Social Entrepreneurship – Interview with DesiCrew [Rural BPO] Founder

[In continuation with our fortnightly theme on ‘Social Entrepreneurship’, here is presenting an interview with DesiCrew founder, Saloni Malhotra.]

About DesiCrew

Please tell us about Desicrew.

DesiCrew Solutions Pvt Ltd is a rural BPO company incubated by RTBI of IIT- Madras. DesiCrew was started with the intention to bring new India’s flagship industry – IT Enabled Services to where India really resides – Rural Areas.  Our philosophy envisions a win-win situation between urban clients and the rural work force of India. Harnessing the power of Information Technology, supported by our strong desire to make a difference, we create robust operational setups (delivery centers) in rural areas.

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Desicrew

We feel that the rapidly growing outsourcing sector can be one of the solutions to eradicate the troubles faced by the employable rural workforce. It also solves problems plaguing the BPO industry such as high attrition and ever increasing real estate and talent costs.

What kind of services / solutions do you provide to the Corporates?

We started off with digitisation services such as data entry and data conversion. Over a period of time, we have added services such as content creation and validation, GIS based mapping services, transcription and localisation. In the current times of recession, clients are willing to consider us for several of their back-end activities to save costs.

DesiCrew’s Business Model

We follow a distributed operations model, whereby the Chennai office acts as the interface between the client and the rural centres. By working out of tier II towns and villages, the overheads are lower, which is passed on to the client in form of lower costs. While the villages gain from the employment opportunities and the infrastructure, the client gets a cost advantage of up to 40% of their current costs.

Desicrew Model

Desicrew Business Model/Operational Flow

How do you convert a local person from rural area to meet your needs? Are there any pre-requisites that people need to have before they are trained by you?

We require a minimum of 12th pass and basic knowledge on computers to be considered for employment at DesiCrew. Other requirements vary with project requirements.

How intensive is your training program? What sort of capsules do you take them through?

Training is a continuous activity which starts post induction and is mostly on the job. Apart from project specific training, continuous learning is provided in language skills, internet and email usage, and other soft skills. 

What is the typical time-window for training a person from scratch and getting him ready?

Anywhere between 1 to 3 months.

How many rural people do you have, working for you today? Women: Men ratio? Are you making reasonable profits?

As of June 2009, we have 150 people working across 6 centers in Chennai. 70% of our staff is women.

Are you making reasonable profits?

Yup, we have turned a ‘little’ profitable over the last financial year. But, still have a long way to go to catch up with our aspirations.

Startup Journey

What made you start Desicrew? And how did you go about it? Did you/all always wanted to be a social entrepreneur?

There were three dots on the board – rural, technology and for-profit. The rural outsourcing/BPO model seemed to be the perfect idea to join these dots and so we started work in 2005.

The idea was to set up rural BPOs in Tier II towns and village, so that we can employ the unemployed youth, bring in the infrastructure, provide the necessary training and get projects and work for them from clients outside  the state, across India. It differs from the urban BPOs by way of reduced costs (as much as 40% lesser), lesser attrition and free corporate social responsibility.

What was a tested as a project for 2 years was registered as DesiCrew Solutions Pvt Ltd in Feb 2007.

What were the typical challenges you faced?

Our biggest challenge was creating infrastructure in a rural setting that was as good as our client’s office in a Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore and changing the perception in the minds of people in urban India that work could be done out of the hinterland and with the same quality.

Our other big challenge was to establish with our rural teams the concept of a BPO and that if work could travel to them. It could travel anywhere else in the world if they did not meet the quality and delivery parameters. People from the field were excited about the opportunity. Though skilled and hardworking, many were impatient.

Training started with computer operations, basic office management, HR practices, data entry and Internet usage. There were a lot of trial and error learning’s, which has helped us shape our system. People who have survived the initial hardships are at key positions in DesiCrew now.

Your first mentors?

Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, IIT Madras.

Any personal sacrifices, though we understand it brings in a lot of personal satisfaction?

Saloni had given up a job in Delhi and migrated to Chennai in 2005. With little local knowledge and even lesser business experience, it was a tough ride convincing corporates about a ‘rural’ back office meeting strict SLAs. Interacting with the people in the villages, understanding the culture and their mindset towards a job and making them share her same vision, took a lot of effort, but was overcome with a strong passion to make an impact. Saloni’s family was very accommodative to her aspirations, which was a major strength

Any support you are receiving from other agencies, Govt, funding houses or Corporates?

As an incubatee of IIT-Chennai’s Rural Technology Business Incubator program (RTBI), DesiCrew was provided seed initial funding as well as in-kind support such as office space and basic infrastructure. Additionally the Lemelson Foundation’s Recognition and Mentorship program (L-RAMP) has provided a long term soft loan and development support.

Recently, we received an angel funding from Mr. Rajiv Kucchal, IITian  and ex-infosys employee with 16 years of experience.

The Impact

How in your view has your business impacted the lives of the rural people?

DesiCrew creates non-agricultural job opportunities in the villages for educated youth. We provide opportunities for educated youngsters to be in their village instead of migrating to cities. Working at DesiCrew’s Delivery Centers, our rural employees save 90% of their salaries as opposed to 10% in the city.

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Desicrew's Rural BPO

We have had incidents where some of our employees earn more than their parents who are farmers. There was an 18 yr girl whose parents decided to postpone her wedding, as she was a key earning member of the family. As women earn, their self esteem grows. A learning for us was that we could see issues like time management, ownership, eye for process details, suggestions for improvement rubbing on their personal lives. We have received feedback from our employee’s parents about positive difference we have made to their children.

At DeisCrew, we offer opportunities for a progressive career. Employees who prove their mettle are elevated to higher positions and increased scope of responsibility. Thus, one can start from an entry level operator and move upto a higher level of operations. Currently, our middle level management consists of several individuals from the field. 

Has your initiative in rural areas had an impact on the ‘overall’ rural place itself (apart from the individual)? If so, how? Has this improved the living conditions of the rural town?

Our journey is too short yet, for us to make such a claim. But, that is where we would want to go. We have a made a start by being the first to take broadband connection to some of the villages where we operate. As majority of our workforce are women, it encourages parents to support their girl’s education upto high school at least.

At DesiCrew, wealth is created in the local community, by the locals of the community and is distributed within the community. If this can be replicated across the national level, we are talking about making a significant impact.

How do the rural employees save more than the urban employees (going by your website)? Please share some perspective here.

Savings happen in terms of Money and time for progress of a career. When a graduate from rural area works in a city like Chennai, a large part of his salary goes in his living expenses and maintenance, and the money ‘wired’ back home would be lesser. Also, an employee from a rural background takes time to adjust to the work demands and culture in an urban area. To start with, most lack the confidence to express their thoughts. Some do progress further, but many end up at the entry level itself. By working with us in the DesiCrew delivery centers, we expose them to the corporate requirements and fine tune them to meet the client demands.

In conclusion:

What have been your learnings since the start?

We have learnt that no job is difficult for qualified people, irrespective of whether they are from a city or a village. We have been pleasantly surprised by how much our people in the villages are capable of. They have put their hands up and delivered well on several high-end tasks. Our business model is evolving to meet the client requirements and we have learnt to be embrace change without comprising on our fundamental values.

What are your future plans? Do you plan to expand in more areas?

We intend to be a 1000 people strong organization and be present in other states by the end of 2010. We seek to climb up the value chain in our service offerings to the clients.