Good Businesses 2013

Enabling technology

iMerit connects marginalised youth in eastern India with IT projects across the globe

Like most girls in Metiabruz on the southern fringes of Kolkata, Noorjahan Yusuf’s dreams were of the ordinary kind. She wanted to become a teacher after completing her BSc from the neighbouring Hari Mohan Ghosh College. Then she learnt about a three-month course being offered by the Anudip Foundation through Swayam, an NGO working with her community on women’s rights issues. Two and a half years later, she’s worked her way up the ranks at iMerit, the IT services business incubated at Anudip, to become an administrative supervisor at its Metiabruz unit. 

Raised amidst squalour and a discriminatory environment in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, 24-year-old Noorjahan sees her life moving in a different direction now. With a glint in her eyes she speaks of the change that iMerit’s centre has brought about in her life. “Earlier we were not permitted to step out of our homes. People passed comments about us when we went to work. Now they don’t.” Currently living with her mother — her two sisters are married — Noorjahan has decided she’ll continue working even after marriage, and perhaps even study to be a journalist.

Noorjahan has found her calling thanks to the efforts of husband-wife duo Dipak Basu and Radha Ramaswami Basu. “Both of us had experience in the corporate world. We had seen how in 25 years IT had changed the economic empowerment of India’s urban youth. India’s IT revolution touched urban youth but not rural youth, especially in the eastern region,” says Dipak, who had co-founded NetHope, a technology alliance of global aid agencies, and worked in senior positions at Cisco and CMC, before starting Anudip in 2006.

“We decided to take wealth creation and economic prosperity to marginalised youth and women. They went from having almost no opportunities at all, to becoming real assets and contributors to our society and GDP. We’ve now proven that they require skilling and the right catalyst to achieve this,” adds wife Radha Ramaswami Basu, the founder and CEO of iMerit.

Anudip, which has 100 training centres across Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal, works with over 250 employers and trains 1,800-1,900 people every quarter. Of these, 80% are placed, which means around 1,500 get into jobs. Some 10% of Anudip’s trainees are absorbed by iMerit in its centres. The locations follow a hub and spoke approach where one iMerit centre becomes the commercial hub for a bunch of Anudip training centres in the vicinity.

Typically, an iMerit employee, usually 12th standard pass, undergoes five to six months of training, which includes three months of market-aligned skills training at Anudip, another couple of months of custom skills training for specific projects, and finally on-the-job-training before being deployed full-time on a project. They start with Foundation Web Services with continuous training on HTML, XML, Adobe Photo Suite and English and customer service skills. They are then promoted to higher complexity projects in iMerit’s digital publishing section. A few move into the Global Service Desk, where they face clients and address customers from anywhere in the world. A key success element of the Anudip-iMerit experience is that rural boys and girls get to develop and grow their careers with continuous upskilling including leadership development.  

Journey begins

iMerit’s first centre came up at Namkhana, bordering the Sunderbans, three hours from Kolkata. “People said you cannot possibly do IT work in India,” recalls Basu. She knew better, having founded HP’s India software operations in Bengaluru as far back as 1985. Yet, Metiabruz was an even bigger challenge, and the most unlikely location to do such work. It has over 700,000 Muslims, who speak very little Bengali, and converse mostly in Hindi and Urdu.

Metiabruz is the ideal showcase for iMerit’s model  because of its impact on a community that barely allowed its women anywhere, let alone go to work. The 100-odd young women who come to work here in two shifts, from 6 am to 1.30 pm and then the next one till 9 pm, find purpose in their lives and opportunity to work on projects that were so far done out of large IT services companies’ sprawling facilities manned by highly paid IT professionals. “We created the first professional office in Metiabruz,” says Basu. With salaries ranging from ₹3,000 to ₹12,000 a month, going up to a team leader level, Basu says it’s three times the average family income for the girls. In what’s likely a first in a rural setting, 20% of iMerit shares are put into a welfare trust that’s owned by the employees, like an ESOP.

“I have visited the iMerit offices in Metiabruz and was impressed with the training facilities and the diligence of the workers. The fact that the workers were both getting trained and earning a livelihood was inspiring. The cost of being in a remote, semi-rural area was also more economical than in Indian metros,” says Deepak Puri, director, mobile business development, at San Francisco-based VMware, one of iMerit’s clients.

Apart from the Metiabruz centre, iMerit has centres in Bootymore in Ranchi and Salt Lake, Kolkata, and another one coming up in Baruipur in South 24 Parganas. iMerit received a World Bank grant of $120,000 to extend its services into Jharkhand. Its Bootymore centre on the outskirts of Ranchi was formally inaugurated in August recently. Here, a bunch of girls is huddled excitedly around a computer where Arfana Khatoon, 23, is explaining how to tag images of Miley Cyrus based on a set of guidelines for a Getty Images project. With clients such as digital publishing company Aptara, Microsoft and Accenture, business is growing for iMerit. “95% of our business is from the US,” says Basu. “We do a lot of ebook-related work: a few thousand a month. This involves taking something and putting it together in the form of an ebook — conversion, pagination, etc.”   

iMerit also works with leading crowdsourcing firms such as Crowdflower and Samasource in the US. “These are micro-tasks that can be done independently and offline and then given to us on a memory stick,” says Basu. “That’s the power of technology — distributed work is the future of work.” Adds Puri of VMware, “With the nature of work requiring quick turnaround, tight budgets and skilled workers, I believe that more work will be crowdsourced. Such arrangements also have a social dimension: they help deserving people earn a livelihood.” 

Growing up

Choosing the right location is fundamental to what iMerit and Anudip do, says Basu. “We spend a lot of time in the field doing community and student meetings every week,” she says. “We seek concentration of such youth who have no livelihoods in a community or block, and local partners such as NGOs or micro-finance institutions,” she says. The idea is to connect them with jobs nearer to their homes. “We bring them first to a peri-urban area, so they don’t have to relocate to get a job.” No wonder attrition at iMerit is less than 2% and, says Basu, commitment levels are high too. 

Getting business is, of course, the other challenge. So far, Basu and her husband’s contacts in the US have helped get business. But Basu says she’s now looking for a full-time head of sales and marketing for its key markets of US and Europe, and expanding her core team of 35 to include more experienced professionals. “Building a brand, being strategic, none of it is something we’ve done before.” Among iMerit’s recent additions is CFO and HR and operations head Joydeep Mukherji, who was previously CFO at MetLife India. Basu has also roped in senior Indian executives such as former Mercer India MD Padma Ravichander, and Sify co-founder R Ramraj to be on iMerit’s advisory board. 

Jayant Sinha, managing director of Omidyar Network India Advisors, is also on board as a strategic investor. Earlier this year, Omidyar Network invested over half of iMerit’s $1.5 million initial funding. Its association began with a grant of $650,000 to Anudip in February last year. “We were interested in Anudip particularly because they have a strong orientation of providing their trainees with jobs,” says Sinha. He adds, “The quality of the team behind iMerit and their dedication to the cause is extraordinarily high. What they’re trying to do on a web services platform is unique.” On the expected returns, Sinha says, “We’re hoping to see that they scale and do well.”  

As for revenues, Basu says the “run rate for this year is $1 million”, a figure she expects to exceed by the end of the year, with a target of over $10 million by FY16. With 300 employees and counting, iMerit is adding people at a fast clip, aiming for total employee strength to be 700 by end-FY13. “We’re adding 50 people every week,” says Basu. She expects iMerit to operationally break even by FY15.

Incidentally, iMerit is now a case study being taught at Harvard Business School from April 2013. “We are confident that our model works and we can eventually support 100,000 livelihoods,” says Basu. If that were to happen, Noorjahan will soon have company in the bylanes of Metiabruz.