The Mirakle man

Gokul Krishnamurthy | Updated on February 13, 2011 Published on February 13, 2011

Mr Dhruv Lakra

What makes an Oxford-educated investment banker, employed at Merrill Lynch, and one who admittedly did ‘social work' in college only because it would help in the admission process at foreign universities, turn to social entrepreneurship?

In the case of Mr Dhruv Lakra, the bug bit him after the 2004 tsunami. It drove him to action when he saw the unique challenges faced by a hearing-impaired commuter on a local bus in Mumbai. His courier company, Mirakle, which boasts of a 40-plus client list that includes Vodafone, Godrej & Boyce and AV Birla Group, had its modest origins in a cabin space lent to him by Ms Anu Aga of Thermax.

He had one delivery person then, in December 2008. Today, his two offices in Mumbai are driven by a committed team of over 65 delivery staff .

The first differentiator from other companies is that all of Mirakle's delivery staff are hearing-impaired. The second is that despite being in a highly unorganised industry not known for its staffing standards, all the company's staff are paid Maharashtra Wage Board salaries.

Mr Lakra is offended when one uses terms such as ‘hearing disabled' or ‘differently-abled' . His contention is that ‘deaf' is not a word to shy away from. His choice of industry to turn entrepreneur in was defined by a larger agenda of marrying feasibility with empowering the hearing-impaired — by offering them real jobs that paid respectable salaries.

Consumption patterns

And yes, the company is profitable too. However, Mr Lakra does have a message for corporates – he would like them to be responsible beyond the scope of their CSR initiatives.

“Consumption patterns can affect life,” he reasons. The argument is backed by his experience in the market over the last two years. Companies that adopt a high moral ground with product propositions and social initiatives, should spare a thought for the kind of service providers they engage, he says. The choice of courier agency, among other service providers, boils down to a 50 paise difference (for a consignment) in the quotation in many cases, according to Mr Lakra. This disconnect between the corporate voice and that of the purchase manager doesn't baffle Mr Lakra and his team anymore. Without compromising on the vision of the company, they are fighting the market to remain competitive.

“In 2004, when the tsunami struck, I left Merrill Lynch to work for Dasra, a non-profit organisation that seeks to transform the non-profit sector through management skills. My work involved activities for non-profits and social enterprises in the areas of financial management and fiscal sponsorship, legal and regulatory understanding for social organisations setting up operations in India, capacity-building and strategic planning for newly set up non-profits, and designing computerised data information systems for advocacy. In short, it was about building strategy and scale for NGOs scientifically,” recalls Mr Lakra.

He spent the next four months in Nagapattinam and Cuddalore, which left a mark on the entrepreneur.

“I realised that this was my calling. When you see and experience the conditions that a lot of poor India endures, it hurts. You start feeling guilty about the fact that while you're having your buttered croissants, there are people who live on one meal a day that comprises rice and two slices of onions. What does an 8 per cent GDP mean if nothing trickles down to those who have nothing?” His interest in developing business models that can give both financial and social results led him to pursue an MBA at the Said Business School, Oxford University, on a scholarship.

It was on his return to Mumbai that Mirakle Couriers was born. “I was on a research project in Mumbai, and on a bus, when I encountered a deaf passenger. I realised that there is a social stigma attached to being deaf. It's worse than being blind. I also realised that job opportunities for the deaf aren't many, and they don't get paid much even if they do get employed. I was pondering about all this when I came back home, and I received a courier. I signed for the shipment and then it hit me. Why not bring the two together — create a courier service and employ deaf people in it?”

While there did exist the challenge of convincing clients that a hearing-impaired work force could deliver (literally) as well as anyone else, the first challenge was to earn the trust of his employees. Over time, hearing-impaired people develop a sense of mistrust in those who can hear, says Mr Lakra. This, he attributes to the mistreatment they have suffered at the hands of employers for long.

“So when I called them for work, they feared that I would treat them as badly as their previous employers. But things started moving gradually. From one person, we have a staff strength of over 65. And from five consignments delivered on day 1 , we have over 65,000 going out every month. It's hard to predict a number, but we'd like to be doing 1,00,000 consignments a month soon.” The initial investment was what remained from his Oxford scholarship. It was around £200 , he recalls. In 2009, he won a position as an Echoing Green Fellow, which too helped, financially.

What was left of that money they gave him, in phases, was used up when he set up the full-fledged operations of Mirakle.

“I wrote to a lot of companies. There was interest, yet there was reluctance. There were some very encouraging moments though. The word was spreading. One of the interesting calls that came in was from Thermax. Ms Anu Aga had heard about what we do and offered to support us. She offered us a generous cabin space in her office premises at Colaba. That was the first office space we moved into,” recounts the grateful entrepreneur.

Expansion plans

Mr Lakra hasn't had a mentor in his entrepreneurship journey. He is cognisant of the fact that a mentor would perhaps have to come in later, in stage two, when Mirakle eyes expansion.

For Mirakle, the task of infusing faith in people, that the hearing-impaired can deliver effectively in the courier business, has been accomplished.

Some challenges remain. “We've proved, over time, that they are as good as anyone who can hear, and possibly less distracted! But there is reluctance. There is another angle to it. In India, everything boils down to price, for a vast majority. We're priced on par with the market right now. Having said that, I'd like a premium - because unlike a lot of operators in the largely unorganised industry, we are fair to our employees. All of them get paid according to the Maharashtra Wage Board, which means our boys get Rs 4,654, minimum. We ensure that we're in accordance with the Government norms on the PF and other fronts, which adds to our cost. If I'm playing fair, and treating my employees fairly, shouldn't I be paid fairly as well?”

To expand, especially geographically, Mirakle would need investments. While they have been approached, Mr Lakra hasn't ventured beyond the first meeting. The confession is that the team is a little wary of whom they partner with.

“The primary philosophy behind Mirakle should not get defeated. By definition, investors look at companies for profits. In our case, the value equation goes a little beyond the monetary returns. We'll need someone who is able to see that intangible value translating into returns for the company and for society.”

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Published on February 13, 2011
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