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Monday, 31 October 2016

This Diwali, we present the stories of 6 individuals who lit up the ‘diyas’ to their own lives

The festive season is upon us and the city seems to adorn every variegated shade of the rainbow. The sweet shops are making the best of their all year round sales and the local firecracker sellers are already setting up shop in the market places. Diwali today is an excuse to dress your best, eat guilt-free and sanction sweet indulgence in throwing the best parties of the season. But looking back at what this festival of light truly represents, we have to travel back in time through the realms of Hindu mythology, which celebrates the victory of good over evil or light over darkness, as symbolised by Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya after defeating Lord Ravana of Sri Lanka.

Just like it took twelve years of almost ascetic living for Rama, along with Sita and Lakshmana, to fight through the darkness of the forest and return to the basking light of Ayodhya, there are some inimitable individuals who have battled their own darkness, only to emerge the brightest in the light of life.

This Diwali, we celebrate the soul-stirring stories of their personal triumphs and applaud them for their sparkling vision that penetrated through the visible darkness of their individual journeys.

“Show compassion and make people rich. Include people in your life and remove loneliness, and lastly, do something good; it will come back to you.”

This 24-year old CEO of Hyderabad-based Bollant Industries, a company that is worth over 50 crores, was born blind into a society that had once dismissed him ‘a waste’. With a vision that went beyond the use of eyes, Srikanth’s mind, will and ambition led him to battle through a plethora of closed doors and forced isolations. Realising the intolerance of a largely regressive society in providing opportunities to the disabled, he set forth to create and establish a company which employs uneducated and disabled employees to manufacture eco-friendly, disposable consumer packaging solutions. Angel investor Ravi Mantha has made it his personal mission to “take the company to IPO”. The first international blind student to pass through the prestigious gates of MIT, Srikanth went from being the disadvantaged son of a farmer who was denied access to science classes in high school to owning four production plants, one each in Hubli (Karnataka) and Nizamabad (Telangana), and two in Hyderabad (Telangana). And he’s just begun.

“I refused to crawl. Every time I fell, I took it as a test of perseverance. That way, it is easier to try again.”

With broken bones and protruding intestines, Major Devender Singh was proclaimed dead after incurring a bomb-blast at the Indo-Pak border during the Kargil War of ’99. Sent to a makeshift mortuary, Singh’s unconscious strength to survive moved his listless body enough for another doctor to realise that he was indeed alive. After a series of historic surgeries and therapy sessions, Singh was fixed with a prosthetic leg and, due to complications, had a part of his intestines taken out. But the one thing the blast couldn’t destroy was his mind. Singh woke up after his surgery to experience a new zeal for life and a passion for running. Soon after, he began with a few sprints and after being fixed a more advanced and sturdy prosthetic leg, he began to laugh at his fate and stated running in marathons. It has been 16 years since, and he has acquired the revered name of ‘The Indian Blade Runner’, which he proudly flouts as he runs by.

“Work hard. Be Humble. Anything else is just luck.”

This is the story of the millionaire barber. Born into a fairly destitute family which came under his responsibility at an extremely premature age, Ramesh Babu realised that it was either throwing caution to the wind and taking a chance upon his fate or spending a life skittering around the poverty line. Cutting short his education, his primary measure to make ends meet was to continue running his father’s tiny saloon business while also taking on odd jobs for the extra household money. It was when pride made him buy a Maruti van to outcompete his uncle, for which he incurred a massive loan, that he got the idea to rent out the car and take steps towards the car rental business. Today he owns one of the most successful luxury car rental services and has even become a TED speaker.

“I aim to climb an 8a+ within the next year, become a sponsored athlete, represent the para-climbing community, whilst helping to gain further support and exposure for Indian parathletes in adventure sport.”

Thus said the famous Mani Rogers, a man who didn’t let even a disease like polio come in the way of him becoming India’s first world para-climbing champion. Mani always had a love for climbing over academics. As a young teenager, he would climb anywhere he could – including the rocks of Ramanagara, Hampi and Badami, or even the artificial walls of Kanteerava Stadium. Refusing to pay heed to his disabled right leg, he pushed his own boundaries, first training himself by observing professional climbers and then mastering the sport enough to become a trainer himself. Today, he is proud to have represented India in the World Para-climbing Championship in 2012, where he won Gold, and also in the World Para-climbing Championship in 2013, where he won Silver, twice in both France and London.

“Entrepreneurship has given me freedom even in the toughest of times. I don't think there is anything else I would want to do despite all the stress and struggles.”

Dropping out of college to pursue his bristling passion to become an entrepreneur, which led to severed family ties and a whole lot of one-meal days, Dinup is a prime example of a man who refuses to take no for an answer. Trying his luck at selling T-shirts online as his first gig, he soon realised that the only way to get money into the empty coffers was by delivering them himself. Known as the neighbourhood delivery boy in Kerala, Dilip went through several years of trying his hand at the occasional odd job when, in 2013, serendipity led him to scout the online space, only to discover that there was none reserved for online astrology. He thus launched his company ‘MonkVyasa’ with old-time friend and classmate Sarath KS, after securing ties with professional astrologers and having them on-board. He received mentorship and seed funding from Sanjay Vijaykumar, Chairman of Kochi-based startup incubator Startup Village. The company aims to reach transactions of $200 million in the next two years.

“I believe in the power of the mind. What we think, we become.”

Here is the story of a man who once had to resort to the streets for alms with his pujari father as a child. Shouldering the responsibility of becoming the man of the house following his father’s passing, Renuka tried his hand at the most meagre of jobs to help support his family. From working as a helper at factories to working at trading companies, Renuka was always quick to pick up on how each worked and had a few false starts later, when he tried to build a company that sold covers for suitcases and vanity bags. After that crashed, he secured a job as a security guard, but not one to back down, he decided to try his hand at driving – first local, then outstation. He transported dead bodies single-handedly, and drove travellers around for trips and pilgrimages alike. From there, he went on to save enough money to open a small travel company, and this marked his turning point –because fortune finally decided to descend on his head and propel him forwards. Today, he is the proud owner of ‘Pravasi Cabs’ in Bengaluru, which has a rough turnover of Rs 30 crores, and once he crosses the Rs 100 crore mark, he is determined to go for an IPO.

These are the stories of some individuals who lit up the pathway to their own lives and journeys, and we couldn’t be more excited to share their inspiring stories with you on this special occasion. Happy Diwali, from them and us, to you!

Saturday, 29 October 2016

PepsiCo’s medal of prowess – Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi is known to everyone as the woman who transformed PepsiCo’s global strategy. Her career graph, however, had scaled commendable heights even before she took over as the CEO of the second largest food and beverage company in the world. Today, on her birthday, let’s look at her achievements before and after she became the Corporate Queen of PepsiCo.

Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi was born in 1955 to a Tamil speaking family in Chennai. Even as a young girl, she was fiercely independent, with a tendency to go after what she wanted. She was part of an all-girls cricket team and the guitarist for an all-female rock band (impressed much?). It obviously wasn’t all play for her because she exhibited an academic brilliance that got her into Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata, in 1974. Form this point on, her career as a business executive began to take shape.

With an MBA degree in hand, Nooyi first worked as a product manager with the textile company Mettur Beardshell before she moved onto Johnson & Johnson. As a product manager again, Nooyi was given the responsibility of introducing Stayfree in the Indian market, but at a sensitive time when marketing of female hygiene products was banned. So Nooyi then improvised. Taking the quaint road to marketing, she walked into schools and colleges and handed out the products personally.

After having gained some work experience, Nooyi studied at the Yale School of Management in 1978. A 25-year old graduate, she worked at the Boston Consulting Group for six years before she moved to Motorola, and then Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) in 1990. It was only four years later, in 1994, that PepsiCo acquired the jewel to their crown.

What Queen Bees do

It was 1997 when Nooyi realised that PepsiCo would benefit from shifting its attention from the fast food business. The company at that time owned KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Long John Silver. Nooyi led the spin-off of these fast food chains into the giant Tricon Global Restaurants, now known as Yum! Brands, Inc.

Nooyi’s redirection of her company didn’t end here. She was adamant on implementing the shift towards healthy food alternatives in order to realign the company with the shift in customer requirements. With this goal in mind, she classified PepsiCo’s products into three categories: Fun for you, including regular soda and snacks, Better for you, including low-fat sodas and snacks, and Good for you, including healthy alternatives in snacks such as oatmeal.

With this new strategy and direction, Nooyi led PepsiCo in the acquisition of Tropicana in 1998, and a year later, in the $13 billion merger with Quaker Oats. With the shiny new pin of ‘healthy’, PepsiCo’s sales started to see brighter days.

Nooyi took over as the President and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) in 2001. Soon after that, PepsiCo’s annual revenue increased by 72 percent and its net profit rose from $2.5 billion to $6.5 billion. The net worth of the company had sky-rocketed and found a place in the clouds.

PepsiCo celebrated its 5th CEO in its 44-year history when Nooyi took the throne in 2006. Since then, she has been working on better designs for the product, on creating new products for women and on general improvement of user experience. She visits company outlets to check for efficiency, always looking to take PepsiCo to greater heights. “We ought to keep pushing the boundaries to get to flawless execution…Flawless is the ultimate goal.”
1000+ developers, 500+ startups, and hundreds of mobile ecosystem players will come together on November 18 in New Delhi.
Are you a developer, entrepreneur, VC, or someone looking to start your own mobile startup or just want to be in the thick of all the action from the mobile space? Don’t miss this. Buy tickets now. (Early Bird tickets available till October 30 at just Rs 4299/- Prices will increase to the 'Regular Price' of Rs 7499/- after Oct 30)

Friday, 28 October 2016

Meet the man who ensured Internet remains neutral in India

The first thing that struck me when I met R S Sharma, Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), was how driven he is. He would fit in effortlessly into our high-energy startup world. A technology evangelist for the past 30-odd years, Sharma is clearly passionate about making sure that technology becomes the great equalizer of our age and brings about the digital transformation that can change the face of India.

The 1978-batch IAS officer was all set to retire from the Jharkhand cadre when he was appointed Chairman of TRAI in July 2015. He then took the telcos head on when he told them that they would need to credit Re 1 for every call dropped. (The Supreme Court subsequently struck down the notification, but it gave consumers a rallying point against an annoying and costly problem.) He has been accused of being biased toward new telecom providers, has had his Twitter account hacked, and in the thick of the debate, took the stand that free data was not the same as net neutrality.

Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, Sharma talks about what drives him, his experiments with computers in Bihar in the 1980s, and how Aadhaar is a fascinating enabler of cost savings and transparency.

Shradha: You have unleashed a slew of initiatives. What drives you?

R S Sharma: The drive comes from my value system, which has given me access to get to where I am today.

When I went to college, I was the only person in the hostel who could not speak Hindi. I spoke my local dialect, Brijwasa, which is spoken in Agra, Mathura, that area.

So I feel that coming from a small village, from a farmer’s family, the system itself has been very fair to me.

Despite all my disadvantages, there was fairness. I feel I should be fair in whatever I do and whoever I deal with.

So essentially, that sense of doing the right thing, doing what you feel is right. That is one part. The second – and this is very important for me – is the fact that since the very beginning, as a student of science, technology has always fascinated me. I bought my first computer around 1985-86, when I was the district magistrate of Begusarai (Bihar).

I have always believed, and the belief continues to be strengthened, that technology can be a great enabler to do things that you think you cannot do, or do things much more efficiently, more transparently.

Today, we realize that digital can be truly democratic. The access it allows is mind-boggling. You and I have similar rights to access the IRCTC website, for example. It is a great equalizer and great enabler. Digital is more transparent, traceable, cost-effective, democratic and environment-friendly.

All through my career, I have driven digital. For example, I used computers to manage the transfer of teachers in Begusarai (Bihar) in 1985. The headline the next day was: “Look, computers have transferred dead teachers.” Obviously, the database itself was inaccurate, which is why teachers who had passed away were being transferred. The system only showed that these teachers had not been transferred in 20 years.

We also used computers to track firearms. We had a database of stolen and recovered firearms and every time a firearm went missing, the information was relayed over the wireless to be recorded. All the SPs diligently maintained their register, so you had identical registers all over. Once we started doing dictionary indexing – and these were 16-digit numbers – we began solving cases immediately. We showed the IG how we had solved 22 pending cases, showed him a gun that had been stolen from Sarai Madho and recovered from Arrah. He came down from Patna and wanted to know how this was possible. And this is just a trivial example.

Shradha: You experienced early on how technology can help.

R S Sharma: The latest is Aadhaar. Once you start doing something, then you start thinking of newer and better ways of doing things. One thing leads to another. My four-year stint at UIDAI was fascinating. Nandan Nilekani was Chairman, and I was the CEO, DGM - Director of Aadhaar. We took it to 40 crore IDs. I was then Secretary of IT, and I had the good fortune of interacting with the new government, and the new government took Aadhaar to new heights in terms of applications. Aadhaar has two properties. One is uniqueness, another is its property to provide authentication. So, I started thinking: how can we use online authentication?

When I was telling people, you can authenticate digitally, they thought I was mad.

However, authentication is not something everybody understood. So, I thought if we could have a digital platform for attendance, that would be a start, a proof of concept. I wanted to end the physical paper register, so that recording attendance would become environment-friendly, cost-effective, more accurate, and less prone to fraud. This would demonstrate digital authentication. I was in Jharkhand then, so we created an online attendance system, and it was such a hit. People took it seriously – they would come to see this online register and they would find that it tracked information at the individual level too.

Shradha: Was there any resistance to this system?

R S Sharma: The Prime Minister himself was behind this. He asked me when I came here and made a presentation on various issues. Someone had told him there was a digital attendance system in Jharkhand. He asked me to implement it here, and we’ve done it.

In fact, this is a very trivial application. 7 million authentications are done every day. 1 million of this is tracking attendance through Aadhaar. Aadhaar faced many existential crises but it has emerged stronger than ever. Because of Aadhaar, the country has saved Rs 20,000 crore in LPG subsidies alone in one year. Aadhar’s annual cost is Rs 8,000 crore – it has saved 22.5x its own investment in one year in one program. That’s transformation.

The current government is taking it to new heights and started applying it. Telecom SIMs, for example: now to get one you do not need to give any paper proof, you just give your Aadhaar number and biometric authentication does the rest. We have now 1.1 billion Aadhaar numbers, out of a population of 1.3 billion. You can open bank accounts, get subsidies, do eKYC, so many things.

Shradha: What is your vision?

R S Sharma: Ultimately, the primary vision of the Digital India initiative is to transfer India into a digitally empowered society and a knowledge economy. That I think is something we must do with full sincerity. Here is where I think my current role is useful: Digital India has a number of visions. One is digital infrastructure, the second is digital services and software, and the third is digital empowerment.

Firstly, we need to improve our digital infrastructure. Our mobile revolution happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We went from offline to wireless in some sense. We just had 2 crore copper lines/fixed lines, and now we have 1 billion mobile connections. We have data connectivity; mobile connectivity may be good, with 100 crore people talking on it, but we need to improve data connectivity. My mission is to ensure better connectivity across India. Provide Internet via cable. Wi-Fi hotspots for low-cost connectivity. All these things are extremely important for Digital India to succeed, and my mission is to make this happen in my current role.

I believe in this transformation potential of technology, and this is the right time to make it happen.Come and discover the cutting-edge mobile solutions created by India's developers, entrepreneurs and mobile enthusiasts, only at MobileSparks 2016.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Husband quits job to help wife’s startup, couple later start OrangeTwig and raises $1m in funding

It was quite difficult for software engineer Karan Jassar to ascertain why his wife, an entrepreneur, found it so hard to market products. Sahiba Sandhu used to design and sell sterling silver baby gifts on eBay, and ran an online store for about five years. What always posed challenges for her was the lack of an effective marketing tool.

The agony at not finding an effective, easy-to-use and reasonably priced marketing tool prompted Karan to look into the matter. In 2011, he left Yahoo and decided to address this issue. After a year of ground work and research, Karan, along with his wife and Sakhil Chawla, started OrangeTwig in October 2012 to help small online sellers promote their shops on social media. The platform was officially launched in August 2013.
OrangeTwig Team
OrangeTwig automates social media marketing for e-commerce sellers, thereby enabling them to promote shop sales and discounts. A separate toolkit has also been developed formarketing on Instagram.

Here is how it works

For shop promotion, one needs to choose products, sale dates and discounts, with OrangeTwig scheduling the sale and promoting it on social media. Now, how do you lure buyers to the store every day? By putting one item on sale each day and offering exclusive deals to social media followers. OrangeTwig’s auto-pilot feature posts the products on social media on an everyday basis.

OrangeTwig also reduces the hassles of marketing products by creating a marketing plan, which encompasses showcasing products in attractive layouts, customised content, optimised posting and a comprehensive calendar (where one can view and edit upcoming posts). The Instagram toolkit (the hastag research tool) helps get recommendations by sorting tags into specialised lists.

"Social media is a visual medium, but many small business owners lack the knowledge of tools like Photoshop required for the design of visually compelling graphics to market their products. Our USP is simplicity - a seller needs no technical, design or analytical skills to use OrangeTwig,” says Karan.

From friends to founders

Sakhil Chawla met Karan at a social gathering and decided to pursue a collaboration. Already bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, Sakhil is a BE in Computer Science from Thapar University and worked in SAP for one and a half years. Before OrangeTwig, he started, but shut it down owing to lack of traction.

Karan is an MS in Computer Science from the University of Southern California, the same university from which Sahiba received her MA in Communication Management.

Pouring money

OrangeTwig was initially bootstrapped with Karan’s personal savings. At a later stage, they raised $50,000 from Juan Benitez, GM of Braintree Payments, who is also an advisor to the company. Now, they have raised $1 million from an undisclosed investor, along with an additional $75,000 from a close friend.

The startup follows a SaaS model to generate revenue, with SMBs paying between $10 and $60 per month. The margins, according to Karan, like for any other SaaS product, improve with the acquisition of more paid customers.

“We started charging earlier this year. Previously, we were in beta and the product was free,” says Karan.

Today, more than 18,000 small businesses use the tools provided by OrangeTwig. The startup’s target customers are online sellers on marketplaces like Etsy or on platforms like Shopify, WooCommerce and Ecwid. The user base is claimed to be predominantly from the US, with the rest coming from Europe, Russia, Latin America, Australia and South East Asia.

Growth spree

The Delhi-based company has a team of eight, with plans to scale up to 22 in the coming months. Since the startup is working on launching an enterprise offering, the primary focus will be on building the sales, marketing and engineering teams.

For the enterprise offering, OrangeTwig is in talks with a large retail brand in India about its technology empowering social media marketing. Karan says, “We will help them drive relevant traffic to relevant products as well as improve the ROI of their ad spend on social media. We are hopeful that we will announce our partnership sometime in Q1 2017, as a lot of the details are still being worked out.”

A growing number of emerging startups in India are exploring myriad avenues to promote products and services and gain organic traffic. The five basic platforms that stand out in terms of marketing a new business are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Instagram.

According to the ‘Social Media Marketing India Trends Study 2016’ by EY, Facebook and Twitter are the most popular social media platforms for brands to be present on, followed by YouTube and LinkedIn. Instagram, meanwhile, has also gained significant popularity, with 60 percent of the brands surveyed leveraging Instagram as a crucial social media tool.

The study also revealed that over the last three years, the social media marketing spend has increased from 16 to 31 percent of the overall marketing budget for the companies surveyed.

“We don’t have direct competitors in India. Globally, we compete with multiple companies like Buffer, Canva and Latergramme. One key differentiator is that we focus exclusively on e-commerce,” says Karan.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

All I want to do is play

Try this with me. I’m doing it.

Play outside your house every single day.
For instance, some of the things I’ve done this past week: bowling, air hockey, an escape room, chess in the park, tennis.
Some things I have booked: rifle range, archery, basketball.

Sometimes I feel like I have no time to play. I have to do THIS or THAT! But there’s always a tiny bit of time, hidden somewhere – an empty pocket, a secret room in your head.

I forget about time. I lose myself in the play.
I get exercise.
I have fun. Fun is better than not-fun.
I use my brain.
I increase my sense of aim (note: basketball, bowling, pool, ping pong, etc all improve this basic skill we all need: balance/ aim)
I forget about my problems. I got 99 problems but PLAY ain’t one.
I leave my house. Else I’m trapped here just doing the same routine.
We’re natural nomads, not meant to stay in one routine every day.

I have to get creative to do a different play thing every day.
I get smarter at getting good at new things.
Boost my happy neurochemicals that feed reward and pleasure.
I’m 48 years old. Reminds me every day how to be a kid again.
Reverses aging a tiny bit. Or at least makes aging more fun.

I went to an escape room yesterday.

People gather (you probably won’t know the others), you are given a mission, and there are clues all over the room (secret codes, puzzles, locks that have to be unlocked, bombs that have to be disarmed, etc) and you have 60 minutes to solve them.

One of the clues in the escape room (the mission: prevent the assassination of JFK) was a chessboard (see attached).

White moves and has a forced mate in 2. I solved it. Magnets under the chessboard opened up a secret room in the wall once the checkmate was on the board.

Everyone high-fived me. I didn’t know any of them. I felt great. I felt like I had accomplished something. I didn’t need a billion dollars to feel that way.

I can feel that way every day. It will boost all my neurochemicals. It will make me see things as not as important as they are. Because I can ESCAPE.

You are looking for answers on what to do with your life.

Trust me: the clues will be found and solved when your mind is playing. Or shooting arrows at a target. Or writing a secret novel on the train.

I’m going to try and do this for 30 straight days. And hopefully…for the next 6000 days after that.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Eat, pray and love for the differently-abled: A happy place created by Inclov where they can meet, bond and date

You walk into a coffee shop, find your sweet spot on that opulent velveteen corner chair that lets you be invisible, pick your poison on the menu and place your order. Your friend walks in, plops himself next to you, and you catch up as life continues to unfold, in and around you. But do you know how many factors you take for granted in this seemingly routine evening? Walking in, reading the menu, ordering so your server understands are luxuries unheard of for a vast section of people. Heck, so are having friends and being invisible to the world.

“In the process of understanding the differently-abled community better, we realised that many of their social lives are rather restricted,” says Shankar Srinivasan, Co-founder of Inclov, a matchmaking website that helps the differently-abled romantics find love. In 2015, Inclov launched a 100-percent accessible and inclusive app for people with any kind of disability, and even for those without. It has 5,000 users and has played Cupid for over 1,600 couples.

When it struck the team that the community might actually crave for an offline experience that we might dismiss as mundane, Shankar and his co-founder Kalyani Khona ideated and initiated Social Spaces, Inclov's offline meetup property in 2015, which is making strides in conjuring up ‘happy places’ for people who are used to being constantly judged and undermined. “This is our heartful effort for all our users to come and meet in person,” says Shankar.

The meetups are inclusive in nature, and the locations they have curated and chosen are universally designed, ensuring complete accessibility.

Their pilot meetup was in Delhi in June 2015 and had about 30 attendees,both with and without disabilities. The duo has held seven meetups in various cities so far, impacting over a thousand people. “You can come and have fun, make some new friends, have some real conversations, and in the process, maybe even find your life partner!” says Shankar.

The only prerequisites for a smooth-sailing evening where the conversations as well as the conversationalists can move about freely are ensuring complete accessibility at the venues, sign language interpreters,and completely sensitised staffs.

For any space to be inclusive, they must inculcate into their décor, ramps, accessible washrooms with handles, bars, wide entries, braille signages, braille menu cards as well as sign language interpreters.

“We ensure that the latter, in fact, even interpret music, so if we have a musical performance by a band, nobody feels excluded,” says Shankar.

It was, and still is, difficult to find venues which are fully accessible, but there are more such thoughtful havens than you might imagine. So far, Hauz Khas, the Lemon Tree Hotel and Farmout Café in Gurgaon, Elliot Beach in Chennai, Prabodhan Thackeray Parkin Mumbai, Kunzum Café, House 36 and British Council in New Delhihave been kind enough to host them.

Their eighth meetup will be hosted today, October 22, by The People &Co, Cyber Hub, Gurgaon,.

“When we talk about our meetups, people generally imagine an event where we awkwardly line up men and women and try to match them. Or the typical ‘swayamvarmelas’ where everyone comes on stage to do an elevator pitch and if others are interested they can get in touch,” says Shankar.This is just the notion they’re looking to dispel. Social Spaces is, in fact, a really easy-going two-to-three-hour outing packed with performances and talks, and flowing with food and time to make friends, much like the networking mixers you may have been to.

They typically have a speed-dating slot, which is also complemented by a more leisurable slot later. The band Dhunsatva, speakers like PreetiMonga, poet Ajay Verma, and stand-up comic Chitra Kalyani are some of the many names that have graced their stage.

Catching us up on the most interesting things we have missed, Shankar reminisces about their meetup in Mumbai that was supposed to end at 7 pm, after which the guests should have headed home. “But the environment was so upbeat that even after we officially concluded the meetup, the people continued it with someone wheelchair dancing, singing, acting, and even reciting poems. At this point, even the passers-by joined in the fun,” he says. The 20-strong bunch then went to a local fast food joint and continued the fun over dinner.

And, yes,you read that correctly — the Chennai meetup was conducted at a beach! “This experience was overwhelming to so many of the people attending, because they had never sat at the beachfront without feeling uncomfortable and out of place,” he recalls.

Sameer Chaturvedi, a JNU scholar and Inclov user, says, “My life was restricted, in the sense that I would go to university and straight back home. This is a great change from that mundane life.”

Pooja Sharma, a management trainee who uses a wheelchair, says, “There is a notion that disabled people cannot find love. But these meetups are changing that, as so many like-minded and sensitised people are coming forth. It’s great!”

Their very first meetup this year had six people, but now they have to pull the shutters on their booking windows, so to say, since their venues cannot accommodate beyond 50–60 people.

Getting the word out has been surprisingly easy — all it took was one delightful evening, which did the talking and pretty much sold itself. Besides newsletters and posts on social media to notify their app users about upcoming meetups,the community, though scattered, is a rather well-knit one.“Once they come and have a good experience, they become our biggest ambassadors to spread the word. We now get invites from people in various cities for us to do Social Spaces there,” says Shankar.

50 percent of Inclov users on the app or those who attend Social Spaces are people without disability. “We do not restrict people without disability from joining Inclov. We have always aimed to provide an inclusive, accessible platform for people with disability where they stand an equal chance to find love,” says Shankar.

The meetup today is bringing people together for the love of food! The head chef of People & Co. is conducting a really cool cooking workshop where he will teach them some nice, quick recipes for salads.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Making Moon Missions happen. Twice over.

Srinivasa Hegde, Mission Director, TeamIndus, on putting together his first sojourn to the Moon – the Chandrayaan-1, of which he was Mission Director. 

It is difficult to believe that it has been eight years since India launched its first mission to orbit the Moon. The October 22, 2008, was a proud day for me. As I sit at the cusp on another mission to the Moon, I cannot help but remember the journey that led to the historical orbital mission that India send to the Moon.

From what I remember, Chandrayaan – 1 was the outcome of a third ISRO committee appointed to explore if India can mount an interplanetary mission of this nature. This committee was headed by Dr George Joseph, a very senior name in ISRO, and one of its members was an earlier boss of mine, K Thyagarajan. One day, out of the blue, Thyagarajan took me aside and asked me, “How is your health?” That was his way of broaching the subject on a new assignment. He asked me if I am interested in attending a meeting on sending a mission to the Moon. When I said I certainly was, he invited me to a meeting at the ISRO HQ with nearly 25 senior people.

In that meeting, Dr K Kasturirangan, then the chairman of ISRO who is now one of the biggest supporters of the TeamIndus Moon Mission, gave an inspirational speech. He talked about how India will soon be a super power and how the country needed to think even bigger in space. This was in the late 90s and he was talking about how we had to start work on it right then to make it happen over the next decade.

We got to work soon and submitted an initial report on how we can put this mission together. We said that with a payload mass of around 1050kg, this was a meaningful mission that could be launched with the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle). Thyagarajan had become the project director and I became part of the team and its Mission Director. Interplanetary missions are handled by a small group of dedicated people who live through the project. That was the case here as well.

The next few years were spent on putting the programme together. With the Moon Impact Probe factored in as additional payload, the mission mass increased and the launch team was pushed to their limits to make it happen. We had initially planned for a launch in the December of 2008, but we decided to go earlier and launched in October. I was at the Mission Control centre in the outskirts of Bengaluru. It was a proud moment for all of us to see the Mission becoming a successful one over the next few weeks.

Now, I am the Mission Director of the TeamIndus Moon Mission. TeamIndus is doing something never attempted before by ISRO - soft landing on the Moon - and we need to get it right on the first try. Most space agencies in the world don’t design zero margin of error missions on their first try, but we are pushing the limits doing just that here.

I am often asked why a country like India should mount a Moon mission. I have thought deeply about it and one of the reasons that I feel strongly about is that many a time countries who have access to resources, tend to form a club and keep everyone else away from it. Moon is a fantastic source for many valuable resources including Helium 3, which can take care of the energy needs of all mankind. We have to be there, not just because we humans are explorers, but also because it can help India and humankind lead a more sustainable life. And that is just one reason.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

[App Fridays] Manipal’s Flicksys helps you find useful information about landmarks from Youtube videos

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then, according to Dr. James McQuivey’s Forrester study “How Video Will Take Over the World”, an average one minute video is worth 1.8 million words, which is roughly 3,600 pages of text. While the exact math behind the number is debatable, videos do throw a lot of information at users in the form of sights and sounds, and it can get difficult to process everything. Mainstream movies also hide major plot points and ‘easter eggs’ in plain sight, but not all audiences are able to pick up on them in the first viewing.

The other issue with video is that everyone has their own processing power and knowledge base, so keeping up with even a simple video and drawing out all the insights from it is not easy. People are able to read books at their own pace and refer to dictionaries in case they have difficulties. Five Computer Science engineering students from Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal have a solution to this pain point in the form of their product- Flico. Here is their story. 
What is it

Flico is a platform that provides relevant information from a Youtube video, as a viewer is watching it. The current version, which is a Chrome app, has two services- landmark and word meanings.

The landmark feature identifies landmarks displayed in a video seamlessly and provides viewers with relevant information like street views, nearby restaurants, and a map view, along with added value features like hotels and flight listings. The second service claims to provide the meanings of words used in a video instantly.

Story so far

Flicksys Inc, the parent company behind Flico, was founded by a team of five Computer Science students from MIT, Manipal - Anirudh Raghunath, Kartik Arora, Yash Goyal, Amrit Ayyar and Rahil Patel - in August 2016. Like most college students, they loved spending their free time streaming TV shows and movies. Yash noted,

We gained entertainment out of it. But we realised that we tend to miss a lot of information in these videos that is useful and which a user may be curious about.

The Flicksys team
The five of them, who have been friends from the first day of college and share a lot of similar interests, realised that viewers may be curious about finding out about which song is playing in the background, which landmark is displayed in a particular scene, which merchandise is featured in the video or the meaning of a word used in the video.

They decided to start off by focussing on landmarks and word meanings, and formed Flicksys, derived from the casual word for movies- flicks. The team initially started out with the idea for an Android app, but, after brainstorming and analysis, realised that the best and easier test market in the initial stages would be that of desktops.

Hence, they narrowed down on video streaming services and decided to focus on Youtube, which is the most popular platform, with an estimated 70 percent market share. They then realised that a Chrome app was their best bet, and started working on it.

The team launched their product on the Google Chrome store in September 2016, and racked up over 3,000 downloads in the first week of their launch. Flico then went on to be featured on the Chrome store and also got a good reception after being hunted on Product Hunt.

The team also tasted success when they were picked as the winners of AngelHack Manipal and were invited to pitch at AngelHack’s Global Demo Day at Silicon Valley in the US. AngelHack is a pre-accelerator in the US with a $40,000,000 startup portfolio, and counts investors like Mark Cuban (Owner of the Dallas Mavericks) and Ben Parr (Co-Founder of DominateFund) as advisors.
Revenue model and marketing

As a bootstrapped venture, Flicksys has so far relied on word of mouth marketing to gain users, and has an estimated 4,190 downloads so far, with about 7,953 queries served. While Flico has seen users globally, the majority of their user base comes from the US, parts of Europe and also India.

Yash noted that IBM is their official backend partner and has provided the team with $34,000 of digital resources to leverage. He said,

Flicksys’ advisory board comprises of Radhesh Kanumury, Country Lead, IBM India; Arun Shanbhag, Professor at Harvard University; and Kartik Mandaville, Founder of SpringRole. They have been guiding us through our journey.

Flico is currently free to download and use, and the team aims to keep it free for users. The team has figured out multiple revenue streams for different modules. For the landmarks module, Flico displays flight listings and hotel listings, and earns commissions for any transactions through their platform.

They have other plans in the pipeline as well, and aim to launch a music module in the future to help users identify songs and then buy them through a service like Spotify, with Flico pocketing a commission on the transaction.

Sector overview

Leveraging machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence to visual search is a big market for different sectors. According to IDC research, the AI analytics research industry will grow to $70 billion by 2020 from $8.2 billion in 2013.

Among the interesting players in this space is Mad Street Den, which recently raised a Series A round from Sequoia India and others. Then, there are players like Visense and Snapshopr. Yash noted that while there are some companies that are working along similar lines as them on video, there is not much focus on the B2C side, which Flicksys is going after. Shazam, though, is a popular player in the music identification space.

Future plans and YourStory take

While Flicksys has a minimum viable product in action, the team is currently looking to raise funds to further strengthen their tech capabilities and also add additional features to their product. Yash noted that while they do rely on external APIs for some of the image recognition elements, everything else has been developed in-house by the team.

While Youtube is their main focus, Yash noted that their technology could be scaled to other platforms like Netflix as well, and also within video games. 

As a 1.0 version of a product, Flico works well and is able to identify national and international landmarks in videos and provide relevant and related information about them with street views, maps and nearby restaurants. The words feature doesn’t work as well, though, for certain videos, and isn’t able to provide real-time information as promised. This feature will need more tweaking to become utilitarian.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Pune-based Little Big World aims to transform the way daycare centres operate for working women

“It seems like a different lifetime. It has been a complete 180 degree shift and alignment, from the years of me being a workaholic marketing manager to now running on my toes behind my toddler. I had always thought that I would be able to balance work and taking care of my child, but I just ended up extending my maternity and not going back to work,” says 36-year-old Sulochana Kumar.

This was the exact same problem Nupur Dalal and Chirag Shah saw their office colleagues and friends experience. Many found that it was difficult to get reliable and professional daycare near their offices in Mumbai and Pune. Often, team members who were from double-income nuclear households would extend their maternity breaks and simply not return to work.

This is when the duo decided to build Little Big World, a childcare support space where parents work. The team sets up their centres inside factories, offices and corporate parks.
Team at Little Big World
The initial days of research

The couple found that it was a genuine problem that most couples in today’s world faced. Deciding to work on their research, they found that there was a plethora of corporate daycare options in the US that allowed women to return to work hassle-free.

So, over the next two years, Nupur and Chirag took time off and, during their holidays and trips abroad, decided to visit daycare facilities in the US and Netherlands. And they then compared the same to options back home. Looking at the differences, 38-year-old Chirag, who has worked with the likes of ICICI Bank, Britannia Industries and American Express, says,

“The gap was too large and the need too important for us not to solve or look at, so we just decided to take the plunge.”

Thus, with Little Big World, the team caters to children starting from the age of four months, so that the mother can return to work as soon as her maternity period ends.

Getting the right team

Chirag adds that they integrate preschool learning with daycare operations in a full-day format (often with night shifts as well) to match the working hours of the parents. The operations are based on daycare and learning standards prescribed by the US-based National Association of Education for Young Children (NAEYC).

After understanding the gap in the market, the couple began looking for people with experience and training in international standards of childcare. This is when they met Priti Shah, who had just returned to Pune after ending a decade-long stint as the Program Coordinator of a corporate daycare for Johnson & Johnson in the USA with over 200 kids.

She had also got it audited and accredited through the NAEYC, believed to be the toughest childcare regulator.

“Our day is made when we hear how our caretakers’ husbands are tweaking their day plans, picking up household duties and attending to their children to ensure that their wives get to complete their meaningful work at Little Big World,” says Chirag.

After the trio got together, they began to set up Little Big World, with the aim of gaining accreditation and meeting the highest standards for of hygiene, supervision, nutrition and learning.

The team is run by over 125 women, and Chirag says that he is the only male member in the team.

And these are ex-housemaids, farm women, manual labourers or simply village housewives that are being trained to become professional nannies or governesses. Those that are keen to study further are being supported in distance education, with some being supported to become the teachers of tomorrow.

Building SOPs and working against challenges

Their first centre in the prime IT hub of Hinjawadi got the ball rolling. But one of the biggest challenges was to ensure standardisation as they scaled. Chirag adds that they operate in a society where every parent and grandparent has different notions about how to raise a child.

They expected the same at the centre. The team had to standardise their programme on how a child would be handled at Little Big World, and started off with standard operating plans (SOPs), processes and manuals for several key aspects like supporting a child’s toilet needs, dos and don’ts on disciplining children, feeding them and bed times.

The next problem was convincing large companies to allow children at the workplace. Chirag adds that it was ironic that several of the large Indian companies spoke at length on pro-employee culture but wondered, in the same breath, at how mothers would focus on work if a crèche was present in their office. Chirag explains,

“We met a company with Olympic-sized swimming pools, large gyms and separate management cafeterias that shied away from allocating a 2,000 sqft space for a daycare. Part of the challenge also lies in convincing well-intentioned companies that secure, standardised childcare operations can be set up without a legal risk to them in the case of an eventuality.”

Within a year, they got a multi-centre contract from Cummins, a US-based MNC, which now mandates a crèche at almost every workplace of theirs, including their two factories and their head office. Soon, they had the Ferrero factory contract for over 160 kids for a preschool cum kindergarten format.

Bringing in a differentiator

With the growing number of working parents, the need for quality daycare centres is fast growing. There is Mumbai-based The Little Company, a daycare firm that both caters to individual customers and works with corporates to offer baby care facilities within offices.There is also Footprints Childcare, a day care center and pre-school chain in and around Delhi. Some others are Klay Schools (across India), We Care (in Bengaluru), and Mothers’ Pride (across India).

The idea of Little Big World is to assure the parent that they needn’t hunt for a pre-school or daycare during the developmental learning phase of a child. Their in-house curriculum borrows from the best of Montessori, multiple intelligence, mind maps and Reggio Emilia methods of learning perspective.

The nutrition plans are governed by nutritionists from medical partners Surya Mother and Child Specialty Hospital in Mumbai and Pune – the go-to experts in India for neo-natal and medical care for newborns and children.

The staff is trained to administer first aid in over 30 emergency situations till medical or parental help is made available. The team conducts monthly/yearly doctor visits, quarterly parent teacher meetings, and quarterly events for parents and grandparents to interact with their children at the centre.

“We encourage parents to come to the centre to nurse their children at a convenient time. Thanks to CCTV cameras, parents get see their child in action during the day. Our centres are equipped with fire-fighting equipment and restricted security access,” says Chirag.

Priti says that Ferrero’s insistence on English as a medium and benchmarking the pedagogical standards with the Kindergarten in their Italian headquarters has kept them on their toes. She adds that the socio-economic background of the families they support here has made them stretch beyond their standard urban/ corporate offering.

Being tasked with providing the over 160 children with the best possible preschool education in English was a challenge.

“Some of them are malnourished when admitted. We then introduce a special diet plan for their weight gain and prescribe a similar but cheaper alternative for meals at home. We also undertake counseling and education of their families through parent sessions and bilingual newsletters so that the same hygiene and nutrition learning standards are adapted at home,” adds Priti.

The revenue model revolves around either charging the parent or the company, or may even involve a part-subsidised system.
Future plans

While bootstrapped, Little Big World has a large vision.

“Over time, we see large companies either setting up in-house crèches or subsidising the rent and interiors burden we bear at our corporate park centres for their employees if they can’t carve out space within their own office,” says Chirag.

Starting four years ago with zero kids and no brand name, the team claims to have had over 1,500 kids graduate from across all their centres. In revenue terms, the team claims to have more than doubled year-on-year, thanks to the impetus every new corporate partner and new centre brings in every year.

Today, they claim to run six centres across Maharashtra, including multi-tenant centres at large corporate parks catering to most of the IT giants of Pune.

“We foresee a paradigm shift in corporate outlook towards on-site childcare once the recently approved Rajya Sabha bill mandating crèches at workplaces gets cleared in the next Lok Sabha session. We are now well poised to spread wings to other cities and corporates,” says Chirag.