we realised we have to build trust amongst each other before we get the bureaucrats in. Now, in our meetings in the early years, everyone was competing with each other, even though, and it's a very small market. So, people were scared to open up in terms of talking about their problems. They were worried that the competitors will go and tell the customer about their problems. Or by mistake, by slip of tongue, if the customer’s name comes out, everybody will go after that customer tomorrow. So, there's lots of such fears in everyone's mind, so they were not opening up. So, we were not having real discussions. And then we decided collectively, we'll invite for any or all our meetings, every bureaucrat who is connected with our industry, and he or she doesn't need an invitation. They're just most welcome to come in. Other industries were not allowing, by and large, to visit the company's premises. So, in our case, it was a very open, trusted environment that we started creating. So, like that we started building trust.
That’s really interesting, you know. I’m sure this kind of openness and transparency helped build that credibility for NASSCOM. And it took it off the ground, I would say. Would you agree about its universality? I mean if other industries were to follow in the steps of NASSCOM?
I mean, to me, every industry should follow, frankly, the NASSCOM model. When we could deliver 30% compounded growth over 30 years, and with all other benefits of job creation, earning foreign exchange, cultural seeds, and we are hardly at $2,000 per capita income as a country. We need to create 90 million jobs over the next 10 years. So, we are still a poor country from that perspective. So, we have a long way to go. And every industry will have to contribute to make their India really change, from let's say where we are, to a developed nation. And the reason it gives me comfort factor is, one, we talked about trust deficit which we reduced between the bureaucrats and us, which helped us take the right policy decisions. Now, there are a couple of things which we did along with it. First was, again going back to when we started NASSCOM, we said we will represent 80% of the top line of the industry. Like Mr. Kohli of TCS at that time, was hesitant to join. We delayed forming NASSCOM till he said yes. Because without TCS, we would be representing 30% of the top line. And at 30%, you are nobody. You are like some local association, that’s it. You're not going to make any national impact. So, till Mr. Kohli agreed, we didn't form NASSCOM. After he agreed, we said “okay, let's go ahead, now we have the strength to do it.” So, with the 80% voice, and partly the kind of, the way we used to work together, we would go and recommend a policy change to, let's say bureaucrats or policy makers. Not a single person, I don't remember a single person has gone outside the NASSCOM platform and taken a different position. And these bureaucrats would tell us about other associations. They’ll recommend something and within 24 hours, some of them would come and tell us, “No, I don't agree with that.” So, they were confused when there were multiple voices. “First of all, we don't know your industry, we don't understand technology. So, we need to have a trusted partner whom we can rely on. So, we would prefer a single voice and not multiple voices coming in.” And till today, we have maintained that. I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but we have still maintained that single voice for the industry, as far as the policy… And before the single voice, internally there were massive debates and discussions, and whatnot. Till we all agreed to a particular composite view, because everyone has their own view. But then you need to come back to a composite view, which is finally the single recommendation to the government. And that's what again paid a huge dividend. In my view, policy decisions were taken very quickly. And there were enough stories to talk about in terms of real anecdotes where they got comfort and confidence that we will not recommend anything which is against the country.
But anyway, so that's one value, you can say this India-first, fiercely competing companies working together, and then solving the problem. The second thing which happened in those meetings is, which again, I have not seen because I have been attending many other meetings of other associations, I don't see the creative juices flow to solve a problem. You have the best of best people around you. All the CEOs are the best of best Indians in a way. And if their creative juices don't flow, they're not getting any suboptimal solution. But in our case, we saw that by having NASSCOM as a trusted, neutral, independent platform, which consciously was nurtured, and we still nurture it, where a small company, large company, product company, service company, MNC, Indian company, all are equal in some sense. Everybody has an equal voice. And we encourage people to talk, so large companies don't carry their voice, or the celebrity CEOs don't carry their voice. You listen, you respect all that, but overall arrive at a decision which is good for the industry or good for India.
Yes, that was very interesting, actually. Lots of parallels, and how other industries can also follow the same route. That united front, you know, and how these swift policy decisions and the importance of consensus all of it, I think, drove that setting. So, what are some of the core values that may serve as the guiding principles when creating a representative body of NASSCOM’s stature or a ‘think tank’ for any industry? Could you elaborate on those?
We have about nine, I would say such values, which work in sync, what have made NASSCOM a success. These are – no personal agenda, collaborate and compete, keeping India first, growth mindset, proactive consultative policymaking, robust conflict resolution processes, sense of ownership, and so on. So, I'll just talk about the first four. Now the first is, let's say, no personal agenda. Now it was very clear to us that in order to build an ecosystem, we need to have no one or two groups, what do you call, monopolising the policymaking process. So, every policy has to be provided a level playing field in the country. And we believed very strongly that it's a theory of abundance, that if we all contribute and grow the industry pie, there is more for us to grow, as well as we allow new ones to take birth. So, with that as a thought process or principle behind it, we said we cannot let the personal agenda get mixed up. And that has to start from the ground level up. So, a simple thing like, we will not pay anyone's expenses for travel to attend the meetings. Or anyone gives a presentation about a particular issue, he or she cannot use his company's brand name in the slides, very simply saying that you are on a neutral, independent platform where your company’s brand should not be mixed up with that. Again, to give another story here. Prime Minister's Office had taken a delegation to Russia – Pharma Association and the IT Association. So, NASSCOM and there was a pharma association. Now, when our turn came for the presentation, Som Mittal who was the President of NASSCOM, normally he would do the presentation. But Som looked around and he saw Harsh Manglik, Chairman of NASSCOM and also Chairman of Accenture India, present, so he said, “Harsh should give the presentation, he's the Chairman of NASSCOM.” So Harsh said fine, but then he looked around and he saw N. Chandra who is now Tata Sons Chairperson. He was TCS CEO. He said, “The largest company in India is TCS, their CEO is with us, so Chandra should give the presentation.” So, they approached Chandra and he said, “Yes, I'll do it.” Then they said, “but, in this presentation, there are four case studies of your competitors. Would you give it?” Without blinking, he said, “Yes, I am speaking on behalf of India.” So, when the Prime Minister's Office saw this, they were completely, what do you call, surprised at the behaviour of these individuals.
The other value we can talk about is collaborate and compete. Now in our case, the collaborate and compete goes, we extend it. We say it is keeping India first or industry first, be consensus-driven, with no personal agenda to be mixed up there. And also, when we do come up with a consensus, we try our best to end up with the highest common denominator, not the lowest common denominator. Because it's very easy, when some little, tricky issue is there, people tend to go to the lowest common denominator and maybe take no action at the lowest level. While we would like to confront the issue, explore it, and see if we can find a solution. So, try to get an optimal solution. And I can again tell you one anecdote here about how that collaborate and compete works. There was a time when the government didn't allow 100% ownership by MNCs in India. Now, our customers are MNCs, basically. So, they approached us saying, “would you allow 100% ownership for our back-office operations? It's a back office, it is our internal confidential stuff, we cannot give it to third-party service provider. Anyway, and we know your talent because you guys are doing a great job with us here. So, we would like to come to India and leverage your labour arbitrage benefit, as well as the talent available in India.” It made sense to us but again, we were all worried. If they come, they'll take away our people by paying double the salary, even the business we're doing with them now, that may also, under some garb, will get shifted to the back office. So, we'll be the big losers. But on the other hand, we also realised that they'll bring in quality processes, which we were not familiar with in those days. They will bring in HR processes, infrastructure processes, number of best practices that MNCs have developed, we’ll have access to it indirectly, and that will help us also. So that debate was going on, somebody remarked, saying that, “How do you take a decision when two major conflicting thought processes are there?” Somebody at that point said, “Whoever develops human capital of India is us, us meaning NASSCOM. And who doesn't develop human capital is not us. Even an Indian company, if they're not developing human capital, they're not us.” So, who is us? Normally, it was India-based company, as a very simplistic way of looking at it. So, we changed the definition to human capital-based. So, we went to Dr. Manmohan Singh, who was the finance minister then, and said we recommend 100% ownership for allowing MNCs for the back-office operations. Now that particular decision today has 1,800 R&D centres in India, employing 1.2 million engineers. Today, they are co-creating future with their parent companies, which is the highest level of work that our industry also aspires to do. And some of them already started doing it. So that's the collaborate and compete, solving a very different problem, creative juices flow to solve a problem, and almost an impossible problem gets solved, which benefits everybody.
The third value I talked about, let's say, is the growth mindset. When we started, we were, let's say about 100 million, we started dreaming of a billion dollars. So, when we met Mr. Vittal, he says, “Do you know how many zeros are in a billion?” But we, coming from an industry that is technology driven, so 10x thinking is built into us in that sense. Because we like to aim high, and then work backward. As CK Prahalad would say, “Fold the future back.” So, then you work out the roadmap and work towards this, look at the entire ecosystem of reaching that number, and number of activities get started in parallel. So, that US$1 billion ambition came in. When we started NASSCOM, we didn't have this vision of US$200 billion, even a billion was a big number. It kept on evolving as the time passed. So, when we crossed five billion, we started dreaming of 50 billion. So, Mckinsey was roped in to come up with a sturdy plan. They came back actually with the whole US$50 billion plan, saying how industry can reach and what are the roles and responsibilities of every stakeholder of the industry. So, from education, policies, infrastructure, industry, all that was spelled out reasonably well. So that became a sort of a guidebook for everyone to follow. If that is the vision we have, let's go after it. And that allowed, whenever the growth came – in our industry, the growth came for every new technology wave coming in. And then growth will come like a steep curve. And if you are not ready with either a full infrastructure and the people, you can't scale, you will be bogged down. Like today also, digitalisation has gotten us a huge opportunity, we don't have enough skills. So, we are not able to capture the sudden growth which may... So that would have happened at that time also. But we were ready to capture the maximum growth potential for us. So, that I would say, the growth mindset or dreaming big or thinking big, is absolutely essential. And we all know in management that if you don't grow, it starts stagnating and all other negatives that go with it.
And the fourth is proactive consultative policymaking. There are so many such technologies relevant for India to accelerate towards becoming digital India. So, startups to Digital India to technology services industries, all these advanced technologies, like when we started ‘what is software’, policymakers didn’t know. Today, there are 18 such words, which industry, I'm sorry, policymakers don't know. What is crypto, what is genomic sequencing, what is blockchain? How many policymakers would deeply understand to come up with a policy? It’s impossible. In our industry, we don't have it, forget about them. So, it has to be a consultative process of policymakers, industry, subject matter experts, thought leaders, coming up with, you can say a plan, and it will be a sort of flexible plan to come up for government to implement. So, I believe very strongly that proactive consultative [policymaking] is the way to go. It also means that we need to build the capacity and the capability of policymakers in the newer technologies. There are lots of other things to be done in parallel, for proactive policy to become effective.
Absolutely! All these stories and examples speak of actual change in a way. So, as you rightly said, amalgamation of all these values together, I believe, would have the potential for any true impact, and other industries could definitely learn from that. Okay, so moving on, while the ‘technopreneurs’ are busy making their mark in the field of fintech, what should they be mindful of, in your opinion?
Well, I'm not a fintech expert. However, I do have passive investment in some fintech companies. So, as an outsider, I would say, industry has enjoyed an explosive growth over the last many years. And there is a potential of same growth to be maintained over the next decade, let’s say. However, I do see that the fintech as an industry, multiple views I hear… each successful fintech player has their own view about where the industry should be going, which is very confusing. So, there is a need, as per me, that fintech industry should create a platform equivalent to NASSCOM. A platform where small companies, large companies, niche companies, come together under one umbrella and have a single voice for the industry. And once you succeed in doing it, also develop a vision for the industry. It should be an India-centric vision, not copying a western model. Because Indian needs are different as we all know, affordability is number one criteria for 1.3 billion to come mainstream on the finance side. So, keeping some of those Indian challenges in mind, they should develop a vision where… and of course, second, I will say India's a very diverse country, so the needs are quite different in different segments. So, the vision should be to allow innovation-driven entrepreneurs, not only to take birth, but also nurture them. Similarly, for social entrepreneurs, rural entrepreneurs, to be encouraged to come up in the fintech world. So, my sense is that if that happens, it will be so easy to carry regulators, policymakers, opinion makers, influencers, and it will hopefully create a very positive, healthy environment, and an ecosystem in parallel will keep developing which will ensure that the explosive growth they have enjoyed over the last many years will continue. So, that would be my first suggestion that these technopreneurs should be mindful of. This association or the platform, forum – whatever one calls it, will help [in] multiple ways. For example, today, most of the fintech players are funded by VCs and the VCs have funding coming in from Indian investors and foreign investors. Now, substantially again, I would say, foreign investors. So foreign investors’ primary focus is wealth creation. Now, there will be many situations in India, where one will have to probably sacrifice short-term profit for the long-term gain. The question then is, will these foreign investors agree to such a game plan? To me, this platform, which is sort of independent, neutral, will help a lot in coming up with a composite view, carrying every player, which is beneficial to both individual player as well as to the industry.
Another way to look at it is, today we hear murmurs about startup entrepreneurs not following minimum corporate governance standards. Now, if this… if that message or that signal gets amplified, government high hand will come in, and in order to control the few, large number of innocents will get hurt. That's my experience. So, for example, take Reserve Bank of India, few years back came up with a… when they sensed that the crypto industry is not aligned to India strategy, they came up with a regulation, and overnight crypto entrepreneurs went out of business. So again, if this platform emerges as a self-regulatory body, I think it can minimise many of such unpleasant reactions.
Completely agree with that. India-centric innovation, I think, is key at the moment. And, yeah, they have to come up with things which are solving a real problem in that sense, specific to our culture and needs.
So, as we move towards the end of this conversation, Mr. Mehta, are there any leadership lessons you’d like to share for leaders of tomorrow, while they attempt to build a brand for themselves in the middle of fierce competition, and, of course, as they manage multiple stakeholders?
Enough has been talked about it, in some sense, about this particular subject. And the management schools are teaching beautiful… I mean a number of things that are required for entrepreneurs to be global. I think one suggestion I would give is, what I have learnt from my experience, is when you are at the peak of your career, and if you spend at least 10% of your time building the industry, building the ecosystem, in the long run, it's a win-win for all. Because when you build the ecosystem, what happens is, you are not only growing the ecosystem, in a sense, the overall market and the size, and the infrastructure needed. So, there is more for you to grow as well as the new ones to take part. So that 10% time leverage is many, many times for the segment as a whole. So, if we look at the IT industry, which was 52 million, now it is $220 billion. Substantially, it happened because of like 30% compounded growth, each company enjoying the benefit, plus 3,000 new companies have taken birth. So, the big guys have benefitted, and the small companies have benefitted, and it has given a balanced growth. And the small ones who have taken birth, they are adding nice, what do you call, specialised niches into the marketplace, which again helps the big companies who are growing also equally fast. So, there's a huge value add from that perspective of, by sharing the pie, the pie gets bigger for you, as well as new ones take birth. So that would be my suggestion, that you spend 10% of your time at the peak of your career, when your creative juices are at the peak, in essence that you want to change the world when you are young, and please do so. So, as the entire ecosystem expands, you will scale many manifolds over the next 20 years. It may not be very apparent in the first two-three years, but when the economy of scale comes in and the ecosystem develops, you would be amazed how it will be beneficial to you also.
Then you must have a very strong value of identifying noise versus signal. So as a result, when IT industry took birth and was growing, the BPO industry, we could sort of see it in the horizon. It could have been killed if we had assumed it’s a noise, but we assumed it’s a signal. With our analysis, we allowed that segment to grow and then the BPO took off. Same thing happened with the R&D centres, same thing happened with many such segments kept on coming up, because we could identify signal versus noise, because every signal had a potential to give billion dollars, create 10,000 jobs in the country. So, we didn't want to miss out those signals. So that again, identifying signal and noise would be applicable throughout the world. Anybody. If you look at… of course, then some few common things are like sense of ownership, that you must have. It’s not just because it is a nonprofit doesn't mean it is a third party. But if you have a sense of ownership, you behave like the CEO of that company, again, you start taking decisions in a very different way, which are very frugal in nature in some way, and efficient, which helps everyone.
Here’s what I’ve learnt from this conversation. An ecosystem constitutes multiple stakeholders and despite stiff competition, it is possible to collaborate, when guided by a singular vision. We heard that an institution driven by shared values and trust, along with proactive consultative policymaking is likely to go a long way in delivering impactful outcomes.
The power of collective wisdom can never be overstated. Perhaps it’s time that more such neutral, independent platforms are encouraged to chart out the next chapter in India’s growth story.
And on that note, I would like to thank you for your valuable insights and time today. It was truly lovely having you with us, Mr. Mehta!
Thank you, Rajshree. It was a pleasure to share my views.
Get both the founder and the funder’s view on India’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem from Priya Mohan of Venture Highways, as she unlocks the secrets to the startup world.
‘There's plenty of fish in the sea’ was perhaps written for the ‘Startup-Verse.’ In an era of startups taking birth by the day and dying by the night, pitching is anything but effortless. The days of pitching in VC space as a mere submission of a business plan are over. Those were the days when a VC will listen to your pitch, get excited, and after brief research on the industry, the idea is sold. Today, it means visualising the future and asking the right questions to yourself before you pitch an idea. Like, how will a scaled-up version of your venture look like? What challenges you are likely to face? And, how to overcome those? How will the teams align with changing priorities in future? And will you be able to make an impact in your chosen space? Hi, I am Smriti Sharma, representing ISB’s Management Rethink—an online management practice journal published bi-monthly, by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In today's session, as we discuss the thriving startup ecosystem in India, and answer some of these burning questions, we at Management Rethink are excited to have with us Priya Mohan, founder turned investor at Venture Highway. Welcome to ISB’s Management Rethink’s podcast, Priya.
Thanks a lot. And I really appreciate you guys being patient with my time and I am finally glad to be here.
Yes. Likewise. I will start with the questions, and first things first. So, how has pitching evolved over the past few years? And in what ways has the growing competition affected pitching an idea?
Actually, let's take a step back. I think, pitching to me is a tactic. Let me put it out there. It's part of the process of fundraising, it's part of the process and pitching actually is not just about fundraising. You pitch to all the important stakeholders as a startup founder. You pitch to an investor for fundraise, you pitch to your first few team members and if you want a smart person joining you, they need to be convinced about the idea and convinced about working with you, you pitch to customers. To me, all of this comes under pitching, where one pitching is a pitch to investors. And I feel you can't be good at one, alone and not be good at the other two. And how has pitching evolved over the last few years? A couple of interesting data points I would like to share with you. I think the first thing we need to note is the culture of startups has really taken off in India. Five years ago, the pool of first-time founders or the pool of founders itself was small. Our risk appetite culturally, as a country, was more towards either going abroad if you come from one of the top institutions, or, and if you see, almost all the top engineering talent are from India and some of the biggest unicorns in the US, all joining a corporate, or joining a consulting- the McKinsey or a Bain.
But today where I see, just the number of people building companies from their dorm rooms, and we have two of our portfolio companies where the founders raised money even before they completed college. And we have been in touch with them since. And to me, it signals a change of culture—which is, risk appetite is increasing. The younger folks today, are willing to take bolder, bigger bets and they're actually completely fearless compared to what I was when I started off as a founder. So that translates into the pitching as well. They are able to present a big picture. And it also translates into the number of people coming into startups and hence the number of pitches that we see as VCs. So, these are the two differences that I have seen in the startup ecosystem from when I was a founder about five-six years ago, to now being a VC sitting on the other side and hearing pitches. The other part is that the quality of the founders has also significantly gone up. And this is largely to do with the ecosystem. Earlier, when the pool (was) smaller, the number of first-time founders, literally, you had the number of founders you can count on hands... like you look at Sanjeev Bikhchandani of Info Edge and Naukri or you look at Paytm, or you look at Ola and literally few companies, which raised multiple rounds of funds. And when the pool is small, the access to all founders to reach out to these guys are also limited. But today as the ecosystem is evolving, you see companies spread out from seed series A, series B, so there is enough depth at each of these stages. There are enough number of failed founders as well for the ecosystem and the newer founders to leverage and learn from. So, they don't have to always call the guy who's become a unicorn, who has raised series D. They have a friend who has just raised a seed from Sequoia, or they have just raised a seed from Elevation or Venture Highway, and they can take tips and they can learn. They have a friend they can call, saying, boss, how do I structure my first ESOP ? So, that’s the depth of the ecosystem has also gone up. So, the quality of founders has increased, the depth of the ecosystem has gone up. Now, what else? When you're talking about growing competition affecting pitching as an idea, I think actually, it's not a negative thing. It's a positive thing, which I explained, which is, as the ecosystem has increased in depth, and number of or the high-quality founders have increased, I think the quality of the pitching will increase because today, you don't have to be the...you don't have to go to an investor without actually speaking to five of your network, or your friends. So, I think the depth in the ecosystem actually will make pitching even better.
So, the current competitive environment allows everyone to thrive?
I wouldn't say that there is room for everybody. Obviously, when you are pitching an idea in a competitive market, then, you know, there are certain factors that you have to keep in mind. There's the quality of the team, the quality of the idea itself. Overall, (the) quality of founders and overall quality of ideas, and pitch has gone up.
Got it. So quality is the key word here.
Are there any common pitfalls that startup founders should be mindful of? And if we just look at your experience, what are some of the do's and don'ts that founders need to know before they get ready with their big pitch?
Look, I think the first thing I would advise is, for founders is, and I'll break it down into two parts: one, some interesting tactics that they can adopt before they come and pitch an idea. The other part is what do investors look for in a good pitch, I think both of these will be useful. The first part is: look, always have a set of critical friends, or experienced folks, if you can access, to give you initial feedback. People who will tell you what you don't want to hear and give you critical advice. Because it's very important to kind of, and this I'm addressing to (the) first time founders, not the second time founders who probably have had the experience and who bring in that… having learned from their mistakes before, or their successors before. So, always reach out to an ecosystem and fine tune your pitch based on… with your friends and your network who probably can give you relevant advice in this. The second thing is, always remember, when you go to an investor, and again, I'm only talking about seed, the first-time pitch, in the seed, which is where I have experience in. I think the goal is, how do you peel your story like an onion? Don't come with an information overload to anybody. Your first goal is, can I impress this person enough that they are going to be giving me a second meeting. So, always do a top-down, thinking, big picture. And, there is a great segue into one of the most important things that investors look for in a pitch, is clarity of thought. You will be surprised how many founders take at least till five, six slide, seven slide to say what they are doing. So, building that story, can you talk? Can you tell me a story? Can you build a meaningful chain of thought of what you're building, the problem statement? What is the gap the customer is facing? How are you planning to fix it? And why do you have the right to win in this market? To be able to stitch together a story like that, is very important. And in all this when I am sitting on the other side listening to you, I look for a couple of things. One is, what is your unique insight? What is it that you're telling me that very few others know? And what is your right to it? Why are you going to succeed in this? What is your spike? And the third thing, is what is the kind of team you have assembled? Because I evaluate founders together. What kind of capability is baked into the founding team? So, these are the three-four things that has to come out in a pitch.
I think every founder has to bring a novelty or a USP along with the idea as well as the team for it to be a successful pitch.
Yeah. What I would say is clarity of thought. That's very important.
Okay, great. You switched from being a founder to an investor and a mentor, if I may say so. So how challenging was the transition and what learnings would you like to share?
It is a very… two very different roles. While it's a very tough job, because with all due respect, when I was on the other side, as a founder, I've heard so many ‘nos.’ Often I wonder, I had quite a few funny things to say about my current brethren in the VC space. But now having come this side, I know the challenges. And one thing I'd like to start with saying, just because you're a great operator, does not necessarily make you a great investor. There are very different frameworks, they are different mental models. But being a founder gives you certain advantages, which you can use, which is, I think, today, I'm able to relate to some of the challenges that founders go through because I've gone through that. Now, does that mean that I am going to be (the) person in picking the right company that's going to become a unicorn tomorrow? Not necessarily. That’s probably going to give me better access, better communication, better engagement with my founders. But the framework that I need to adopt as an investor, in evaluating my companies, is very different. So that's one of the biggest lessons I learned. The second thing: the first six months, transitioning from a founder to investor, is that as a founder, you are generally optimistic. Right? Unfortunately, you can't have that exuberant optimism all the time as an investor. Because when I used to meet founders, I am always thinking, how would I execute this? How can I make this work? But as an investor, what you need to understand is you are not in the driver's seat. The girl or (the) guy is actually going to be on the driver's seat and your evaluation is, is this team going to be the team that's going to build the next big thing? So, these are some of the things… it took me a bit to kind of transition. But what I realised is (that) there are some learnings from me being a founder that I could bring in as a VC. And I hate to use the word empathy- it's almost like people use empathy, as if it's a special thing. Everybody should have empathy. Everybody should have like… safe spaces and being able to help founders. So, I am not going to talk about empathy. But what I can talk about is the fact that I have done B2B sales, that I have made mistakes in hiring my first five people, or the successes that I have seen in hiring, the successes I have seen in sort of building certain partnerships… these failures and successes are something that I am able to relate, from an operating perspective when founders pitch to me. And there are some common stuff, even though we are at different industries and different kinds of sectors that one can apply… at least from the common joke I have with my founders is, at least I can share the 500 mistakes that I made if I can't give you any good gyan (advice). And I think that's something that I personally leverage when I speak to my founders. And the last thing is for me, that I'm very respectful of founders’ time. And I have been on the other side, I think it's a very vulnerable position, right? You have no validation. It's a very, very hard job. You are alone, most of the time. You are like setting your own path. When you come and pitch, I think it's very important for me and the Venture Highway team, we are very aligned to saying that, how do I make sure that that half an hour or one hour that the founder spends with us, we give maximum value, and we actually elevate the quality of the conversation, regardless of whether this is going to lead to a transaction or not. So, I think these are the few things that I bring on, probably with my own experience as a founder. But I also humbly state that look being an investor, is a very different ballgame. Also, I realised, we underestimate some things from a founder’s (side). See, when I was on the other side, the founder is not expecting you to agree with what he says all the time. What he wants to know is your feedback. What he wants to know, or she wants to know is, if you are saying a no, can you give me two reasons why you are saying no, so that I can go back and work on it. Those are nuances that if you actually bring, they really appreciate it.
So, feedback is very important...
Absolutely. You yearn for feedback.
Yeah. And also, do you really have to consciously pull yourself, you know, from your thought process, like you said, you have been on both the sides of the table… where they are coming from, their struggles, and the validation that they are seeking? That no, you know, I'm not in the driver's seat, like you rightly said, you're just sitting at the backseat, but you just need to know if the car is moving in the right direction.
So, that's a great point, right? Like, I think it's hard to kind of break down and say that look, this is step one, step two, step three, step four that I do. But what… and I can talk about my personal journey again, with all humility and I am four years (old) as an investor and investing is a long game, right? Some of the guys are veterans in the field and they have seen booms and busts and cycles and all that. So, I am just going to say that in my limited experience, some of the things that I use is that, I am not afraid to kind of… in a board call, to say things which I feel, you know, need to be spoken about, or bringing to fore… because at the end of the day, founders also look at the board as a sounding board. But having said that, you need to do that with full respect of the fact that, given the ultimate decision makers are the founders, we will take your data point and do what they think is best for the company. But for you to be able to say your mind, and to be able to kind of sometimes bring some challenges or ask the right questions, you need to build a safe space and trust. And founders need to respect you and know that you are coming from the right space for you to ask those questions. And that's something that I personally try and build with, at least my founders and my teams, to say that look, whatever I say, you can know that I am coming from a place of caring, and I am deeply invested in the growth of the company. And I think most investors aspire to do that. The second thing is, I am very happy to work with founders on specific projects or areas if they need me. So, for example, having built teams before, like, if they want to take my view on an org chart, or do a couple of interviews—love doing those, love doing customer dipsticks and giving my perspective on founders. That is why we are very wedded to zero to one. Zero to one is something that I enjoy. I think the DNA, the kind of journeys that you go through in zero to one is very, very different from the rest. Because it's a path that you are setting for the first time. Very often, you are yet away from product market fit (PMF) right? So, you are firing on 100 cylinders there. You are experimenting, that's the part that I love. And in specific areas, on a need basis, I am happy to roll up my sleeves and help. And that's where kind of my execution needs, also get satiated, to some extent.
How do you deal with difference of opinion? I am sure, there are difference of opinions that also happens within the investors group as well. So how do you reach to a certain middle point? Is there a framework there as well? Or do you just think, at the spur of the moment, and just go with your gut feeling?
No. So I think investing… at... an investing very early, very early… when you are evaluating a company, it's a combination of gut...and I think it's an art and science. There’s no real…You have to listen to your gut, some of the best outcomes that come from… when you listen to your gut. I don't think board calls or speaking your mind can come from like... you can't speak off your gut, and you can't speak off your head. I think most of us are…like…Fairly, I would say my experience of my fellow investors and founders, they are fairly seasoned. So, these are thought through points, they don't just get spoken off the head. The other thing is, I have been incredibly lucky, Smriti. Like, I have had the privilege of sitting on boards with investors who are veterans. And at least in my experience, I have never had a feeling where I have not been able to say my piece and it's not taken in. Now, that is important. As a board, your job is to democratise points of view. Your job is not to constantly work on a consensus, because you can't build companies with just consensus. But you need to democratise point of views. You need to hear everybody's data points. Ultimately, it is left to the founders to do what is best for the companies. And where there's been difference, I think, it depends on how big those differences are. How does it impact the company? How does it impact the stakeholders, before you take a call on how those differences are handled? Generally, any difference, say in an operating matter or a thought process on how a customer is handled, is best left to the operating team. Because as an investor, you are not sitting on that seat, they are sitting on that seat. But there are certain other areas on… where it's important to address every other stakeholder and I think that's handled very contextually. So again, like I said, my personal experience, even though I am a fairly newbie in this, I think I have been...I have had the privilege of working with some of the best minds and it's always been very open, safe space and people say their piece without fear of any kind of... being (mis)taken or misunderstood. And I think founders are very open and generally if the right kind of chemistry is created in a boardroom, I think you can create magic.
You know, that also brings me to the point that, how important it is to have a purpose in one’s entrepreneurial journey and create an impact in the chosen space?
I mean, that's a rhetoric. I think it's very important to have purpose in life. But look, having said that, very honestly, I think purpose is a very big word. And I can tell you the purpose that I defined as a 20-year-old self, is very different from the purpose I am defining at a 40-year-old self, and it will be very different when I turn 50.
So, each of our life experiences and the stage we are in life, we will redefine purpose. But when you are starting a company, whatever age, I think even the youngest founders... like my youngest founders are 23-24, their purpose statements are phenomenal. They want... they start with a very large vision, they want to like…for an entire customer segment. It's not… what I've realised... And that's what I said, the quality of thinking, and fearlessness has certainly increased, that people are looking at very broad, bold statements. So that itself to me is a purpose. Then, as you grow older, when you combine it with a purpose of self, and purpose of what you want to be as an individual, I think it becomes deeper. So absolutely, I think there needs to be purpose. But you just have to understand that purpose is different at different stages of your life.
True. Do you think young entrepreneurs are more risk takers? And when rubber hits the ground, it becomes different?
Not at all. I think there is no generalisation, or age based... at least in my experience, I have a fairly diverse group of founders across age groups in my kind of portfolio. I don't see a big difference. I think, look, it depends on the founder’s personality. As a founder, you need to be as good in execution because idea is just one percent. But having that big idea is very important to execute to a large outcome. That's why I say very often to some of my friends in close groups, that not every business needs to be a VC business. You can build very good wealth by building a small business which is extremely profitable, and where you can build your personal wealth. It takes a certain DNA to build a very large outcome business. And there's no right, or wrong. I think so one of the things that I personally feel is, it is important for an individual to realise, what is their personality suited for? And going back to your purpose question, what do they really want to do? And not really get carried away because x people are doing x things. So that's what I would like to see.
Great. How did you find your purpose after your role reversal? Being a founder, one is thrifty, while as an investor, one seeks returns on every single dime. So how were you able to switch modes and adapt? And also, if you can share an example from your journey where you found yourself in a fix as an investor, even though you fully, I would not say empathised, but related to the founder’s plight?
Oh. Well, let me answer the first one. Like for me, let me step back, when I joined as an investor, I am an accidental VC. I think like, and I say this to almost everybody, it's not like I planned to become an investor. It happened. I loved working with Samir and Neeraj and the Venture Highway team. The platform has been phenomenal to me, I loved building this platform. So, it all happened organically. But to me, the purpose is, frankly, like I said, the stage and age that I am in, I don't think one can set monetary or returns as a purpose because that's incidental. You do the right thing, that will happen. I think the purpose for me, is to become or make Venture Highway the go-to destination for seed funds. Anybody with zero to one, good quality founders, to be able to partner with them, and work with them in tandem and be witness to some amazing, impactful organisations coming out of India. That's my purpose. And the purpose is also how do we, as a fund, work hard and building that trust and work hard in working with our founders, in kind of helping them create great companies? And imagine creating great companies means thousands of employment and the way it impacts the economy as a whole. So that's my purpose. Personally, also for me, as an individual, couple of areas or value systems I am very particular, that we want to foster, I want to foster, at least in the VC ecosystem, and I can say that we do that at Venture Highway is that, look, it's very important to own your vulnerability, it’s very important to be able to be comfortable in your skin and say, I don't know. And you will be surprised how people actually open up when you are as transparent and as open and upfront about things. And I have seen this with my fellow investors, I have seen this with my founders, I think you go with the right intent, people… I think we underestimate that. So that's personally a purpose, which is, create safe spaces, be open about what are your own gaps, be open about... see at the end of the day, we are all humans, and we are all fallible. And I think if you are open and transparent about it, I feel like you can build some amazing, real, authentic partnerships. So, authenticity is another piece, that's very important. And I think we should really incentivise people to be more authentic in the ecosystem. Some examples, many times, there will be cases where the alignment of interest, or the purpose of a fund kind of, can diverge from the personal goals, or the things of the founder. I think in all this, it comes back to, like I said, the quality of relationships that you have been able to build, the ability to kind of be open and honest, and solve it in a contextual manner. So, I have gone through this and like I said, I have never been afraid of saying, my thought process with the founders. And fortunately, I think our relationship has never weakened, despite that. So, I think it's important to set that culture and set that stage upfront, when you are partnering with them.
Do you also think being vulnerable in front of investors as a founder...does that work always, or sometimes things can go downhill as well?
You see, when I say vulnerable, the first thing people think is you are like exposing your weaker self. It's not that. It doesn't mean you are not strong if you are exposing your vulnerability. When I use the term vulnerable, it is to say, that look, I can make a mistake, too. I have bad days, too. I have made mistakes before, I have screwed up too. I think, it really for me, personally, removes the need to put up a bravado, and put up a front all the time. I can really focus on problem solving. Like I said, I am very comfortable, or at least the stage that I am in, I am fortunate and lucky to say I am comfortable in my skin. And I say what is truly needed to be said then, without having to put up. And I have been very fortunate to have stakeholders who accept it. It is just that I urge people to not mistake vulnerability or being authentic as a... it’s not mutually exclusive to from not being brave or showing your weakness. That's not the way to assume.
Yeah. I think it takes courage to admit where you may falter, or you can falter.
Absolutely. And I think if you are... you have the power to steer that.
What is the most coveted piece of advice you would want to share with those at a very crucial juncture of scaling up?
That's a very interesting question. Scaling up means different things to different people. Again, like I said, two important things: please be intellectually honest; don't stick on to an ideology, be nimble. Be willing to change your point of view when new data presents itself and be clear about what you want to build, and the kind of metrics you want to follow. And, more importantly, when you are thinking of building for the company, this original vision that you had, or what you want to do from a customer perspective or a problem solving, make sure that you stick to that original goal. While as people who sit on boards and important positions, you are forced to navigate multiple stakeholders and multiple needs of various things, I think it is very important sometimes to come back to the drawing board, go back to the basics. And think about what is it that you really want? So, in some cases, it could be growth, in some cases, it could be engagement. That's why I said you need to be intellectually honest and stick to what you really want to believe. I know it's a little abstract, because it's very hard to give a framework. There are different needs for different businesses. I think that's what I would advise founders to do.
No, I think that's very authentic and very real piece of advice. Are there any parting thoughts that you would like to share, something that you think our listeners should know?
Two things: one is, I have already highlighted, please be authentic. I think it really helps cut out a lot of mindshare and building a certain image that you don't really have. The second thing is, I have always followed this policy and it's really worked. Ask, clarify! What is the worst thing people will say? No... So what?
How much do you think luck really plays (a role)?
Oh. Huge. Huge… When people say I have had an outcome I have… of course, we are all here because of a certain amount of merit, hardwork, and all the fancy colleges we went. But it will be really naive of me, if I said luck doesn't play (a role). Of course, life is probabilities. But the more hard work you do, the more doors you open, the more people you ask, you increase the probability. But definitely, luck plays a role. And that also constantly reminding yourself of that luck, randomness, God, whatever you call, it is important to stay humble, because you have to reset that probability every time you do something. And we say that in the investment term… you learn more from failures than success.
True. And luck maybe called as serendipity. But it's definitely not fluke, right?
Well, in some cases, it can be a fluke, Smriti. But in most cases where it is well deserved, or people perceive it to be well deserved, it is a combination of people knocking on multiple doors and serendipity happening. It's important to see a person's behavior after that has happened. And I think that kind of takes you to a different path.
As Priya says, when you are thinking of building a company, be authentic, be intellectually honest, and stick to your original vision as you navigate multiple stakeholders. It's about knowing what you want to do, be it from a customer perspective or a problem-solving perspective. And sometimes it is okay to come back to the drawing board and think about what is it that you really want? It could be growth, it could be engagement, or even both. Being authentic, asking the right questions, clarifying helps cut out a lot of mindshare. Succeeding in the entrepreneurial journey is a combination of people knocking on multiple doors and serendipity happening. And it is important to see a person's behaviour after that which leads one onto a path of growth. On that note, we come to an end of this podcast. Thank you so much for joining us.
My pleasure, Smriti. Thank you so much.
Learn how to make a gainful impact on society while also building capacity within an organisation. Tune in to our podcast with Rati Forbes of Forbes Foundation.
Economic growth and societal needs go hand in hand. As businesses progress, they are expected to address some of these needs such as education, health care affordable housing environment of those around them. Given that we are witnessing a game shift from pure corporate philanthropy and corporate social responsibility to the idea of creating shared value, a concept first developed by Michael E. Porter and Mark Kramer in 2011. A decade later, not only is this concept gaining momentum and its execution for the larger benefit of the public, but also is far more crucial than ever. Hi, I'm Smriti Sharma representing ISB’s management rethink—an online management practice journal published bi- monthly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In today's session, as we discuss the need to adopt the shared value approach and some of the more burning questions around this topic, we at Management ReThink are excited to have with us Rati Forbes, who heads the Forbes Foundation and is responsible for CSR and foundation activities across the Forbes Marshall group. Welcome to ISB Management ReThink’s podcast Rati. Could you start by shedding some light on this transition and why it is imperative today more than ever.
Thank you so much.It's a pleasure being here with you all. I really believe that inclusive growth is key to India's long-term development. It's really a no brainer that all sections of society participate in the development process. As without this, not only would economic development be excluding a huge and very important proportion of our population, but growth would never really reach its fullest potential. And I think now more than ever, industry has a direct responsibility to drive this agenda in every value-based ethical way possible. It's not just a good thing for industry to do, but it's in its best business interest as well. And we all know that COVID has only exacerbated the vulnerabilities in so many ways in society. So, issues like improving education outcomes, skilling, affirmative action, increasing female participation in the workforce, and a new social contract to cover most of our most vulnerable of labor force are some of the key issues I believe, we in industry have to focus on. I also think that companies need to focus on corporate social responsibility, not just because it has been mandated or made the law, but because it's our responsibility as good citizens. This is a philosophy actually in our own company that we have followed really since the late 60s, when my father-in-law first purchased the land from the farmers and set up the first factory. He strongly believed in the ethos of contributing meaningfully to the society we were now going to be a part of. And this was long before any kind of laws on CSR were around. Some of the earliest interventions that he thought were important to do, for example, family of the farmers were trained for shopfloor responsibilities, he supported better housing infrastructure in the community with individual toilets. He made sure that wives or women were trained in different skills, as he always believed that women played a key role as change maker in families. And we also had two social workers actually on our rolls in the 60s, much before all these approaches became the norm or were mandated. Now you will ask, where does this fit into business? But as you can well imagine, this has supported and helped our business in a myriad of ways.
You know, how the traditional mindset believes that businesses can either do good or be profitable. What are some of the challenges and barriers and adopting such an approach to business? And how can corporates align their business objectives to solve social problems and yet maintain their competitive edge that allows them to maximise shareholder value in today's time?
Sure, thank you. I'll first start with the challenges and limitations. There have been mindset changes, there have been shifts in attitudes, which are really good to see. And as a result, of course, positive impacts has happened. But I do believe that industry as a voice and as a powerful voice needs to focus on at least three aspects. The first is advocacy. While governments, businesses, NGOs, we can all work together to create varied initiatives, somewhere, these have to be perceived as useful and scalable. We need to create awareness about them, and demonstrate the utility of these programmes, and advocacy and awareness generation are key. And in the right circles as well, when I talk about advocacy. Second is supporting creative, innovative solutions. This is something that our foundation also supports in a very major way, even within a large NGO, if they want to pilot something that is innovative and creative, we give them the support for that. And we have many fine examples, especially in education and health, where we have supported an NGO, and where we have found that that has scaled, it has gone across different states, and even international foundations, in some cases have supported that initiative. And third, and finally, supporting capacity building of a varied kind in underserved, and more remote communities of our country, in a more thoughtful manner can lead to more sustainable impact. And by that, I mean, we need to understand needs, especially in rural and semi-rural communities, listen to the voice over there, and then help to build capacity in the way of leadership, in the way of basic skills such as financial management, the training of people, and so on and so forth. This leads only to more long-term, and positive impact and sustainable impact as well. You asked me for one actual example, and I will go to that, where we have looked at business and community and where it has been a win-win, I would believe for both. This is an initiative which we have termed as our shared value initiative or the shared value approach. In our company, it's been in place for the past three years. This approach was conceptualised with the intention of helping young engineers who are from socially or economically vulnerable families, especially from semi-rural areas, enhance their skills, and enabling them to find jobs and have careers. The second consideration, of course, was that needed to have a positive impact on our own business. And to that end, we have conversations internally, trying to understand opportunities and challenges in our business. One of the first ones we zeroed in on was the annual maintenance contracts. So, as we were unable to effectively service the customer with an AMC or an annual maintenance contract, like the site where the installation was very far and remote, we could not spare people from our head office team to travel all the way. Sometimes it was a very simple issue, and it really wasn't worth the time and effort. And it was almost a drain on the resources of our company. But so, what we've done is with the help of local NGOs, we have trained batches of engineers in different parts of the country where we have sites. This training is over a three-month period. And on completion of the training, I'm really delighted to say that 96% have been either absorbed by third party contractors, they have become entrepreneurs on their own. And they continue to service our requirements too, at local sites. And what we do is nine to twelve months after the conclusion of training, we track qualitative as well as quantitative indicators and, in every case, there's been a positive impact. So, we look at enhancement of income, we look at qualitative indicators in their own homes, what has changed as a result of this?
Did you also find it challenging to convince the parents and the families of these children to send their youth to get trained and skilled?
I think it strangely we found that the challenge was really one where there was a thirst for knowledge, and there was a thirst for livelihood. When you're in a very vulnerable situation, I think, income, any amount, any steady source of income is a very important one, obviously. We also found that it was interesting in certain geographies, that the local youth wanted to stay there only, whereas in others, like for example, our batch from Pune, they were ready to move out. So, we have found that if we want to continue this kind of a model, it's good to recruit people from local areas because more often than not, there is a comfort level in your own local area. And I think in India as well, we are not still a very migratory kind of a population like in the US, you hear of people changing cities for five or like six times. You don't hear of that so often in India. So, yes.
And did you find it more challenging to convince the parents of the females? Because when we talk about traditional mindsets, there is a lot of reluctance among parents of the females to send their girls out.
So, we definitely found that all our batches, quite honestly had many more men. But we find a changing trend. So, as I said, the most recent batch in Pune, there were an equal number of women and men, and the women were also as ready to move out and go to site, etc. In fact, I think that they are ready but society and within the factories, we have to be ready also and shift our mindset a little bit around these issues.
Very true. Changing mindsets require factoring in both societal and organisational aspects. Moving on, how can corporates today don the role of change agents in achieving a collective impact driving the next wave of innovation and productivity in the global economy? And can you also highlight the role of other stakeholders and partners, especially the government, and the third sector in helping achieve this collective impact?
We have always believed that it's really beneficial to work alongside local government bodies, NGOs, as well as CBOs— those are smaller community-based organisations. Sometimes it is a more long winded and a bit frustrating. But I think corporates have to realise the importance of working with governments. And honestly, I think in 85 to 90% of cases, our experience has been extremely positive. A recent example, which I can give you Smriti, is the social contract initiative, which broadly aspires to ensure greater dignity and equity for.. the hope is for one million informal workers, working with ecosystems of companies across the country. We were one of the first companies to sign up for this initiative. It is so far in three cities, Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad. Basically, it was born out of the terrible plight we all witnessed on TV, and in the media, of migrant workers traversing unimaginable distances during the lockdown. And we all read those statistics that 78% of them had less than 300 rupees left in their pockets. 50% had rations left for less than one day. I could go on and on and about the shameful data we all read about and saw on TV, and the images we saw on TV. So, as a response to this, industry, NGO, and industry bodies and sector experts have come together. The key outcomes that we're all working towards are ensuring dignified living wages, maximising safety, ensuring health, gender equality, social security, and measures around that. We have taken steps in the last 18 months, we have set up already a migrant facilitation centre in the area where our main factory is, in Khed. And what is unique about our migrant facilitation centre is, it's not a static one. It's a mobile one as well. Again, it has been partnered with the Tata company and us. So, the Tata company provides the travel, the mobile van, and in the last six months already, there has been much impact. And when I talk about impact, it's helping migrants obtain basic cards such as Aadhaar, caste certificates, which are a must, before any scheme that they apply for can kick in. We've also had camps on Sundays, and on holidays and late in the evening to raise awareness about the various government schemes that are applicable to them, and then helping them to catalyse those schemes as well. Unless you have those base documents, sometimes that's not even known. Then, also this mobile facility service has delivered legal redressal where wages sometimes have not been paid, and so on and so forth. I really think more industries need to sign up. Size of industry, geography of the industry does not matter. We all need to come together somewhere to right this situation as well as we cannot expect government alone to work on this. So, it needs a collective action of NGOs, who are already working in this space, industries, industry bodies, so that we can have more and more industries coming together. And we found that it takes on different hues and colors depending on also the geography of our country, as well as the size of industry. So, one size can’t fit all. But I think it's an imperative for all of us whether even in small and medium sized enterprises to step up and do something about this issue.
You spoke about COVID, and rightly so. Would you also say that COVID gave the nudge that was needed for a long time for things to move in this direction?
Yes, I think COVID has really pushed many different players in society to think about issues in a different manner. So, I mentioned about the social compact, it's also many foundations have come together, where they are supporting small and medium sized NGOs. These NGOs had made a huge impact during COVID as we know. Distributing of rations or making sure that health parameters or medicines reached the most vulnerable in the most remote communities and smallest villages of our country. So, it was very clear that this kind of collective action has to really be pushed more and more into just our overall thinking and approach. And we've seen, honestly, during COVID, that it was that that made the greatest impact, and not when entities worked on a single basis. In fact, no entity really could manage to work just on its own, especially during this pandemic.
Yeah, true. And I think that is not just true for developing countries like ours, that is also true for developed nations, like the US and the UK. They all struggled, it's not like it is just an India story.
Correct and propelled many to take action, where they have not taken action earlier. And I only hope it sustain and continues.
So, while adopting the shared value approach, I was wondering if the size and the nature of the organisation matters?
I think, again, anybody can start. Even, you know, it is not common in engineering companies like ours to have this kind of an approach. We've heard about it in FMCGs, and we just had never considered it, honestly, within our own company. But only after we dialogued for a long time with people within our business verticals, did we realise that there are so many of these simple needs, that can be taken care of, by less fortunate by more vulnerable people, but at the same time, making sure that there was value to businesses as well. And I gave you only the example of the annual maintenance contract, within this year, for example, we will be rolling out two or three different versions of this. So, at the bedrock is still the shared value approach but taking that approach, we're looking at different areas that we can work in, with a similar vision.
Okay. Do you also feel that in certain sectors, in certain industries, this is more needed today than anywhere else? Like for instance, you said a lot of FMCG companies have been doing it from the very beginning and for engineering companies like even yours, to adopt such an approach was unheard of. So, do you feel there are any specific industry sectors which should be adopting this approach? Right away?
Absolutely. I think it's very doable. It's very, very doable. It just requires a little more thought. And honestly let me speak for myself. Five years ago, we had not given this much thought. But really, we thought this is not possible to do in an in a company like ours. And we have really made great headway in the last three years. And the hope is that the money or the financial return that the company has got, will go back into actually grant making and philanthropy rather than..as it grows, some could go back into company returns as well. But for now, we are hoping that whatever has come back, will go into further grant makings from our foundation.
Absolutely. As you have been in this field of creating a social impact through philanthropy and its related activities for over six decades now, and your family's equally involved. So what according to you are three key elements which are essential for success in the journey of creating a shared value and collective impact? Like, if someone were to replicate your business model, what lessons would you like to give them?
Well, I personally don't think we've done something so exceptional, but I will share some learnings with you. And the three key ones are, first, I think it's really important how the initiative itself is chosen. Has it evolved by listening to the voice of people rather than through a top-down approach, where a corporate or a more powerful stakeholder believes this is the thing to do? I believe in all cases, we need to listen to the voice of community. In any initiative, build capacity within them, if necessary, but that's the only way that they will be involved as the key stakeholder, and it leads to ownership, it leads to sustainability of any initiative, as well as much longer-term impact, even after the corporate or whoever's the funder or foundation exits. So, I think it's really important first, to listen to the voice of people, and not think that we know better than them, they really have much wisdom. And besides, they know what are the issues that they are facing locally, way better than we do. So that's a really a very, very important one. And we have often spent a lot of time on this particular aspect first. Second, I would say it's the kind of manner or approach you take in action and implementation. Sadly, in our country, we have many fine policies, and papers, as we all know, but not that many which have come off the paper and got acted upon. Many worthy initiatives also start with a big bang, then they fall by the wayside, because not enough thought has been given to the approach and the how will we do it part of it all. I can't overemphasise the importance of a good value match, ethics match and good governance through the whole process. And then third, also is the importance of good communication, very transparent communication at all levels. So, if the community or if the audience that you're working with does not know what you're doing, why you're doing it, and it isn't a collaborative sort of initiative, it will not really be a longer-term success. I think, also, we need to communicate transparently, but also have some sort of review mechanism. So, mid-course corrections if necessary. Everything can't go as we had planned from day zero. So, these mid-course corrections are very important, and can only happen again, if there is good communication and trust between all the stakeholders who are working on an initiative. For example, I'm having a dialogue with our entire team of different stakeholders around the social compact. And all of us are coming together for a six-month review, where we will look at what did we set out to do and what have we achieved so far, and then trying to mitigate the gaps, understand why those gaps happened, the challenges that occurred along the way, and basically also having a key end objective, that there's not any personal agenda in all of this. It's just for the greater good of whichever audience we are trying to work with.
As Rati said, it does not matter how big or small you are an organisation, what matters is your intent to lead social impact by listening to the voices of those in need. And once you're on a journey to create shared value, keep indulging in temperature checks to know you're on the right path and adopt corrective measures wherever needed. Maintain trust and transparent communication with all the stakeholders and have an end objective. The key to achieving greater goal after all lies in effectively leveraging resources to simultaneously improve societal and business needs, thereby achieving a larger positive impact on our society. And on that note, we come to an end of this session of our podcast. Thank you so much for joining us ready. Thank you.
Very nice to meet you too. Thank you.
Know how a collaborative professional ecosystem can play a crucial role in your career journey in our podcast with Mahua Mukherjee and Uma Kasoji of The star in me.
It is widely acknowledged that several systemic barriers hinder career advancement for women, and they often get the short end of the stick when it comes to growth opportunities as compared to men. A recent industry report highlights that one-third of women in Asia believe that gender biases hampered their professional growth due to lack of guidance and fewer opportunities. The report further corroborates that seeking a level playing field continues to be a top priority for women, with 43% of them on the lookout for equal opportunity employers.
Hi, I am Rajshree Shukla representing ISB’s Management ReThink—an online management practice journal, published bi-monthly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In today’s session, as we discuss the significance of a collaborative professional ecosystem, we at Management Rethink are excited to have Mahua Mukherjee and Uma Kasoji with us. The duo are entrepreneurs and the brains behind a women-centric, career advancement platform called ‘The star in me’. Through this venture, they partner with organisations and individuals to enhance the representation of women in leadership roles and ensure business effectiveness with diversity for organisations, alongside fulfilling individual aspirations.
Hi, Mahua! Hi Uma, welcome to the podcast! We are really excited to have you with us today!
Thanks, Rajshree. It is lovely to be here.
Thanks, Rajshree. It is our pleasure to be here with you.
I would like to begin by congratulating you both on starting this unique venture! Now, as founders of an exclusive women-centric platform that serves as a one-stop-shop for women looking for career advancement, what were the gaps that you saw and how did you aim to fulfill them?
One key insight, Rajshree, that we gained through our experience and interactions with women professionals around the world, is that women face two types of barriers on their journey to the top. One set of barriers are internal in nature, and the other barriers are external. What I mean by internal barriers are, our own self-limiting beliefs, lack of focus on visibility and branding, reluctance to move out of comfort zones, failing to build networks and so on. And external barriers include either societal barriers or organisational barriers, like unconscious bias, gender stereotyping, lack of strong female role models, etc. Hence, in fact, in order to bridge both these types of barriers, through The star in me, we work with both sides of the equation. So, on one side, we offer a variety of career advancement solutions to women professionals around the world, and on the other side, we partner with several multinational organisations to recruit, engage, and develop women talent.
In fact, you know, Rajshree, if I can add to what Uma just mentioned, while it may seem very fuzzy, our secondary and primary research has indicated that there are structured interventions, which if applied in a systemic manner, can actually make a lot of difference to our career trajectories. And by the way, I wanted to emphasise that the interventions needed are very different depending on the career stage. During an early career, the kind of navigation challenges that one faces are very distinct from what one might possibly face in mid-career versus leadership roles. We all have learned from Marshall Goldsmith’s famous book, ‘What got you here, won't get you there’. Our career needs constant care, nurture, and uplift. So, if one is able to understand this concept, acknowledge the gaps, and apply a structured approach, then maneuvering through one's career can be a bit more predictable. Many a times, we focus extensively on our technology and functional skills, which I know are definitely non-negotiable, but at the same time, to accelerate our career journeys over and above, we need to consciously nurture the transportable skills, which are absolutely critical today for a long-term career success.
My next question actually ties up with this, because I wanted to understand from your point of view, as to what are the areas that most women seek support with? And what holds them back in your experience? What is it that you've been seeing most often?
Great question, Rajshree. In fact, women professionals across career stages and geographies, predominantly reach out and look for support around four core themes. One, is to look for the right coach and mentor who can be their accountability partner in their journeys. Two, to advance their career by learning the much-needed power and meta skills, which are agnostic of the industry that they are engaged in. Third, to be part of networks with like-minded women professionals, who are possibly facing similar challenges, and they have tried and tested different hacks to overcome them. And finally, getting matched with the right job is always desirable. Now, to address the second part of your question on what holds them back, I think being vulnerable is absolutely not easy for any one of us. And we see very different approach taken by women professionals of different career stages, and there is also a deep correlation based on the geography we all belong to. The senior leaders always like to reach out through one-on-one conversations and ask for help either on their job, or coach, whereas someone who is in their early or mid-career stage might be more open and vulnerable, and share their fears and asks on the platform. We also see culture play a big role, as I mentioned before, when it comes to seeking help and thriving versus keeping it to ourselves and not making a quantum leap. I have seen so many examples where people have reached out, asked for help, and in a while, their career has taken a very different trajectory.
That's great to know, I agree completely. I wanted to ask you, Uma, how has the support network curated by you helped women grow and participate more meaningfully in the workforce?
So, our career advancement philosophy is based on the concept of active career management. You know, if you think about it, gone are the days when careers were unidimensional and straightforward, when we could allow our careers to run in autopilot mode. But that just doesn't work in current times. You know, given the pace at which the world is changing, it requires us to be much more adaptive than we were earlier. And it literally calls for active career management, which is all about taking charge of your career and shaping it the way you want to. So, the way we define active career management is that you need to firstly have a career plan and a direction in mind as to where you want to go, the kind of goals you want to achieve. It requires continued learning, active networking. You need to create an ecosystem of mentors, sponsors. It is very essential to build a personal brand. In fact, when we work with organisations also, we build this philosophy of active career management into all our initiatives. And in fact, it is extremely satisfying to witness the impact that these initiatives have been creating on the professionals and the organisations that we work with. We are literally creating a suite of power women who are all set to conquer their goals and what better than that to help us bridge the gender gap in leadership.
Yeah, very true. Times have altered drastically, and the emphasis is pretty much on being proactive and carving your own path. On that note, I want to ask you Mahua, what do you see as the crucial tools to nurture successful professional journeys? Is there a playbook that one could resort to?
There is just no secret sauce, Rajshree, but as we mentioned earlier, there are definitely frameworks and methods that will make it more predictable as we navigate. Also, not to forget, a little bit of ambiguity and experimentation in the process keeps the excitement quotient on. Now coming back to your question before I share about the framework that we follow, let me focus on an element which is overarching to the framework. I think all of us should look at our career as a marathon rather than seeing it from the lens of a sprint. In fact, these are words inspired from a book by Brian Fetherstonhaugh, who was the erstwhile CEO and chairman of Ogilvy Worldwide. He emphasises on the fact that the ideal way to evaluate our career choices and decisions is from a lens of 35 to 40-45 years, rather than making choices based on our very short career view of two to three years. And now coming back to the framework after I have talked about the overall picture, what we use on our platform, the learning interventions that we organise on our platform follows a holistic, four-phased structured approach, where it starts with a self-assessment by the individual on the focussed meta skill. Then in the second phase, it gets infused with rigorous learning by the expert coach where various tools and techniques are taught and shared. The third phase constitutes of reflection and peer networking, which includes both self-reflection and cohorts’ reflection. Now, this is one of the most powerful stages, and the final and the fourth stage is where coaching gets triggered. Hence, it is actually a formulation of all these four phases that makes holistic learning powerful and helps us follow our philosophy of visible needle movement that is really needed to bridge the ‘knowing-doing’ gap. We all know that people want to have fun during learning. So, most of our learning modules have built in gamification with leaderboards, where it encourages one to push each other and push the bar in the group learning setup. Hope this gives you a fair idea of our learning framework, Rajshree.
I just wanted to ask you now, that having transformed numerous career journeys, are there any anecdotes on these journeys that are witnessed by you, that you would like to share with us?
Sure, I will possibly share one journey and then Uma has a very interesting story to share. It was early 2020, a professional with around 17-18 years of work experience at an Indian IT services company reached out to us being in a career crossroad. It was a tough one. She lives in Bangalore and is very ambitious when it comes to her progression. But she had a situation at hand then. She was confused, being a mother of a 10th grade student, she was unable to balance between demands at her work and managing home along with her kid’s education priorities. Now at that point, she wanted to quit her job after spending almost two decades in various corporate roles. These stories are so relatable. And we all know this is one of the major reasons why we lose women talent between five to 15 years of work experience, who quit to stabilise and support various personal premises. Now cutting the long story short, after two years of our interaction, now in 2022, she has been recruited by a global MNC, tech MNC, in a much more challenging role. In the last 24 months, she not only excelled in her national position with the Indian company that she was associated with, she in fact, grabbed a great opportunity with one of her dream companies and she is extremely happy. Now the icing on the cake was that her daughter performed very well in grade 10, and she is super proud of her mom. And the outcome really elated us as we could play a role in being able to save one leadership talent at a time. Uma, would you now want to share your story?
Sure. This lady had around 20 years of work experience in the healthcare sector. She was at a senior level and played a key role in growing her organisation which was an Indian organisation. And then a multinational company came and acquired her organisation, and all of a sudden, she felt completely out of place. Her new leaders began to question her ability to interact with international stakeholders, they doubted her ability to lead a global team. And she suddenly found herself feeling very insecure, and low on confidence. She then approached The star in me, and we had taken her through a series of learning, coaching and mentoring interventions, which put her back in the driver's seat. In fact, she eventually secured a new job at a much higher level and pay grade.
Thank you for those inspiring stories! I am sure our listeners would also agree that it is never too late to chase your dreams.
Alright, so, Mahua, I wanted to understand from you, what are the challenges that you faced in terms of getting more women to sign up on a platform like this? I am sure it wasn't too easy. How did you make them believe that they could excel professionally given the right guidance? What were these challenges and how did you overcome them?
I am so glad Rajshree that you have asked this question, because it is very important to discuss the journey. You know, when we try to take our solutions or the different tenets of the platform or the services within the platform directly to the individuals, and to the consumers, sometimes we see a lot of reluctance in investing in themselves. In fact, there is a feeling that, can a platform really tell us what is to be done, because there is a lot of open-source content available. And the feeling is that yes, we can figure out what we have to do. But on the contrary, we have realised that without a structured framework, much of it goes out of our horizon. Most of the times people don't have the discipline and focus to nurture it. There is a bit of consumer education that we have been doing since some time to emphasise on the ‘need’ at the right time. As we all know, in this current age of instant gratification, where at the click of a button, we get an Amazon package at our doorstep, or a food delivery parcel, or we get transformed in our health and beauty in a few hours or few sessions, I think patience and persistence, has been in short supply. And career advancement is a long-term investment. It is not something that you do today, and you get to see the benefit tomorrow. It is a long journey. I think the moment we realise the difference between an investment and expenditure, 70% of the problem is going to get resolved in our career journey. But to our surprise, when we take the same programme to enterprises and organisations, it has always been a hit, and they have been executing the programmes for their own women talent. So, the only gap that we see is, as individuals, are we in a position where we acknowledge that we need to invest on ourselves or do we always want to depend on our organisation to take that charge of investing in our growth. I think Uma did mention about it earlier that for us to take charge of our own career is absolutely important. Hence, I guess this constant education and awareness will need to be done to actually overcome the fear and for people to start investing in their continuous learning and nurturing process.
While we are talking about organisations, I would like to ask you, Uma, what role can firms play in bridging the gap, as you see it, especially in addressing the need of women leadership at top levels?
Yeah, that is an interesting question, Rajshree. While organisations are doing fairly well in ensuring diversity at either campus recruitment or entry-level recruitment stages, more attention needs to be paid to engagement and development of diverse talent, higher up the career ladder. We have all heard of the broken rung, right, where starting from the first promotion onwards, research shows that women's growth tends to be slower than their male counterparts. And the gap only tends to get wider from there. So, organisations, in fact, need to invest in developing women leaders through niche learning programmes, coaching, networking, and also mentoring initiatives. On the other side, it is also extremely important to drive gender sensitisation initiatives, and eliminate unconscious bias, which actually creates obstacles to the growth of women talent. And in fact, this year, the theme of Women's Day, is around breaking the bias. So, it is extremely important to drive such unconscious bias initiatives.
That's lovely. I think you have hit the nail on the head, you know, when you spoke about the broken rung also, because that is a major challenge, and how you know that pipeline stays leaky, because not enough number of women are actually able to make it to the next level. So, I agree about that part of gender sensitisation and breaking the bias, because deserving women ought to be going on to the next level and achieving more. And organisations can actually play a conscious role in building that. So, thank you for saying that. On a parting note, I wanted to ask you guys if you have any advice for women as they take charge and embark on high-impact roles.
In my experience of having interacted with women professionals from around the world, there are two key aspects that women tend to either ignore or deprioritise. These are networking and personal branding. And ignoring these could actually have a negative impact on growth. We may not realise it at that time, but later on in our careers, it will come back to bite us. So, my advice to women is to firstly make time to build a strong network, both within and outside your organisation. In fact, your network is truly a reflection of your net worth, it opens up amazing opportunities for you. So networking is really important. The second aspect is personal branding. I am a strong advocate of personal branding. All of us, in fact, have a brand, the choice that we have is to either create and share our narrative ourselves, or to just leave it to chance and let it get crafted on its own. And in that case, we actually lose control over the entire narrative. So, there is immense value in making yourself and your work visible, both within and outside the organisation. A few years ago, personal branding was something that was privy to a few celebrities and other famous people. But today, personal branding is a necessity.
Absolutely, that was wonderfully put actually, and I wanted to know if Mahua would like to add something to that.
Sure, Rajshree, I would love to share some advice which is tried and tested, as I had the opportunity to implement all of it myself. And I have seen a lot of examples of career journeys benefitting by applying these. So, the first one in my list is active continuous learning. It is no more a ‘good-to-have vitamin’, but it is now a ‘must-have vitamin’. Avenues of learning can differ based on one's choice, appetite, opportunity, and budget. But there is no alternative to active continuous learning in the present context. The second one, is proactively reaching out to supervisors, or other decision-makers in the organisation to ask for stretch and demanding roles, and negotiate for more. There may be times in our career where we would like to take it slow, and that is absolutely fine. But when we know we are ready to hit a sixer, we should push ourselves, we should project our confidence and go for the coveted, in-demand, stretch roles. And the last one is to try and let go the fear of failure. Now I know it is easy to say and very difficult to demonstrate. But unless we give ourselves the chance and the opportunity to go out of our comfort zone, we will never fail in our elusive comfort bubble. And if we don't fail, we know very well that it is an indication that we are neither growing nor learning. We will definitely feel the discomfort at the beginning as we try to do new things which we haven't tried before, but we shouldn't worry about it, because we will figure that out through the journey with our commitment and perseverance, because we will never know it all when we start a new thing. Hence, give it a shot. So, these would be my three pieces of advice, Rajshree.
As Mahua and Uma said, active career management, infused with continual learning and an ecosystem of mentors and sponsors goes a long way in shaping up one’s personal brand. Being in sync with the bigger picture has its advantages in the long run, and it is all about individual onus rather than waiting for organisational initiatives.
A set of predefined frameworks have proven to be helpful tools in accelerating career journeys and are increasingly becoming vital in today’s scenario. As we continue to invest in our growth at the personal level, organisations can be the beacon that help bridge the gap through gender sensitisation initiatives and equal opportunities, eliminating any microaggressions and unconscious biases along the way.
And on that note, I would like to thank the both of you for your valuable insights and time today. It was a pleasure chatting with you!
Thanks a lot, Rajshree, for having us. It was an amazing conversation.
Yeah, pleasure being here. Bye.
Thank you for listening in folks! Watch this space for more interesting conversations with industry experts and practitioners in our upcoming issue in May 2022.
 LinkedIn. (2021) LinkedIn Opportunity Index 2021. https://news.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/news/en-us/images/Opportunity_Index_Whitepaper_Final_1604.pdf
 The Long View: Career Strategies to Start Strong, Reach High, and Go Far by Brian Fetherstonhaugh
Coaching is transcending from being an individual skill to being an organisational capacity. Ruchira Chaudhary, author and executive coach, delves into the nuances of making this a reality.
Can you coach someone to be an innovator: one who can invent their own ladder by bypassing the conventional career trajectory? Can finding better routes be taught?
What is the difference between a leader and a leader coach?
Is coaching just the purview of the leader, or does it extend far beyond that?
Hi, I’m Rajshree Shukla representing ISB’s Management ReThink—an online management practice journal, published bi-monthly by the Centre for Learning and Management Practice. In today’s session, as we discuss the various nuances of ‘Coaching’ and its undeniable impact on individuals and firms alike, we at Management Rethink are excited to have Ms. Ruchira Chaudhary with us. Ruchira straddles the corporate and academic worlds—she is a leading executive coach, the founder of a boutique consulting firm focussed on organisational strategy solutions, and also adjunct faculty at several top-tier B-Schools. Her book titled “Coaching: The Secret Code to Uncommon Leadership” explores some of the key ingredients of impactful leadership.
Welcome, Ruchira! We are so excited to have you with us today!
It's my pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me, Rajshree!
Great! Let's get into the questions. I'm sure our listeners are eagerly waiting for those.
Given that coaching is steadily taking centrestage with today's managers, how do you define the term specifically in this context of leader as coach, why do you think it's become a buzzword now more than ever?
That's an excellent question actually. I think coaching, as you rightly said, whether you call it a buzzword or something that we've been talking about a lot more lately, came about also because of how the narrative around what defines good leadership has changed, right? In the erstwhile scenario, it was really just about building the financial capital, you know, making your numbers. And that's how we defined good leaders. I think, at the start of the 1990s, that narrative started changing. This was also around the time, you know, the balance scorecard came about where we said, it's not just about building the financial capital, but it's also about the processes, it's about your customer. And at the heart of all of that, it's your people, right, building those reservoirs of human capital. And coaching became centrestage because of the accent on people and taking people along in the journey. And coaching has never been more important than it is now. We are going through very turbulent times and these turbulent times demand that our leaders navigate these extraordinarily choppy waters with a steady hand at the helm, right?
These turbulent times mean that leaders not just have to motivate and inspire, but they also have to give a sense of belonging. The work-from-home phenomena has only complicated this because we have fading interpersonal connections, yet we desire that flexibility. So, leaders have to double down on taking others along in the journey, ensuring that we maintain those connections, we give people the freedom to decide when, what, how. And yet we inspire them and take them along. So it's about making concerted efforts to coach, enable, and find that sweet spot between providing them the flexibility, and the structure and direction.
Now coaching, the way I define it, and you know, I have used that in the context of my book also, is really the act of maximising your current performance. But more than that, your future potential, right? It's the potential. And you do that through a series of self-enabling and non-directive conversations. The accent is on enablement and non-directors. It's really about asking people, not telling them what to do—that defines the whole premise of the leader as coach.
I think you’ve phrased that really well there. Work-from-home has really blurred boundaries and this active guidance and support is what is being sought from leaders everywhere.
You've often spoken about uncommon leaders and how you see coaching as an integral element to uncommon leadership. Could you define uncommon leadership to begin with and how coaching comes into play here?
Uncommon leadership, or uncommon leaders, in my mind are those that achieve success by helping others grow, right? It's about taking people along and helping them become a better version of themselves. These leaders understand that it's not about building an empire or making those millions in revenue. It's also about the journey. It's about the teams that they build along the way. And when these leaders relentlessly focus on elevating others, as they elevate themselves and their organisations, they tend to go higher and the organisations soar even higher, right? And in my mind, coaching, the act of enablement, is that key or that code that unlocks this uncommon leadership. This act of maximising another's performance and potential, it's about taking people along, it's also about making them shine brighter, it's making them soar even higher. That's what uncommon leadership is.
Very true. I think in today's times, it's not just transactional leadership anymore. It's a lot about building your teams and about, you know, taking others along with you. And, making sure that an individual's potential has risen to the fore. So I think you make a very interesting point there. As we speak about this transition, from being an average leader to an exceptional one, could you share a few anecdotes about those who led by example?
Oh there are so many uncommon leaders. Let me talk about those that I have personally either experienced or, you know, been in touch with. In the course of the book that I wrote, I had the pleasure of interacting with Sheryl Sandberg. Now, to me, the reason I think of Sheryl as a truly uncommon leader, is because I think she's a fabulous role model. And that is, to me, a key trait of an uncommon leader. You want to role model the behaviours for your people. And she, with all the lean-in and all the interesting work that she does, her message is very clear. It's about building an equal world. It's about giving opportunities. It's about elevating other women; it's about empowering them. And if you really decode what she does in her own life, she's constantly meeting with people. In fact, when she joined Facebook, there's an interesting story of how she went to every single individual in the organisation. Just trying to have conversations with them, introducing herself, saying, ‘Hey, I'm Sheryl.’ A small gesture goes a really long way in forming connections, right? That's one example.
The other one, I'm a bit biased because it's Satya Nadella and we went to the same business school. When he inherited Microsoft, the organisation was in shambles. This was 2014. And yes, when he came on, he did many things right—cloud computing, artificial intelligence, social networking. And that’s made Microsoft today what we describe [today] as one of the most innovative, collaborative and customer-centric organisations. But if you look at his interviews, or if you hear his interviews, his conversations, he won't talk about that. He said he did all of that by recalibrating or resetting the organisation culture. In fact, what I found very endearing is that he talks about the C in the CEO, standing for culture. And how he did that? Like Sheryl, who really was a role model, in his case, it was all about listening. He knew the culture was inflexible and rigid, and that each employee was trying to prove to the other that he or she was the smartest person in the room. He just spent the first year along with his head of HR, Kathleen Hogan, listening to people, understanding the challenges, what's working well, what's not working so well. And if you read some of the case studies or the interviews, it didn't matter whether you were at the bottom end of the value chain, or whether you were a vice president, he gave you the same kind of attention. He was all ears. And then he distilled from all that he heard. They distilled and crystallised what they call a Management Excellence Framework. It's called ‘Coach everybody’—every leader, regardless of their role, and size of their teams would coach others. ‘Model’—you would be the role model, and you would ‘Care’ for your people, which is empathy. And that has really stayed with me.
And I do agree that a lot of organisations that have an encouraging culture actually have people at the core of it. So people-centric organisations, leaders who care, and leaders who can be role models to their team members, I think those are the ones that really shine.
We often hear coaching and mentoring used interchangeably. Are they the same in your opinion?
A lot of us do use coaching and mentoring interchangeably. Organisations do that. There is a rather big difference between how we mentor and coach, and not to say that one is more important than the other. I constantly encourage people to build a board of advisors, which has coaches and mentors. Let's try and unpack the difference. In my mind, the key is—a coach asks, a mentor tells, right? It's asking versus telling.
Think of a mentor as somebody who's been there, done it, typically older, has a lot of influence, someone you look up to for advice. The advice is prescriptive in nature; this person doesn't have to be part of your current work ecosystem, could be an ex-client, could be an ex-boss, could be a family friend, right? Someone you look up to, and you value their judgment and their advice. And these mentors guide your journey—it could be your career journey; it could be your life journey.
A coach, on the other hand, is not guiding you, or is not giving you advice from the balcony, as I said. A coach is with you on the dance floor. Rolling up his or her sleeves, giving you real-time feedback, typically in your work ecosystem, knows everything about you, what you're doing day in and day out. So, think of a mentor, as someone who's guiding your journey, but a coach is guiding your current practice, right? A coach will not tell you what to do but will ask you open-ended powerful questions, so you can find your own path and your own solutions.
There's a very fine line, I believe, between both, and you've actually made it very clear for us. So I just wanted to understand, Ruchira, how do you think the benefits of coaching extend to the entire organisation going beyond individual employees? Does it have a direct impact on the business performance too?
Top executives, leaders in organisations, they intuitively understand that they cannot succeed without the right talent and the right skill sets. And in survey after survey, they will consistently rank leadership, talent management, coaching, etc., as top of their agenda. But these same people also get very frustrated because they feel that they're not getting enough ROI (Return on Investment). Right? And that's because companies rarely manage their talent as rigorously as they manage their balance-sheet, right? And when they do, they think of people management, people development as something that they outsource to human resources, and which in turn leads to training.
Now remember, training is an event. Coaching is a process. And it's much harder to draw direct linkages. And all the researchers can't yet precisely measure coaching results on an organisation performance. A ton of studies published in the consulting psychology journal suggest a very positive trend, right? Google's project Oxygen, which is a multi-year research that they do, they started it in 2008. And they've done this year on year. They do this really interesting people analytics, and they've examined data from thousands of employee surveys and performance to find out which behavioural patterns characterise most effective managers. In 2008, coaching topped the list. A decade later, in 2018, they said, oh, let's now do this one more time to see how it's moved, how it's changed. By then the company had grown in size, complexity, demands on their managers had changed. And they added new behaviours to this list. Believe it or not, ‘my manager is a good coach’ continues to occupy the number one slot. And yes, we have engagement study results that keep telling us that, ‘my manager is the single most important individual that impacts my productivity and my engagement levels’.
We know all of that at an individual level. But we have to think about compounding this and taking it to an organisation level. So, BCG (one of the 'Big Three' management consultancies) does this global leadership and talent index. And when they surveyed about 1,500 CEOs and HR directors globally, they found a very interesting correlation between financial performance, and organisations that have invested in coaching and leadership. And they found that those companies that rated themselves strongest on leadership and talent management, increased their revenues 2.2 times faster, and profits 1.5 times faster, than what they call the ‘talent laggards’ or companies that rated themselves the weakest.
Now, these are numbers, and these are statistics. However, we also know that coaching benefits an organisation because of how we are fundamentally shifting and transforming in the digital era, right? The change in business today is not linear. It's not linear and it requires quick shifts into thinking into entirely new models, domains and ways of working. And coaching is what supports people in these quick shifts. It's about changing business demands; it's about investing in leaders as coaches. And it's a skill that many savvy organisations recognise. So, when you have to build leaders, and you have to build these capabilities in such short spans of time, and you want real business impact or a successful transformation, or you just want top and bottom-line results, you have to ensure that your leaders coach others and take them along. I guess that's the best I can do.
It's amazing, Ruchira, you know, because in my mind, and I'm sure a lot of other people also, coaching, you know, comes across as something which is soft and intangible, but having all these statistics, and having to hear about them, it just puts things into perspective, and you feel like it actually does have an ROI that can be calculated in real terms. So I think it's amazing how you've put this across to us.
Well Rajshree, before I embarked on the coaching journey, I thought of myself as a hard-nose strategy consultant. I found coaching very amorphous and fuzzy, and intangible. It's only when I embraced that world, I realised what coaching really meant, and how you can make a difference, right?
Absolutely. Yeah, I'm sure you know, a lot of people are going to benefit out of this, because this is a skill, I think, which needs to be incorporated and imbibed by leaders of today without a doubt I would say, and just building on what we've discussed so far, Ruchira, I wanted to ask, how do you think leaders today could consciously build a culture of coaching within their organisation?
Yeah, in fact in the previous question you asked me, there was a long-winded thing about why we need coaching and what coaching can do for you. But the fact of the matter is, organisations believe that when they provide training on coaching skills at all levels across the board, that they will automatically make their leaders good coaches, right, as if there's a magic wand—you give them a training and they will morph into good coaches.
But we all know the reality can be very different, right? So then how do you ensure that this individual skill becomes an organisational one? How do you build that organisational capacity?
For starters, it's great that you give people skills, and you permeate those skills not just at the senior levels, but down the line. But, at the heart of all of that, the individual has to believe that coaching is relevant, that he or she wants to get coached and will also coach others, right? I call this the coaching mindset, the belief or the conviction that every leader should get coached, and also coach. So they have to understand the rationale and what's in it for them as well.
But that's not enough.
We also want an organisational commitment to infusing this mindset into the organisation's DNA and weaving it into the cultural fabric. And in order to do that, you have to go beyond just the visible norms or the ways of working. You have to complete this individual coaching mindset and make it an organisational one.
Many moons ago, when I was doing my MBA, I found this very interesting concept, it's called the ‘ARC’. It's part of your internal competitive strategy. And it's a concept that I borrowed from economists Saloner, Shephard, and Podolny. The ARC stands for architecture, routines, and culture. So, think of your ‘architecture’ as all the formal processes, structures in an organisation—the organisation design, the incentive, the performance systems. ARC, the R stands for routines which are everyday processes—how employees are hired, promoted, how we deal with their successes and failures in the organisation, and ‘culture’ we all know, is, you know, the tingly feeling you walk in the moment you enter a place—the rituals and norms, and as we say, ‘the way things are done around here’, that's the culture.
So how do we infuse this coaching mindset into the organisations’ ARC, not just the culture? In order to embed coaching into your organisation's ARC, don't just tell people what to do, demonstrate by example. Like we talked about those uncommon leaders. It's about role modelling, right? It's about how you hire people. So, don't just hire for potential but hire for pedigree; don't hire just for skills or the experience, but also hire for attitude, right? When you evaluate people, measure what matters. Are these people enabling and building other leaders? When you promote and elevate, though, elevate those that are elevating others. Celebrate these people who are building others. And that's the kind of culture that you build in an organisation, right?
When you infuse this into how you hire, promote, elevate, celebrate—that's when coaching becomes part and parcel of all you do. And these organisations truly understand that we want to make ourselves learning organisations. Uncommon leaders are products of such learning organisations, where there's a clear focus on building, nurturing, and honing individual coaching skills and a coaching mindset, right? These leaders understand that building the next line of leaders is their responsibility. And they all do that, at all levels in the organisation.
Absolutely Ruchira. I loved how you spoke about pedigree, and it's almost like leaving a legacy as opposed to having a short-term goal. It's definitely about building another set of leaders once you move on.
You know, when I was writing, a lot of people would send me quotes. So my Prof sent me this and he said, “Did you know that Mahatma Gandhi said rather famously once, that the sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, it's how many leaders you create.” And I thought it really resonated with me, so I've used that a fair bit.
Moving on Ruchira, I'd like to talk about how we have witnessed, you know, changing norms and how there is a shift from possibly authoritarian to more emotionally intelligent leaders nowadays. So how do you see the future of leadership evolving? What do you see as the core traits that could be visible in leaders of tomorrow?
You know, there's a lot of conversation around how we have to reimagine leadership today, right? You used the word ‘possibly authoritarian to emotionally intelligent leaders’ in your question. I call it moving from a landscape of instruction to motivation. We also know that the command-and-control style of yesteryears is no longer relevant. It's really passe, right? We cannot function like that. We cannot tell people what to do, because let's face it, our world today is so complex, so interconnected, so wired, almost complicated, that no one leader can have all the answers. You have to take people along in the journey. And you have to leverage their collective intelligence, right? We talked about this.
In the 1990s, this narrative started changing about what defines a good leader. And now today, because these businesses have become so networked and so complicated, nobody can have the answers. The pandemic has amplified that. So, this counter-narrative that emerged through the 1990s—redefined excellence in leadership in a way that aligned to, in fact, many of the traits that women brought to the workplace, right? It was moving away from being aggressive, from being almost narcissistic, ambitious, to empathetic, being more collaborative. Satya Nadella showed us that listening was a highly underrated but a very effective skill for a leader. So that's the kind of change we are seeing now.
Today, we have leaders who lead by example. And not only that, these leaders constantly leverage the collective intelligence of their people, they give them a voice, they surround themselves by a diverse set of leaders whose opinions they value.
And what the crisis has also shown us is that you cannot take your people for granted, right? You have to ask them, they need to have a say in how things are done. And good leadership today is about all of these things. It's about doing all of these things right. It's about resilience, resilience in yourself, but also making your people resilient. It's about building those reservoirs of trust, which clearly has been in short supply if you look at the survey results. It's about checking in on your people, but not constantly checking on them and breathing down their necks. It is about empathy. And at the heart of all of that, it is about taking them along, it's about elevating them. And these leaders, when they shine the light on others, believe me they shine brighter. That's uncommon leadership.
I completely agree. Leaders are striving to be more approachable and inclusive today, and how that has become a criterion for effective leadership. Do you have any prescriptive advice for different strata of managers as they embark on the journey of being coaches?
You know, it's a great question, but I will be very honest. Whether you're a manager, a gig worker, you could be a student by the way, think of coaching as a life skill. Just like in sports and performing arts, coaching is at the centre of all people do, right? It's about making people a better version of themselves; it's about making them go higher.
Think about coaching as a way to take others along, to enable them, to uplift them. And regardless of whether you're in the corporate world or not, coaching is really not about learning new skills, right? Coaching, in fact, is in many ways about unlearning. It's about letting go of your old beliefs. It's about opening up your mind to the many possibilities and it's about having a growth mindset, which is a belief that everybody can grow and change, and when you start believing in that, you will go higher, and you will shine even brighter. I hope you coach your way to uncommon leadership.
As Ruchira said, we all have it in us to reinvent ourselves as coaches. At the end of the day, it’s about leading by impact and not influence. Understanding the relevance of coaching and the willingness to coach and being coached will certainly lead to real-time impact.
Last but not the least, we can all be agents of change to instill this into our organisation’s cultural fabric and leave behind a legacy of coaches.
Thank you for your valuable insights, Ruchira! It was wonderful having you with us today.
It's my pleasure entirely. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Thank you for listening in folks! Watch this space for more interesting conversations with industry experts and practitioners in our upcoming issue in March 2022.
What influences the audio industry and engages audiences? Listen to this podcast by Dhruvank Vaidya, Spotify India, to understand how podcasts are booming in India.
Listening to this in 2021, chances are that you’ve heard about the podcast industry and listened to a show. If not, you’re here just in time, as more of us produce and consume audio content. COVID-19 perhaps played some part in this, but this boom can’t be all due to the pandemic. There’s also data to prove this. PricewaterhouseCoopers or PwC published its report in 2020, according to which, with 57.6 monthly listeners, India emerged as the third-largest podcast listening market in the world, after China and the US.
We’ll hear from Dhruvank Vaidya who heads podcasts at Spotify India about what Indians are listening to, some tips and tricks for aspiring podcasters, and how important it is to nurture the creator ecosystem.
Welcome, Dhruvank! Thanks for being on our podcast!
It’s my pleasure, thanks a lot for having me on your show.
I’d like to begin by asking you...Podcasting has become a mainstay in today’s businesses just like content creation. People even go so far as to say that there are more podcast creators than listeners. What are your thoughts?
Podcasting is a relatively new medium, but if you look at audio and audio storytelling, that has been there in our culture and our society for a very long time. I mean, radio is a classic example. What podcasting has done is made spoken word audio much more accessible to a large number of people. In the last five years that podcasting has grown in India, we’ve seen it reach across different parts of the country. It is relatively new, but you’d be surprised with the kind of reach podcasting now has. And, given that it’s an audio-only medium and it’s much easier to create in this, the kind of topics that [are] covered is also phenomenal. So yes, you will find a huge range of topics that are covered through podcasting; and also, the listener base is massive and growing. Gen Z and millennials have taken to podcasting much earlier than others, but I’m sure others will catch up as well.
Right, it’s the kind of thing you do when you’re driving, going for a walk, or while doing chores around the house.
Correct. It’s very important to build podcast listening into your daily routine. And as you said, these are some of the times of the day when the hands are busy but the mind is free, which is where we see most of podcast listening, happening. While some of these things are true, what we are also seeing is that for people who are working, let’s say in shops or a taxi driver or an Uber driver, for them, it’s very hard to watch video while they’re kind of doing their work, but they can continue listening. Which is the beauty of the audio medium.
The other big thing about that works in favour of audio is that it’s a very immersive medium. When you are listening to it with your headphones on, it’s as if you were having a one-on-one conversation with the story. And it also helps learning; and that is one big thing that we are seeing that people are using podcasts to learn, to improve their selves, to gain knowledge and that is one massive use-case that we are seeing.
I love what you said about podcasts being immersive because listening to a podcast kind of quietens the mind, but at the same time, it helps direct all your thinking towards a more compact sort of direction.
Correct. Now if you see with social media and short video apps, the attention span that we have has reduced dramatically. I see that in myself, like I used to read a lot about 20 years back, but today, I find it really hard to even read 10 pages at a stretch. But when you are listening to a podcast, let’s say I listen to it when I’m walking, I can listen to something with attention for that one hour. Suddenly, now you have a time-period and a medium through which you can do deep listening, deep thinking, and just absorb something much better.
Sure, yes, that makes sense.
Podcasting is growing as we speak. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say when [the] Internet started [for me], my default was text search. Very recently, I was talking to my friend’s son, and he looks at videos as his default search and go-to mechanism to answer any of the queries that he has. Audio and podcasting are going to become the default search in the next few years. There is so much material out there. You just search for it, and you’ll find it. That is the space that we’re headed towards; that is the excitement; that is the brilliant part about being in audio right now as we are seeing an industry grow. So, I think yes, exciting times ahead.
Even with an increased adoption, podcasts seem to be under monetised when compared to other forms of media. How do you see the podcasting business in India and abroad transforming and affecting the future of paid listening, which is currently a small part of overall listenership?
So, see, if you map the trajectory of digital businesses, across digital businesses, social media, publishing, you have to build an audience first. You have to build an engaged audience, and then monetisation follows. And we have seen this playing out across multiple companies and multiple sectors, and they have become large companies and large sectors today. I mean you look at social media, digital video, news publishing, across the board. So that is the same thing that is happening in podcasting. Right now, we’re in the phase where we are building engaged listeners; we’re trying to figure [out] what are some of the genres and kinds of content that work with listeners, and monetisation will follow.
If you look at [the] US and Europe, we already see monetisation, like ad-based monetisation is very prevalent there. Recently, Spotify launched a paid podcast service. So, you can actually put your podcast behind a paywall and charge your subscribers. It’s like something that Patreon is doing for newsletters for example. Tipping may also work, where if you like a creator, you may just leave a tip, so, micro-payments. Of course, there is brand-led monetisation, there’s sponsorships, there is branded content, so all those are the traditional and known and very well-established monetisation formats. So, monetisation models are evolving, everything will open up; it is just a matter of time. In the next two years, we will be having a very different conversation on monetisation.
True, true, really exciting times ahead and there’s so much potential like you said.
While podcasts by themselves are free for listeners to subscribe and listen to, platforms like Spotify have a ‘freemium’ model. In this regard, could you talk about the various ways of monetising podcasts, and how these are different from those for music?
Freemium model is for the app, where you can listen to music and podcasts with ads. Or, you can pay a small subscription fee and listen to it without ads. Where podcasts differ from music: see, music is already created outside, and the platform just kind of brings it to the listener. Whereas podcasts are created afresh. So, you’re able to, let’s say, weave in your brand very closely into the podcast content. So, branded content becomes very easy, [and] host-read ads—the host can actually talk about your product or your service, and kind of spend time talking about it; and again, the medium has engaged listeners. So, whatever listenership the host has, those listeners are going to listen to what the host is saying. So, that becomes a very powerful ad unit. These are some of the ways in which podcasting can be very different from music when it comes to monetisation.
Right. Could you talk a bit about audiences and their preferences? Do you think some formats are more listener-friendly than others?
So, in India, what we are seeing is that our podcast listening audience skews young. Our average age is around 20-21 years, and Gen Z listeners are our biggest cohort. I think what is happening is that Gen Z is very open and they’re very friendly to try out new formats, and they’ve kind of caught on to podcasting very easily. Having said that, there are older listeners as well, and we are seeing that growing in mature markets like the US and Europe. The average age [there] is much older than in India, and I’m sure as podcasting grows much more in the country, we’ll see that average age move a little.
The two big things that people consume podcasts for is: self-improvement or entertainment. We have so much content on management and across a wide range of topics. So, there is management; there’s leadership; there are interviews with top CEOs of the world; and everything is available for free for you. Which means, there is no other place where you can access this kind of content today. So that is one big powerful space for content.
Self-improvement also includes motivation, inspiration, meditation, spirituality. Because all these are areas where you go deeper within yourself, or you are with yourself when you are meditating.
And the next is entertainment. We have one huge share of listeners who prefer fiction. Whereas, if you look at the US and Europe, the proportion of fiction in podcast listenership is very low. But India is different in that sense, and we see a lot of crime thrillers, romance, and storytelling. We recently released a show called Virus 2062. It’s based on an adaptation of a Chilean Spotify original, and it’s a sci-fi thriller. It’s a 10-episode show and it’s fantastic. The story weaves beautifully, and we’re seeing huge traction for it.
I was actually going to ask you about that series and its bingeable format... Where the ten episodes of 20 or so minutes were released in one go, to sort of promote listeners to listen to them all, basically binge-listen to them. How do you think the sensibilities of video have come to inform the audio industry?
Yeah, so I would actually zoom out a little and say look, there is a certain pattern in which Indians consume entertainment. And if you study it deeply, that pattern has not changed over time. What may have changed is the formats in which that entertainment is served. If you step back 50, 60, 70 years, there used to be serialised fiction stories in magazines. So, every week, the new editions [of the magazine] come, there is a [new] chapter of the story, and we used to read a lot of that. That then moved when it came to TV, and it became your daily soaps. And now, in podcasting, we’re seeing the same thing. There were radio dramas earlier on, and now that’s what we are seeing in podcasting, where you are seeing serialised fiction, episodic crime stories, you name it. So, I think the entertainment culture and patterns are similar; it is just that how you serve it in different mediums [has changed].
What definitely changes is that as generations progress, you’re exposed to much more stuff around, like you’re exposed to global entertainment, you’re exposed to different formats, your milieus, and your social cues are different; so, the setting in which you have to put the story would change. But otherwise, it’s broadly similar. So, to that extent, there’s a lot to learn from the past to inform what kind of content we should do for our audiences right now.
Right, so you’re saying it’s kind of like the natural progression of things.
Yes, yes, absolutely.
Audio is such a natural medium. I mean it is like one person talking to the other. I mean oral storytelling goes back like eons, and that oral form of propagating stories and tales comes very naturally to us, which is where podcasting is kind of finding that traction among people now.
True. Another thing is democratisation of voice—the fact that anyone anywhere can start a podcast, express their voice, and gain a listenership. At the same time, we see that platforms prefer to go with celebrities and actors, instead of promoting newer voices. Do you see this changing?
Actually, we have a very different approach to the creator ecosystem. We want more and more creators to come and create podcasts on our platform. We have a tool called Anchor, which allows you to create your own podcast and upload it on Spotify, and a whole bunch of other platforms. So, it’s like a self-creation tool. And, we also believe that every creator who wants to create a podcast should be able to do it for free. So, we are democratising content massively with this.
Also, we launched a programme called AmplifiHer. This was to promote women creators in audio across music or podcasts, because we strongly believe that by building the ecosystem around creators and audiences and monetisation, is the only way to kind of make this massive industry.
Yes, we do work with a lot of actors, and we would continue to work with them. But the whole creator ecosystem is also equally important for us.
Speaking of the creator ecosystem, could you talk a bit about data? What, in your opinion, is the magic number when it comes to listener analytics?
If you are a creator, you want to find your audience. For every kind of creator, their goal should be to keep growing their audience. If you look at the film industry, there are very few stars who will reach, let’s say millions of fans. But just because let’s say somebody on YouTube has 10,000 subscribers, that is a huge audience for them. My 10 years old son recently created a YouTube channel. He does gaming videos there. And he got so excited when he got 20 subscribers, because he has found his audience. So, for him, those 20 subscribers are very important. One of his videos hit 2,000 views, and every day he used to count and tell us, ‘Papa, it is 1,923 today,’ and in the evening, he will say it has become like 38. So, see, it is about building an audience for the creator.
And that journey is what is beautiful, it is enriching, and it is very encouraging. So, I think that’s what we try to do is that for each creator; we help them to find and grow their audience.
So, I think you’re saying don’t let the numbers overwhelm you. Create your product and find your audience.
Absolutely, you have to kind of continue to create because creating a regular podcast is a dedicated effort. To create something week on week requires that discipline, but if you stick to it, you will find your audience.
Right. Speaking of audiences, could you talk about increased programming in regional languages?
As podcasting grows in the country, we will find more and more people across Indian languages creating podcasts. Today, on Anchor, we see people creating podcasts in at least 13 Indian languages. I think this is only growing. India lives in its languages. Indians consume entertainment in their mother tongue, in their local languages. I’m Gujarati, my wife is Tulu; the kids don’t speak either of the languages, but they understand them. So, if they can listen to something in these languages, they’ll be able to appreciate it. So, that is only going to grow. I mean, we will see lots and lots of content coming in regional languages.
Right. With the rise of text-to-speech and allied tools (like Talkia, for instance.), how do you see Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning integrating with podcasting?
I think this is a good thing to happen, because if you look at text on the Internet, we have like millions of websites, and we have so many webpages, so many bloggers and newspapers publish so many articles every day. In an ideal world, all of this should be converted to audio. And why not? I think text-to-speech is a brilliant tool to kind of convert all the text that we have in the world into audio content. So, more power to more such tools and platforms.
Right. A few quick questions now.
What are five of your current favourite podcasts?
So, I listen to a lot of podcasts, right? But my current five are: one is Virus 2062. It’s a brilliant story and I think everyone should listen to it.
The next is a show called The Knowledge Project, by a gentleman called Shane Parrish, where he interviews people. So, his thought is that we should not reinvent the wheel, but we should learn from people who have already figured things out; and it’s a brilliant show.
The next one is called Fact of the Matter. It’s a new show, done by these two gentlemen who are quizzers; so, they each take one topic every week and go into details, trivia, back stories, history. They did one episode on Afghanistan; they did something on [the] Olympics; lesser-known facts about the Olympics. Brilliant stuff, very entertaining and very informative as well.
Next one is called Jaipur Bytes. It’s a podcast by the Jaipur Lit Fest, where they talk to authors and writers and eminent thinkers and personalities. I’ve been to JLF several times and I just love the vibe.
I also want to mention the fifth one is a show called Urdunama, done by this lady called Fabeha Syed, where she picks Urdu terms and words and explains them in detail, talks about what different shayars (poets), how they have treated this word, let’s say tanhayee (the state of being alone), and just gives you kind of a beautiful context around the world through stories, poetry, shayari (poetry), music, etc.
As you see with podcasts, there is such an eclectic mix of stuff that you can listen to. It’s just a matter of finding them.
You’ve given so many shows now, to add to the library. Five tips for newbie podcasters?
First is, find the topic that you’re comfortable talking about [and] stick to the topic. I think being consistent and on-topic is very important for you to build the audience.
Second, use DIY (Do-It-Yourself) tools. They’re very easily available. If possible, get a good mic. But otherwise, I think it’s very easy to start. Don’t worry about: will I get a guest, what do I talk next week, et cetera, et cetera. That flow will come. I think once you start, it’s important to start the creation process.
Third is, promote yourself. Use your social media handles to talk about your podcasts, be kind of open, be out there, and make your podcasts as widely available as possible because you need to build an audience.
Four, listen to your audience, take feedback, and keep improving. You may have started with one thought in mind, but as you go along, you will get feedback, and then you should be open to kind of modify your show according to that.
And finally, I think you’re not alone in this journey. There are lots of podcasters in the country, so reach out, ask for inputs, ask for help, participate in podcasting events that happen, learn from others. It’s a beautiful journey, so it’s never too late to start.
Right. That’s beautiful. So, while it’s important to learn how to do something, it’s equally, if not more, useful to know what not to do. So, what five things should a podcaster not do?
I think the first thing is to not get overwhelmed. Podcasting is not that complicated. Keep it simple, keep it easy, find your flow, and go with the flow. Second is, don’t take your audience for granted; what the audience is doing is building a personal relationship. So, just make sure you respect that. In terms of formats, I think it’s important to stick to one format. Next is, don’t break the creation flow; if you’ve told your audience you’ll create every week, then do upload an episode every week.
Thank you so much for doing this for us. It was amazing to listen to you.
Great, thanks a lot for having me. It was lovely talking to you.
So, there you have it. Listen to podcasts if you don’t already. Like Dhruvank said, you’ll be intrigued, entertained, and even better informed. And if you’ve been sitting on an idea, get scripting, recording, and editing. With the audio industry in the country growing, podcast creation and consumption will only get easier, and help build an ecosystem that is diverse, inclusive, engaging, and maybe even profitable.
Thanks for tuning in. Take care and stay safe!
Sports is the best reality show ever, teaching us lessons that go beyond the classroom. Viren Rasquinha, Olympic Gold Quest, tells us what these are.
Indian hockey players won a billion hearts at the recently concluded Olympic Games in Tokyo. While the men’s team ended the 41-year hiatus in the medal tally by bringing home a bronze, the women’s team was an inspiration to all, despite finishing fourth. The message is clear—Indian hockey has arrived on the global field.
We’ll be hearing from former captain Viren Rasquinha about how hockey and everything around it has changed and grown since he retired in 2008.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Viren.
I’d like to begin by asking you.. As a former Olympian, MBA graduate and businessman, could you talk about what it takes to be a professional sportsperson. How did your MBA experience inform your work at Olympic Gold Quest?
Number one: You [have] got to have the talent in that particular sport. Without that, it’s hard to play hockey for example, at the highest level of sport. But just talent is not enough, and I think just years of effort, honing your skills, being deeply focussed, and [being] almost obsessive in your pursuit of excellence. It takes a lot out of you, and there are many ups and downs along the way; and for me, hockey taught me so much; one of the biggest things that [it] taught me is actually how to come back from defeat because in sport you lose so much, and for me, that was one of the biggest lessons.
And honestly, that’s why I even thought that the one year at ISB, which is otherwise an extremely rigorous course, was actually a breeze, because I was used to being under pressure all the time and dealing with so many issues. So, that helped me with my time at ISB.
It’s really true that sports prepares one for everything in life. How do you think the ecosystem around sports in general, and hockey in particular, changed since you were a player?
I think hockey has changed a lot over the last decade and a half since the time I quit sport. The game has gotten faster, much more physical, [and] stronger. You know, simple things like rolling substitutions have changed so much. There were rolling substitutions in my time, but maybe at that point of time in a 70-minute match, teams would make an average of ten substitutions. Right now, at the Olympics at Tokyo, a month back, Australia was making more than 100 changes on average per match in a 60-minute match. So, you can imagine how the pace of the match has changed because fresh players are coming on to the pitch virtually every minute; which means the way in which you train, the way in which you plan for international matches [changes] and just the emphasis on sheer physical fitness.
I think athletes also need to get smarter because as the game gets faster, things happen quicker on the ground. You need to be intelligent enough to take split-second decisions [about] when to pass, when to dribble, when to take a shot at the goal, when to defend; everything happens in split seconds, and I think hockey players need to be extremely intelligent and composed to be able to deal with the pressures of international hockey. So, I think every sport has changed by leaps and bounds.
As far as India goes, the one big change I’ve seen over the last decade is just self-belief in our young kids; and that self-belief is born out of having really good role models who have achieved so much and have paved the way. So, athletes like Mary Kom, P. V. Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Mirabai Chanu, Ravi Kumar Dahiya, now in wrestling. They’re enabling the young kids coming from the villages and small towns to believe that they can also achieve at the highest level of international sport.
And, also, I think the level of training has been much better, be it the Government Sports Authority of India, national sports federations, or private organisations like Olympic Gold Quest, of which I’m a part.
I think the gaps in training are now becoming fewer, and because of that quality preparation [has improved], it’s giving a lot of self-confidence and self-belief to our athletes. That’s the one big change that I’ve seen over the last decade.
That’s very encouraging! Could you talk about the resources that go into promoting sports as everyone eyes more Olympic medals? How can coaches/associations/families ensure that players get all that they need?
In the last five years, especially in this whole Tokyo Olympic cycle, the support to athletes has been excellent. Be it coaches, training facilities, training during COVID-19 times, the healthcare for them, the support team in terms of physios, trainers, nutritionists, mental trainers; I think this has really improved in the last decade, but more so in the last five years. But there’s always scope for improvement, and we need to get better on all fronts.
And I think the best part of the Tokyo Olympic cycle was the teamwork between various stakeholders like the Government Sports Authority of India, national sports federations, and private organisations like Olympic Gold Quest.
Fair enough. On those lines, what avenues do you think can be leveraged for scouting and training the right talent at the right age, especially with changing times?
The junior programmes across sports need to be improved a lot. Of all the ingredients that go into the mix of building Olympic champions, the coach is the most important ingredient. We have to train really good quality Indian coaches across sports, across the board, because if we don’t have the right coaches at the right age, teaching our talented kids the right basics, the right technical skills, it will be too late by the time they become 18, 19, or 20 and reach the Indian team. At that point of time, they will have to unlearn everything they have learned in the past, and by that time, it’ll be too late. So, coaches are a very important issue at the grassroots level, at the domestic level. So, we need to upgrade the skill of coaches. We need to ensure that there are strong domestic programmes [and] strong domestic competitions.
Take for example, we all saw the Indian women’s hockey team doing so well at the Tokyo Olympics. For me, it was one of the stories of the Tokyo Olympics. But I still feel that there is scope to have far more domestic competitions for women’s hockey across the country. Unless athletes have regular competitions, there’s very little motivation to train, so that is something that is very critical.
So, coaches, junior programmes, developing domestic competitions—these are, I would say, the three priorities for developing sport in the country. And I’m talking [about] every sport; there are 65 recognised sports by the government of India, by the Sports Authority of India, which are funded by the government. So, if we have strong junior and domestic programmes, and strong coaches across the country in these programmes; coaches are the most important in recognising young talent. I was very lucky to be taught when I was 11 years old. My school coach was a hockey Olympian himself. His name was Marcellus Gomes; he played in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. So, if it was not for him, there was no way I would have gone on to play for India.
So, if you have the right coach, the right person teaching you at the right age, it makes a huge difference.
I like how you’ve put it as a three-pronged approach to enhance sport and empower sportspersons. Once hailed as bigger than cricket, hockey as a sport seems to have lost its shine over the years. Keeping India’s performance in the Tokyo Olympics as the backdrop, what were your key takeaways? Are we there yet, and if yes, why did it take us so long to resume our place on the global stage?
Success is one of the most important parameters for defining how popular a sport is, and the fact of the matter is that cricket has been extremely successful over the last 30 years. Hockey hasn’t. Until and unless we start winning, it’s going to be hard for a sport to become popular. No one wants to support a sport that does not qualify for the Olympics or comes last. And that was what happened to us in 2008. We did not qualify for the Olympics in hockey for the first time ever. [In] 2012 we qualified, [but] we finished 12th out of 12 teams.
But I think on the positive side, since that dark period of 2008 to 2012, we have climbed that ladder one step at a time, and today, we are in the top three in the world. So, I think Hockey India has done really well. There has been a long-term plan and you climb the ladder one step at a time. You can’t climb right from the bottom to right to the top immediately, so we [have] got to be patient, and we cannot be complacent. It was an amazing performance at Tokyo to win a medal after 41 years at the Olympics. We should take lessons from cricket and how they have marketed the sport, [and] how they have built heroes and role models.
But, like I said, we need to win consistently. And winning just does not just happen, you don’t just turn up and win. You [have] got to plan and prepare and execute; and the Indian team has done really well at Tokyo; especially the women’s team, and they need to build on this. And I think we can look forward to a very exciting decade for Indian hockey. I hope they can build on it and not just success on the pitch but success off the pitch, and commercially making it a very viable sport.
Consistency is key, true. Could you comment on the increasing viewership for the Olympics (or any other global tournaments)? What has changed for India to contribute to this response? Is there scope for more?
Today, India’s not just winning more medals at big events like the Olympics. I think we, as a nation, are not satisfied with just Commonwealth Games medals, Asian Games medals, but we’re targetting Olympic medals. And not just winning more medals, there are many more athletes genuinely challenging for medals. The pool of athletes that are challenging from medals is much more. That’s making it exciting for the viewer, and let’s face it, sport is the best reality show ever. It’s the most unscripted show, [and] the most unpredictable sort of event that you can have; so, sport is amazing. And if India does well, just given the sheer numbers that we have, many more people will watch sport.
True. Creditable as Tokyo was, how can Indian players do even better at the 2024 Paris Olympics? What is your advice to those in authority to ensure this? In other words, will India ever be what China (or the US) is in sports?
Paris preparation started three years back, so, I think, the core group of the athletes preparing for Paris has already been identified a long time back. Training is already in full swing, and India is on the right track. We just need to keep [doing] what we are doing. We need to ensure that, at every stage, merit is the only criteria that we decide to promote young athletes going forward. We need to ensure that they stay motivated.
And support systems need to be very strong. We need to ensure that the coaching and non-coaching staff working with the team constantly upgrade their skills. You know it may be a Sindhu as an individual stepping on the badminton court, but there is an army of people working behind the scenes who are equally important. So, we need to ensure that the entire army is well-trained and well-motivated, as we challenge for and prepare for Paris ‘24.
Right, we need to acknowledge and empower all those who work silently behind the scenes.
Do you think mass media and films like Chak de! India helped popularise hockey and put it on a pedestal? What more do you think popular culture can do to highlight marginalised sports and perhaps increase their commercial value?
So Chak de! was a great movie. It made hockey popular, but it doesn’t help hockey on the pitch. Chak de! released in 2007, and in 2008, India didn’t qualify for the Olympics for the first time in their history. So, for me, all this doesn’t matter; that’s not my area of expertise; I’m sure there are a hundred other people to answer this question. I deal with what happens on the pitch, not off the pitch.
Right, fair enough. You’ve talked about the role of fitness in the performance of Indian players at the Olympics in Tokyo. What does fitness mean to you and how important do you think it is for non-athletes to be fit?
Fitness is critical, not just for athletes, but for everyone. And you know, especially with the pandemic, we’re seeing that just looking after our personal health is so important, and if we are fitter, then we are automatically healthier. And a healthier nation is a far stronger nation. Everyone does not need to be a professional athlete or a Mary Kom or a Sindhu. But everyone can definitely go for a walk or a jog or play a non-contact sport; but we need to play, and we need to encourage our kids to play. And I think sport needs to be a much more integral part of our school curriculum and education.
Sport has taught me so many lessons in life that possibly the classroom can never teach you. So, sport has to be a bigger part of everyone’s life. And we have to stop being a nation that only watches sport; we need to be a nation that also plays much more sport.
I remember when I was 11 years old. My school hockey practice used to start at 6:30 in the morning and I would go on cycle from home to my school. And one day, I landed up at 6:35 for training and my coach did not allow me to enter the training pitch that day. Since that time, I have never ever been late for a meeting; even if you saw in today’s meeting, I was two minutes before time. I think the simple lessons of discipline, of commitment, of teamwork, of resilience, of having a never-say-die attitude [and] of being able to come back from defeat—these are all critical lessons that sport teaches you. And like I said, it’s hard to learn those lessons in the classroom.
True. These are such important values, almost like life skills, that so many of us continue to read books on and take courses about time management and personal improvement much into adulthood and long into our careers. So many people struggle with these things, and it’s so beautiful that sports drills all this into players at an early age.
You’ve talked about how the system around sports has improved in the last few years. Another thing is the openness and positivity in the discussions around mental health. Quite a few renowned athletes did not go on to compete this time to take care of their mental health. What is your opinion about this?
Mental health issues were always there. But it’s just that now it is more accepted to speak out. I think back in the day, if you look at even ten years back, people were very reluctant to come out with that they had mental health issues. I’m very happy to see that over the last decade, attitudes towards mental health are changing a lot. And yes, of course it’s very prevalent in sport, like in all other sectors; and sportspersons, I think, go through a lot of stress, a lot of issues where they’re insecure, you know, you’re not sure of your place in the team. It’s hard to take defeat. It’s hard to accept it when you’re injured, and you can’t play. The shelf life of athletes is very short, so, of course we need trained sports psychologists. That’s first and foremost.
I think athletes must understand that they need to want to work with mental health trainers. They need to accept the fact that there are trained professionals who can help them.
Also, I think, overall, attitudes need to change even more. It has been better over the last ten years, but you know we should not look at it as a negative aspect if an athlete wants to speak to a sports psychologist. I think it’s still partially looked at that way, and in that matter, we really need to change attitudes towards that. But yeah, to summarise, trained sports psychologists, acceptance that it is okay to not be okay, and also changing [our] attitudes. These are all important aspects in dealing with mental health issues.
True. We need to normalise speaking up, and making it okay to not be okay. Having said that, we need constant reminders that professional sportspersons make so many sacrifices to pursue a sport before they reach the national and international stage. But once they win a medal or set a new record, their victory becomes a matter of national pride. Do you think this part of a sportsperson’s fame is hypocritical? Especially in the case of players from the north-east, who are only “daughters/sons of India” when they bring back a medal.
I think the north-east is a treasure trove of talent, especially sports talent. It is a gold mine for India, and it’s been really untapped, and honestly, we, as a nation, have failed the north-east. We have been extremely unfair to people from the north-east. We, at OGQ (Olympic Gold Quest), have worked with several athletes from the north-east and they’ve just been amazingly talented athletes, and I would say even more amazing as individuals right from Mary Kom to Mirabai Chanu to Lovlina Borgohain. And, like I said, there’s incredible talent. It’s just been unfair to them over the years. We need to do far more; India, as a nation, needs to be doing far more to support the north-east.
Thanks so much for this insightful conversation.
We all hail hockey as the national sport and take pride in the victory of our players. But my takeaway from this conversation is that our duty lies beyond watching and cheering. As Viren says, sports is the biggest non-scripted reality show. And as a nation of more than 1.3 billion people, we need to play and promote sports among our youth and each other, and in doing so, we might just set ourselves up for success.
Thanks for tuning in. Take care and stay safe!
Over the past few years, certain words or philosophies—‘cruelty-free’, ‘vegan’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainability’—have gained importance. And any new brand in the FMCG sector must tick all these boxes. As a result, conscious consumerism is on the rise. In this podcast, we speak to Nina Lekhi, Managing Director and Chief Design Curator, Baggit, on founding a ‘Make in India’ brand encompassing all these philosophies, long before they became buzzwords.
Shruti Singhal: 0.04
Durable, renewable, viable, feasible, long-term, long-lasting…these are some synonyms of the word ‘sustainable’. What began as a buzzword in conversations about the environment was applied to practices in business, agriculture, energy, and even consumption, now referring not only to forests and the natural world, but to all biological systems. The most common definition of sustainability is that of ‘sustainable development’, by the United Nations, as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
In light of this definition, the philosophy presented limitless possibilities in the world of fashion, heralding a movement that values people, the environment, creativity, and profit, in equal measure.
We’ll be hearing from a self-made entrepreneur, Nina Lekhi. She is the Managing Director and Chief Design Curator of the vegan brand, Baggit, which delivers quality bags and accessories made from cruelty-free material. With a strong background in the field of arts and design, Nina started Baggit as a teenager, turning her failure at college as a literal stepping stone to success. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.
Thank you so much for agreeing to do this with us, Nina.
Your products made fashion accessible and affordable for young people. You too were very young when you started Baggit and reeling from the disappointment of your first year in college. But why handbags?
Nina Lekhi: 01.50
Really excited to be doing this for you all.
I started making handbags because I always found it very cool to have graphic T-shirts. So, [I wondered] why don’t we have cool graphic Canvas bags? And because I knew how to screen-print, I started doing that. To cut a long story short, failure was the best thing that happened to me. There’s a lot more that we are going to be doing now going ahead, and I just want to be very good at one thing.
Shruti Singhal: 2.20
It’s been like 30 or so years since you started Baggit. So much has changed about the economy and the world of business, the consumer and their sensibilities. Could you describe how these changes influenced your journey as an entrepreneur and how you incorporated these learnings into your products?
Nina Lekhi: 2.41
Selling-wise, I could say that earlier we used to have more mom-and-pop stores; small stores that you’d go to [in] Matanga or Dadar, where you’d have eight to ten brands that you see, and some unbranded stuff that the shopkeeper would tempt you with where he gets better margins, and you don’t know about the quality. But I think after that time came in the large format stores, which are like your Shoppers Stop or Lifestyle, and they really focused only on branded goods. I think that was the advent of people wanting to buy imported brands, the Indian brands. From then on, I think is where Baggit also stepped in, where we did our first EBO (Exclusive Brand Outlet).
When we did our first store, I felt the shift; that we became from Karkhanedaar (warehouse) into a brand. Earlier we were selling to Amar Sons, for example. In Breach Candy, I used to have exhibitions and went into these mom-and-pop stores. From then on, Shoppers Stop approached us and then came the online world, which is crazy! And we’re enjoying the fruits of it today. I think that’s the whole journey.
From the sales perspective and customer expectations, everything has changed. I think, for online [shopping], they’re looking at good pricing and discounts. I think trend-wise, there was a time when people would buy on Diwali, Eid, or New Year’s. And about ten years later when we were still planning for these occasions, my brother tells me that people don’t really buy only on Diwali; they are buying every month and things change so much.
Everything from where you buy, how you dispose of it, how frequently you buy, and so much the Internet of Things has made us go into...it’s such a huge world! I remember that we used to buy a magazine like a Femina or a Cosmo and Elle to know what the trends were. And today, we just see them on Instagram. I think that exposure has also made the customer much more friendly to what she wants, how she wants to look, how she wants to live a life, how she wants to carry herself.
And I think individualism is such a big thing; everyone is different and has their own style and I just love that. Like when you go to a New York subway, I mean the only thing that you will see is how everyone looks different. Look at their hair, look at the clothes they’re wearing, look at the colours they’re carrying...everyone is dressed so individualistically. But if you go to any street in Mumbai, you see everyone wearing pants shirt, jeans shirt, kurta tights or salwaar kameez, and maybe sarees before that, but today I think it’s so different. Everyone has their own style and flair and look; and I love that. That’s fashion.
Shruti Singhal: 5.48
True, and how it allows us to accept ourselves, without needing to follow the moulds or patterns defined by society. In that sense, what do you think it means to buy or carry a Baggit?
Nina Lekhi: 6.05
We focus on stuff that is important to us, whether it’s in a ‘Made in India’ product, [or] whether it is [in a product that is] comfortable and light. I use every bag that I design till today, that my team designs, and so does the whole team. So, we really make sure that at the cost of the price or the cost of looking fabulous, it need not be uncomfortable; your phone has to be very accessible; it [the bag] has to be lightweight and durable; your zips and stitches don’t need to give way. I think all of that put together is really for us what Baggit is, because I won’t say it is value for money, but it’s a fabulous product. And it’s not just trends, it’s evergreen; you can use it for a lot of years because of the quality and style. It’s not like a whim or fancy that goes out of fashion in the next six months, and then you have to chuck it. I think, bohot dil aur jaan se banate hai (We make our products with a lot of love and care). People tell me it lasts too long. And I’m like, ‘Okay, what do I do?’
Shruti Singhal: 7.16
The world of fashion today, especially conscious fashion, is so much more dynamic. What keeps businesses like yours going?
Nina Lekhi: 7.25
I think maybe it’s just passion for me. I still am as invested, as hands-on, in the business. I still absolutely love what I’m doing and for me, it’s not just the money, it’s just so many new things happening in the industry, and with tech today coming in, bahut maza aata hai (I have a lot of fun). For me, it is not just making money, it is [about] contributing and serving my country; and doing something that I know is important; it is not just running a business.
And making in India is very important and critical for me. And I know it’s going to happen for India; I know that India is going to become a place where the world is going to come to buy, because the kind of products, the kind of pricing that India can give, no one can beat. And I see India, not only as a manufacturing hub, but even as a place where you can buy fashion on the world map. And I see more brands doing that, and we’re getting huge opportunities already coming our way.
Shruti Singhal: 8.32
This really brings me to my next question. Make in India has become a policy now. But when you started Baggit, everything from manufacturing and design was done in India. How did you bring about this philosophy, which is now a mission-vision statement for companies?
Nina Lekhi: 8.50
For me, it was important to do whatever I did, ethically or importantly, what my heart wishes. And I think we went the ‘Made in India’ route long ago. And I think, today, we are the winds of change; we are at a benefit today, because we are the only guys who are manufacturing in India. You can see the Chinese pricing go up and the dollars are going up. Punya karte hai, toh accha hi hota hai. When you serve and think about everybody, it’s going to work; there’s no doubt about it.
Shruti Singhal: 9.27
Right. Could you compare the advantages and challenges of starting businesses today, as opposed to the 80s when you started Baggit? Because now there are so many B-school programmes, even government funding for startups, funding initiatives, and even venture capitalists are so more accessible now than earlier. Do you think it’s harder for startups today to break even and turn profitable?
Nina Lekhi: 9.54
I think maybe the infrastructure and the money that you require now is much more, because there are many more players right now. That’s one thing that I feel and see. Secondly, if you’re motivated enough, and because you get this huge kick, you have got to do it. You have to survive; you have no way, no option...so you will put your everything [into the business].
I remember I used to take a cab home and I used to look at the meter card, and say, ‘Okay, I have 25 bucks in my pocket.’ And when I see it [the meter] reaching 25 bucks, I would get out and walk home the rest of the way. We need that kind of push and determination to make it happen.
Jaise humare baap-dada bolte the...main toh footpath pe soya tha..merko toh bees rupay milte the...(How our fathers and grandfathers would say...I used to sleep on the footpath...I used to get Rs 20...). They were much more hardworking. We have seen those kinds of tough times maybe, and today’s kids don’t face that kind of push or that kind of adversity; and I think you need a lot more to invest because there’s so many more players; you need funds for getting a tech team together. So, I think it is far tougher today.
We were very lucky when we started early, but I think it is good to start early. I tell my daughter too, she’s 21 years old and she’s into music. It just helps to start early because you never know when you [will] become a brand and reach somewhere. I know it's easy to get a cushy job and have someone to pay your bills and that lifestyle right from the beginning. But really, is that lifestyle so important? Don’t you want to invest in what you're going to have with you ten years, twenty years down the line?
Shruti Singhal: 11.45
Sure. That’s an interesting question to keep asking yourself. The idea of Baggit came to you when you observed that people were selling sloganed T-shirts, but not that many stylish bags. So, clearly, observation and awareness of the market are crucial for an entrepreneur. What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
Nina Lekhi: 12.06
Many times, even I think that I’m not so good at what I do. But I think the path shows up slowly. So, I would go to the store, and just attend to my customers. I believe that my customers are my God, Gandhi keh ke gaye the (as Gandhi ji once said). And once you believe in it, whatever she [the customer] tells me, I look at it as the Bible. Okay, this is what the need is. And then I keep going on that path, getting one stack on another. And then I see, maine toh imarat khadi kardi (I built a monument from scratch). So that’s how I do it; maybe the right way or the wrong way. But it shows you the path, and slowly, when you’re aligned, or when you’re at it, it will speak to you. It’s the universe, the customer speaking. When you consistently go and look for it, it happens.
Shruti Singhal: 13.15
Yes, that makes sense. When starting a new business, one usually turns to immediate family and friends for support, later turning that into a more concrete involvement, if required. From your experience of running Baggit with your family, what should family-owned businesses keep in mind in their journey to innovate and scale?
Nina Lekhi: 13.41
I think a lot of family-run businesses, especially in the designer world of apparel and handbags, still exist without funding. And obviously, it has its pros and cons. And I think as you grow the company, you need skill sets that maybe you did not need in the beginning. In the beginning when you hire people, you just see, ‘okay, this is a good person and he can work’, and he learns whether it is sales or production. But as your organisation grows, you need people who are ready and have experience in that particular skill, and you need professionals. It’s a good blend of having professionals, and people who’ve been there for very long; they may be family, or they may not be family, but they become like family because they spent ten years plus with you; and we have many in our organisation who spent an entire lifetime with us almost and we are really proud of them.
But there are some downsides if I’m being honest. If someone has been with us for many years and they have their own bureaucracy or their way of doing things or not budging or still being in the past. I think love does it all. It could be even a professional from outside who would not think the same way as you think. If you really can inspire, and dream together, things can happen. And I think the best blend is to mix them together. Easier said than done but it’s possible and it happens.
Shruti Singhal: 15.25
Do you think family businesses tend to gravitate towards traditional and bureaucratic processes? How should they balance the complication that probably comes with a family business?
Nina Lekhi: 15.43
Many times, they could be people who’ve been in the system more, understand that there is a risk to something, and it can’t be done. And also, there is a younger child in the house, let’s say there’s a 20-year-old kid in the house who doesn’t understand risk at all, right? So, it could be an executive with you, who doesn’t understand the risk and the policy. And there’s an HOD who may be stuck in their way. But I think of getting the right balance: there is a sensibility in experience, in people who’ve been there and done that for many years. But I think in today’s world, younger people bring in tech, new ideas and freshness. Similarly, I think [in] a business also, you can’t have only young guys, because you need some experience, and strategy. So that’s how I look at it.
Shruti Singhal: 16.41
Over the past few years, certain words and philosophies like ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty-free’ have become very popular, and any new brand or product in the FMCG sector now has to tick all these boxes. But you started Baggit before any of these words became buzzwords. Could you share the thought process that led to this? Was it a conscious choice?
Nina Lekhi: 17.07
With the pandemic, it is hitting us much harder, right? Look at the environment, look at the climate zone, and look at everything that Mother Earth has been telling us, and saying it for a really long time. I think when you’re really in touch with your own self, and you’re not just thinking, ‘I need to touch this goal of profitability,’ you’re looking at the business as a wholesome space where you’re giving the best product to your customer and the best experience to your employees and all the stakeholders. If you look at it from that perspective, I think [you would be] going the route that we are to making sure that everything that we use is recyclable if not biodegradable.
But I don’t know where the customers are really, you know. We’ve done some fabulous stuff, where we’ve gone to the borders of India and gotten bags made out of cane. But I think this is more [popular] in the West; maybe in India, they [customers] expect it [the product] to be cheaper, because if it is natural, it won’t last that long. I guess it will take a little while for those consumers to become more aware, but by then, we are still making sure that all of our products are recyclable at least, if nothing else.
People need to be more aware. And I'm doing my little bit like putting up stuff on Instagram. But we need to create more awareness of what we are consuming and what we look for when we buy.
Shruti Singhal: 18.44
Right. Do you think then this trend of conscious consumerism is likely to continue when we are out of the pandemic?
Nina Lekhi: 18.52
I think it will grow. Customers are going to become more aware. You know, like, earlier we were not so aware of what we used to eat, right? If you see our grandmothers telling us aloo ke parathe kha lo, ghee mein fried food (eat aloo parathas or food fried in ghee), but today you see people looking for healthier options whether eating more fruits and vegetables. It may take a little while longer than the western so-called ‘developed’ countries.
People will slowly gravitate towards it, and Baggit is ready with the stuff that they require. Because it is really in my heart and my passion, to do stuff that’s good for the earth, but also to do innovative stuff, to do new things. It’s so exciting! I think all designers or creative people would agree that doing something new is like the ultimate achievement.
Shruti Singhal: 19.47
Yes, I understand. What challenges are you working on right now? What are you looking to solve?
Nina Lekhi: 19.55
We're going to become an international brand; it is my dream to help in bringing back the economy of India, even if it’s a 1% contribution...by selling ladies’ fashionable handbags, in all these premium locations and seeing the world flaunt Baggit handbags, an Indian brand.
Shruti Singhal: 20.19
That’s an inspiring dream. Becoming an international brand also means staying on top of local and domestic brands, competing from newer entrants, and this entire ecosystem is further fuelled by e-commerce platforms. Could you talk about how you dealt with any competition along the way?
Nina Lekhi: 20.41
Yeah, I remember there was a time. We [had] opened our first store at Kemps Corner, which was like the most happening area in Mumbai at that time to go and shop. We opened our first store called Excess, and there was a shop nearby called S-Beda. And this guy would copy every fourth design of mine and I used to really get upset. Once I got so upset that I went to his store as a customer. Luckily, the owner wasn’t there. And I said, ‘Humara copy kiya hai tumne!’ (You copied our design!) I started shouting at the guy. And we still laugh about it. But now I’m not bothered; I’m very cool and calm.
For example, right now if you see the entire industry is discounting left-right-center and you know, a lot of it is fake discounting. But that’s the industry and there are different players. You just enjoy the game, and you do your bit; you just focus on what you want to do and your ethics and what you believe in. You stick by that rather than getting affected by so-called ‘competition’.
Shruti Singhal: 22.01
Right. Some quick questions now. What was your first Baggit bag or accessory?
Nina Lekhi: 22.08
The first Baggit bag that we made was an off-white canvas bag with rope handles. It had this graphic thing of ‘I'm confused’, where the ‘s’ in the word ‘confused’ was ulta (reversed). I think that really showed my state of mind because I had just flunked in college and started the screen-printing course.
Shruti Singhal: 22.27
Do you buy non-Baggit bags?
Nina Lekhi: 22.30
Yes, just to do R&D (Research & Development).
Shruti Singhal: 22.32
Where did you first endorse or advertise a product?
Nina Lekhi: 22.37
We did hoardings and TV advertisements later. Before that, the first shoot which we did was for our first store Excess at Kemps Corner; it had this little window display of four feet by six feet, that you can see when you walk by, as that’s a very walking kind of area. We had a shoot with this model, Mia. She was a big model at that time, but she became big, actually, after our shoot, and we had got her at a very reasonable price. And we had her pose with this bag which didn’t sell that well. The minute we put it [the display] up, the sale of the bag just shot up; it was hardly selling two pieces in a month and started selling 30 pieces in a month [after we put up the display]. So that was my first taste of marketing, even though it was just a window display, not really a hoarding.
Shruti Singhal: 23.26
When did you feel like you had made it?
Nina Lekhi: 23.39
I think our first store at Atria, which was the most inconvenient mall, highly priced, but was too close to my house, and I had to do that store. It did so badly financially for us, but it just took us on the map of a brand. And I felt at that point, we made it; obviously, there were the next two stores that came up immediately after that, which made us break even. Then we were cruising.
Shruti Singhal: 24.00
Right. Why do you want to set up stores instead of selling through outlets?
Nina Lekhi: 24.06
I think setting up your own stores gives you brand visibility, the brand feel and language when a customer walks into the store. They know by the visuals, by the way you put up your products in the store, and how you talk to them. I think that's really important because a large format store is like a marketplace. So many of them are so cramped nowadays, and they have no look and feel either. It’s not an iPhone or a Samsung phone that I’m buying.
Ultimately whether it’s apparel or handbag, you need to touch and feel the product. Because so many times when you buy stuff online, and when it comes home, you feel it’s not very nice, the finishing isn’t good, or the colours are not correct. You can do that [buy online] when you have a lot of time on your hand. But sometimes you just need to buy something that you need [urgently]. That’s why, whether it be tier-II or tier-III cities, we are looking at franchisee stores; because our pricing, like how you just said in the beginning, is really beautiful and we’ve understood different kinds of consumers. Tier-II cities versus a store in the Palladium for example, and we’re getting the product better for that customer—what’s the colour she would want, how would she want it structured, what handle length she would want—understanding all that.
Shruti Singhal: 25.31
How do you keep your staff, your employees or stakeholders engaged?
Nina Lekhi: 25.37
I think all of us have one vision and one mission. Also, we have this program called Siddha Samadhi Yoga, which my Guruji has brought about in our lives. We all meditate together and come from the same understanding of creating and manifesting. That is one language that everyone at Baggit speaks and understands. And that, I think, really binds us.
Shruti Singhal: 26.04
Thanks so much for this pleasant, honest, and thought-provoking conversation.
Nina Lekhi: 26.09
I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much.
Shruti Singhal: 26.13
Life and business present us with many foreseen and unforeseen challenges. But my takeaway from this conversation is that we should be true to ourselves and our values, and in so doing, we might just achieve our dreams, and even make a difference to our society, our country, even our environment.
Thanks for tuning in. Take care and stay safe!
As we experience paradigm shifts in healthcare delivery, it is time to look at modern solutions for traditional problems. Healthcare sector has been forever grappling with the iron triangle of equity, affordability, and accessibility. Listen to our podcast with Dr Dhruv Joshi and Dr Dileep Raman from Cloudphysician as they elaborate on how technology can be a mainstream enabler, rather than a fringe benefit to bridge the gap in healthcare infrastructure and make it truly future-oriented.
The future of healthcare is shaping up in a way that nobody had envisaged. The prolonged pandemic and its subsequent variants laid bare the widening gaps in what was lacking already in our hospitals, both state and private run. However, like all the other sectors technology saved healthcare, too. In future, healthcare will be driven by digital transformation enabled by interoperable data. In today's podcast, we will be discussing the future of healthcare with technology as its fuel, its impediments and more with Dr Dhruv Joshi and Dr Dileep Raman, Co-founders of Cloudphysician, a health tech firm having an in-depth expertise in the adoption and implementation of various technologies for delivery of advanced critical medical care in diverse hospital settings. Dr. Dhruv Joshi is a Pulmonary and Critical Care specialist and Dr Dileep Raman is a pulmonary Critical Care Medicine and sleep medicine specialist. They trained at the Cleveland Clinic foundation, USA. Welcome Dr. Dhruv Joshi and Dr Dileep Raman. Let's start with your experience over the past one and a half years, during COVID, given how your business model runs primarily on technology as its fuel, and COVID exposed how our healthcare system has been creaking, and how technology came to its rescue.
Thank you, Smriti. And happy to be here on this podcast. I think both Dileep and I, at the time of starting Cloudphysician strongly believed that the existing healthcare delivery models were not addressing a lot of the healthcare delivery problems that existed. And technology could be a huge enabler to make that change and to help address some of these problems. We've been working on this and we're of the strong belief that going forward, technology will form the backbone for a lot of the solutions that come through in healthcare delivery. While we always knew that this sort of transition would eventually take place where technology as the backbone moves from a fringe solution to a more mainstream one, I think the past one and a half years with COVID upon us has certainly accelerated that movement. There has been an enormous amount of awareness that has been created across the board. Everyone from consumers of healthcare to providers of healthcare to policymakers and regulators have all seen the shortcomings that existed in the healthcare delivery paradigm, and how technology can be used as a lever to help overcome some of those shortcomings. And so that has certainly helped us at Cloudphysician in solving some of the challenges that we have, which has been, what we do at Cloudphysician is address the shortage of expertise in critical care units or ICUs. Dileep over to you.
Over the last year or so.. while it's certainly obvious that technology is a fuel, as it is perceived to be, what has been revealing and more humbling is that technology is more of a means to an end. It's a platform. It's an enabler, and it's a tool. And what we are trying to do is make the technology work for the healthcare providers and the people who are actually delivering the care in such a format, that the service angle is actually going to leverage technology more strongly. Because what is happening, at least during COVID is that there's a plethora of technology services that are out there that can be scaled, but what is more difficult to scale is a service angle. So, what we had to do and reinvent is to figure out workflow processes, and service and operational ideas that could in fact, leverage these new technology solutions that were coming into play. So, some of that I think will mature over the next few years as now the technology platforms have suddenly mushroomed. It's really up to the providers to use those tools and see how we can create an impact because technology by itself, without the service angle coupled to it is unlikely to make an impact. And that is what teams with domain expertise will tell you. And the key learning in COVID has been while, you know, we've had dozens of solutions come out, very few of them have actually had that patient impact that has been sustained, and that has been evidence based and documented.
Now there are three key parameters in healthcare—equity, accessibility and affordability. In what ways can digital technology play a pivotal role in making healthcare more equitable, accessible and affordable especially in a country like India?
Technology is the way in which we can address all three of these vertices of the iron triangle, as we call it in healthcare. Like this has been a constant issue in healthcare delivery, where every time we try to address one of these issues, we negatively impact the other two. Every time you try to make, get a more high quality or accessible, the affordability comes into question. And I think with the advent of technology, with the advent of connectivity that has taken place in the last two decades, with the advent of data science and improvement in productivity, efficiency, quality, there is no doubt that technology can be the basis for addressing all of these three without negatively impacting any of them. And we have sort of been doing that in our field in critical care over the last four years. So, at Cloudphysician, if you were to see what we do right now, we're providing access to some of the most highly trained ICU specialist doctors to hospitals that would never have been able to access them, would never have been able to afford them. We are building an entire sort of ecosystem of high-quality care in these hospitals on a digital platform, enabling hospitals as widely flung, spread across as, you know, Leh Ladakh to Kerala, from Gujarat to Assam, get access to high quality care at an affordable cost. And it is like Dileep called it the fuel of technology that's making it possible in our space, and certainly in others as well.
You know how the demographics are very different in India, you know, language, level of education, location and age of patients and even their caregivers. Will the dependency, the dependency on the technology make quality health care more out of bounds for the people than it already is?
See, the really exciting thing about technology is its inherent flexibility and malleability. If you were to take a parallel, you could ask similar questions about the technologies or you know, integrated in the economic space. So, for example, there were questions about Aadhaar and how the UPI paradigm will affect traders and small business owners and how it will link to the vast amounts of rural economy and the farmers at large. And what it turns out is that if you design the technology to be sufficiently simple, and you design it for the users in mind, it is just a matter of time before the uptake happens. And once the uptake happens, you now have user level data, that’ll enhance the technology further. While healthcare is far more complex, the basic premise would still remain the same. You can't have a cookie cutter model where you have an advanced technology, say from the west, that you transplant into India and expect it to function out of the box. You are going to have to go into the hinterland, figure out what the user needs are, come back and then design it for them and then scale it. And this is. This is exactly what we are seeing.. is that if the technology is designed, right, the uptake is actually pretty good. And case in point being some of the ICUs that we are able to run in remote parts of India are actually going paperless because of the way they are able to use the technology that was designed with them in mind. And yes, regionalism, language, these are barriers. But we are not the first people to be encountering these barriers. So, we can take learnings from other industries, parallels there and incorporate into healthcare, the key focus would have to be user centric. And I think that is the priority, that that the designers and technologists would need to make sure that this, this happens. So, I'm not in the camp that think technology will actually take healthcare out of bounds because of how advanced it is. I think it all rests on what the intent of the health tech, you know, team is, and here the intent is accessibility and democratisation. Again, back to the line about malleability. technology is so flexible that you can actually make it happen.
Smriti Sharma: 09:26
What role do you see the stakeholders such as our government agencies, NGOs and private hospitals playing to make the telemedicine a household concept and, you know, to make it a more holistic success for everyone?
I think there are perhaps different roles that each of these will play. I don't know if it's a one size fits all. I think when it comes to government agencies, I think it's pretty crucial because these are the regulatory agencies. They are sort of going to decide the landscape for innovation to either happen or not happen depending on, you know, whether it's incentivised or disincentivised. I think largely speaking, and from our experience in this, in India, in the last couple of years, there's no doubt that the government and regulatory agencies also view technology and telemedicine as something that is going to drop the barrier of adoption of healthcare delivery, with high quality for the population at large. And so, they are, you know, making the, I think the making moves in the right direction. Everything from the telemedicine guidelines and the gazette that was released last year to, I think there are definitely the personal data protection bill, when it comes through will have significant impact on how the industry is going to function, and what the boundaries are within which the industry needs to function within. Similarly, I think even NGOs have found that the, that technology can be something that can be used to, to allow for provision of high quality care and access to high quality care in in a cost affordable in a cost effective manner. And as such have been, again, from our experience, working with several of them have been encouraging technology solutions to help address some of these problems. Private hospitals, I think, will need to see a business case for this. And I think that's also coming through, certainly in the last one and a half years, it came through pretty strongly. We have seen pretty much every private hospital rapidly adopt telemedicine as you know, one of the ways in which they are going to connect with patients and going forward as well. We see them continuing to do that. So, I certainly think that the general direction is moving in favor of technology, is moving in favor of you know, quote unquote, democratisation of provision of quality healthcare, using technology and certainly COVID has helped it to a large extent.
COVID has actually acted as a catalyst in so many ways. And I think that is the only positive way to look at it. Could you also elaborate on the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) policy that the government is coming up with?
Dr Dileep Raman: 12:39
Yeah, so there are a few other things that we think that the government could take the lead on. Some of the good things that the government is doing here is the entire NDHM policy that is in process, and there are various interconnected concepts, ideas, and, and frameworks that are in place. For example, they're creating a consent manager framework and a sandbox, so that technology providers can use that to universalis the consent management. They are trying to create a framework where different technologies can communicate with each other, so that the patient data that the patient owns is accessible to the patient's health care providers, no matter where the patient goes in the country. So, I think these are very good head winds to have. However, the realisation of some of these frameworks is where the government would need to enhance its push. And that is a direction that we feel can be significantly changed by the amount of pressure that the government can put on various organisations, both private and public. In particular, I think there should be some form of incentivisation where the government can mandate that if your platforms and healthcare mechanisms are technology focused and can communicate with each other, you are actually incentivised to do that in some form either in the form of a single payer managed incentive that says that if the hospital is credential and needs these technology and health tech related benchmarks, there is an additional reimbursement that is incentivized too.
COVID-19 fast tracked our reliance on technology-based healthcare. While it made the transition easier to start with,what are some of the challenges or barriers that still need to be addressed if we were to rely on technology based healthcare?
Healthcare delivery is pretty complex. There are so many different settings and there is a role for technology in pretty much all of those settings. But I think it's hard to just have an umbrella term that would encompass everything. So firstly, I think is we need to realise that patients are heterogeneous. Hospitals are heterogeneous and there are, there’s unlikely to be one solution that fits all. Right. So, so we need to tailor solutions for the different settings and different people that we are going to be addressing. And some of them may be more technology reliant, some of them may be less technology reliant, but I think overall, one thing that is for certain is that technology in some way, shape or form will help all of these. Firstly, we sort of need to, to understand that moving a system that has operated in a certain manner for decades and decades, to a different one is no mean task. And especially when you're talking about healthcare delivery, which is operationally complex, right? It is not straightforward. There are lots of things from, you know, the different touch points that a patient has with their provider, with their hospitals, lab results, previous tests, maybe past records, comorbidities et cetera. There are so many things that influence the care of a patient. And so, to move all of those to a technology dependent mode of delivery is no mean feat. Know what's the type of ecosystem that we are going to create from a regulatory(standpoint)? How are we going to incentivise people? How are we going to train people, you know, to sort of change there? How are we going to take away the inertia that people have against change? How are we going to build technology that is user friendly, that makes this change easy and simple.
Do you think medical education needs overhauling to ensure that our medical professionals become early adopters of digital technology and are truly future ready?
No doubt in my mind about that. I think our medical education system is fairly antiquated and needs, I don't know if overall, is maybe a little bit of a strong word there, but certainly need some injection of more innovative training and future readiness as part of training and apprenticeship of doctors. Often, we see a lot of technologists come in, coming into the healthcare domain to solve some of the problems that we have, and not enough of doctors solving the problems in the healthcare domain. And I think that is some reflection of the type of training and apprenticeship that doctors go through. And, you know, problem solving at scale, is going to require some amount of adoption of technology. And, doctors should be part of that entire process, which they are not enough of a part of right now. So, I think that that should, that will work.
The patient doctor ratio is inversely proportionate in India, and the second wave of the ongoing pandemic exposed the lack of doctors and hospitals, even in Metro cities. What is your take on this huge gap and how it can be addressed.
So, let's assume that you want to explore what the best solution is to deliver healthcare at scale. And you are evaluating is a technology or something else. This something else would ideally be ramping up the doctor capacity and the nursing capacity and all the allied health capacity. That would mean having a medical college or training institute every 100 kilometers. For example, when you think about having enough trained personnel at scale, you realise that just doing that quickly, even in a span of five years is at quality is very hard to do it. On average, to make an ICU doctor, it takes about 12 years. And that is a fully trained intensivist comparable to someone in the west for example. By the time you do all these things, you are probably looking at a 25 year horizon overall, from the time of your idea being executed till the time you actually see a sufficient number of healthcare professionals to handle this. So clearly, if you ask me, in a perfect world, if I could expedite this and do all of this in five years, we should do it the traditional way. But that is how you would come down, evaluate these problems, and then end up with the conclusion that technology by miles is your quickest way to act as a force multiplier. Training and service delivery both have technological tools that can help them to scale. So, we already have serious platforms out there in the healthtech world that will, in fact need to be incorporated into mainstream healthcare teaching and training as well. And this is where I strongly think that when you said about an overhaul or a revamp of the education system, not only will you need to teach new healthcare providers, how to use technology, how to communicate better with technology, you will also need to use technology platforms to train them at large as well. So, you know, for example, IIT Kanpur is actually looking at having a medical college in its own campus, which is a telling idea because you want to have cross pollination of engineers and doctors in the same campus. And that is really where we are thinking that this might act as a crucible of health tech innovation, planting the seeds of that today.
I would just add that, you know, you keep hearing about these doctor patient ratios, and, you know, compared to Western European countries, how our doctor patient ratios are very, very different, right. And, and I don't think that we will necessarily get to the same doctor patient ratios as they do have in many of these much smaller countries. That having been said, the other thing that I would say is that perhaps we can address some of the problems in delivery of quality healthcare in a cost-effective manner, without reaching those same doctor patient ratios, leveraging technology, and that's where again, the platform of technology can help us in in that in that aspect, right. Using connectivity, getting access, using all the engines of technology, AI ML, Data Science, etc. We hear a lot of these buzzwords, but there is definitely scope for us to be able to provide high quality health care to patients without necessarily reaching those same doctor patient ratios, as we see. And that is very much what we're doing at Cloud physician.
So how are digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, and big data fuelling the next level of healthcare?
And you, when you think of quality healthcare, you typically think of a large corporate hospital. There are lots and lots of specialists in that hospital catering to a very few number of patients in that particular hospital. And if you were to look at these hospitals, you know, they provide access to high quality health care. But for them to be successful business models, they are dependent on one of the metrics that they use is the average revenue per occupied bed. And, and you will see that for them to be, growing concerns and for them to be profitable, the push is to see how do you increase the average revenue per occupied bed, while delivering high quality healthcare. So, what we're doing and what technology can do, and what we're doing at Cloudphysician is to see is to sort of turn that entire thing on its head and say that using technology, we will provide high quality healthcare, not requiring the same level of average revenue per occupied bed that a large corporate hospital would require. And if we are able to do that you are suddenly open up the availability or the access to quality healthcare to a much, much larger population of patients, because they are very few. If you were to look at our population, a very small fraction of our population can actually access that quality healthcare in these hospitals. That's where these digital technologies, big data and analytics and predictive modeling come in.
So, one of the interesting things that I always think about in this space is, you know, there is this urban legend and a myth that you only use five or 10% of your brain, right? That's clearly not true. We use 100% of our brain all the time. Healthcare data is sort of suffering from this, right now. We generate in advanced ICU with all your monitors and data points, you're generating gigabytes of data every day per patient, this is six to 10 gigabytes of data. And, and the myth sort of is a reality with respect to healthcare data, where we're probably using less than a single digit percentage of this data to actually help the patient, whether it is with predictive analytics, or even helping with clinical decision-making therapeutics. All of this is untapped and unused. What needs to happen is, this needs to be actionable and tied directly to patient outcomes. Without that link falling in place, your uptake is also going to be low. So, for example, you can have a machine learning tool that can pick up an X ray and say if it is abnormal or not or pick up an X ray and say if it's COVID or not, you're not going to find any impact if there is any real life change here. And there was just a paper published a couple of weeks ago, that in fact said that majority of the ML and AI tools that were designed to pick up COVID X rays were lying unused. And that's the whole point that I was trying to make about. You know how this data is actually been utilised. So, it is still an unrealised dream. And I think, going back to the point where we were talking about technologists working hand in hand with domain experts, they really need to be in the know and understand is this a problem worth solving? Otherwise, going back to this vast pool of data, that will be, will be an exercise in futility.
What are the impediments in scaling up a business model based on digital technology given the questions over data safety, lack of availability of medical records and patient confidentiality?
Some of this has to do with human factors and process factors. It's more about having this data universally and freely available through interoperable platforms. So, keeping the human issues aside, the operational and process issues are what the NDHM and various private enterprises are trying to address so that these data points are not in silos, because that is certainly a problem. And again, you can go to the Aadhaar and UPI example, the UPI is a single framework. And various banks like ICICI and Axis, or whoever it is, have agreed to be on that same platform so that they are interoperable, and the payment conduits are in sync with the patient's account or the other user’s account. So similarly, you will have to have a mandate where these models can scale up, because they can actually talk to each of these platforms, including the patient, now ensuring confidentiality after the due consent process that can help this environment be an integrated environment. So that's certainly one major impediment that we see being in this sector, especially in the ICU, which is so data heavy. The other impediment we've of already discussed this in the regulatory framework and the single payer model where there needs to be some sort of an incentive or a business case for the private enterprise to do this and make it happen. So, these are the two major impediments that I see.
Yeah, I would just add that any digital healthcare technology business model simply needs to incorporate components of data safety, patient confidentiality, and availability of medical records into it. Right. So, your solution needs to incorporate it into it, your business model needs to incorporate into it. There's no question about it. I think that that just has to be part and parcel of what how the business model works and how the solution works. So, I think there's no separating the two. I don't think that it's a separate concern. It's just part of the same problem that you're solving. You're solving the problem of access, you're solving the problem of provision of high quality healthcare, you're solving the problem of cost effectiveness of healthcare delivery. And you're also solving the problem of data safety, and patient confidentiality, and availability of medical records. These are all part of the solution of the digital health.
So, would you say that the pandemic has created the urgency for people to share their data more openly?
Sometimes, while the ideal is that, you know, we should have safeguards, the pandemic sort of recalibrated that, but now we actually have a breather where the legal system can actually catch up and prepare ourselves for a better data sharing framework, which is the right way to go about it. So, for instance, this is a suggested improvement in the telemedicine guidelines and telemedicine guidelines draft policy 2020, in fact, said it was okay to use a Skype or some social media platform to share data. But I'm extremely confident and certain that the formal way to do it is to not use those things unless they are compliant with NDHM policies.
Yeah, I would just say that, you know, I never really have seen that people have been averse to sharing their data in the construct of healthcare delivery, actually. You see, if you were to just see the situation on the ground, in fact, I'd say that people share it too freely, you know, with personal data in all sorts of platforms unsecured and otherwise. And I think it's important that that healthcare providers like us and others and other healthcare digital technology platforms and companies, who are entrusted with patient data, to build systems that are compliant and adequately protect the data of their, of the people that they are helping and taking care of, irrespective of whether they ask for it or not. Right, and it is also important that the regulatory framework build in these protections for the patients and consumers.
How will an integrated healthcare system in India look like in five years from now and what will be its essential components in a developing country like ours?
The healthcare delivery will be augmented, will be bolstered by, by technology, which will move from what is now, you know, a fringe sort of solution to a more mainstream one with much greater amount of adoption. But like I also previously alluded to, you know, technology in and of itself is not the solution, technology is merely the enabler. It's merely the fuel, that is helping augment the healthcare delivery that needs to happen. Right. And so the integrated healthcare system will be integrated in many different ways. So, there'll be different components of technology, there'll be different components of services, there will be different components of training, again, perhaps enabled by technology, data science will obviously be play a huge role, where we're seeing some of the solutions coming through already. And then it's pretty exciting in this space to see some of the solutions coming through. And I think one of the things that we need to realise is that the people building the solutions, it is incumbent on them to build solutions that are easily adoptable, by the user and by the consumer, I don't think if the expectation is that the onus is going to lie on the user to adopt your solution no matter what, then that change is not going to happen. So, I think the onus lies on us, the ones that are making these solutions to be able to prove that they work, to be able to prove that they help patients, to be able to prove that they improve the experience of patients, patients, families of the caregivers, and their deliverers of care as well. And then if we are able to show that I, there's no doubt in my mind that adoption will quickly follow. Right. And so, I think, I think there are a lot of people working in this space, like us, a lot of talented folks, there's a lot of money being invested into the space. So, no doubt in my mind that it's going to be exciting few years ahead.
Dr Dileep Raman: 32: 24
It's easier to answer that question with a one-to-two-year horizon. And sometimes it's actually a lot easier to answer what you want to see in 10 years or 15 years. The approach we took was to define a vision statement that we want, and we think will happen in India, and then see if we can actually achieve it in a certain timeframe, preferably sooner than later. So, what we think the ideal situation would be is that you want a patient centric ecosystem. Period. If there was, you wanted to sum it up in one sentence, that is the sentence to use. Now, there are many ways to get to patient centricity. And what we are imagining is that the patient should be in control of their, their healthcare in whatever language they speak in whatever geographical location they are, they should have access to both basic health care and sub specialist healthcare at any point in time in their patient journey. And they should be assured of outcomes that are in line with standard of care across the world. This, this is a fairly simple statement. I don't use the word technology, I didn’t use any word here that is complex. But when you put that in perspective, you can now add technology and healthcare and add layers to it. And those layers are what you want to realise in the next five or five years. And those layers include connecting the patient with the right provider using either tele telemedicine, or having outreach centers that are technology enabled, making sure that every chain in this care pathway that includes registration or passing information to the patient and passing information from the patient to the provider, making sure that the lab informatics and the pharmacy system and the ecosystem is patient centric. You could imagine say a drone-based delivery of medications or labs results to the patient in a remote area. This is already being piloted, for example, you would want this entire ecosystem mapped out. And that can be virtualised. It can have logistics components to it. But these are the things that you want realised going down the line. So, in the patient's palm of their hand where they use their handheld device, as much of this ecosystem should be mapped out. So sure, you can't remove the human element of healthcare where you need someone to be at bedside and if you have a hub and spoke model that takes the patient from where they are remotely and puts them in a location that actually enhances their care for tertiary care. Say for example, you still want that ecosystem to be plug and play. So, the simpler what I want, and then the more complex of how I want to do it, is what needs to be linked. And, of course, it starts with the why. The why is what we started with, is we want to have good patient care. That's what that's why we are doing. So, we know that there'll be multiple players here. And we should all work together to make this happen, because that is the end goal that that can happen if you're lucky five years. But if we are even moderately successful, let's try and do it in ten.
No doubt technology is transforming healthcare in unimaginable ways. But like Dr. Dileep Raman said, it is about creating a patient centric ecosystem where the patients have access to both basic health care and subspecialist healthcare at any point in their medical journey. And they should be assured of outcomes that are in line with standard of care across the world. And then one can add the layers of technology and efficient healthcare to it. On that note, we come to the end of this podcast.
Thank you, Dr. Joshi and Dr. Raman for a thought-provoking peek inside the future of healthcare.
Hear about the surge in the start-up ecosystem which is taking the world by storm, and how this space has evolved and adapted to the new normal. As both founders and investors continue to be important cogs in the wheel, there are best practices to be shared and new lessons to be learnt.
As Jeff Bezos says, "We are our choices. Build yourself a great story". Perhaps, not every bright idea gets its due, but with the right pitch and right audience, you can see your ambitions take shape and kickstart that dream project. Angel investors play a crucial role in enabling entrepreneurial journeys. With more and more startups emerging in the country, it becomes imperative to understand how the angel investing space is evolving and adapting to the new normal. In today's session, as we discuss what the future holds for investors and startups alike, and the changing landscape of angel investing and VCs, we at Management Rethink, are excited to have Mr. Vinay Bansal, Founder and CEO of Inflection Point ventures. IPV is one of the leading angel investing platforms in the country that is largely focused on early stage investing. We'll also be talking about some of the success stories, which have paved way for more disruptive ideas taking the lead this year, and IPV's plans as they continue to expand their reach. Okay, before we jump into the session, I'd love to introduce Vinay. Vinay has 20 plus years of Global Experience in Fortune 500 companies, Startups, Private Equity and Investing. Prior to starting IPV, Vinay has held several top positions in global roles in Manufacturing, Finance, Supply Chain and Sourcing. He's a Finance expert who's worked with big names like TPG Capital, GE, Hindustan Unilever Ltd. and Wildcraft. At IPV, Vinay and his colleagues firmly believe that 'Everyone can grow with startups', thereby promoting an ecosystem, which is viable for both founders and investors, and is not just focused on backing an idea, but also its execution. While 2020 was riddled with financial challenges for many, IPV successfully funded 30 companies from a range of sectors like Edutech, Sports, Healthcare, FinTech, etc. Some of their recent investment deals include Milk Basket, Mindler, Bolo Indya and Hobspace. Welcome to the session, Vinay. We are so excited to have you today and really looking forward to hearing all the valuable insights that you'll share with our listeners.
Thanks, Rajshree for having me. I look forward to a good engaging conversation.
Same here, Vinay. Lets let's get started. You know, it's been an interesting last year with the onset of the pandemic and the way it has unfolded. Do you see 2021 as a different year with respect to startup investing?
No, absolutely Rajshree. And you know, let me say it a little bit differently, right. The year that went by was very different indeed, from many respects. And since 2020 was very different, 2021 has got to be different, for sure. And let me explain this a bit. You know, 2020 was a fearful year and all of us were inside homes. We were wearing masks, not meeting people. We were fearing to shake hands, fearing to talk to people. You know, we were not on the roads, not in the malls, not in cinemas. We were at home, close to our families, etc. 2021, I believe is going to be a hopeful year. You know, where we are hoping to come out and meet people, we are hoping to go to weddings, we are hoping to go to malls, we're hoping to go to restaurants, and so on and so forth. And we are of course hoping to meet our extended families and friends. Right? So 2020 was gloom and doom, right. Stock markets fell to their lows, 27,000 or so, you know. 2020 was a year of support. As investors, we needed to support the companies that were not doing well. We needed to support our families, we needed to support our employees. 2021, instead of gloom and doom, I believe it's gonna be a lot cheerful year. You know, the stock markets are gonna pick up. And similarly, instead of support, we are going to look to invest in 2021. So yeah, a very different year than 2020.
That's great to hear. And I like the optimism in your voice you know. I was just wondering if you'd like to elaborate on the new trends that you've seen in the changing landscape of angel investing? Do you see any additional challenges for investors? What should they focus on? And if they need to reimagine their role, somehow?
Sure, I think you've asked some really important questions here, Rajshree. One of the basic trends we see changing and this is more from the process of investing. Earlier, people were very sceptical of investing unless they have met the founder in person multiple times, right? Earlier, investors would come together in a hotel room, meet and discuss and then invest. Earlier, they wouldn't go deep on due diligence. Earlier, they would not look at the unit economics as much as much they would look at on growth.These things have definitely changed. Today, I think investors are far more comfortable meeting the founders on Zoom. This saves a lot of time for scheduling the meetings, for travelling, saving the time for the founders, etc. right? Yeah. These days, I would say investors look at cash flow far more deeply. Do they have the runway for 18 to 24 months? What if something bad happens again? Right? Are there positive unit economics? Is the business gonna make money in the long term? Those things are significantly different for angel investors, founders, and the ecosystem as a whole. In terms of challenges for investors, I would say, every challenge is a learning opportunity. If there is a challenge of not being able to meet the founders in person, learn the way how things are done on online world, right. And there are tools available, psychometric tools available to check, you know, if you like the founder or not, you know. Develop those capabilities to evaluate people working online, develop processes to do the due diligence online, or even work with your team members on it. So a lot, a lot, I think, is different for investors and that's how the landscape is changing for investors as well. I'll pause here, if you have any other thoughts, but then I could go on, you know, reimagining a role question as well.
I agree, technology has come in a big way now. And it's just sort of permeating every way in which we are working today. So I think yeah, that's very important. And that has definitely changed the process of due diligence and other things, like you said.
So I think the other question you asked is, you know, what is the reimagining of the role of the investors, right? The way we invest here, and right from beginning, which others are now realising is, we always look to founders or startups as kids, as our own kids. Right? And this might be a very different comparison for you or for the audience. But yes, let's look at the various, you know, similarities. Kids make mistakes. Right? So do startups. Kids are young, and so are startups. Right? Kids don't earn on day one, they get their jobs much later. They need investments in education, in value systems. So do startups. Right? Startups first need investments, kids need right education, and the right value system, and they need support. So do startups. We need to support our founders, with the right governance. We need to tell them as advisors, where they're headed, we need to bring the experience from large companies to early stage companies and so on. But you know, kids also need acceptance when they fail. And that's what I think investors need to do a lot more of. But, kids will always be better than you in managing your TV remote, that's what startups do, right? Startups are far better than us in how to manage technology. Kids will be much better than you in managing your car, managing the household stuff and in automating stuff. Kids will be far better than you in your video games. That's what startups do. They break things, they rebuild things in a much better way. So that's the, I would say, the lens with which investors should look at startups. And if they invest right behind their education and their development and hold their hands, tomorrow, they will get great jobs, have a lot of data, and will make you rich as well. So that's my perspective on role of investors, with the startups.
That's a wonderful analogy, actually. I love the way you set that comparison, you know, and yes, I do agree that they do need a lot of hand holding. And that's how my second question is pretty much linked to what you just said, you know, speaking of the entire startup ecosystem, we've seen that the role of investors is actually transforming and going beyond merely funding. So like you said, you know, it's about investing in those disruptive ideas. Of course, the startups would be better at what they are doing with the technology and everything, but now the conversation isn't just about funding, right? Early stage entrepreneurs, they want advice on going global and scaling up etc. So that ways I do believe that the role of investors is now changing from being value extractors to being value creators, and a lot of it is focused on mentoring and networking.
Sure Rajshree, I think you picked the right topic here. My view for investors, especially in the startup ecosystem- it cannot be passive investing, you know. If you want to do passive investing, maybe do stock markets, right? Or gold, and stuff. With angel investors, you have to invest just like you would invest on your kids, right? You will pay for their education, which is fine. But you also need to, you know, track them, monitor them, guide them. So let me talk about four or five key spheres, where I think investors should take a bigger role. You know, as you rightly said, giving them access to your network, giving them advice and metric. So if a startup is stuck somewhere in a deep problem, or they're trying to solve a problem, which has been solved by others, leverage your network and guide them on those problems which are solvable. For example, a finance problem or a legal issue or how to do marketing, or you know how to do sales- this basic stuff. We know, but they may not know, because they are young, and leverage where they are smart. So don't get into their technology aspects. If they are good at technology, that's what they are building, Investors should complement them by helping them build the other aspects of the business. Next; help them hire the right talent. Nobody can grow unless they have the right teams. So if you have good connects, in the right ecosystem, people looking for jobs, great guys, build them and connect them to founders. Let them hire those people who will help build your enterprise and help build value for the investors. Next; sometimes, they may need co founders. You know, that kind of a talent is also required. So look at your other startups, where the founders might be available, or look for large companies where people are itching to go and become co founders. Connect those dots and see if you can bring co founders to this ecosystem. I must tell you that, today, there are a lot of headhunting firms which will get talent for large companies, or even for startups. But if I ask a headhunting firm saying, "I need a co founder for my business", they don't have a practice there. And a huge need today in our startup ecosystem. Practically, one in four or five startups needs a co founder. And I think we need to work on that area very sharply. Next is connecting our startups for business. Let's say, you know, a startup has come up with a new technology, which can cut the cost of, let's say, doing a certain manufacturing by 20 or 30%. If you know those companies, if you know senior folks in those companies, connect the startup there. The company will benefit by reducing cost, and the startup will have some revenue, and that will help them sustain. So cash can come from two places, one from investors, the other from customers. Coming from customers is always better. Then again, you know, mentor and guide on leadership, because no founder can grow and keep a team, unless they are great on leadership. Mentor and guide there. Mentor and guide the founders on how to communicate vision, how to set up their pitches, that, you know, that training is good and great for founders. Founders typically come with a deep technical domain. If you add leadership capabilities, communication capabilities to them, they can go far higher, far better, far longer. Right. And last, but not the least, when they fail, support them. Don't act like as you lent money to them. You know, it was an equity investment, and therefore treat it like that. You know, move on, learn from them. And, you know, continue to invest behind the ideas and passion that the investor has. So multiple aspects here, Rajshree.
Absolutely, yeah. And this is so important, you know, to keep these things in mind. You spoke really well about, you know, what the investors need to do and how they need to be the ones looking at the holistic picture, you know, with regard to the startups, but do you also see that the founders need to do anything differently in line with the changing times?
I have a lot of tips for the founders to be honest. So let's see, let's see how many we can cover, right? One is running the business. And the other aspect is related to those softer aspects which are not really running the business side. Let me talk about the softer aspects first. One is when you're looking for investors, look for people who can give you not just money but a lot of advice. Look for people who you admire, trust, and you know, are likeable, somebody you would want to work with. Don't look at investors who are here only for money. Right? They will trouble you later when the startup is not doing well. Look for investors who can help add value to you long term. The second part is, focus on what you really need from an investor. If you're tight on cash flows, then don't haggle too much on other items. Just focus on cash, get that cash in, get your business up and running and move on. The best of the founders focus on one or two big things, and then you know, just make sure that they do them very well. Coming to, you know how you, I would say run a business, I would simply say that founders who come with passion for a certain area of work, they do far better than those who come in because they see an opportunity. Founders who are here to solve a pain for their customers, do far better. Have a customer obsession. But be fair to investors, and to your employees. If you miss on one of the three areas, typically I've seen founders flounder, and not able to become big. Last but not the least, I would say, be very focused on what you want to do and you know, stick through that. Even if you want to do something different, first complete what you are set out to do, make sure that either it has succeeded or failed, before you pivot. There were founders during the pandemic, who just tried to take the benefit of the pandemic; left, you know, or defocussed their area of work they were already doing, and they were doing some great work, and tried to, you know, capture the three to six months of pandemic benefit. They could not develop a new business model from the pandemic, and they missed on both the boats. So staying focused, I would say, to your true mission, a long term mission, which should not ideally be moneymaking only, but you know, improving the world around you, you know, solving a pain in the in the world by giving better experiences usually leads to a lot better and a greater business.
True, I think this is, these are some of the really valuable insights again, because it's not about jumping the gun and always going with the trend, you also got to see long term sustainability. And that should be like in the vision, right? Yeah, yeah. So again, now I'm coming back to the specifics, Vinay. So general funding sentiment, as you said, it's going to definitely change as compared to 2020. Now, I wanted to be a little more specific here and ask you, what sectors do you see on the rise? Do you see business models being redefined to cater to India specific needs as well? And I know, you've already covered how the process of due diligence changed, but if you can share any further insights on that.
So you know every change needs a different way of working, right. Yeah. And we have seen significant change in the last one year. And India has responded differently than many other countries have, and therefore, India's population works differently. They have different needs, they have different demography, and different ways of working in terms of culture. So I think yeah, India specific needs will remain. And you know, I mean, let me take an example. We all grew up with our parents telling us, 'Go and get educated, otherwise, you're gonna wash clothes or wash, you know, utensils', right? Our parents were very focused on our education, right? And that's what shows up. Today, you know, the world's most highly valued Edtech company is in India. You know, you may not know or you may know, Byju is the world's highest valued Edtech company. Right? Yes. So, our culture, and how we have adapted to it, and what we want, reflects later in the companies as well, right. Now a company like Oyo, you know, where people want a cheaper hotel and people travel, it's a large country, right. Again, you could not have done a very similar company in the US to begin with, it was very specific to India's needs. Right. So, India specific stuff will always remain. FinTech, you know, Indians have a large appetite for good financial products. And today, India's FinTech industry or startups in FinTech, are globally the most advanced, right. If you go to US, you won't see the kind of work that's happening in India, let's say that it whether it is Paytm or a few other companies like BharatPay. So, India specific work will remain. And if people just do not say, Okay, let's see what's worked in the US, bring it to India, you know, that won't work. I mean, let me give another example, right. In the US, there are a lot of laundromats. You know, if somebody was to be able to pick your laundry, and you know, do it, those kind of businesses went up very well. But coming back to India, you know, you have a maid, you know she will charge very less, because we have a labour arbitrage. And you know that business will never pick up. Right? So it's a stark comparison of what can work very well in the US may not work here. You know, Airbnb worked very well in the US, right? But it took time for Indians to adapt to it, our cultures are different. Here Oyo may work better, so yeah, Indian specific business models, our specific problems which founders are aware of, they should go and try and solve. There is a large opportunity sitting out here.
I think you made very valid points there. It's all very culture specific. And yes, I mean, it's interesting to see how Edutech has risen so much, and Essentials delivery, etc. So these are the sectors that are rising in this year as well. And I think some of these trends are here to stay long term, right? Absolutely. Again, we are reminiscing a bit here. And I'd like you to share if you think how the best founders and investors managed things in 2020. Perhaps there were any valuable lessons that were learned along the way that you'd like to share with the larger audience?
Let me start with investors first, you know, sometimes we think that founders are the most important piece in the cogwheel. I think investors have an equally, if not more important role to play. Because if investors don't fund, founders can't exist, right? It's like having a parent first and then a child, you know, going back to the corollary of how do we treat founders like kids. So let me say that, you know, Warren Buffett said it also that, 'When there is fear, be greedy', right. And as I said, 2020 was a fearful year. I mean a simple example, the most highly valued company in India is Reliance. And they are known for doing great stuff. They went out and raised 30 to $40 billion during this time, when nobody would have imagined raising that much money. They went out and picked up businesses, bought businesses left, right and centre, right. They invested significantly in picking up great businesses, and therefore, they got a good valuation as well. That's exactly the kind of stuff IPV also did. So if you are seeing that others are not investing, there is a sentiment change. I think great investors will do well by going out and investing. So a couple of examples: This year between March and June, if let's say we funded about 10 startups, out of which three startups have already shown us a 3x to a 4x valuation increase. Why? Because nobody else was funding them, we got a reasonable valuation, we supported the founders growing and we helped the business grow. And that's where you see good results as well. So I would say one simple line for investors is invest behind conviction, invest behind founders, invest behind great business models and invest far more when others are not investing, right. Yeah. The second piece, I would want to add for public market investors is the same thing. In March, the number of cases were only about 140-150 in the country, but stock market was at an all time low of about 25-26,000 in Sensex, right? It had fallen from 43 to 26. Great investors would have picked up stocks that point in time. Right? Now it is up to the investors own mindset and the psychology to be able to invest in the times of fear. Today the same stock market, the Sensex, which was 25-26,000 during that time is at 50,000. It has doubled, all in less than a year. Where do you see that kind of returns and these are, you know, great public market returns. No market will give you that kind of returns otherwise, and this opportunity is available to everybody. Anybody can invest. But it is up to the investors own mindset to be able to find that opportunity, go behind conviction and take the actions that are required to be taken without being fearful. Right. So I would say that's from the investors side. Now on the founders side, we looked at a few founders which were in a similar stage, invested behind them. Some of them lost their focus, and therefore, could not get the valuations or sustain the businesses as well as others, their counterparts did. So my point to founders will be- number one, stay focused. Continue to jump towards the problem that you're trying to solve. Number three, keep the cash. During tough times, let the cash come in, even if it is, at you know, lower valuations because it's better to live than to die. And it's okay to live a little bit expensive than required, right?
Again, I know that, you know, 2020 was difficult in a lot of ways, but IPV has a lot of success stories. So I would love to hear a little bit more about that. And, you know, what would you like to share with us at the IPV front? And what lies ahead for IPV also?
Sure, sure. Let me kind of take both items one by one, you know, in terms of a few success stories. So, let me pick up in different sectors, actually, each one of them. Yeah, So, one we picked up in Virtual Employee space, you know, this, we invested about two years back, and I invested because I was looking for people who could help me scale up IPV, you know, when we just started, and we were absolutely comfortable having people available to us only online and not physically. And at that point in time, I came across this startup called Wishup, run by two very smart chaps. And they were doing virtual employees, and they were not getting funding from anywhere else. I said, Okay, I'll cut the first check, we cut the check, we started using their employees. And with our network, many other people started finding that benefit. And you know, they started growing from the verge of not getting funding. And recently, they got a term sheet at a very significantly higher valuation. And you know, the pandemic also helped move a lot of the employees to be virtual. And you know, that became the new normal. So, the example here, what, why I took Wishup is, we invested two years behind what we were convinced on, and there was a business need, right. And once you help them sustain and grow, once the things change, or situations change to their favour, they bloom. So that I think is a very good success story. And that was actually the first investment we did at IPV also, so you know, very dear to heart. You know, when you make the first investment as a platform, and that gives you phenomenal returns. The second one I wanted to talk about I think, is a company in geolocation space. This is called GeoIQ. Again, an IIT graduate, a great team of three co founders, you know, they were just an idea when we started funding them about a year and a half back. And, and they have done a phenomenal job over a period of time. And with pandemic again, you know, they started giving locational based data to many companies, and helped fix supply chains, helped fix FinTech lending during this time, and, you know, had a phenomenal round as well, recently. So again, you know, a case of a founder, which we identified earlier, worked with them, focused on the mission, continued to work through, you know, with the head down and ears to the ground. I think the other one I would want to pick up is Otipy in essentials delivery space. An IIT Delhi graduate, four years behind his mission, you know, pivoted late last year to a b2b to c, and delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables at a 20-25% reduced cost, and at least 30 to 40% better on quality, and delivered within time. You know you order late evening, next day morning, they are home. I think they have grown like 5x to 6x in the last six months. And we are looking at them to grow another 5x to 6x in the next one year. These three success stories, at least in different sectors should give you a flavour of how things work.
Yeah, thank you so much for sharing those Vinay, because you know, it just really cuts a very hopeful picture, and how things have really grown in leaps and bounds, you know, and that and it's just very exciting to imagine what the future holds. Because these startups are something which are growing in leaps and bounds in our country, and it's just good to see people progressing on that front.
Absolutely. And I think, you know, our tagline at IPV is that, 'everyone can grow with startups'. You know, when your kids grow, we also learn a lot of stuff as parents, right? Yeah.The whole house is full of excitement when there are kids around, right. And that's true for the country as well. They create jobs, they help us get better at technology. They help us, you know, provide employment, they help us getting new ways of work done. They help the country grow, they bring in innovation. So, and of course they help investors grow their wealth too. So I think there is a whole ecosystem and a whole new way of looking at the economy as a whole.
Yeah, you've put it so well right there, you know, like how it touches almost every aspect of us. And it's brilliant that it's doing well. And it's just growing, you know, every single day. So, thanks again for that Vinay. Thank you for listening in guys. Based on my conversation with Vinay, one of my key takeaways today is that both founders and investors are equally important cogs in the wheel. Great Investors will recognise an opportunity, even in challenging times, go out and invest even when others aren't. Similarly, passionate founders looking to solve a real problem do far better than those who are just looking to exploit an opportunity. I hope you had a good time listening in.
Thanks a lot, Rajshree. It was great talking to you.
Thanks a tonne Vinay.
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