Author Archives: Nelson Moses

Blue-collar recruitment company Babajob to introduce ‘Polly’: an Instagram for voice

Sean Blagsvedt, co-founder and CEO of Babajob

Sean Blagsvedt, co-founder and CEO of blue-collar job company Babajob is always on the lookout for new ideas, and not afraid to throw out old ones to make way for new. For example, in 2009-10, 75 per cent of new job registrations were mobile driven. Realizing the dangers of being too dependent on big telecom players, Blagsvedt switched strategies to be more aggressive on the web. The result? Registrations on the web went from 2500 to 250,000 by 2011-12. “A great focus on ensuring we had relevant jobs wherever job seekers were searching and a significant web redesign that made searching and applying for jobs much easier,” answers Blagsvedt, on being asked, about how he managed the switch.

Now he has a glint in his eye when he talks about Babajob’s exciting new initiative that could revolutionize the way interactive voice response (IVR) systems are used in India. Say hello to Polly. A voice based telephone system that lets users record and send messages using a voice filter, which became wildly popular in Pakistan after the second version debuted in May last year. “Its sort of like an ‘Instagram’ for voice, we should be rolling out a pilot in Karnataka soon,” says Blagsveldt, obviously excited about Polly’s potential to make Babajob viral. Developed as a game by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Pakistan’s Lahore University of Management Sciences, Polly was soon used for practical purposes. Researchers scanned Pakistani newspapers blue-collar jobs, recorded them in Urdu, and uploaded them, where they could be browsed as a voice message. In less than a year, job postings have been listened to 372,151 times, and also been forwarded to potential job seekers. Overall, to date, Polly has snapped up 158,055 users, with an cumulative call volume of 2,394,005 calls.

Babajob’s pilot, will debut in Karnataka in April, and depending on the quality of response, it may soon find its way to other states. While Blagsvedt won’t comment on it, if Polly is a success, it could bring down the cost of new user acquisition and promoting jobs for Babajob because the heavy lifting is taken care of by users, for free. There are approximately 370 million blue-collar workers in India and most of them possess a mobile phone. Finding a cost effective way to reach them, which isn’t high touch and scales fast is a big problem for companies like Babajob. Polly could become the audio Facebook meets LinkedIn for blue-collar jobs. Like Babajob before, new companies that target blue-collar workers are looking to use mobile, like CanvasM’s (owned by Tech Mahindra) Saral Rozgar that tied up with Airtel to launch a new service. Blue-collar workers can dial 54141 on their Airtel numbers and register or apply for a job.

While Blagsveldt is not thinking of new initiatives like Polly, he obsesses over how data can help improve his original vision of democratizing the blue-collar job industry. He’s digging deep to understand the needs, behaviors and aspirations of blue-collar workers by studying the data gleaned from the 150,000 applications that Babajob processes every month. Data points that his team tracks of candidates include city, state, language, gender, expected salary, category and education. The insights he is privy to gives him answers to various questions. Why will somebody work for nearly half the money at a Café Coffee Day rather than be a live-in maid? If you are a maid why does it make sense to look for a job near Bangalore’s Diamond District than any other locality? Why do the mothers of security guards prefer them to work at a software park than an apartment complex? These are bamboozling questions, worthy of a column by Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, of Freakanomics fame. These insights he feeds to employers, who use it to tailor make job descriptions, salary and benefits. He uses employer insights to inform candidates on how they can spruce up their resume and interview skills.

In the short-term he plans to roll out initiatives that ensure employees get fair wages, create visualizations like skill demand maps, boost awareness of their legal rights and health and accident insurance for job seekers. Keeping this in mind and other ways to create awareness and education on resume and interview etiquette Babajob is rolling out a series of educational videos soon. For example, a video could talk about why its important to add multiple details to a candidate’s resume. Data suggests that a candidate’s chances of being shortlisted for an interview go up from 9 per cent to 55 per cent if the name, number and photo are listed. “The videos will inform users how best to use Babajob, tips to prepare for the interview, Learning a language is tough, but learning a new skill is tough. Video can help in this,” adds Blagsvedt. All these initiatives, he hopes, will make Babajob an authority in the blue-collar recruitment world.

Small epiphanies could lead to big changes.

After all, one small insight was what got Blagsvedt inspired to co-found Babajob in 2007 with his step-father Ira Weise and Microsoft Research colleague Vibhore Goyal. He was a researcher at Microsoft Research’s Technology for Emerging Markets arm, when he discovered that there were discrepancies in salaries of maids with similar levels of competence, after stumbling upon research conducted by Duke University economist, Anirudh Krishna. And much like the white-collar world, where who you know contributes to success as much (or even more) than what you know, it had to do with knowing the ‘right’ people. His insight was that most maids are not socially mobile and have no contacts in upper class households, thereby their chances of earning a higher income was limited to the households that they already worked at. It has been six years since Babajob started as an experimental project. Currently, it processes 150,000 applications a month and has had marquee VCs like Vinod Khosla and Gray Ghost Ventures invest in his company.

For Blagsvedt, he’s just scratched the surface, there are more ideas sloshing around in head waiting to be implemented. One of them is a new approach to education, which uses the platform, to get children to learn and take tests. He’s not ready to talk about it, at least, not just yet.

Government of India’s open data hackathon:


Invitation for applications for the Indian government’s first ever hackathon mopped up 400 plus registrations in the first round of registration. If you missed the March 25th deadline, fret not, for the second round of registration commences on March 28th and ends April 2nd. The hackathon encourages creation of visualizations, short films or computer applications (apps) using the content of the 12th Five Year Plan. It will be held across 11 locations (online participation is also allowed), on April 6th and 7th, across the country and is being organized by the National Innovation Council (NIC) and the Planning Commission.

The main idea behind the hackathon is to boost awareness and generate interest in building of third-party apps for the Indian government’s open data portal ( The portal was was set-up in 2012 to showcase open datasets, using which rich applications and visualizations could be built, through the use of open APIs (application programming interface).

Teams can be up to four individuals and there can only be multiple entries per team in different categories. Besides hacking, one can also take part in the conference is by ‘uncovering’ the event. This can be done by tweeting, blogging, taking pictures or through a short film.

Prizes to be won are different for each category:

  • Visualization category for each location:
    1st Prize: Rs. 15,000/- + Certificates of Appreciation to the team
    2nd Prize: Rs. 10,000/- + Certificates of Appreciation to the team
    3 Consolation Prizes: Certificates of Appreciation for the teams
  •  Short Films and Applications categories for each location:
    1st Prize: Rs. 25,000/- + Certificates of Appreciation to the team
    2nd Prize: Rs. 15,000/- + Certificates of Appreciation to the team
    3 Consolation Prizes: Certificates of Appreciation for the teams
  •  Prizes for online participants:
    Same as above for each category
  •  Prizes for UnCover winners:
    Certificates of Appreciations + Google Hangout opportunity with Shekhar Kapur

Here’s how you can register. Follow all the updates on Facebook here.

Lack of quality social enterprises is the issue and not supply of capital: Omidayar Network’s Jayant Sinha

According to Omidyar Network’s (ON) India head, Jayant Sinha for India’s fledgling social entrepreneurship industry, the problem is not the availability of capital, but the dearth of quality social enterprises (socents) to be invested in. “Capital is available in plenty, what we need is high-quality enterprises to invest in where the founders have the right credentials,” said Sinha at the sidelines of a press conference in Bangalore to announce a new investment in Kolkata-based iMerit Technology Services, an IT enabled services company that trains and hires youth from small towns and cities.

ON founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s is a venture philanthropic fund, that has invested about $113 million (roughly Rs 612 crore), in 35 companies in India, since its inception in 2010. “At the rate we are investing we should invest another $100-200 million in the next 3-5 years,” added Sinha.

ON, which has a sector-based approach to impact investing, mainly invests in social enterprises (socents) or non-profits. In India, 45 per cent of its investments have been into non-profits, while the remainder has been pumped into socents. The sectors that ON invests are consumer internet and mobile, entrepreneurship, financial inclusion, government transparency and traditional philanthropy.

Non-profit investees include Bangalore-based Akshara Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on elementary education, which received a $950,000 grant last year and Anudip Foundation, which focuses on creating livelihoods for disadvantaged youth. ON’s socent portfolio include energy platform company Agni Energy, classifieds firm Quikr, and Vistaar Technologies, which promotes financial inclusion.

Things are hotting up in the social enterprise (socent) investment space in India. Other venture funds with a focus on socents include Khosla Labs, Gray Matters Capital, Aavishkaar, Acumen Fund and Oasis Fund. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that there is close a billion dollars to be invested in socents. The Indian government has plans to invest another $1 billion.

Hong Kong-based One Earth Designs to launch solar cookers in India


Picture courtesy: One Earth Designs’ Facebook page.

Catlin Powers is a determined woman. As a research student from Wellesley College, she was high up in the Himalayas in western China, when she was told by the nomads, that the fumes from their stoves was killing them slowly. Solar cookers were the solution, but the ones available were heavy, and couldn’t be moved easily.

She came back, obsessed to find a safer solution, and spent two years living among the nomads and learning about their pain points and needs. She went on to co-found One Earth Designs with Scott Frank, a research student from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to manufacture solar-based products, when she faced a problem related to the development of a new material needed to create solar cookers. Undeterred, she tracked down a retired engineer, whom she knew to have the creative chops to solve the problem. “He was spending his days surfing. I knocked on his door and convinced him to join us,” says Powers.

After meeting with success in China first, and subsequently in Japan and the US, Powers was in India in mid-March, to launch her company and find potential partners and distributors. Powers is in talks with one of India’s leading renewable energy players based in Bangalore for distribution and also a few of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) approved sellers.

Solsource, the flagship product is subsidized by the Chinese government and sells for about Rs 7000 ($130) in countries like China, while in Japan and the US it retails for Rs 16,200 ($300). Powers hopes to sell it around Rs 2700 ($50) in India using local materials like bamboo, in some parts, instead of metal, from which it is usually made. The cost of solar cookers can vary in India. Companies that are accredited by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) sell these at a price starting around Rs 4,000,

Lack of energy has many repercussions in India related to pollution, healthcare and education. Cognizant of this fact, the government has been promoting solar cooking since 1982, with varying degrees of success. India deployed, what was touted as the world’s largest solar cooking system, at the Saibaba Ashram at Shirdi, Maharashtra. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission has plans to generate 20,000 MW of solar power by the end of the 13th Five Year Plan in 2022. The target for Phase II of Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) is an overall target of deployment of 50,000 solar cookers.

Depending on the response in India, One Earth Designs plans to roll out water purification systems and solar cookers equipped with automated cooking settings (these won’t require constant monitoring), later this year. Over the next two years, there are plans to commercialize thermal heating and electricity systems using solar power, which will then complete the overall energy needs of a household. “We will launch our other products at intervals over the next two years. Depending on the dynamics of the market, we may consider setting up a company as well as local manufacturing and assembly,” confirmed Powers.


Why India needs social entrepreneurship to succeed.


India is at the crossroads. After a decade of high GDP growth rates of around 7-9 per cent, the 2008 global recession poured cold water on the Indian growth story, in 2012-13, growth is expected to be a tepid 5 per cent. The growth post-liberalization, benefited the rich, (the increase in number of Indian millionaires was second only to China), and a newly created middle class. What of the rest? Most of India or 400 odd million people live on less than $1 a day. In the latest 2012 human development index (HDI) report, India languishes at 136, out of 187 countries .

The players who can affect positive change- the government and NGOs are trying, with varying degrees of success, but their interventions fall woefully short of what is needed to combat India’s pressing problems. Capitalism’s fruit was supposed to drop down to all, but the much touted trickle-down economics, hasn’t delivered. Income inequality has doubled in the last 20 years. Einstein said famously, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” perhaps what is needed now is a business as unusual approach. This is where social enterprises (socents) can play a role. They use market-proven business practices to solve social and environmental problems. In the world of socents, business and philanthropy collide, and strive to create a more equitable and sustainable world. They may not be the silver bullet for all of India’s gargantuan problems related to agriculture, poverty, infrastructure, healthcare and education, but they may perhaps be our best bet.

With a business as unusual approach, socents are turning rice husk into electric power (Husk Power Systems), employing the power of the sun to bring light (Selco), bringing healthcare to rural areas (Vaatsalya Healthcare), introducing solar-powered ATMs to villages (Vortex Engineering), providing emergency ambulance services (Ziqitza Health Care), teaching English (EnglishHelper) and giving access to affordable potable drinking water. Socents are identifying markets and problems that have been ignored and solving them using innovative products and services. Most of the global case studies on successful socents are peppered with Indian examples.

Social entrepreneurship could also help India avoid the mistake China made with its growth. The Red Dragon’s phenomenal economic growth has come at the cost of air, water and soil pollution. Anger over pollution has replaced land disputes to become the chief cause for social unrest in China. Socents with their inherent vision of sustainable growth that is environmentally friendly are well equipped to balance growth with environmental concerns.

While India had made giant strides in the last decade in the area of social entrepreneurship, this is just the beginning and more is needed. Government needs to step up to the plate and make it easier for both foreign and domestic investors to invest in socents. A better regulatory framework, smoother taxation policies, creation of multiple investment bodies, using innovative investment vehicles like UK’s social impact bonds, co-investing in technology based socents, creation of a separate index like Singapore’s Impact Investment Index (IIX), are just some of things it needs to do.

One of the most interesting developments in the past few months has been the CSR bill proposed by the government where 2 per cent of profits for big companies will be used for social programmes that includes investment in social business ventures. This could be a huge boost for socents, and give them access to more than a billion dollars in precious capital, that is needed especially at the seed and early stages. Husk Power Systems, for example, benefited from the grant that it got from Shell Foundation in its early days of technology creation.

Growth in the next 100 years cannot follow the road that capitalism took us in the last century, the earth’s finite resources are already depleted, and the environment already reeling from over-exploitation. There’s already talk of social capitalism and creative capitalism in the US and Europe. India need not be far behind, and design its own version of capitalism, one that uses social entrepreneurship in abundance.

Apply for Rs 1 crore funding from the India Impact Economy Innovations Fund (IEIF) now.

Are you are a social enterprise (socent) or an organization associated with impact investing looking for funding?


Pic courtesy: Dasra

Here’s an easy way to procure more than Rs 1 crore ($200,000) as a grant. Dasra, Omidyar Network, and The Rockefeller Foundation are inviting proposals from organizations that are making a difference to the Indian impact economy, specifically spurring the growth of the impact investing industry and the socent sector.

The aim of the fund, dubbed India Impact Economy Innovations Fund (IEIF), is to support socents that use market driven solutions to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development. Dasra will administer the fund, the lead investor in the fund is The Rockefeller Foundation, its also supported by Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

If you haven’t applied yet, the deadline is looming large; all proposals need to be submitted by March 15th, 2013.

There are 5-8 grants to be given away, for a period of 12 months, total funds that will be disbursed will be to a tune of approximately Rs 4.32 crore ($800,000). More than one grant proposal maybe submitted per organization. Applicants need to bear in mind the funding priorities, that stem from the directions set at the Impact Investing forum (IIF), held on January 16 and 17, 2013. The grant areas are early stage capital solutions, fostering entrepreneurial ecosystems, producing research on policy development, promoting and establishing impact investing industry infrastructure, developing market ecosystems for specific sectors and forming leadership and networking platforms for common actions.

Apply:  Interested organizations can apply by sending the completed forms and other required documentation to, or by mailing it to the following address

Attention: Inchara Shanthappa
M.R. Co-op Housing Society,
Bldg no. J/18, Relief Road,
Off Juhu Tara Road, Santacruz (W),
Mumbai 400 054

Finalists will be announced end-April, 2013 and the grants disbursed between May and June, 2013.

And so, it begins.

The beginning.



India is often referred to as a laboratory for social entrepreneurship, where innovation is brewing, and new products and services are being dished out thick and fast. Things are looking up after the doom and gloom post the 2007-08 recession and the micro-finance controversy that rocked the industry in 2010.

There are a lot of social enterprise focused VCs that are chasing deals at present. The trend in social investing started in the mid-2000s with VCs like Acumen Fund and Aavishkaar Venture Fund, and more have followed suit like Omidyar Network, Khosla Labs and India Social Fund (ISF). Now, there maybe close to a billion dollars chasing SE investment. These social VCs have been buoyed by SEs that are growing in scale and revenues, and even providing successful exits. Aavishkaar, which was started in 2001, has had a few exits, these include Rangsutra, an artisan-owned handicrafts company, Servals Automation, a rural energy solutions provider and Shree Kamdhenu Electronics, an electronic milk collection services company. According to the Intellecap SE study, most of the investments are bunched up around agriculture, education, healthcare and energy.

The industry requires talent; and that is being supplied by institutions, like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), some of the IIMs, ISB and many other B-schools. The government too has recognized the huge potential SEs have in tackling age-old problems related to education, healthcare, agriculture, energy, water and sanitation. In January, 2013, Sam Pitroda, chairman for the National Innovation Council, announced a $1 billion fund to invest in enterprises that tackle problems at bottom of the pyramid.

But more is needed: attracting top talent, encouraging the growth of impact investing as an investment vehicle, an exchange purely for SEs to raise capital like Singapore’s IIX and less regulation and more incentives from the government.

From its first baby steps, the SE industry is ready for its next jump into adolescence and adulthood.

Billionbulbs will track this journey.