Aside from an occasional trip to Gold’s Gym to claw back a few pounds of the muscle mass that evaporates each night, I have spent most of my time since June working for Samasource on projects better performed from India than San Francisco. Samasource’s goal is “to bring dignified computer-based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty.” To accomplish this in South Asia, Samasource works with 8 partners, 6 of them in India, that identify urban and rural poor, train them in computer, English, and general workplace skills, and hire them to complete the computer-based work (mostly consisting of data-entry, digitization, and transcription). To date, Samasource’s key roles have been to win contracts for this work, distribute the work to the partners for completion (using a competitive model), and ensure its accurate completion before delivering to the clients. The partners are all social enterprises with varying levels of sophistication and management experience, so one of my original tasks was to determine which ones needed assistance in growing their business (to meet the growing pipeline of work), what type of assistance they needed and consult to the extent possible.
One of my first visits was to Usha Martin Rural Services (UMRS), located in Rukka, a village in rural Jharkhand, which is one of the poorer north-eastern Indian states. UMRS, one of the more advanced partners, focuses on providing livelihoods specifically to “rural” youth and women. When I visited their office in June, they had 38 employees; today, just three months later, they have more than 80. If you drive east about 25 kms from the nearby city Ranchi, turn right when you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, left at the guy utilizing the entire road to separate recently harvested rice grain from its husk, then veer down an unsuspecting red dirt road through a eucalyptus grove and around a cow or 20, you’re probably close to their office. Though remote, the facility belongs to a 30+ year old NGO – KGVK – which has been conducting research and serving as the headquarters for numerous other village development initiatives as well.
One of those initiatives, the Mobile Learning Bus, compliments UMRS perfectly by identifying and providing basic training to prospective employees from the surrounding villages.
The Mobile Learning Bus, an old coach that has been retrofitted to house 14 computer stations, makes daily trips to the nearby villages where it provides a basic computer skills course (including an intro to Microsoft Excel, Word, Powerpoint, Internet, HTML) to youth and women. For a total cost of USD $18, the course includes hour-long daily classes and lasts four months. The student selection process favors girls since the boys have more flexibility to travel away from home and feel more comfortable than the girls in doing so. Rakesh, the founder and head trainer for the MLB, informs the students of the advanced course offered by UMRS back at the center in Rukka. Entry to the 60-day advanced course costs ~$40, but the promise of a modern-economy skills and a potential job offer upon completion, make it an appealing investment as well. This course also adds English and office etiquette to the curriculum – two necessary components in the transition from the village to the office. (The advanced course was originally provided free of charge, but UMRS found the students were more committed to learning the material when they were charged a course fee. Starting salary at a rural Indian BPO ranges between $80 – $100 / month)
Upon completing the 60-day advanced course, UMRS interviews the graduates individually and depending on the current staffing need and the competence of the individual, offers an immediate job, puts him/her on standby, or offers nothing.
UMRS hasn’t required much hand-holding, however, it has served as a well-functioning model from which to learn and better predict the issues Samasource’s younger partner organizations will soon encounter. Despite being a for-profit social enterprise, UMRS has willingly shared best practices with organizations that could arguably be called competitors. This is a key difference I have come to better understand between a “social” business and a “business” business. As a social business, UMRS makes decisions with a problem-centric mentality, rather than a profit-centric or IP-centric one; if they are helping address the problem – lack of livelihood – that Indian villagers face, then they are willing to face the consequences of counter-intuitive actions such as educating those that could arguably be called competition. With 456 million Indians living on less than $1.25 / day, according to the World Bank’s 2005 report, and most of them living in villages, UMRS’s founder Mahesh Venkateswaran understands UMRS alone will probably not be able to provide training and jobs to all them.
Possibly the most valuable service I have provided UMRS and other similar Samasource partners has been to bridge the gaps and misunderstandings created from cultural differences between Indian managers/workers and the mostly American Samasource team and clients. Though I would like to think it is more complicated, I have accomplished this by sitting in the partners’ work centers, for hours at a time, and simply… watching. Watching the workers complete tasks, watching the interaction between project managers and their workers, and just waiting for confused looks and whispering between workstation neighbors.
For example, a survey we conducted among the workers included numerous questions about the worker’s household. “How many family members are in your household? How much livestock does your household own? What is your household income? etc.” Since rural families may include 4+ generations living on multiple adjacent plots, or on one plot in multiple structures, or in one structure with some inhabitants’ assets married away to another family’s balance sheet, the term “household” is not as clearly defined as it generally is in the U.S. Sometimes, translating vocabulary like this into relevant terms is not critical, however in this case, where survey data may be used for measuring Samasource’s impact over time, it is very important to get accurate data.
It has been an exciting experience so far to see and contribute a little to some of the social enterprises, including Samasource of course, who are leading the transfer of at least one section of work from the privileged to the poor (The majority of Indians performing BPO work in the well known Indian BPO companies like Infosys actually come from middle class or above). I will not be surprised if the best of these enterprises grow to 10’s of thousands of employees in just a few years time.
The general sense I get in India is people want to have predictable income and constantly learn new skills useful in the modern economy. This makes sense since it is difficult to make lifestyle improvements, e.g. buying a car or even just renting a home with its own toilet, if your income fluctuates drastically, and it is difficult to find a job that provides steady income without possessing these essential skills. This mindset is not confined to the lower classes either; I have seen few Indian resumes that didn’t include some form of “learn X skills” or “contribute while learning” in the objective statement. It is explicitly understood that to move up in life, new and relevant skills are required. I don’t get the same feeling back home that we have clearly identified and communicated to those who need to hear it most, that regular skills upgrades will also be required to improve life as an American living in the “modern-economy.” Or more importantly, that new and improved skills will probably be required just to maintain the status quo.
Straying a little bit, so I’ll stop there. Thanks for listening. 🙂 PHOTOS BELOW.