Finding Hidden Talent in a Kolkata Suburb: An Innovative Solution for Youth Employment in India
I recently watched “Hidden Figures,” the Academy Award-nominated film based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s New York Times bestseller. If you haven’t already seen or read “Hidden Figures” – which I highly recommend you do – it follows the true story of three remarkable African-American women who, despite gender and racial biases, played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in launching the first American into space. As I watched this inspiring plot unfold, I was struck by the similarities between these real-life protagonists and the similarly under-recognized minds powering today’s tech breakthroughs.
Now, over 50 years since the Space Race, mankind is experiencing a similar technological revolution, driven in part by ongoing advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). Just as space exploration was catalysed by brilliant individuals like the women in “Hidden Figures,” the advancement of AI is being powered in part by a diverse group of pioneers around the world – including some at an unconventional collaboration called iMerit.
iMerit’s delivery centre in Baruipur, a low-income suburb of Kolkata, is located in an unassuming two-story building. There is little about the neighbourhood or the building itself that gives you any clue as to what is hidden inside. The Baruipur centre – and four other centres like it in east Indian cities – employs hundreds of young men and women and provides on-demand digital data services to leading internet companies around the world. Most of iMerit’s 1,100 employees come in with a high school education or less, and 80 percent of them come from low-income families. Moreover, 55 percent of these employees are women – they possess immense talent and grit, but have been denied the opportunity to grow and pursue a career.
Their transformation into cutting-edge digital services professionals is a testament to iMerit’s commitment to finding and nurturing talent in what some might consider unexpected places, and building a meaningful business around this commitment. This track record in enabling low-income youths to fully realize their economic potential attracted the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to lead a $3.5 million investment round in iMerit in 2015, together with Omidyar Network and Khosla Impact.
Our investment came at an opportune time. More young people are entering the workforce in India than ever in history, and creating the next generation of jobs to meet the needs and aspirations of India’s youths is one of the biggest challenges facing the country today. This challenge is particularly stark among low-income urban youths, who have been denied meaningful educational opportunities, yet are hungry for aspirational jobs. The first step in addressing this challenge is to recognize that talent can appear in the most nontraditional places (like Baruipur, for instance), and what we need is tenacious entrepreneurs and companies that can unleash this talent.
iMerit has tapped into this talent and provided a platform for them to work on complex tasks such as machine learning and image recognition for some of the world’s leading internet firms. These employees are focusing on innovative areas like computer vision and natural language processing – technologies that serve as the foundation for AI-powered self-driving cars and digital voice assistants. The company even transformed one of its delivery hubs in a low-income neighbourhood in Kolkata into a centre of excellence for computer vision, powering some of the world’s leading self-driving car algorithms.
iMerit recognizes that innovation is fueled by avant-garde thinking, and that elite talent does not always originate from predictable sources. In fact, oftentimes, individuals who have faced adversity bring a sophisticated level of creativity and resourcefulness, not unlike the heroes of “Hidden Figures.” This approach to success reinforces the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s belief that we need to take the risks that our challenges deserve.
I recently sat down with iMerit’s founder, Radha Basu and her colleague, Zarin Fatma to hear iMerit’s story straight from the source. Check out the podcast below to learn more about these remarkable women and how their passion, intellect, and determination have propelled the company and its employees to emerge as leaders in technology and social impact.
Santhosh Ramdoss is director of India programs for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
Photo of iMerit staff courtesy of iMerit