The need for CSR in unicorn startups

In the last few years, a lot of “unicorn” startups have sprung up. With insane valuations and a lot of PR around them, they seem to be the pathway to a new future where we will have self driven cars, intelligent homes and mobile phones which can probably do our work better than us. But in the middle of all this, I see something lacking – a dedication to improving the lives of those not so fortunate.

While certain occasions (natural disasters like the Chennai floods or acts of terrorism like the Paris attacks) do seem to bring out the best in these brilliant companies, there is no systematic approach to employing the skills of these startups for a greater good. While each startup claims to want to change the world, none seem to have a small program to do pro bono work which will change a small neighbourhood or a small town.

There are multiple ways in which startups can help the disadvantaged or the unemployed. For example, say startups in the food space could donate excess food at restaurants to food clinics or homeless shelters. Alternatively startups can look at vocational training for orphans / underprivileged children. In fact startups could even look at donating a lot of the old technical equipment/ excess stationary to schools and vocational institutes.

The possibilities are endless. It takes but some time for each startup to possible come up with ideas on how they can use their operational expertise to come up with a part of a solution to a larger problem.

Right to broadband

There has been a lot of debate about Net Neutrality in recent times. We have telcos fighting for their requirements and we have a lot of ordinary folks explaining why it’s important we raise our voice to TRAI to help enforce Net Neutrality.
I think the fundamental root problem is in the Internet/Broadband being treated as a commodity / product. In the modern world, access to the internet is essential not just for work but also for personal requirements. Over time, many standard and essential requirements are being fulfilled over the internet and through private organizations using the internet, be it delivery of groceries and retail products to researching new cures for diseases and ensuring healthcare solutions.
The question for us to ask is not just about Net Neutrality which is about ensuring David doesn’t get crushed by the Goliaths. It’s about ensuring that the Internet is as easily accessible to everyone as say, Electricity, Water, Air and Public transport. One might say, nationalization is not the solution but might be a hindrance. But I am not speaking of Nationalization, as much as marking Internet as an essential utility.
There are 3 major benefits to titling the Internet as a utility –
a) Laws & Rules –

We will have much clearer laws and rules governing usage and distribution. Currently we have exceptional Internet coverage in urban areas and limited /poor coverage in rural areas. Further, private organizations who do distribute the internet have poor systems in place to cover outrages and technical issues. There are also frequent complaints on customer forums on how many of these Internet/Broadband organizations have cheated customers

b) Pricing and Speeds of Internet/ Broadband will improve considerable

Though 3G pricing is fairly competitive, as compared to prices abroad, the regular broadband and internet pricing in India is horrifying as compared to prices and speeds abroad. We seem to consider 50 MB/second as a marvellous speed when countries such as Vietnam and South Korea have speeds 10 times that easily available at much better rates. Prior to fighting the 3G battle, we must ensure wired broadband improves after which we need to improve the infrastructure for 3G . Infrastructure improvement will also be easier if Internet is treated as a utility, rather than a luxury. Public planning can incorporate Internet infrastructure while designing urban growth and redevelopment plans.

c) Making it easier for startups and small businesses –

One of the chief points about the Net Neutrality battle is how an Amazon/Google will be able to lord it over small companies once there are fees attached. It’s a valid point but currently the broadband situation, though tolerable in urban regions has much scope for improvement. With Internet being termed as a utility, access to the internet across India will improve, thus giving many people a chance to start their own businesses and drive the economy further. Rather than a urban centred growth story, this can actually change how India as a economy grows and thrives.

Penny wise, Pound foolish

In the recent past, I have seen different ads for Cab services such as Ola and Taxi For Sure, all focusing on their new services. Although the general tone of the ads is funny and they convey the message, they forget that the current services are mobile centric and thus limited to a smaller audience.

The number of smartphones in India is still a meagre percentage of the overall phone presence (162 million phones ) but it faces certain issues. Fragmentation , due to different brands and Operating Systems , along with poor connectivity are major flaws in the current ecosystem. Although PayTM is providing an alternative banking system, there is still a long way to go before the larger masses can use systems like Pay TM.

We see a paucity of startups and services targeting the lower middle class. Although we have a dozen cab service providers who cater to the needs of the top 10 %, we see no alternatives for folks who are dependent on public transport and share autos/cabs. The need of the hour is for service providers to look at splitting their services into two buckets – one to cater to the masses and the other to cater to the 10 %. This is both a form of social entrepreneurship and a method to tap the bottom of the pyramid.

While Ola and Taxi For Sure have launched an auto service, the auto service can only be availed through their mobile application. The problem lies in poor smartphone penetration among the lower middle class and the necessity for service providers to come up with alternatives such as providing a special mobile number or an SMS service which could be configured. In such a way, Ola/ TFS could act as a re-router /facilitator for more players while solving the issues of poor 2G/3G connectivity as well.

This problem is not limited to travel services alone. While mobile banking costs only 2 % of the net cost for Financial institutions, we still see limited mobile banking. So the issue lies two fold-  limited penetration of smartphones which is being solved thanks to aggressive marketing from Xiaomi and other players and limited applications for lower middle class people which is independent of high end smartphones.How service providers and startups approach this conundrum, is what could be the next Google/ Zoho .

Education v2.0

The last few days have seen a bit of a furor about our graduates and their lack of skill sets and employability. In recent times, there are a lot of complaints about our educational system and the quality of graduates emerging from that system. I dont entirely agree with the blame cast on the system and have explained my viewpoint here. What I propose is an alternative to the existing system aimed at providing people with other options.

One of the major problems faced by  our educational system is the challenge of providing knowledge and learning to all students equally to ensure that none of them falter or are lagging. This means that teachers have to try to teach at a level of the slowest learner or try to ensure most students are able to clear the examinations through a process of learning by rote. Equally important is the necessary infrastructure required by schools. Schools and colleges require buildings, teachers and corresponding equipment for teaching students. Equally importantly, students need to have the opportunity and the time to attend schools or colleges. Lots of students miss out on an opportunity of education because they have to work for a living or the corresponding schools or colleges are too far off or too costly.

In an era when we have been using technology to solve most of our problems, small or large, it is time we took this as an opportunity to help our educational system evolve and adapt. There are multiple channels of technology we could avail but I would primarily like to discuss two models – one based on mobile phones and the other based on the Internet and Television.

There have been many reports about how the penetration of mobile phones has reached high levels, even in the rural districts of our country. Farmers and others are using mobile networks for business and personal reasons, thus helping themselves while also making existing systems more efficient and possibly eliminating the middle man out of the system. To help youngsters learn and improve, governmental schools, NGO’s and large universities such as IGNOU could work together to provide specific vocational skills such as better communication, a good grasp of English and other basic subjects , and most importantly career counselling for a large number of kids who either drop out of school or need to improve. Tying up with service providers to design Interactive Voice systems/ SMS Based teaching methodologies or phone lines where volunteers can try to answer the doubts and queries of children could go a long way in providing children an alternative to the existing educational system.

The other approach would be to follow the idea of Khan Academy or Coursera. This follows the concept of Social Entrepreneurship, an idea still to find its place in an emerging market like India. By building up alliances with Government and Private institutions of learning, we could build a database of lecture videos on a diverse set of topics and subjects aimed at making education more interesting and understandable for children who often get saddled with poor faculty and facilities at government schools.With state governments providing free televisions to so many, we can even tie up with television channels or DTH operators to provide these lectures as a free channel where students can choose the lecture they wish to view at any time they want. This facility of a wide choice of quality lectures coupled with systems for constant feedback and interaction could help poor students get better skill sets while enabling them to grow more comfortable with modern technology.

What I have spoken about is a very generic plan. However with burgeoning population problems, lack of real estate for schools and a rising student : faculty ratio, introduction of technology and innovative learning & teaching methods may be the only way to ensure that our graduating classes are capable of more than just performing a task by rote.The important point , is that our education system needs to realign itself to help the 99 % looking for vocation skills and new skill sets to adapt to the changing employment landscape. THe 1 % who have educated parents who can teach or guide them and can fund their education at better schools are NOT the target audience for these schemes. The government needs to remember that while implementing technology to aid the educational system