Pavithra Y Sundareshan wanted to start a social enterprise, while her husband, Ashok Giri D, was keen on starting a venture that ran on commercial lines. They managed to strike a balance when they launched Vindhya e-Infomedia Pvt Ltd in 2006.
“I wanted to do something in the social space. Ashok wanted to do something in the business space. We said why don’t we bring these two together and we decided to start Vindhya,” says Pavithra.
Adds Ashok, “bringing business and philanthropy together for a cause and keeping charity as the main aspect, but helping people live with dignity. That is how we started the company.” A majority of Vindhya’s employees are persons with disabilities – physically challenged, hearing and visually impaired, and autistic. Almost 70 per cent of its staff are women.
As we are walking into her office in Rajajinagar Industrial Town, there is a small birthday party of an employee in progress on a landing. Pavithra quickly joins the party as the disabled employee cuts a cake. She poses for a picture before getting down to talk about her venture – or, should it be her passion. “It was a data entry organisation,” she says, about what they set out to do when they founded Vindhya. “We started with two people. Lot of people with different disabilities started approaching us, because 11 years ago, inclusion was not on the agenda,” says Pavithra.
The trigger point
She narrates an incident that happened a couple of years ago. A boy on a wheelchair had come to their office. At that time, Vindhya functioned out of a first floor office in a different location and there was no lift or ramp to the first floor. After meeting the boy, Pavithra told him that she would get back to him at a later date. The boy told her that he had been through this before but said he would like to prove himself. He told her that both of them could climb the stairs together and if she felt he was struggling, she could stop him. Otherwise, all that he was asking was for an opportunity to work in the company. She just couldn’t refuse him the job. “That is when we realised it is not about disability. It is our mindset which is an issue,” remarks Pavithra.
Later, while walking around the office, Pavithra communicates in sign language with a hearing impaired girl. She recalls that when the girl came looking for a job, she managed to communicate to her that she was willing to teach Pavithra the sign language, provided Pavithra herself takes the effort to train the girl on how normal people communicate.
According to Ashok, nearly 65 per cent of Vindhya’s 1,500 employees are persons with disabilities and 70 per cent of the staff is women. Their first customer, Pavithra recalls, was a small boutique which was doing a marketing campaign for online gifting. The shop was looking around for someone who would help create an organised database of its customers. They did a small pilot project for the customer and only after they were convinced of the quality of work, did Vindhya take up the assignment. From then on, it was a matter of time and effort, mainly through referrals, that Vindhya e-Infomedia got clients such as Wipro, Videocon DTH, Schneider Electric and a host of microfinance companies. For a lot of their clients, Vindhya handles the entire back-office work and for others, it runs call centres to remind customers about paying bills or why they have discontinued a service.
Both Pavithra and Ashok say the initial years were quite difficult. At one point, they even told their employees that the situation was bad and that they wouldn’t be able to pay their salaries. Would they like to take a break and come back when things improved. The disabled employees said, if the company could give them a place to spend the night, they would be happy to remain as employees. A conference room was converted into an accommodation room after 7 pm and people stayed there. The other employees who were living nearby offered to bring food for those who slept in the office. This was in 2007. And, it was in the second half of that year, that Vindhya had its first big break. It got Wipro as its customer for some digitisation work. Vindhya had sent out mails to a number of companies and organisations, and one such mail was sent to the Azim Premji Foundation. Wipro’s Head of Shared Services got in touch with Vindhya and after that there has been no looking back.
According to Ashok, Vindhya has overcome the teething problems and is now in the growth phase. It is setting up an IT campus in Hyderabad on 10 acres that will employ only persons with disabilities. This campus will train the staff, provide them residential accommodation and also employment.
Ultimately, it will have about 2,500 employees and Vindhya’s ambition is to have similar campuses in Bengaluru and Pune.
What should be the minimum qualification that you look for in your employees? “Attitude,” says Pavithra. That is all, she says. With the right attitude and our training, they are good to go. She adds that the productivity of persons with disabilities is even better than normal people in the company.
Best in training
Ashok adds that as the company grows, it will continuously improve its training to ensure that the employees are able to deliver top quality service to clients. “Internally, we want to be the best training organisation in the world. Externally, we want to be the best delivery organisation in the world,” adds Ashok. Pavithra adds that they have consistently met or exceeded their service level agreements with clients.
“We have never lost a customer because of delivery in the last 12 years,” emphasises Ashok. They plan to tap the global market in the near future, especially the US where the opportunities are enormous.
Have they ever felt that they made a wrong decision to start this venture? Never, asserts Pavithra, while Ashok adds an interesting nugget. “The name of the company, Vindhya, is after our daughter. The very purpose we named the company after our daughter was to never get that thought,” he says. And, they answer in unison that they have met both their goals – of creating an impact and running a sustainable business.
Vindhya e-Infomedia raised about ₹5 crore from global non-profit organisation Accion, which invests in social sectors, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, in 2010-11.
They have drawn only half that amount. The business is profitable, the founders say, declining to provide more details.