"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." Martin Buber
At the end of June I'm off again, for three weeks at a university in South Korea and a visit to Kyoto, Japan, then in August we will be in Guatemala looking at one of the world's greatest challenges: how to grow a lot of food sustainably on small farms. Come along!
Monday, October 15, 2012
India 18: Awards Night in Bangalore
On the first floor of the Vindhya
office in Bangalore, India, excitement is building on a Friday evening in
October.Soon we’ll learn who won the
best employee awards for the third quarter.
I’ve staged many of such event but this one buzzes with a
higher energy because of who is gathering and the momentum Vindhya has gathered
in the last quarter.
Staff has been at work all day, as usual, on 29 projects that
demand a high degree of concentration, working side by side in tight quarters.Some have been digitizing documents into
master files; some recording data, often translating from one of seven
languages into English; others have been making or receiving phone calls.After a full day, you might expect them to be
tired.Doesn’t look like it.
To the outsider this may seem like the classic back-office
work we’ve come to associate with India one expect would be mind-numbing.But closer examination shows skill, judgment
and experience are as important as discipline.For example, one team is calling people who’ve signed up for the first
pension they’ve ever known.Are you in
the right investment, are you keeping your money at work (and not withdrawing
it for a wedding, for example), can we answer any questions for you, they ask
900 times a day?
Another is analyzing business expense reimbursements.A third is assessing the qualifications of
applicants to become insurance agents.A
fourth is handling requests for infant and baby products out of Ireland.And so on through another two dozen jobs.
Beneath the veneer of sameness there’s a wealth of discrete
and precise undertakings.As a small
company, Vindhya has focused on small, unique needs larger competitors might
On the other hand, Vindhya’s first client was Wipro, one of
India’s largest companies and it’s still a mainstay.Others are Indian companies in partnership
with global insurance giants.
The reason clients remain loyal is because Vindhya’s staff
remains loyal years, not months, which is often not the case in the
rapid-turnover BPO industry.The reason
for this longevity is evident as the first floor fills up for the award
To the left of a makeshift stage is a phalanx of staff in
Some staff walk in on
their hands as well as their feet.Having a crippled lower body is not unusual for the people coming down stairs,
often with difficulty. Others among the
200 are communicating in Vindhya’s official language, sign language.
The secret of Vindhya’s success is that at least 80 percent its
staff is “differently abled.”
In the United States we say a person is “handicapped” or
“disabled.”What terrible words compare
that to the phrase “differently abled.”At
Vindhya, being “differently abled” is its secret formula, the critical difference.
The work is conducted in their minds. “Differences”
are what makes them tenacious.
At least 20 million Indians are “differently abled.” Fewer
than five percent are employed in the marketplace.Imagine what a position with dignity and
respect--a job which celebrates what others have shunned—means to someone who
thought they might never work. Appreciate
the power this brings to bear on the work Vindhya does.Is it any wonder Wipro has remained loyal to
Vindhya for six years?
The ceremony comes to life when the featured speaker enters
the room.He is V. S. Radhkrishnan,
fondly called”Radha,” of Janalakshmi (which mean’s “People’s Wealth”) an
organization which provides financial services to the urban poor.He is clearly touched by what he has seen
going room to room.He apologizes for
coming to see Vindhya for himself after many years as a client and promises the
big boss will visit soon.
On the table are three brightly wrapped mystery
packages.The first, for third place,
goes to Sunil Kumar, a young man whose body is canted awkwardly backward and to
the side. His father has been invited and you have to imagine his son--who has a college degree--has come a great deal further than he could have imagined early on.
Second prize goes to Sharadha,a determined young woman who
made clear early in the quarter that she was going to be a winner and the first
prize goes to Suguna.(People go by
their first names in India.)
Each makes a short speech, notable for
what they say about others, not themselves.They’re working so their brothers and sisters can advance; they are
helping their families.They speak of
their teammates.They speak of helping
one another.Whatever is in those boxes, if it can be share there’s a good chance
it will be.
Time on the First Floor
Three weeks ago the space we are in was
empty and there was room for staff to spread out on the floor for lunch each
day.Tonight people are bulging out the
back door because the space is newly filled with cubicles and computers
connected to a ganglia of blue wires disappearing into the wall.
That’s because Vindhya has been building
momentum.When I arrived six weeks ago,
Vindhya had a staff of 200.Soon it will
be at 300 and more growth is in the pipeline.(I claim to be a good luck charm:rub my head and jobs appear.)
Of course it takes six months and
often much longer for a connection to turn into a client.Moreover, Vindhya has had to reinvent itself
during difficult times.It was founded to
provide back office services for a then exploding Indian micro-finance
industry.That came to a halt in 2008 after
unscrupulous practices in Andra Predesh triggered suicides by clients who could
not make good on their loans and the government stepped in with more stringent
standards. The global finance crisis
came right behind.
This accounts for Vindhya becoming a
niche player with a “We can do that” attitude.Without the crucible of necessity it likely would not be hiring staff to
work on site for a major insurance company in every Indian state, as it is
doing.It might not be helping hire
insurance agents or verifying expense accounts.
When an organization doubles in size
and begins spilling out of doorways it’s a challenge to retain culture and
values.My guess is Vindhya could face
span-of-control challenges but will easily retain the culture and values so
evident on the first floor this evening in October, 2012.You can’t make this up for a visiting
dignitary.Who Vindhya is, and will
likely remain, is evident on the faces in this room.