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Rural women in India join the tech fraternity

11 May 2009

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An all-women BPO working in the hinterlands of Rajasthan has brought rural women closer to technology. Training in data entry and transcription work has given them an edge over others as they aim to carve a niche in the tech world.

New Delhi: It was 2007, and Meera Saini felt her career was going nowhere. The 24-year-old primary school teacher in Bhagal, a dusty hamlet in northern Rajasthan, felt the zing was missing in her life. Until the day she heard an auto rickshaw in the side lanes of Bagar inviting candidates to join a new business process outsourcing (BPO) centre.

Women at a rural BPO
Image credits: Google Images / Women at a rural BPO

Saini jumped in and became one of the early recruits of Source For Change (SFC), probably India’s only all-women BPO. “The pay was lower than what I was getting, but I liked the idea of working at an all-women outfit that could teach me computers. So I quit my job and joined the BPO,” she says.

SFC, part of the Grassroots Development Laboratory of the Piramal Foundation, started in October 2007 with a 10-member team and today employs 40 women. CEO Karthik Raman plans to scale it up to 100-150 by next January, and aims to employ about 1,000 women in the next three years. “We learnt a lot of lessons on our way and are ready for growth now,” says Raman.

SFC’s mains clients are the Piramal Group, a leading drug maker, and Pratham, an NGO for children. Its staff, all of whom need to have passed at least the 10th standard, mainly do data entry, but have also done transcription work for a British filmmaker shooting in Rajasthan.

"The management team taught one of the brighter recruits who then trained the others"

New clients include the Rajasthan government, and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), which has outsourced a pilot project to update its database. SFC will soon start working with eSwasthya, a Piramal Healthcare initiative. CEO Raman says one of the toughest challenges in setting up an all-women rural BPO was training.

Although SFC only recruits women with some knowledge of English they still need to be taught grammar and phonetics as well as computer skills for two months. SFC has no trainers, so the management team taught one of the brighter recruits who then trained the others.

Started as an initiative by Gagan Rana, a former municipal bond analyst with JPMorgan on Wall Street, along with Alim Haji, a former researcher with the US Air Force, and Shrot Katewa, a former BPO executive, SFC’s goal is to empower women to manage the entire operation on their own.

Before SFC, teaching was the only career available for women in the area, says Sunita Choudhary, another staffer. Choudhary had finished her studies to become a teacher but decided to join SFC in 2007 instead to “learn computers”. Women working at SFC are paid about Rs 3,500 per month for their eight-hour daily schedule, while part-time workers take home half that amount.

“We are all women here and we understand each other’s problems and concerns”

For people like Saini and Choudhary, it’s not the money, what counts is the ability to do 21st century work in a relatively hassle-free environment. “We are all women here and we understand each other’s problems and concerns,” says Saini.

Shweta Kashinpuria, who used to teach at a school in the village, says her family likes the fact that she works at an allwomen BPO. Having learnt computer skills at SFC, she now wants to get trained in accounting software at a new centre that has opened in Bagar.

CEO Raman and his team now want SFC to go beyond data entry. They have begun negotiations with telecom operators to work as their call centre catering to consumers in Hindi and Rajasthani . The next opportunity could be photo editing and layout design. “It’s easier to teach technical skills than language skills,” says Raman.

SFC is a just a speck in India’s $14.8-billion BPO industry. While this industry earns over 86% of its revenues from overseas markets, interest in the domestic market among larger BPO firms has picked up, with slowing export growth. This could increase competition for small rural BPOs such as SFC.

Says Vinu Kartha, partner in advisory firm Tholons: “The potential of rural BPOs is limited due to their lack of scale, which most clients require. They need to develop a niche to be able to sustain themselves.” But for those like Saini, that’d be a goal worth pursuing: to be counted along with the tech fraternity of the metros.

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