Former Genpact chief Pramod Bhasin on upskilling and social impact

In his earlier life as the CEO of Gurgaon-headquartered BPO Genpact, Pramod Bhasin often found himself interviewing prospective recruits. But instead of dwelling on academic or professional qualifications, Bhasin found it more interesting to delve into the person’s background, often looking for anecdotal evidence of struggle, passion and life skills.

In May 2011, after stepping down from Genpact (he remains non-executive chairman), the company he built ground up first as a captive for General Electric and then as an independent, private equity-backed enterprise, Bhasin decided to channel his interest in people into a second career. He’s building Skills Academy, a for-profit company with the social objective of evangelizing jobs related skills training across sectors, both organized and unorganized.

Along the way he’s also been busy angel investing in startups.

We caught up with Bhasin last week on the sidelines of On Haat in Bangalore where he spoke to us about his plans for Skills Academy, how he hopes to help startups go global as an investor and his plans for a venture capital fund.

Edited excerpts:

You’re wearing several hats these days. What’s taking up most of your time?

The skills development piece is the one that I am spending most of my time on. We (Skills Academy) think that there is a huge shortage in India of institutions that do this at high quality and with scale. I am hoping that we can somehow fill that gap.

Was there a specific trigger for a Skills Academy kind of venture?

Yes there was. When I looked around and saw that we were only hiring 8-10 percent of the people who apply to us (at Genpact), I thought, what a tragic waste! And at the same time when I met the people, they are bright, smart and energetic. They just don’t have that last mile that they need either to become employable. Some of what they lacked would be quite simple. How to interview, how to write a resume, etc. I asked myself, if this is happening at the graduate level, what’s happening at the level below that where you have very smart people? This is going to sound silly but, some of this is intuitively obvious when you walk around and see people They are smart people and you know that. So then you ask yourself the question: why is it they don’t have a better job? How do you give them careers? Given that we’ve learnt how to train people in the BPO sector and in a massive range of skills, can we take that, take what we’ve learnt about scalability to a new level and then see if we can build an institution around that.

“When I saw that we were hiring just 8-10 per cent of those who apply to us, I thought, what a tragic waste!”

Skill is something that doesn’t have the respect that it deserves. People don’t take it seriously enough as a true means of increasing their own ambitions and earning a lot more money than they could. The evidence is not in front of people. So I’m hoping I can evangelize it, you know, a little bit like we did on the BPO front.

Is this going to be a social venture or a commercial enterprise?

I see it as both very clearly. Yes it has to have the social objective but it must be a business. Because if it’s not a business then it is not sustainable. The proof of a lasting institution is that it is sustainable as a business. I think that will tell me whether my quality is good enough, whether people like it. If nobody is willing to pay for it then I know that I haven’t done much.

What kind of training programs do you have planned? What industries will you cover?

Our plan is to be fairly broad in terms of what we teach. We want to teach people in a variety of industries including retail, hospitality, construction, BPO, IT services, security and so on. We must also get into entrepreneurship, specially women-oriented entrepreneurship. Where I hope we are different is in three very important ways. One, we will go into an area and go to the group of people and say, we’re happy to train you in whatever you need training in to get a job. So I’m not going by industry. We’ll work with local non-profits, microfinance institutions, bureaucrats and government. Two, we will find them jobs after the training. In every case we will link training with jobs. We will find them jobs and help them interview for those jobs. So the training will not just be in the subject matter. It will also about how you write a resume, how you interview, how you answer questions and how you communicate. Three, at some point and I don’t know when, we must be able to crack the unorganized sector, help organize the unorganized sector so that people find better jobs. It could be domestic staff or employees at small restaurants, it could be so many different things. We need to find a way to teach people in the unorganized sector how to build careers and get better jobs.

What stage of operations are you at right now?

Our first pilot just got completed. This was done in Dharavi (a slum settlement in Mumbai’s suburbs) and we’re very happy with the results. People say there is always attrition through training but we didn’t see that happen. We were able to find jobs for all these people who didn’t have jobs for 6-9 months (the Dharavi pilot was undertaken in collaboration with non-profit Vandana Foundation). They’ve taken up those jobs. How long they will stay we don’t know but we’ll find out. We’ll run several more pilots for the next 6-9 months.

With respect to the unorganized sector, several other companies are also trying to address that area and seem to be struggling. What do you see as some of the pertinent challenges of addressing this space? How do you resolve those challenges?

I think they will all struggle. We will also struggle. No question. This is not easy. I do think that building a job network in the unorganized sector is extremely important. And you can only do that over time. I also think that working with other third parties to build the network is very important. Most people don’t do that. We hope that we can use every alliance in the book to tell people where jobs exist, to find out where jobs exist and to prove our credibility that once we have trained somebody they are worth more than somebody who is not. So it wont be easy. This is a hard grind and we’re ready for it. This will take us 5-10 years.

“We need to find a way to teach people in the unorganized sector how to build careers and get better jobs.”

And, by the way, there is also another huge effort that has to happen. Industry must pay greater attention to skills. Today they don’t. The value and training for skills isn’t at the level that it should be. We don’t provide enough training to our employees, we don’t spend enough money on them, we don’t give them enough time and we’re not convinced generally as an industry of the benefit of extensive training. So Skills Academy will have to be an evangelist with industry. What we have to do is do some experimentation whereby we can show industry that people who are skilled well can be much more productive and it is worth paying more for them. There are myths that need to be busted. A lot of industry says once you train them they will leave. But the fact is that in Genpact, the opposite has always been true. Once you train them they stay because they value what the company has invested in them.

Tell us about your angel investing activities. What kind of startups do you like? (Bhasin is a member of Indian Angel Network and also invests independently).

I wouldn’t call it angel investing. It’s more startup investing. Quite often we’re also investing in slightly later stage companies. I think in India there are enormous challenges for startups. The red tape, the lack of facilities, the lack of data, etc. You don’t know where you can go to find out who can provide great HR services or IT services at affordable prices and you don’t have role models. I am investing in my personal capacity right now but would love to set up a fund over time. I’ve made 7-8 investments so far. We’re getting more serious now. I have a small team and we’ll see how much money we can raise. Where we can really help companies is take them global and help them open door in new markets.

“In India, there are enormous challenges for startups. There’s red tape, lack of data and you don’t have role models.”

In terms of the kind of companies and industries, I’m not in the ecommerce space, which has been the hot thing of late. But there are a whole range of other interesting industries. Healthcare is great. Inclusive financial services is good. I think that in India those businesses that hit the middle of the pyramid are very successful. If we can get to those areas with scalable models, my idea is that I hope I can help them scale. It’s active, hands-on operating capabilities that I hope to bring to the table.

Are there still many startup opportunities in BPO?

Yes, in niches. People call them KPOs (knowledge process outsourcing). None of that matters. There are new niches that can be served. Analytics is a huge area. The scalability in analytics is a constant problem. There are new areas in supply chain, HR, etc. This is such a massive industry and we are at such a small tip of the iceberg right now that the opportunity for new people to come in constantly and chip away at the old guys like us is immense. I welcome it.

What do you miss about not being CEO of the country’s largest BPO?

You certainly miss working at a level with CEOs of other companies. Jack Welch (former chairman and CEO of General Electric) said it best when he was leaving. He said, you go from being the ‘Who’s Who’ to being ‘Who’s He?’. You miss that. You miss managing 60,000 people and the intellectual challenge of doing that. But there are many things you don’t miss. I love what I’m doing now and that’s why I stepped down.

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