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This blog explores insights for multinational corporations, NGOs, academics, social entrepreneurs and others working at the Base of the Pyramid.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lessons in Growth From Vindhya's En-ABLED Staff : 90% of the BPO company's workers are physically disabled

By Jerry Brady

An employee awards ceremony at the Vindhya office in Bangalore. (All images courtesy of Jerry Brady).

On a Friday evening in October the first floor of the Vindhya office in Bangalore, India, the excitement is building. Soon we’ll learn who won the best employee awards for the third quarter. I’ve hosted and/or attended similar events in the past, but this one buzzes with a higher energy.

In March 2011, Accion’s Frontier Investments Group and Michael & Susan Dell Foundation invested in Vindhya, which services a customer base of mainly IT and microfinance companies with data management and processing solutions from its state-of-the-art center in Bangalore. Vindhya’s first client was Wipro, one of India’s largest companies, and it’s still a mainstay. Other clients include Indian companies in partnership with global insurance giants.

What makes Vindhya different, is its differently abled work force. Vindhya has been recruiting, training and employing differently abled people since its inception in 2006. Nearly 90 percent of the employees are physically disabled and also lack access to economic and other opportunities. 

On the day I’m visiting, the staff has been at work all day, as usual, on 29 projects that demand a high degree of concentration, working side by side in tight quarters. Some have been digitizing documents into master files; some recording data, often translating from one of seven languages into English; others have been making or receiving phone calls. After a full day, you might expect them to be tired, but it doesn’t look like it.

To the outsider, this may seem like the classic back-office, mind-numbing work we’ve come to associate with India. But closer examination shows skill, judgment and experience are as important as discipline. For example, one team is calling people who’ve signed up for the first pension either they or their family has ever known. Are you in the right investment, are you keeping your money at work (and not withdrawing it for a wedding, for example), can we answer any questions for you? These are the questions associates ask, easily, 900 times a day.

Another team is analyzing business expense reimbursements. A third is assessing the qualifications of applicants to become insurance agents. A fourth is handling requests for infant and baby products out of Ireland. 

Beneath the veneer of sameness there’s a wealth of discrete and precise undertakings. As a small company, Vindhya has focused on small, unique needs larger competitors might have overlooked. The reason their clients remain loyal is because Vindhya’s staff remains loyal for years, not months, which is rarely case in the rapid-turnover BPO industry. The incentive for this longevity is evident as the first floor fills up for the award ceremony.

 

The ceremony comes to life when the featured speaker enters the room. He is V. S. Radhkrishnan, fondly called “Radha” of Janalakshmi (which mean’s “People’s Wealth”) an organization that provides financial services to the urban poor.  He is clearly touched by what he has seen as he moves from room to room. He apologizes for not coming to see Vindhya for himself after many years as a client and promises the big boss will visit soon.

Meanwhile, on the table are three brightly wrapped mystery packages for the prize winners. The third place prize goes to Sunil Kumar, a young man whose body is canted awkwardly backward and to the side. His father has been invited as well, and you have to imagine his son – who has a college degree – has come a great deal further than anyone could have imagined early on. Second prize goes to Sharadha, a determined young woman who made clear early in the quarter that she was going to be a winner and the first prize goes to Suguna. 

Each makes a short speech, notable for what they say about others, not themselves. They’re working so their brothers and sisters can advance; they are helping their families. They speak of their teammates. They speak of helping one another. Whatever is in those boxes, if it can be shared, there’s a good chance it will be.

 

Expansion Time on the First Floor

Three weeks ago the space for the awards ceremony was empty and there was room for staff to spread out on the floor for lunch each day. On this night, people are bulging out the back door because the space is newly filled with cubicles and computers connected to a ganglia of blue wires disappearing into the wall. 

That’s because Vindhya has been building momentum. When I arrived about seven weeks ago, Vindhya had a staff of 200. Soon it will be at 300 and more growth is in the pipeline.  (I claim to be a good luck charm: Rub my head and jobs appear.)

Of course it takes six months and often much longer for a connection to turn into a client. Moreover, Vindhya has had to reinvent itself during some difficult times. It was founded to provide back office services for a then-exploding Indian micro-finance industry. That came to a halt in 2010 following unscrupulous practices in Andhra Pradesh triggered suicides by clients who could not make good on their loans and the government stepped in with more stringent standards.  

This accounts for Vindhya becoming a niche player with a “we can do that” attitude. But without the crucible of necessity it’s unlikely the company would be hiring staff to work on site for a major insurance company in every Indian state, as it is doing today. It might not be helping hire insurance agents or verifying expense accounts, either.    

At least 20 million Indians are “differently abled.” Fewer than 5 percent are employed in the marketplace. Imagine what a position with dignity and respect  a job that celebrates what others have shunned — means to someone who thought they might never work. You can appreciate the power this brings to bear on the work Vindhya does. Is it any wonder Wipro has remained loyal to Vindhya for six years?

Some staff walk in on their hands as well as their feet. Having a crippled lower body is not unusual for the people coming down stairs, often with difficulty. Others among the 200 are communicating in Vindhya’s official language, sign language. In the United States we often say a person is “handicapped” or “disabled.” What terrible words compare that to the phrase “differently abled.” At Vindhya, being “differently abled” is its secret formula, the critical difference. The work is conducted in their minds. “Differences” are what makes them tenacious.

When an organization doubles in size and begins spilling out of doorways it’s a challenge to retain culture and values. My guess is Vindhya could face span-of-control challenges, but will easily retain the culture and values so evident on the first floor on this particular evening in October. You can’t make this up for a visiting dignitary. Who Vindhya is, and will likely remain, is evident on the faces in this room.

 

Jerry Brady is one of the original founders of Accion. 

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