Brave young DesiCrew sets sail as the tide turns in favour of rural outsourcing.

’I was sure that this should be a business and not a not-for-profit venture.’

Batool Aliakbar Lehry

At the age of 23, when many women are waiting for their knights in shining armour or catching a flight to a plush university overseas, Saloni Malhotra was busy nurturing her dream of a technologically empowered rural India. Today, at 25, she heads DesiCrew, a rural Business Process Outsourcing company with 10 centres and 60 employees. “And it’s growing,” she says happily.

It all began when Saloni was listening in rapt attention to Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Professor of Electrical Engineering at IIT-Madras, at a seminar on ‘Rural Business Hubs’ held in Delhi. Jhunjhunwala is also the co-founder of Telecommunications and Computer Networks group (TeNet), a coalition of 14 IIT faculty members that works with a vision to provide ‘world-class technology at affordable cost.’ This tallied with Saloni’s idea of “creating a service that could dramatically transform the way the BPO industry operates, while empowering rural India through sustainable income generation, thereby enriching lives.”

Jhunjhunwala says “it was her commitment to make it happen” that caught his attention when he asked Saloni to meet him to make this dream a reality. From that moment onwards, there has been no looking back.

Saloni mobilised resources, gathered funds, set up a team and the infrastructure, and launched a comprehensive two-year research initiative. She began working on a sustainable, revenue-generating business model. “I was sure that this should be a business and not a not-for-profit venture or an NGO,” she says. Zero knowledge of Tamil did not come in her way of travelling to interior parts of Tamil Nadu to verify the state of power supply, connectivity and other infrastructure; she succeeded in setting up delivery centres in interiors parts of Coimbatore, Erode, Salem, Mayiladuthurai and Vaniyambadi districts.

The concept

According to Nasscom, ITeS-BPO industry in India employs about 5 lakh people and BPO industry is expected to face a shortfall of 3.5 lakh professionals by 2010. On the other hand, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), there are 13 crore surplus workers in rural India.

The Ministry of Information Technology aims to set up Village Information Centres with connectivity in one lakh villages by 2009. With this, each village could have the potential to act as a BPO centre. “Every village with a BPO employing 25-30 people could enhance 15-30 per cent of rural GDP,” says Jhunjhunwala.

DesiCrew, like many upcoming rural BPOs, envisions playing a significant role in this IT revolution while bridging the urban-rural demand-supply gap. By outsourcing high volume, low-level data centric work to non-urban areas, where salaries and cost of operations are low, rural BPOs can offer 20-30 per cent cost savings for clients.

The literate workforce in rural areas can be trained in jobs such as data entry, generating and updating databases, typesetting, data conversion from one format to another, proofreading, data transcription, translation and so on.

Undergraduates in any discipline or diploma holders can apply for the job; candidates go through a rigorous recruitment process involving verification of resumes, test for “good knowledge of English and Maths” and a personal interview with the HR head. “This process ensures that the candidates are qualified, want to continue living in villages and have a positive, enthusiastic attitude to work,” Saloni explains.

Once inducted, employees are put through a meticulously designed training module that equips them with skills required for the job. Specialists also coach them on enhancing communication skills, basics of writing e-mails, importance of teamwork and so on. “These help them to deliver effectively on client requirements,” she says.

Publishing houses and the BFSI industry have taken to the concept favourably, says Saloni. She is optimistic that many more companies are “opening up” and likely to outsource to rural areas soon. A big chunk of the business, she estimates, will come from providing services such as digitalisation, proofreading and translation of texts in regional languages.

Recently, a project undertaken by DesiCrew for CII’s Shiksha programme involved translating animated teaching modules from English and Hindi into Tamil; this helped Shiksha establish its presence in Tamil Nadu. This also earned Saloni a prestigious felicitation from former President APJ Abdul Kalam. “Offering services in other regional languages by setting up delivery centres in various parts of the country is a growing business prospect,” she says adding that she aims to have a pan-India presence in five years.

Socially conscious

“We believe this is not just a significant business opportunity but also a means to catapult the pace of rural development under a wholly different paradigm,” she comments. On a conservative estimate, an associate working in a DesiCrew delivery centre would earn about Rs 2,500-3,500 a month while the entrepreneur running the delivery centre would earn Rs 5,000-7,000 after expenses, a sum well above the average household income in such areas.

But more importantly, employment opportunities such as these have a huge potential for instilling confidence and self-esteem in millions of Indians living in rural areas. Saloni explains, “There have been instances where qualified women were sitting idle at home, as they were not allowed to leave their village for a job. Due to these rural centres, they are now earning members of their family. Setting strict timelines, motivating them to aim higher and aspiration management are some of the activities that help them beyond their office life.”

For instance, 24-year-old Sugitha, who has been working with DesiCrew for nine months, is the first woman in her family to be employed. Owing to her enterprising spirit, she even leads an all-women team. The job has given her a sense of independence. “Before, I used to depend on my father for things, but now I am able to solve my own needs,” she says.

Similarly, Senthil hails from a family of farmers who have strived hard so that their children could experience the greener pastures of life. Senthil manages a delivery centre for DesiCrew and believes there’s a huge latent talent pool in the villages. If given a choice to move to the city, he says he “would not like to move because I want to stay here and develop my village, provide job opportunities to students here itself.”

The spirit of the employees of DesiCrew soar high as Saloni echoes the words of Kiran Karnik, President, Nasscom: “BPOs not only give employment, they give hope.”

Long, satisfying journey

It has not been a particularly easy journey for Saloni. Apart from long and strenuous bus journeys, understanding legal modalities, there have also been times when business associates have viewed her as a young 25-year-old. “I was there behind her, compensating for her age… I believe in taking risks with such youngsters. She has passion and she is ready to work hard. We should do the rest. She will go far,” says Jhunjhunwala.

The times ahead seem likely to be more competitive with more IT/ITES companies setting up centres in rural areas; there is also the added challenge of dealing with the aspirations of employees who perceive BPOs as a quick money-making option. However, Saloni is confident that “high quality, maintaining cost advantage, data security, timely delivery for clients and a promising work culture for employees will ensure competitive edge”.

So, when she looks at her peers, does she ever long for a secure job or feel apprehensive above this venture? “No!” she says firmly.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 26, 2007)
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