It looks like any other college farewell party. The room is decorated with streamers and balloons and pizza, cake and cola make up the lunch menu. Group photos are being taken, there’s laughter all around thanks to the usual ribbing between friends and yes, each one has to dance or mimic a friend when their name is pulled out of a cup. The only difference: all this is happening without a word being spoken. The 20-odd youngsters from Tamil Nadu and Kerala assembled in the room are all hearing impaired, communicating with each other with sign language. This is the 33rd batch graduating from Chennai-headquartered V-shesh in the past three years, all of whom have been differently abled in one way or the other.
With trainer Alafia Mustafa, who has been with the social enterprise since 2011, acting as interpreter, I interact with the students and realise quickly that their aspirations and concerns are no different from any other 20-something person. “I’ve learnt more here in the one-month training than in three years of college. There, we had to mug up everything without understanding. Here, they take time to explain concepts and help us understand them,” says 23-year-old BCA graduate N Karthik from Chennai. For some, the training has given a boost of confidence to face the outside world. “V-shesh has ensured that we can adapt in the real world. We always had the capability but lacked the confidence. Now, we are better equipped to not only find jobs but also adapt better, which will help us retain our jobs,” says 25-year-old engineer J Kishore.
This is what V-shesh aims to do. While the estimated number of disabled people varies, there is no doubt that there is a large talent pool in India that remains untapped. The 2011 Census estimates that over 2.2% of the total population, or close to 27 million people, are disabled, while WHO estimates put the number as high as 7% of the population. V-shesh thus works to improve job opportunities and income levels of persons with disabilities both from metros and non-metros by helping them get their first job. “Landing the first job has definitely been the gamechanger for many of us. But three factors — geography, socio-economic background and disability — create a disadvantage in getting a job and retaining it,” says Shashaank Awasthi, who, along with P Rajasekharan, founded V-shesh in 2009. In the five years since then, the company has provided affordable vocational training (25% of V-shesh’s revenue) for over 2,000 people and helped them get jobs in companies such as Standard Chartered, Infosys and Lifestyle, among many others.
Awasthi and Rajasekharan, friends since their MBA days at Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, took different paths in their corporate lives — Aswathi in corporate banking and Rajasekharan in project finance and public policy. But the friends always spoke about starting an organisation that would have meaningful social impact. “There were a lot of smart people solving problems and we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. So we went back to the drawing board as to why we even wanted to create an impact. We want to remove disparity in society. Disparity after a threshold is normal, but the challenge was that the threshold was low and there were many people who were way below the threshold,” says 43-year-old Awasthi.
Many of us cross that threshold because we had access to basic facilities such as health, education and shelter and had won the genetic lottery that gave us a disproportionate advantage. Awasthi and Rajasekharan decided to focus on people from rural and poor socioeconomic backgrounds, who often struggle to land their first job.
In April 2009, they quit their jobs and, investing a little over ₹20 lakh from their savings, started V-shesh, a play on vishesh, meaning special. “It signified what we do best, which is to take those that are left behind and turn them into something special and unique,” says 43-year-old Rajasekharan. The company began a pilot project with microfinance ventures such as Cashpor, Arohan, Mimo, Fusion Microfinance and Basix, providing skills training for rural youth in and around Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. The choice of location was simple: V-shesh’s first client, Cashpor, was based there. The two-week course focused on training young men and women as loan officers for MFIs and over the following months, V-shesh was able to place 1,000 candidates in MFIs operating in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.
But as the microfinance crisis unfolded in August 2010, hiring came to a halt. V-shesh had to tweak its business model, moving from being dependent on a single sector to providing job opportunities for people with disabilities. Now, more than 95% of the students at V-shesh are disabled; of the over-1,000 disabled students the company has trained so far, 60% were hearing impaired, 30% had orthopaedic disabilities while the rest were visually impaired. Eight of the company’s 25 employees, too, are disabled. Some trainers first joined V-shesh as students and were handpicked by the team to train others, such as Ragavi, who now trains students in basic math.
From the beginning, the founders were clear that V-shesh would be a for-profit organisation: persons with disabilities have as much right as anyone else to demand quality service in job placements, which will be possible only if they are paying customers. Also, paying even a nominal amount would make students take the training more seriously. Accordingly, V-shesh charges ₹10,000 for the month-long course, with half the amount payable after getting the first pay cheque.
The programme includes training in English, mathematics and computers, along with communication and life skills. Students from all backgrounds dress formally for the day-long classes held in a workplace-like environment. They undergo aptitude tests and mock interviews and everyone is assigned a responsibility that helps them work together as a team. The curriculum is designed by an in-house training team, which also helps in recruitments. Unlike regular placement firms whose job is done once placements are completed, the V-shesh team also helps candidates settle down in their new jobs.
Soon after its launch, V-shesh got its first funding from First Light Ventures, which invested ₹78 lakh in the company, taking its total investment to around ₹1 crore. “We were very impressed with the team’s understanding of the space and their commitment and believe they will go a long way in making disability inclusion more mainstream,” says Neha Mudaliar, vice-president, Unitus Capital, which manages V-shesh for First Light Ventures. “There is a definite need for these services. While finding paying customers can be challenging now, once they cross the threshold of creating over 1,000 jobs, the momentum will start to kick in,” she adds.
Over the 60 batches that have passed out of V-shesh’s training programmes since 2009, more than 600 candidates have found jobs that match their capability and potential in mainstream organisations across sectors such as BFSI, IT and ITES, retail and hospitality. Compared with the two or three companies that hired from the first batch, V-shesh’s placement roster now includes over 100 companies, including marquee clients such as ANZ, Accenture, Cognizant, TCS, Costa Coffee and Pizza Hut. Companies are charged for each candidate they hire and average salary is ₹10,000. The placement business fetches V-shesh 30% of its revenue.
“Hiring from V-shesh has been a game changer for us. We never thought we could have employees who are hearing and speech impaired working with us in the bank. We are so pleased with their capabilities that including people with disabilities is strong on our diversity recruitment agenda now,” says Pankajam Sridevi, managing director of ANZ Operations and Technology, Bengaluru, which has hired over 50 candidates. She says these candidates, who work in the lending, trade and payments teams in institutional banking, have done as well as other recruits.
Sandeep Sareen, head of corporate and global market operations at IndusInd Bank concurs. “There are no major issues of absenteeism or productivity. They seem to be more focused at the work place because perhaps they have a stronger urge to prove themselves and have aspirations to move ahead in their careers,” he says. IndusInd Bank started hiring from V-shesh six months ago and has hired around 10 candidates.
“Almost 7-8% of India’s population deals with some kind of disability. There is not just a huge opportunity to find and map job opportunities and create a significant social impact, but also provide us a large enough market for our business to be sustainable,” says Rajasekharan. With revenue expected to touch ₹1.5 crore in 2014-15, V-shesh plans to expand its training centres from the current six (Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar) to 15 by next year and cross 1,500 placements in FY15. It expects revenue to touch ₹4.5 crore by FY17.
V-shesh also works with companies to sensitise their employees on overcoming communication and social barriers and creating a more inclusive workplace. The advisory service accounts for 40% of revenue. While the team agrees that corporates are increasingly more receptive to hiring people with disabilities, there is a still a long way to go. “We need to build a culture that sees hiring people with disability as a mainstream option rather than a CSR activity. Corporates need to give this untapped talent its due,” Rajasekharan adds.
As I take leave of the fun-loving bunch of youngsters at their Chennai centre, I ask them what they thought of V-shesh. Almost unanimously, they say they are grateful to the team for making them job-ready. “We want V-shesh to become world-famous,” says one student. What is really admirable about this group is not only their confidence and optimism but that not once in my three-hour stay have they made me feel like an outsider. They’ve taken pains to use gestures to ensure I understand them, since I don’t know sign language. I realise that it is only when you are a minority that you understand the importance of inclusion. It is high time the rest of us learn what comes naturally to these youngsters.