First Penguin – Dhruv Lakra

Thanks to Vinay Kuruvilla  for giving me this lead, I had the honor of interviewing Dhruv Lakra, the CEO of Mirakle Couriers.  He has won several awards including the prestigious CNN – IBN Young Indian Leader Award for 2011.

I asked him how he got the idea of employing the people with hearing loss in the courier business. He said, “First, stop referring to them as that, and call them deaf.”

“Wouldn’t that be rude?”

“As much as you are proud to say you are a Tamilian and speak Tamil, they are deaf and they use sign language to communicate, and they are proud of their community.”

That got me. We spoke further and this is his story.

Upon his return to Mumbai, after an MBA program at the Oxford University – Said Business School, he encountered a deaf boy’s difficulties and decided to direct his energy at helping this community. In the next few days, he received a courier at his home, and the delivery person didn’t speak a word – he merely gave him the package, had him sign the receipt and that was that.  Like many brilliant innovators, he connected the dots and decided to start a courier company Mirakle Couriers that now employs over 50 deaf people and delivers approximately 65,000 packages a month. While his firm can deliver anywhere in the world, it can do pickups only in the city of Mumbai.

I asked him about how he plans to scale his business and he said, “I want to grow steadily but profitably and with high quality.”  When asked about training his employees, he said it was mainly through a few weeks of on-the-job training.

Like any man on a mission, he is in a hurry to get more business because it is such a big challenge.  He lamented that the Government doesn’t give any support.

I wondered out aloud with him as to why India doesn’t have an MWBE law (Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise) that forces American firms to spend a certain percentage of their procurement dollars on minority and women owned enterprises. Perhaps our lawmakers working on the CSR Bill can take this up? We can only wait in hope.

He concluded the interview with a request to our readers – “Can you please help influence your company, or organization, or friends based in Mumbai to give my company some business?”

Good luck Dhruv.

And many thanks once again to Vinay for giving me this lead. If any one of you knows of other people that I can interview for this column, please let me know in the comments section. I would be happy to speak with them.

P.S. This series is featured  inside Cognizant in the Cpecial newsletter Good Life Guide.  If you  want to nominate someone as a First Penguin, please write a comment or email me.

First Penguin – Reshma Sharma

To celebrate Women’s Day, I decided to interview Reshma Sharma, karate expert and winner of the Kalpana Chawla Award for Bravery. I called her on March 7th to interview her. After a few minutes she told me that her liver has completely failed and she is waiting for a liver transplant surgery. For the past 1.5 years she has been suffering due to a rare disease called the Wilson’s Disease . I said “I am sorry to hear that you are suffering”. And she said to me “Don’t be sorry, I don’t need your pity, I need you to pray for me”. Then I asked her about her Karate and she said “I am continuing to do all my activities like always”. Wow.

I wished her and then requested her to answer a couple of questions over email whenever she feels comfortable. Over the last few days she told me that she tried to respond to the email, but one time after typing out her responses, the computer crashed.  I offered to take down notes over a call, if it was okay for her to speak to me. However, yesterday she sent me four scanned pages of handwritten notes.

Here are the snippets from her notes:

She has several degrees and diplomas –   BACS, MA in Guidance Counseling, LLB, Diploma in Self Help Group Management.  Even a a child, she was always an Outstanding Student who bagged a lot of prizes.  From a very early age she was drawn to bravery and decided to choose Karate as her career option and is a student of famous Karate teacher Shihan Hussaini. Her first Karate teacher is Karate Mani, Hussaini is the 2nd teacher and then she got trained by Malaysian teacher Sunny Pope. She runs The Dojo Chakra, a karate school.

It is also very apparent that she possesses an extraordinary commitment to community service – she teaches people from financially disadvantaged communities, nuns, transgenders, people living with HIV/AIDS, sex workers, visually challenged and the specially abled.  She has even trained Police Officers.

Reshma is famous was for popularizing amongst women, the use of the humble Chilli Powder for self-defense. I had asked her how she came up with this idea of the Chilli Powder and she says in her notes “It is an age-old technique used by Queens in historical times”. She also teaches women simple techniques like using a stone tied to the dupatta, hair pins and clips as weapons.  In this day, when women’s safety is a big issue, we should try to teach all our women these simple techniques.

I am in total awe of Reshma Sharma’s indomitable will. Any one else with her condition, may not be able to stir out of the bed, but Reshma goes about her regular job as if nothing is wrong. She said that she attended the book release function of Dr Radhakrishnan Pillai’s new book Chanakya’s 7 Secrets of Leadership. There she met D.Sivanandan , the famous former commissioner of Mumbai who couldn’t believe that a liver transplant patient was attending an event.

Reshma, all of us are with you in your battle with the Wilson’s Disease. The noble soul that you are, you will come out successful.

I want to finish this post with an appeal from Reshma Sharma to all of you “Please take time from your busy schedule to pray for me”.

P.S. This series is featured  inside Cognizant in the Cpecial newsletter Good Life Guide.  If you  want to nominate someone as a First Penguin, please write a comment or email me.

First Penguin – Beautiful Loan

Few months ago, my wife Priya Raju spotted this news item about a Chennai Mosque helping people clear the IAS exam.

It sounded very impressive and she said that we needed to support such initiatives. As a person always looking for innovative methods to solve problems, I thought, here is a man taking a very different approach to solving the problems faced by his community.  

I called and setup a meeting with the Chief Imam – Moulana S. Shamsudeen Qasimi M.A.  My wife and I met him and his team of Volunteers at the Thousand Lights Mosque.

Chief Imam is a passionate man and he explained his mission. His problem solving approach impressed us. When he researched this idea, he found that few attempts in the past, to start an IAS academy targeted at the Islamic community had failed. Chief Imam talked to those people and found out that the real problem is that the youngsters in the community weren’t really aware or interested in pursuing the IAS.

He and his band of volunteers fanned out across Tamilnadu to talk to the Islamic Community to drum up awareness and support. Then when they opened the Azhagiya Kadan IAS Academy they were flooded with applications. Through a rigorous process they short listed candidates and put them through a IAS prep program which is all-expenses paid for the candidates. The Academy candidates have already tasted success. In a few years Chief Imam’s vision is to have 100% of the candidates from the Academy clear the exam.

Then the volunteers gave us a tour of the facilities. We were very impressed by the way everything is organized – there is well-stocked library, an excellent computer room, class rooms, and rooms for the candidates to stay in during the program. Food is prepared in the facility’s kitchen and served to the candidates. The volunteers mentioned even before we could ask that they are working on providing a similar facility to women in the community.

Before we left, we made a small donation. I asked the Chief Imam a question that I was curious about – Sir, what exactly is this Beautiful Loan (Azhagiya Kadan in Tamil)?

He said, according to the Quran, you don’t donate to charity, you are giving a loan to deserving people and your loan will be paid back many times over by other people – hence it is a Beautiful Loan. Profoundly beautiful.

We left the mosque with the fervent wishes that this Academy which is the Chief Imam’s Beautiful Loan to his community succeeds wildly.

Here is a picture of the Chief Imam we captured in his office.


First Penguin – Sunil Mathew

I am starting a new series starting today that I decided to call “First Penguin”.  I first heard this phrase in the famous last lecture by Dr Randy Pausch. For those that haven’t watched that video, here is the meaning of the goose bump-inducing phrase, in brief. When the ice starts to thaw after the brutal winters in the coldest regions of our planet, penguins march to the edge of the ice ready to jump into the water to catch fish.  One of them jumps first, and is most often devoured by predators lying in wait. However, if that penguin survives, the others follow.

I believe it is this even-if-i-die-trying quality of the First Penguin that characterizes entrepreneurs who tackle society’s biggest problems.  In this series that I plan to run every two weeks, I want to cover the work of such entrepreneurs. I look for your encouragement by way of comments, shares on social media. I also need your support in identifying First Penguin entrepreneurs across India [over time the rest of the world too :) ]

For the first installment, I shall cover the work of Sunil J Mathew of Cochin, whom I was fortunate to meet in person, tw0 weeks ago.  The hour and a half we spent with him is one of the most inspiring 90 minutes I have spent in recent times.  He started his work with the Visually Challenged at the age of 22 and has been at it for 10 years. This is his story.

India has 63 million visually challenged people – the highest in the world. Sunil began working with the Visually Challenged during his college days.  He and his friends started the SRVC that trains a batch of 20-30 people and teaches them life skills to become independent, and also helps find jobs for them.

As he worked with the Visually Challenged, he realized that while many institutions focused on education, none focused on getting them jobs. He decided to address that gap.

Several years ago, he took one of his protégés to one of the biggest call-centers in Cochin run by his friend.  Sunil told his friend, “This guy has a great voice, and is only partially blind. He can read if you increase the font size. Besides in a call center, customers don’t see the agent. Please give him a job”. The friend obliged with great reluctance. After a quarter, Sunil received a call from his friend asking him to come to the call center immediately. He went over, fearing the worst, but only to be proudly surprised: their customer had recognized his protégé as the Best Employee!  Listening to Sunil’s narration, I couldn’t control tears welling up in my eyes.

After that Sunil cited several small victories he scored painstakingly over the last 10 years – his protégés run a music band, do reflexology, work in organizations like the Taj Group, Wipro, Cognizant, Redbus. Cognizant Admin Team in Cochin recently hired one of Sunil’s protégés and he is doing very well.

In the interest of space, I want to narrate one more vignette that shows how, with ingenuity, we can solve the toughest of problems. Sunil, a football enthusiast wanted the Visually Challenged to play football. Research led him to a sport called Blind Football and started playing that with his protégés.  They enjoyed the game, but came to him with the same request about finding jobs.  Further research revealed that any Indian who represents India in any sport is entitled to a government job.  He then put together a Team India, tapped into his network, to get the equipment, kits for the athletes, practice facilities, money for the tickets, and competed in the International Blind Football Championship. His team came 4th in the tournament; the first time ever India has fielded. Now he is working on getting the athletes a government job.

He also talked about filing a patent for a mobile app he has developed and several other initiatives.  His unbridled optimism in the face of extreme challenges is awe-inspiring.

Sunil Mathew

This picture was taken at the training facility where a batch of trainees is undergoing training. The sighted person at the back is Sunil Mathew.

Hope you all liked the first installment in this series? Please let me know.

P.S. This series is featured  inside Cognizant in the Cpecial newsletter Good Life Guide

iWatch iDeas ..

There is plenty of noise about an upcoming rumored iWatch, thought I’ll add my own predictions and wish list here :) This was prompted by the article on ReadWrite. I tend to agree on almost all points in the article, especially in the sense it is more of a fitness tracker device. My take is that it’ll have a bit less features than predicted and clamored for. Less is more, right?

Starting with the fitness tracker idea, how does one differentiate among the current set of fitness trackers? The whole fitness tracker market reminds me of the good old mp3 players. There were several mp3 players very much capable of playing the music, and then came the iPod. I believe there is certainly plenty of room to create such a new market.

I personally have been trying the Fitibit for a week now – Fitbit apparently according to all the tech review sites is the best fitness tracker out there today. Even then, it comes up a bit short in the overall experience.  Fitbit and Up comes up to the top of the current generation products and the corresponding dashboards do make up a  decent offering. In my experience, while it certainly appeases to a fitness minded person, it is not compelling enough for a discerned user, forget the mass market.

The current set of products also looks awfully geeky – attracting unwanted attention in the case of bands with display or no attention at all like a silly wrist-band. If it is meant to be a personal product, like the iPhone or the iPod, it better look strikingly stylish. From several reviews, it seems it is not that hard to loose a Fitbit, the iWatch better be safe. So from a form perspective, you want the tracker to be safe, comfortable and did I say stylish. In other words, a traditional watch definitely fits the form factor.

So is there any watch-form-fitness tracker? I am aware of Suunto, who makes possibly the high end of the fitness tracking watch market possibly – extremely capable devices. Even though the Suunto has got the form factor quite right, it still looks geeky and meant for ironmans. As quoted here, a watch is perhaps the highest expression of fusion of technology and art. So why cant a modern fitness tracker look like an Omega Speedmaster or Tag Heuer  ?

Now, for the features… An earlier post here by Sukumar and the comments has a holy grail of all the features. I personally think it is a bit too much. Even the Read-Write article is asking for a little more features.

As long as the device can track the same metrics that Fitbit or Up does today – number of steps, distance, heart rate, steps climbed, active minutes, calories burned, sleep tracking etc it is a very good start. Maybe it can get a bit ‘medical’ by monitoring heart rate and watching for any critical conditions and alerting the nearby phone. Display? Nothing additional – the watch is a good enough display. Am going to borrow from here to repeat that the best UI is no UI. So, at the maximum, a beep for emergency and Vibrate for alarms and nudges. Yes, simple nudges to get moving or go to sleep or stop panicking etc.

And when (and if) such a product come out, folks will cry that you can’t check your email on it OR you cant send a tweet OR this or that.. The consumer will see the value easily and a brand new market will be born. If you are with me so far, its an easy guess on which company is best poised to bring out such a device. And if this happens, the positioning will not be against Samsung Gear or Toq. The Fitbits and Ups will fall by the wayside like the iRiver and countless other mp3 players, But it will be it will be the Omega’s and Timex’s who can get caught off-guard just like the record labels.

PS: Have to give my 2c to Mr Nadella right? This is also an equal opportunity for MS to swing back and gain some much needed consumer mindshare. Gates’ vision was to put a computer on every desk. The new vision could very well be to put an MSTracker on every wrist. Partner with say Swatch and get a new wrist-computer that is every bit stylish and does a very limited set of fitness features really really well. Offer a dashboard associated with it that can be used even without a Live-ID and works on every browser, every device. Brand it after the XBox – like call it the XWatch or the yWatch? why not?

And if this HCM trend is anything to go by, this is a sure bet to be inside the enterprise. (As long as it doesn’t run Windows :)

One More Thing… When the iPhone was released, the Camera was almost an auxiliary function. But since then, the camera has improved dramatically in every iteration and it has almost unanimously killed the point & shoot camera. So, what could be the killer auxiliary feature for an iWatch? With the iBeacon, two ideas come to my mind

  • Security. Can it replace car-keys and access cards? Could just walk to the car/door and open it ‘automagically’
  • Payment. How cool it would be if we can ‘shake’ hands with the merchant (thereby making the payment) and walk away with the purchase? No UI, no signing, no paper exchange.

What else would an iWatch do? Would love to hear your ideas.  Whatever the features are, who ever gets this one right will be positioned to take full advantage of the Internet of Things.