Friday, August 1, 2014

Bringing tech jobs to rural India: Betting long on India’s youth


“Are you changing the world now?”
– Radha Basu to husband Dipak on the ride home from a long day of work (arguably spent changing the world).

iMerit CEO Radha Basu and Global Impact Fellow Carrie Wolfe. Photo credit: Emanuel Ott.
Hello from Kolkata, India, where the monsoon rains twist the complex tangle of traffic during the daily commute to Salt Lake City, the hub of Kolkata’s small but growing tech sector. During daily rides to the office with Radha and Dipak Basu, CEO of iMerit and Anudip respectively, I’ve gained perspective on how these two former Silicon Valley IT pioneers run a burgeoning technology-driven social enterprise in a city rated the “most difficult” to do business in India.

Developing and employing IT talent in unlikely places
I have been in Kolkata since early June working with iMerit, a social enterprise that employs people from marginalized and rural populations to work in tech jobs. At the heart of iMerit’s innovative business model is its unique partnership with sister organization Anudip, which has provided training to over 25,000 youth in east India since its inception in 2007. Anudip develops a pipeline of talented young people from areas with traditionally low levels of educational attainment and limited access to jobs in India’s growing business and IT industries.

As a former Peace Corps Volunteer and management consultant, my past work experiences ranged from training entrepreneurs in rural Africa to project management on large-scale consulting engagements. Combining these two experiences, my objectives for my MBA internship were to experience social business from an operational perspective and to learn from a strong management team committed to driving social change. Radha and her husband Dipak certainly fit the bill. Both come from very successful careers as technology executives; Radha with Hewlett Packard and then launching startup Support.com, and Dipak with Cisco and then as a founder of the humanitarian IT network NetHope. Radha and Dipak started iMerit in 2012 as an entity to employ the highly talented graduates coming out of Anudip’s training programs, and iMerit has grown rapidly ever since. 

iMerit CEO Radha Basu with Metiabruz employees. Photo credit: Lauren Farwell
iMerit CEO Radha Basu with Metiabruz employees. Photo credit: Lauren Farwell.
I was first connected to Radha, a tremendously inspirational female leader, at the WDI Base of the Pyramid (BOP) Summit in Ann Arbor in October, where she shared the moving story of iMerit’s Metiabruz center. Metiabruz is a conservative Muslim port town south of Kolkata with a population of 700,000. iMerit employs 125 young women in the town, where it remains the only IT services employer. Metiabruz is one of five delivery centers in iMerit’s rapidly expanding network, strategically placed in outlying locations where workers from rural areas are not forced to uproot for a tech job.

Launching the next generation of tech leaders
Together, the two organizations now employ over 600 people and continue to grow. Led by a highly capable management team, the company has the feel of a close knit family that challenges and supports one another. Some of iMerit’s early employees such as Barnali Paik have transitioned from Anudip students into iMerit managerial roles, and are now tasked with developing junior staff while ensuring iMerit delivers top notch work for its growing list of high-profile clients.

During my time at iMerit, I’ve been struck by the basic idea that long-term investments in people are core to the business model and to the mutual benefit of the company, employees, and communities in which iMerit operates. iMerit’s approach to human capital development was explained to me by Chief Delivery and Development Officer Anindya Chattopadhyay, who sees his most important role as developing rising talent in the organization.
 Employees in iMerit’s Metiabruz center complete a web-based project. Photo credit: Emanuel Ott.
 Employees in iMerit’s Metiabruz center complete a web-based project. Photo credit: Emanuel Ott.
According to Anindya, iMerit’s approach as a social business is to focus on training and developing people in a supportive environment with high standards of quality and professionalism. The ability to identify potential in a junior employee and the patience to see him or her through iterations of mistakes, learnings, and growth is iMerit’s business and social differentiator. The result is both the “upskilling” of the individual’s abilities and the expansion of iMerit’s delivery capabilities.

Addressing the IT skills gap
In many BOP markets, there is a gap between the talent requirements of employers and the skills of candidates in the job market. Half of India’s 1.2 billion people are under the age of 25, yet only a privileged few will complete advanced studies and be considered employable by the IT sector.

According to NASSCOM, of the 3.7 million annual graduates from Indian universities, only 25% are employable by the IT sector, presenting a challenge not only to job candidates, but also to companies looking to hire them. I researched this looming talent gap with Accenture and the Brookings Institute, who say that the lack of qualified candidates will limit growth in the private sector among companies which must increasingly compete for talent.

This critical skills gap is precisely where iMerit and Anudip operate. Betting long on the youth of West Bengal and India seems to be the best business risk that iMerit could take. I’m excited to be a part of the journey with Radha, Dipak, and team.

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