In India – where the population of persons with disabilities is estimated to be greater than the overall population of the UK – people with disabilities (PwD) often are considered liabilities. Despite the 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act, which was revised in 2015 to guarantee jobs to persons with disabilities, more than two-thirds of that population in my state of Karnataka is unemployed. According to the Association for People with Disability, 800,000 of Karnataka’s 1.2 million people with disabilities do not have jobs.
Growing up with a disability, I was keenly aware of the extent to which lack of accessibility and socioeconomic limitations prevented others with disabilities from obtaining educations and jobs. Although I received extensive support from my family and friends, the obstacles I faced inspired me to start a nonprofit focused on making use of technology initiatives to empower persons with disabilities. The organization I founded in Bangalore – the Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled – supports PwD initiatives via income generation programs that are replicable, scalable and sustainable.
Among Samarthanam’s many success stories is Kirana, a business process outsourcing (BPO) center that provides career opportunities for rural youth and persons with disabilities. Started in 2007, Kirana functions as an inbound and outbound call center for clients such as Coca-Cola, ICICI credit cards, ING Vysya Bank and Vodafone.
Most Kirana employees are the first in their families to earn a salary. Working for Kirana enables them to own individual bank accounts, train for future career in the government and private sectors, and earn the respect of their families and the greater society. Gainful employment at the Kirana center challenges persons with disabilities to transform themselves into tax-paying citizens with marketable skills, while refuting India’s cultural notions that PwDs are burdens on society.
Our mission is to expand Kirana from 100 to 6,000 employees by 2020. To make that happen, we will need to refine our business development and operational skills. That’s why I was excited to learn about the IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) programs in India. The CSC provides pro bono consultation for communities, leveraging the top talent across IBM. I also learned about VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), a trusted international NGO that supports IBM on its delivery of the CSC. After listening to Kirana’s needs and goals, IBM delivered a plan with VSO’s support to help us realize our vision.
Three IBM consultants began working with us earlier this year. After extensive interaction with our team, they drafted a comprehensive business expansion strategy, along with a clear roadmap to help us achieve our ambitious goals. Next, the IBMers helped our management team build its capacity to execute the plan. Finally, the IBM experts met with existing and potential clients to demonstrate Kirana’s potential to deliver services at scale. As a result, Vodafone committed to deepen its engagement with us, saying after the meeting “If you are ready, we are ready.” And corporate partners of the Prime Minister’s Digital India program also felt that Kirana was ready to deliver the services they were looking for.
Positive responses from key partners built our confidence to share our expansion strategy with more clients. To help us prepare, the IBM team developed slide presentations and an internal branding plan, and assisted our team with sharpening their presentation and client management skills. As part of keeping our staff engaged and motivated, the IBM consultants installed a “success bell” in the office which would ring each time a staff member made a sale. Now, each time the success bell rings, we think of the IBMers who helped get us to this point.
Receiving high-quality business development consulting pro bono was only part of the benefit we received. The enthusiastic IBM professionals supported Samarthanam from their hearts, and their passion and commitment was visible in their work. At Samarthanam, we look forward to engaging with more IBM Corporate Service Corps volunteers to help put our strategies into practice, and help build our capacity so that our dream of an Indian economy driven in part by the skills and passions of persons with disabilities can become a reality.
G.K. Mahantesh is a Managing Trustee of the Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled, which he co-founded in 1997. Samarthanam runs its own schools and supports people with disabilities pursuing higher education.
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