Nearly everyone with an MBA wants to get into strategy consulting. The few who make it get used to the high-flying life and are unwilling to give it up for anything in the world. It takes great guts, conviction and sensitivity to give up the fast life and put one's efforts into solving one of India's most slow-moving, intractable problems. That is exactly what Ravishankar Iyer is doing. An alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, class of 2005, he was Associate Principal at Feedback Ventures (now Feedback Infra) before he joined B-ABLE (Basix Academy for Building Lifelong Employability). The organization works with the National Skills Development Corporation to help build vocational skills among the under-educated and under-skilled. Following are the excerpts of our interview with him.
Ravishankar: B-ABLE has conceived an innovative, sustainable, nation-wide model for building a high quality skilled workforce – both in the unorganized and the organized sectors. It provides market-driven, aspiration-based vocational education and training using technology and partnerships. B-ABLE is targeting following labor intensive sectors for building skills: Farm & rural non-farm sector, Automobile, Hospitality & Tourism, Construction, Food Processing, Healthcare, and Banking Insurance & Finance.
Team InsideIIM: Can you describe the operational and revenue model? What is the role of the government?
Ravishankar: B-ABLE has different models depending on the market circumstances and presence of government schemes. In some cases, the government pays for the cost of training (sometimes including boarding and lodging), while in others, student fees fund the centre. Apart from funding individual skill development programs, the government has setup the National Skills Development Corporation to catalyse development in this sector.
Team InsideIIM: Can you describe the parent organization and what it tries to achieve?
Ravishankar: B-ABLE is a subsidiary of BASIX, a group of livelihood promotion institutions. The mission of BASIX is to promote a large number of sustainable livelihoods, including for the rural poor and women, through the provision of financial services and technical assistance in an integrated manner. BASIX strives to yield a competitive rate of return to its investors so as to be able to access mainstream capital and human resources on a continuous basis.
Team InsideIIM: What were the motivations to make this transition from a corporate, consulting career at Feedback Infra to a non-corporate social venture?
Ravishankar: While consulting at Feedback was highly satisfying intellectually, financially, people-wise…, it wasn’t giving me satisfaction of creating long term positive impact. I wanted to work in a sector which gave me the opportunity to create long term, sustainable, tangible positive impact in the population which needs it the most. Of all the sectors, vocational training/skills development seems to be the one most fitting that description. Among organisations in this sector, B-ABLE offered a great platform, with like-minded, highly committed people. While B-ABLE is a social enterprise, it is a corporate entity - the idea being to bring in the professionalism of a corporate organisation, with the conscience of a social venture.
Team InsideIIM: What is your role and how is a typical day at work for you?
Ravishankar: My role is twofold:
- Strategic Partnerships and Alliances (SPA):- Build strategic partnerships with various stakeholders such as prospective employers, funding agencies, content providers, accreditation agencies, other vocational training organizations
- Assist CEO in the Corporate Strategy and planning process.
There is no typical day, given a wide variety of initiatives being pursued.
Team InsideIIM: What are the major operational challenges that B-ABLE faces? Is it easy to convince the students to enrol for the training courses?
Ravishankar: Mobilising students is the biggest operational challenge – multiple factors drive the challenge:
- Lack of payment ability in many cases
- Difficulty in convincing students of the long-term benefits of skill development
- Dignity related issues with some trades
- Unwillingness of industry to differentiate (monetarily) between skilled and unskilled manpower
Team InsideIIM: What is your plan for B-ABLE over the next 1 year or so?
Ravishankar: Having experimented with multiple formats, geographies and sectors, the next year will be a phase of consolidation. The plan is to identify which are the areas/initiatives that we would focus on and increase efforts in those areas.
Team InsideIIM: What do you think will be the main hurdles in achieving this?
Ravishankar: The sector is in a nascent phase, and most players are struggling with sustainability issues. To figure out which initiatives to back in an uncertain environment lacking clear winners, is going to be challenging.
Team InsideIIM: How has your experience at Feedback Infra helped you in B-ABLE?
Ravishankar: My stint at Feedback Infra has been extremely useful. Some of the critical skills which would help me are:
- An ability to examine and analyse issues in a comprehensive, structured manner, and arrive at solutions through a hypothesis based approach
- Financial analysis skills
- People management
- Research Skills
Team InsideIIM : What are your future goals?
Ravishankar: As a part of the B-ABLE team, to develop a sustainable user-funded business model in the skill development space.
Team InsideIIM: What would be your advice to graduating B- school students? (Should they throw everything else aside and work on their passions - directly after graduating? Or should they make a more gradual transition to their chosen vocation?)
That’s a tough one! I guess it would depend on the extent of belief in the passion and one’s ability to undertake the same.
Some tips which may be useful are:
- Know yourself: Take a critical look at yourself
- Passion: Is it really something that would give you satisfaction? Look back at life and reflect on the instances which have given you most satisfaction/happiness professionally… may give you a clue
- Commitment: Are you willing to give it every ounce of effort? Again look back and reflect on instances where you were self-motivated to work really hard…
- Ability: Do you have spike in ability which would be critical in the proposed venture? (e.g. Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t too crazy about relationships, but he was a coding rockstar)
- Risk appetite and stage of your life: How risk averse are you? How many people are dependent on you
- Do your research: Read up as much as you can about the sector. Use all contacts you have to get in touch with people who are in the sector, and put fight to setup meetings with them. Ask them all kinds of questions – but especially about the pitfalls. You may still go ahead and do it, but atleast you’ll know…
- Try it out: At the end of the day there’s only so much introspection and research can do. If you aren’t sure of taking the plunge in chasing a passion, why don’t you try it out in small helpings? Maybe take time out on weekends… sign up as a volunteer, work part time etc. This approach is more likely to work for creative pursuits, and not so much for business ventures…
- Take the plunge!: Finally the real thing would be vastly different, and can only be experienced by getting into it whole hog…! Try and get together like minded people, you enjoy working with… your destination and approach route may change, but atleast you should prepare yourself to enjoy the journey.As you can see, I’m more of a gradual transition person myself…! But each one has to work out an approach that works best for themselves…
Ravishankar Iyer, an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, batch of 2005, is Senior Manager, Strategy and Partnerships, at B-ABLE. Prior to this he was Associate Principal at Feedback Infra. He is a rank-holding chartered accountant and Aditya Birla Scholar (2003).
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