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Ola is run by a team of twenty-something millennials, but you wouldn't know it from their strategies

The stories of start-ups run by those who became adults in the twenty-first century.

Started out of a bedroom in December 2010, Ola was the brainchild of millennial founders Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati. Pranay Jivrajka joined the founding team seven months later, and in July 2011 the team was five people strong – they had also hired a couple of call-centre operators to manage calls.

What was the vision then? To serve Mumbaikars and provide them with a superior transportation service. The vision remains strong even now, only the scope has changed to serve the mobility needs of a billion Indians.

Back in 2010, the founding team identified a clear gap in value: thousands of cabs were lying idle as unused inventory across Mumbai. Operators charged a bloated amount for each trip to make up for idle time and customers ended up paying through their nose, irrespective of whether they travelled 10 or 40 kilometres. Besides, service was poor and delays were commonplace.

The team wanted to bridge this gap, and initially started off with bookings over the phone. It wasn’t easy though. Bhavish’s parents were unhappy that he had put off a promising career in research and was starting a “taxi rental company”. But the drive (pun intended) to create something of value that could redefine an entire industry to benefit a large number of customers was strong.

The founding team reached its first milestone early in 2011 when they closed ten bookings in a single day (to put things in perspective – Ola booked about 700,000 rides daily in October 2015). They tested out a point-to-point service model with a unique device tracking each cab. This was still an offline model though.

Later, in 2011, Ola migrated to an online system wherein the team resorted to real-time tracking and this pilot was frozen in January 2012. Multiple events followed in quick succession: Ola expanded to Bangalore and Delhi in April 2012, launching its flagship cab service in those cities in a short time span of twenty-one days. The consumer app which millions of Indians now use on their smartphones went mainstream. The pivot to an on-demand model happened quickly thereafter (which is why you can now book an Ola in a matter of minutes through your app).

The pace of growth at Ola has been intense: as of this writing, Ola had over 300,000 registered vehicles on its platform. Ola acquired competitor TaxiForSure in March 2015. The advantage of building a networked digital platform is that it is conducive to experimentation, and can be utilised in more ways than one.

A steady stream of innovative launches have both strengthened and leveraged the aggregator’s massive web of networked vehicles. These include Ola Auto (booking an autorickshaw through the app), Ola Kaali-Peeli in Mumbai (hailing the famous black-and-yellow just got that much easier), Ola yellow cabs in Kolkata, Ola Money (the mobile wallet that you can use to book not just cabs but also other services), Ola Share (a social ride-sharing feature), Ola Prime (Wi-Fi-enabled taxis) and Ola e-rickshaws.


Autonomy and accountability

For someone who manages a large team of millennials, Pranay Jivrajka is extremely grounded. During our telephonic tête-à-tête, he listens intently, is patient and takes pause occasionally to think through responses. He is quite proud of the fact that his team has had the lowest attrition over the last three years (revealed after much prodding). The secret sauce to building a coherent millennial team that sticks together over time? Autonomy.

“How can I come up with a solution to a problem that is solved better by someone who is interacting with a stakeholder, on the ground? My job is to give my team the freedom to both think clearly and execute objectively. Teething issues are best resolved by those closest to the action,” explains Pranay.

This does not mean that Pranay does not hold his team accountable for results. “I spend time with my team members – more with some than with others, until we are both confident of each other’s abilities. Once trust is established, I don’t interfere unless my support is needed for execution.” This kind of “autonomy support” – where Pranay is available when required, and not breathing down everyone’s neck all the time, produces the desired results (rapid growth and a bundle of cool innovations since Ola’s inception are all proof of this) and leads to greater satisfaction among team members as well.

It is easy to confuse autonomy with independence – autonomy doesn’t mean you are holed up in a cabin, working by yourself all day. It means being in control of the choices that you believe may be essential to reach your stated goals. You could be autonomous while at the same time continuously collaborating with others to produce value for your stakeholders.

To drive the point home, Ola does not clock time for its employees. An outcome-focused work environment means that millennial employees are endowed with dollops of ownership, share in the decision-making process and, like Pranay Jivrajka did in IIT, work towards a stated goal that is much larger than them.

A challenge big enough to pursue

When Ola designs its services, it caters to meet the high expectations of the discerning Indian customer, while at the same time meandering through an extremely complex market environment, routinely engaging with stakeholders like driver unions and multiple agencies. Yet, Ola views all of them as essential stakeholders, each with a different set of priorities. With a razor-sharp focus on the outcome (usually some version of digitally enabled, disruptive customer service), the team at Ola operates keeping in mind the interests of all involved.

In Pranay’s words, “Problem identification is key. Do we have a challenge that’s big enough for us to pursue? Once we have this identified, we create a roadmap with aggressive timelines, chalk out responsibilities, and go about executing it with fervour.”

For example, Ola scaled up its cab services from twenty to over a hundred cities within a matter of months. This required depth of understanding of the infrastructure capabilities of each city. During the time of roll-out, some cities supported only 2G connectivity, so the tech team went back and designed a version of the app that could work seamlessly even in smaller towns with minimal access to 3G and Wi-Fi networks.

This kind of deliberate push to look for meaningful problems requires promoting an inquiring mindset, one that is not averse to experimentation to find the right solutions. Once a big enough challenge has been identified, team members immerse themselves completely in the task, and relentlessly work towards achieving the stated outcome.

Perseverance and passion to stick through ups and downs require a certain level of grit and determination. Solutions may take some time to materialise, but the journey itself can be rewarding. One reason for this is that because Ola is a digital service, the feedback loop for engineers and developers is almost immediate, and making course corrections along the way becomes that much easier. An engineer could figure out the impact of a new app feature and redesign it in a matter of hours or days, not months.

Although it has grown several-fold since its formative years, Ola has retained its sense of agility and nimbleness by embracing the yin of high autonomy and balancing it with the yang of accountability. An outcome-focused ethos that places top priority on achieving results is the driving force that powers the Ola juggernaut.

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The inspiring projects that are changing girls’ education in India today

New ideas to do more for girls’ education from around the country.

In 1848, when Savitribai Phule and her husband Jyotirao Phule began the first school for girls in India, it caused an uproar in Pune. In the mornings, when Savitribai would walk to school, neighbors threw garbage at her in an effort to shame her. She and her husband persevered, and the school that began with just nine girls changed the way the city viewed girls’ education, eventually making Pune the home to many firsts. In 1885, Huzurpaga the first high school for girls was founded there. And in 1916, exactly a hundred years ago, the city saw India’s first university for women - SNDT.

While we have come a long way with wide support for girl’s education today, actual outcomes have lagged. We looked at some of the most promising schools and projects that address key issues holding girls back through fresh approaches.

Solving the problem of drop outs in cities - Prerna High School

A school near the banks of the river Gomti in Lucknow is carrying out an incredible experiment in girls’ education. Prerna Girls School is a high school for underprivileged girls, many of whom come from local slums and work as domestic help. To enable these girls to fit education within their circumstances, the school operates in the afternoons. When they arrive, each child is given a snack every day as a nutritional intervention and to increase attendance.

What makes this school’s approach unique is its radical syllabus that, besides the usual subjects, also teaches students to recognize and fight gender bias with tools like critical dialogues, drama, storytelling and music. The school also works to gently alter discriminatory mindsets among parents through such activities. The school intervenes and brings in counselling support in cases of child marriage, without getting into an adversarial relationship with the family. After schooling, Prerna provides vocational training and helps students find employment, further encouraging girls to stay in school.

Urvashi Sahni, founder of Prerna High School, says “Teachers must first understand and respect the circumstances students come from and then work actively to keep the girls in school and build their aspirations. The school must provide long-term and comprehensive support.”

Prerna Girls School

Adapting village schools to overcome rural challenges - Shiksha Karmi Project

Teacher absenteeism is a major obstacle to education in rural areas. In 1987, the state government of Rajasthan started the Shiksha Karmi (education worker) Project to curb drop out rates and bring students back to rural schools.

The project substituted absent professional teachers with a team of two locals. The theory was that a person from the community would have a better understanding of the conditions of local children. The villagers also had a say in the appointments and the volunteers were given intensive training and were subject to periodic reviews. Since the gender of the teacher is a big factor in getting girls to attend schools, female volunteers were recruited despite difficulties.

In addition, the Shiksha Karmis also started Prehar Pathshalas where girls who could not attend regular schools, due to commitments at home, were taught at times convenient for them. According to a report from the National Resource Cell for Decentralized District Planning (NRCDDP), both these initiatives contributed towards increasing retention of girl students. 22,138 girls—around 68% of the students have been able to resume their education because of Prehar Pathshalas. Additionally, to scale the project, 14 Mahila Prashikshan Kendras (Women Training Centres) have been established to train women teachers and increase enrolment of girls in villages.

Breaking stereotypes through sports - Yuwa

Yuwa was founded by Franz Gastler, a social worker, in Jharkhand in 2009. It began as a small scholarship fund for hard-working students at a local government school. Around the same time, a 12-year-old girl asked Franz if he would coach a football team. What started as a basic kick-about has evolved into something significant. More girls began coming to the practices. They began to request daily practices and saved money to buy sports equipment. Eventually the girls in Yuwa began wanting more classes in addition to football, and the Yuwa School was founded in 2015 — a full time, low cost, English-medium all-girls school that is linked to the football program. The football teams provide the necessary social support for girls to stay in school, maintain excellent attendance, and gain the confidence to get ahead.

Yuwa Foundation

Training for the jobs of the future - Indian Girls Code

Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) education is widely seen as critical for emerging jobs, yet stereotypes and other barriers often discourage girls from choosing these subjects. As a result, there is a widening gender gap in STEM fields. For example, an MHRD report shows that only 8.52% of the girls enrolled in higher education were pursuing bachelor degrees in engineering or technology in 2012-13. This was far below the national average of 13.27%.

Deepti Rao Suchindran, a neuroscientist and her sister, Aditi Prasad, who works in Public Policy, felt that this gap needed to be addressed. They started Indian Girls Code, inspired by initiatives like “Girls Who Code” and “Black Girls Code” in the US. It is a free hands-on coding and robotics education program that is inspiring young girls to be innovators in the field of technology by creating real-world applications. It is currently teaching 25 girls, ages 7 to 12, from the Annai Ashram orphanage in Trichy. While the initiative is small today, it has partnered with Ford Motors and Cisco to provide similar programs for girls. Going by global examples, there is great potential to scale. “Girls who Code” has grown from 20 girls in New York to 10,000 girls across America.

Girls from the orphanage learning sequential programming through a Beebot
Girls from the orphanage learning sequential programming through a Beebot

Beyond successful projects and pilots, it’s important to think of interventions for education in a structural and scalable manner. Kiran Bir Sethi’s “Design For Change”, a youth empowerment program in Ahmedabad is a great example. Five years since inception, it now reaches 200,000 students over 30 countries. Students are ingrained with the belief that they can change the world and are encouraged to identify problems in their communities and recommend actionable solutions. Their efforts have ranged from fighting untouchability in a village in Rajasthan to creating awareness among stone mine workers about the hazards of their work.

Design For Change

The DFC program has gained worldwide recognition winning prestigious awards like the Rockefeller Foundation Innovation Award in 2012. But most importantly it has inspired thousands of girls to take an active role in changing society. Similarly, Prerna Girls School is running a program to train teachers from government schools to widen impact. And many girls from the Yuwa program are becoming leaders of positive change—over 20 Yuwa girls have spoken at TEDx and at universities in India and abroad

Making education accessible and enjoyable for girls is what will take girl child education to the next level in India. And while many organisations and programs are slowly bringing about change, there is still a long way to go. Learning about and supporting these organisations is a good way to shape the conversation regarding girls education in India. Join the conversation here.

This article was produced on behalf of Nestlé by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.

INDIAN INNOVATION

Two Goa students design a computerised Braille teacher

Two computer science students from Goa's BITS Pilani campus have invented a device that aims to improve literacy among the visually impaired.

In September 2013, after a Project Mudra, a Braille "dicta-teacher" that they believe can teach the Braille alphabet to visually impaired students who do not have access to special schools or teachers.

Their device connects a Raspberry Pi computer to a Braille hardware set – a palm-sized box with six pegs that move up and down under a user’s fingers to indicate a particular Braille letter or number. On a pair of attached headphones, users can simultaneously hear the name of the letter they are feeling.

The aim of Project Mudra, say Dawle and Srivastav, is to address the low literacy levels among the 39 million visually impaired people around the world, 20% of whom are in India. “Only 10% of the visually impaired in the United States are illiterate,” said Srivastav. In India, the literacy rates are much lower, says Srivastav, “because there is a serious lack of qualified teachers for the blind”.

Added Dawle, “While a teacher has to teach one-on-one, our device automates the repetitive process, so that users can learn Braille even in the absence of a teacher.”

The Mudra device is still a prototype that Dawle and Srivastav will be testing and improving all summer. The model is scalable from single characters to words, and from just English Braille to Braille in Indian languages. For now, Mudra has two modes: an ‘auto’ mode in which the machine plays out the alphabet sequentially for the user to memorise, and a ‘browse’ mode where the user can speak a letter or number into a microphone and it is translated, through Google, into Braille on the pegs.

The estimated cost of each piece, if produced in larger quantities, is less than Rs 10,000. “We are planning to partner with non-profit organisations in order to get logistical support for large-scale manufacturing and distribution of the device,” said Dawle and Srivastav, who were in Canada two weeks ago to showcase their invention at Pycon, an international programming conference.

Many Braille users believe the device is an interesting initiative but cannot really make up for the dearth of teachers for the blind.

“Learning the Braille alphabet is not difficult – the challenge is in improving finger sensitivity and speed of reading texts,” said Sam Taraporevala, a sociology professor at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College and director of the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged.

Taraporevala did not wish to comment on Project Mudra directly, since he has not used the device, but specified that teachers are essential to hone a first-time Braille learner’s sensitivity to tiny dots. “Students are always made to do pre-Braille activities, such as learning how to sort smaller and smaller objects,” he said.

Sandeep Singh, a visually challenged assistant professor of English at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, believes it would be essential for a dicta-teacher like Mudra to use needle-like pegs of the same size as all standard Braille, since tactile memory cannot make adjustments for different-sized dots. While Dawle and Srivastav's prototype uses much larger pegs, they will scale it down to standard Braille size when they release the final product.

“The concept of the device is definitely promising," said Singh. "It could be useful as an added learning aid – perhaps a fun revision tool for children.”


Photo: Aman Srivastava and Sanskriti Dawle

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