Hungry for a new kind of talent

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on February 13, 2020

For HungerBox, hiring former armed forces personnel has proved to be an impactful decision

Food tech company HungerBox, which started in 2016 as a platform catering to the meal needs of institutions, has been steadily building up a big appetite for growth. Currently, it manages the cafeterias of 120 companies digitally across 14 cities, clocking 13 million orders a month, and is hungry for more.

Sandipan Mitra, co-founder of HungerBox, talks of how the company currently processes 5.5 lakh orders on a daily basis but is gunning for a target of 15 lakh orders daily by December 2020. To serve up such numbers, it needs to ramp up its operations and have cool, dependable heads to manage the show. The business of aggregating food for corporate cafeterias is a complex exercise involving huge volumes and needing stringent attention to detail, as well as very high quality standards.

The natural inclination of the company was to hire people from the hospitality background. “Although F&B was the first place we looked at for our talent requirement, it was not the best answer to our needs,” says Mitra. It was by sheer chancet that the company stumbled upon a perfect talent pool that matched its needs — people with an armed forces background!

“If you think about it, defence officers have the experience of commanding men and machine with great authority and precision. The SLAs (service level agreements) and SOPs (standard operating procedures) are diligently followed,” he says. Over the last six months, HungerBox has been hiring people with a defence background (it has hired 14 so far) and now all its heads of operations are faujis. “The impact has been phenomenal,” says Mitra, describing how errors have come down, deadlines met and quality standards have improved. He feels the level of leadership and decision making that the young ex-army recruits have brought to the table has been of a high calibre.

The typical hunting ground for such candidates, says Mitra, are B-schools that offer special bridge courses for armed forces personnel. IIM-A, IIM Lucknow, MDI Gurugram, for instance, offer six-month business management courses for people from the armed forces, aimed at helping them transition smoothly into second careers.

Take Major Madhav, a short service commission infantry officer who served in south Kashmir and has been in the thick of counter insurgency operations. After his five-year tenure ended last June, he joined IIM Lucknow for a short general management programme and during the campus placements met HungerBox. He says while there were large corporates during the campus placement, he decided to join a start-up as it offered him the freedom to move around different departments and learn. “I had start-ups and entrepreneurship as my electives during my course so I was anyway inclined,” he says.

Culture fit

Both in the US and in India, a lot of companies are now looking at the segment of veterans with great interest. And unlike the past when recruiters only looked at veterans when they had a role in Admin, Security or HR, now people from the forces are finding roles in coding, in operations, and business development.

Says Dony Kuriakose, of Edge Executive Search, which has placed people from army backgrounds in corporate jobs, “There is a view that people with a defence background are disciplined, and have a high sense of integrity.”

However, there is also a problem of a culture fit. One of the typical problems is that in a corporate set-up you have to lead by influence rather than lead by structure or hierarchy. In the army nobody says no to a higher ranking officer. Here, an employee is free to say no. That’s an adjustment that has to be made, he concedes.

The discipline levels are different and it often irk . How did Madhav cope? He admits that right from motivating factors to behaviour at work to culture, behaviour, adherence to timings, things are different. For men in uniform, naam, namak, nishaan is the core ethos whereas in the corporate sector you look at salaries, job profiles and so on, he points out. But he feels that given that he just had a five-year tenure in the army, he had less of adjustment issues that a long-serving officer might find in a civilian set-up. “I also did have a certain amount of balance in my head, and understanding of what I am getting into,” he says.

According to Kuriakose, there are two types of recruiters — the ones who do strategic hires, looking at attitude more than knowledge, while the other looks for domain knowledge over everything else. The young officers from the forces could be ideal hires for the first set. Meanwhile, he points to a challenge in hiring army personnel too. “In today’s age, you require a tremendous amount of flexibility and dynamism. Would a regimented guy, used to following processes, be able to display this flexibility,” he wonders.

Ask this to Madhav and he says, “I was an infantry man — in the Khalsa regiment where we believed that anything and everything is possible. And there are no obstacles that are insurmountable.”

Published on February 13, 2020

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