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This BPO employs differently abled people. And they rock!

October 02, 2014 11:51 IST
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All of 22 and straight out of college, Pavithra YS (pictured below) decided to make a difference and look what she's achieved!

Vindhya E-Infomedia is a business processes outsourcing company based in Bengaluru.

With over 600 employees, Vindhya is probably just a speck in the booming BPO market.

What sets it apart is that most of its 600-plus employees (including everyone on the floor operations) are differently abled.

When she started Vindhya, Pavithra YS was all of 22, fresh out of college, newly married and a mother of a nine-month-old baby after whom she named the company.

Pavithra wanted to make a difference in the lives of differently-abled people who constitute about ten per cent of India's population.

But as she was to learn, to make a difference you must make a profit too.

In an interview to Rediff.com's Abhishek Mande Bhot, Pavithra YS speaks about her business, what motivated her, and how

Did you always want to run a business that employed people with disabilities?

I always wanted to run a business. I started doing a Chartered Accountancy (CA) course with the plan to run a consultancy.

In my late teens, I used to tutor slum children and it was then I began toying with the idea of doing something for people who weren't part of the mainstream.

The idea of working with people with disabilities evolved over a period of time.

My husband believed that to really make a difference, the business had to be profitable.

Did you have any apprehensions when you started out in this business?

I never had any apprehensions when I started out.

Much later I did feel that I should have worked for a short while in a corporation to get some work experience.

I had to start learning everything from scratch. Back then I didn't even know how to write an email!

I applied for a couple of jobs while I was still studying for my chartered accountancy but I did not take them up. I also never completed my CA.

Now with the kind of impact we are making with Vindhya, I cannot say I regret it.

What have you learnt from this business?

That when you give people an opportunity, they will go the distance.

And that perseverance and passion are the two most important ingredients to run a successful business.

What are the advantages and challenges of having a largely differently-abled workforce?

For those who apply to Vindhya for a job, this place is the last ray of hope.

They are low on self confidence and there is a large gap between the time they got trained and got a job.

So training is one of the biggest challenges. It takes a lot of time and patience and the learning curve is longer.

But once they are trained, most of them are as good as, or better than, any able-bodied person.

If they prove they are able to deliver during the training process, they are on board.

They are also very loyal to the organisation and they are committed.

The positivity they bring to the job is unparalleled.

To give you an example: we operate in the area of micro finance so there are times we have to work during public holidays and festivals. The employees do it not because they have to, but because they know if they don't work someone will not be able to celebrate their festival.

For them (as it is for us), this becomes much more than just a job.

Most of them also want to go back and help people from the differently-abled community, which is also a great feeling.

Have you had to let go of your employees? How difficult has it been?

We have had to let go of people, like any other organisation.

But as a policy, we don't fire people if the business is doing badly.

The only reason why an employee is let go is if s/he does not perform despite repeated training.

We believe it is all right to not know anything because we will train you. But we cannot stand it if you don't have the right attitude.

Two things that we make them aware of right at the outset are that they must not expect sympathy or charity, and they must not expect magic to happen if they don't work hard.

Is Vindhya still seen as a 'charitable organisation'?

When we started we were perceived to be an NGO because there wasn't another model like this one.

People got excited and gave us the thumbs up. But when we asked them for business, they had their apprehensions.

Some of the common concerns were about our ability to deliver and meet deadlines.

Right from the outset we had positioned ourselves as a profitable company that incidentally happens to work with the disabled.

We gave quality, delivered on time and we gave no reasons to our clients to complain.

We also did pilot projects so our clients could test the waters as they would do with any other vendors.

Now people see us as a professional organisation and not a charitable one.

How did your family react to your decision to turn entrepreneur, and especially one that employed largely disabled people?

My mother, who is a doctor, is an independent lady.

At the time of starting out, I was 22 and the only thing she asked me was if I was prepared to do what I had set out to do.

I said I was and that was about it.

Of course there were relatives who asked my husband Ashok why he was investing so much money in this enterprise.

We are first generation entrepreneurs, so the apprehensions weren't unexpected.

That was also one of the major reasons we didn't discuss the idea with anyone. We didn't want negative feedback.

What were the unique challenges you faced while setting up Vindhya?

For starters, I had to learn sign language because I discovered it was difficult to communicate with people with hearing disabilities.

But that apart, there were the usual ones -- you feel you will get a lot of business and feel everything will be rosy but it doesn't happen that way.

So for the first few years of Vindhya, Ashok still kept his day job. That helped take care of some basic business expenses such as our employees' salaries.

There was a lot of pressure on us to make this business successful.

I was just 22 and learning the ropes of the business myself.

I didn't know how to talk to government departments, how to approach foundations or clients or even banks.

All of those were unique challenges in their own way.

How difficult was it to raise funds?

It was an unforgettable experience.

Ashok and I attended a loan fair organised by Canara Bank on the advice of our CA.

At the fair, we approached a manager and told him our story. He was so excited he introduced us to the general manager of the bank!

We were over the moon! We never expected to get an appointment with the GM!

The GM had read an article about us and asked us to see him at his offices the next day.

We did and we got an overdraft facility of five lakh rupees and a term loan of one lakh.

At the time it was crucial because we had landed an important project and we had no money!

I never thought it would be that easy and I can never thank Canara Bank enough.

Four years ago, one of our customers pointed out that if we didn't raise money we wouldn't be able to scale up.

We were doing well and the customers were increasing so what he said made sense to us.

We got in touch with Unitus Capital, a company that helps raise capital for social entrepreneurial businesses. They helped us get in touch with the Michael Dell and Susan Dell Foundation.

What role does your husband play in the business?

He has been a huge support.

After helping me set up, he joined Vindhya in the third year of operations.

He handles sales and customer relations; I look after human resources and operations.

Sometimes we bring our two children to the office.

But we have divided our responsibilities rather well, I feel.

If one of us gets delayed the other takes care of house and the kids.

Ashok is in charge of taking them out and about and I am in charge of their studies.

What advice do you have for working women?

Family and career are just as important so you cannot give 100 per cent to either.

You have to be able to strike a balance between the two and you alone can define where the line must be drawn.

Once you have that clarity, you can work towards it.

It is difficult but we are living in a more gender-inclusive world so that's a plus that you can make the most of.

Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

We need a lot of social entrepreneurs. As Narendra Modi pointed out in his speech at Madison Square Garden, we have the best of things in India so what is stopping us?

If you are able to give back to society and bring in a change for the better, give it your all.

There are several opportunities to be explored.

Education is a sector that needs some great ideas.

The disabled community comprises ten per cent of India's population. That is a huge number of people who can benefit with your ideas and you can benefit from them.

Treat people well; give them the best opportunities.

And of course... persevere!

Image: (from top) Employees of Vindhya E-Infomedia in their Bangalore offices; Pavithra YS; Pavithra with her husband Ashok Giri

Photographs courtesy: Facebook page of Vindhya E-Infomedia 

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