Why Diversity and Inclusivity Count in India’s Startup Innovation Ecosystem

Why Diversity and Inclusivity Count in India’s Startup Innovation Ecosystem

Srikanth Bolla set off on an entrepreneurial journey when he was refused permission to appear for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance exam. Although he excelled in academics and sports and scored 98 per cent in his 12th board examinations, Srikanth was discriminated against for one reason — his ‘visually impaired’ status. But this setback only spurred him on to scale greater heights.

Hailing from an economically disadvantaged family in Andhra Pradesh, Srikanth earned the unique distinction of being the first visually impaired international student to win a scholarship from MIT for a Master’s program. Driven with a sense of purpose to help persons with disabilities like him to gain an equal foothold in the employment market, Srikanth returned to India to found Bollant Industries in Hyderabad. The company’s manufacturing facility produces eco-friendly biodegradable products, such as areca plates and dinnerware; disposable paper plates and cups; and natural leaf plates, among other consumer products. Today, Bollant Industries stands tall among competitors and has registered a turnover of Rs 150 crore in 2018.

Srikanth’s story is a fitting example of how the innovation ecosystem abounds with meritorious workers who represent the entire spectrum of diversity — Persons with Disability (PwDs), women, the LGBTQ community and persons belonging to minority ethnic groups. Numerous studies have found that diversity and inclusion are critical to the workplace and have a positive impact on employee productivity and performance. Organisations that are proactive in this space can enhance brand perception and strategise for improved business outcomes.

As business leaders around the world are playing by the right rules to make their organisations more diverse and inclusive, the winds of change are blowing within the Indian startup ecosystem, too.

Inclusivity matters for diversity

The majority of today’s startups understand that innovation can be delivered only when there is a cultural overhaul in organisations. Indian startups are on the cusp of this realisation and are showcasing their commitment to promoting diversity by employing people who may not be a part of the ‘mainstream’ workforce. Startups such as MakeMyTrip are championing the cause of people with disabilities by training and hiring them in various roles. The company runs a cafeteria that is sensitive to persons with disabilities and provides reconfigured workstations for them.

In a progressive move, Youth4Jobs, a Hyderabad-based NGO partnered with the University of Hyderabad to host a two-day career fair for people with disabilities. JP Morgan supported the NGO, and the event had participation from global behemoths, such as Walmart, Dell, Google and Microsoft, among others. The Career Expo provided a platform for persons with disabilities to connect with prospective employers and gain insights into career guidance, skilling and other employability factors.

In another notable step towards an inclusive workforce, India’s first technology accelerator focused on persons with disabilities, Assistive Technology Accelerator (ATA), was founded in 2018 to help assistive technology startups scale up. Under its aegis, ATA Enable — a 16-week-long acceleration program — was launched. The Hyderabad-based accelerator aims to empower persons with disabilities to leverage technology to scale their startups, receive mentorship and gain market access. Crucially, such ecosystem enablers help this stratum of the workforce to lead a life of self-respect and dignity.

In 2017, on the occasion of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the Telangana government had announced that it would be setting up the world’s first IT campus for persons with disabilities. The objective behind the initiative was to create employment opportunities for such individuals by providing training and world-class infrastructure.

Thus, innovation is breaking new ground in the country through such radical initiatives from key stakeholders. Acting as agents of change, they are bringing in diverse communities to contribute to the workforce and boost the country’s GDP.

A growing culture of workplace inclusivity is also seen among corporates that are openly supporting the LGBTQ community in hiring policies. For instance, IBM and Accenture help de-stigmatize the ‘queer’ experience within their organisations by encouraging employees from the LGBTQ community to express their feelings on social media. Some, like SAP Labs, are even hosting pride marches on campus.

No diversity without woman power

Since the term diversity also encompasses the gender make-up in organisations, the participation of women has become critical to the progress of the startup ecosystem. Women employees are entitled to certain privileges under the Maternity Benefit Act. The Act protects the interests of women both during pregnancy and after childbirth and includes benefits such as paid leave for new mothers, nursing breaks and the option to work from home. Establishments with more than fifty workers must provide for creches in their office space.

Corporates and startups alike are also wooing female workers by taking it up a notch for new or prospective mothers. Intel India has launched Home to Office ortheH2Oinitiative that encourages women to return to the workforce after delivery. Also, PayPal in India launched its Recharge Program to put women technologists on a six-week “back to work” program post a career break. Zomato offers up to 26 weeks of paid leave and also provides $1,000 (Rs 71,719) per newborn child as an endowment to parents working with the company.

Microsoft is one among many corporates that recognises non-traditional parents in its leave policy. Besides maternity leave, the tech giant also grants parental leave for new fathers, foster parents and adoptive parents.

Changing lives through equal opportunity for all

According to the 2011 Census, India is home to 2.68 crore persons with some form of disability or the other. However, while the trend across Indian startups and big businesses is to hire differently abled workers, the dismal reality tells another story. Studies show that persons with disability constitute only one per cent of the workforce in India.

Although India is the third-largest startup hub in the world, according to NASSCOM, only 10 per cent of startup founders are women in the Indian IT industry. However, female entrepreneurs seem to be on a better wicket when it comes to venture capital funding. A recent study showed 22 per cent of women participated at Series A, Series B and growth stages of funding across Indian startups. In comparison, women’s participation in startups in the West stood at 26 per cent.

Undoubtedly, more needs to be done by the Indian startup sector to promote diversity and inclusivity within their organisations. HR leaders should take cognisance of the huge untapped talent pool from persons with disabilities and move away from the hitherto narrow approach to hiring.

Organisations also need to foster an inclusive environment that embraces a diverse workforce as only then is it possible to foster creativity and productivity across teams. In particular, small businesses should sensitise the mainstream workforce to the challenges faced by their colleagues with disabilities and promote team-bonding activities.

Startups also need to invest in setting up a comfortable work environment attuned to the needs of persons with disabilities. For instance, wheelchair ramps should be built to access the office building, washrooms should be inclusive and flexible work options should be offered to such employees.

Education and skill gaps among persons with disabilities often prevent them from getting hired. To address the paucity of talent in organisations, business leaders should provide adequate vocational training and upskilling to them.

The government has also stepped up efforts to remove entrepreneurial barriers for persons with disabilities. For instance, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment offers various skill development opportunities and grants to PwDs. Also, Skill Council for persons with Disability (SCPwD) was set up to encourage participation from persons with disabilities in the national workforce. More such policy measures need to be in place for diverse groups, thereby fostering innovation through a diverse workforce.

The globalisation of business has made it imperative for companies to attract and retain top talent. If organisations fail to prioritise diversity goals, they cannot drive innovation that aligns with business goals. Looking ahead, it is then evident that only socially responsible companies can hope to survive in the long run. Clearly, organisations that recognise the power of diversity and inclusivity are the ones that will also create the maximum social and business impact.