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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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India’s finest films are making a rare comeback on your television

With eighteen national and nineteen international awards between them, a cinematic treat is on offer in a new film festival on TV.

Indian cinema is bigger than just “Bollywood” and there is no better reminder of that than some of the independent classics made in the 1970s and 1980s. The main catalyst of this new wave of Indian cinema was an unlikely government program. The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) was started in 1975 by the Government of India to support high quality cinema that represented the best of India’s diverse artistic vision. It was, by all standards, a great success, producing cinema that was socially relevant and aesthetically exceptional in ways that the commercial industry was not able to deliver. Many of India’s greatest directors, such as Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Ketan Mehta, were supported and funded by NFDC. So strong was the impact of these films at the time that the movement acquired the name of “parallel cinema”, co-existing with the “Bollywood” mainstream.

A new special feature “India’s Finest Films: a parallel journey” traces the development of parallel cinema through interviews with many of the protagonists—directors and actors—and combines the commentary with some of the defining moments from this cinema. It reminds us that the parallel cinema movement had its roots in international experiments with realism and especially in the path breaking efforts of Satyajit Ray whose first film, Pather Panchali, released in 1955 and helped inspire a whole generation of directors in Hindi and other languages.

Interestingly, the special feature and the films in the festival showcase how some of the celebrated alternative Hindi films in recent times, by the likes of Anurag Kashyap, Tigmangshu Dhulia and others, are part of the long history of different, often questioning and not always comforting voices in Indian cinema. And that, in addition to the song-and-dance fantasies that we all love, there is the parallel world of artists wanting to engage with the realities, complexities and even the everyday-ness of life in our country. To know more about this fascinating journey, you can watch “India’s Finest Films: a parallel journey”.

Zee Classic is showing a great selection of these movies —many of which were developed by the NFDC and some that were not—in the festival “India’s Finest Films”. The festival kicks off at 10pm on Saturday, July 16th and you can look forward to one of these films every week, same day same time, till 15th October. Here are snippets about some of them to whet your appetite:

Salaam Bombay. (Starring Shafiq Syed, Raghubir Yadav). Mira Nair’s breakout film was about the lives of street children living in Mumbai. It won the hearts of audiences worldwide and at home. It also won two National Awards, the Audience Award at Cannes and the Jury Prize at the Montreal Film festival and was nominated for an Oscar.

Mirch Masala. (Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil). Ketan Mehta’s story dealt with a confrontation between an arrogant tax collector and a group of spirited village women living in colonial-era India. Its unforgettable last scene and performances by Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil make it one of parallel cinema’s greatest achievements.

Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. (Starring Pavan Malhotra, Makarand Deshpande). Salim, a small-time thief, falls in with gangsters who promise to make him rich if he helps incite communal violence. Saeed Mirza’s film won a National Award for its camera work, and much praise for its exploration of communal tensions.

Ek Doctor Ki Maut. (Starring Pankaj Kapur, Shabana Azmi). Tapan Sinha directed this tragic story of a doctor who is trying to discover a vaccine for leprosy but is discredited for his attempt. The film highlighted flaws in the bureaucracy and government, which was remarkable in itself since the film was funded by NFDC.

Ardh Satya. (Starring Om Puri, Smita Patil). Govind Nihalani’s gritty crime drama written by noted playwright Vijay Tendulkar is also an unusual study of a violent father-son relationship. Om Puri’s performance won a Karlovy Vary Festival award for Best Actor and a National Award.

Qissa. (Starring Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra). This Punjabi film set after the Partition is about a Punjabi man who desires a son and raises his daughter like one. The film deals with the tragic consequences of his decision and features powerful performances from Irrfan Khan and Tilottama Shome, who plays his daughter.

Several hours of great cinema await you. To get a taste, watch the montage below. For more information about the film festival, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Zee Classic and not by the Scroll editorial team.

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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