The CEO of iMerit— Radha Basu is one of the first Asian women to crack the glass ceiling in Silicon Valley. She has been at the forefront of digital inclusion and innovation in social impact in India. Her career has been marked by several awards such as the UN Women-ITU Gender-Equality Mainstreaming Technology Award, Top25 Women of the Web, CEO of the Year, Silicon Valley Business Journal Women of Influence Award, and recently, Global Thinkers Forum for Excellence in Technology at Oxford.
She serves on the boards of NetHope, Jhumki Basu Foundation, and Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology and Society, where she teaches frugal innovation.
In 2012, Basu founded iMerit, a technology services company, that delivers digital data services for machine learning, computer vision, content and technical support, while effecting positive social and economic impact by employing marginalised youth and women.
Q. Share the idea behind launching iMerit.
I’ve worked for over 35 years in IT and global technology services. I watched the advent of these services in India as early as 1985. It has transformed the face of the middle class in India. However, inclusion of youth and women from marginalised backgrounds has been limited. With the evolution of digital economy, we have taken the opportunity to leapfrog into digital services with a high level of inclusion.
Now, after a decade, I truly think that this is the most exciting phase in my career. I am working with young men and women at the forefront of transformative technologies like machine learning, computer vision and natural language processing. It is incredible to watch the drive, the motivation of our people, the energy they bring to projects and the way this drives business impact for our clients in areas of innovation.
The dynamic of the global economy is shifting and we now need a totally new social contract. The people leading this social contract are millennials and generation Z who are born digital. Inclusion in digital economy is changing the way we think of technology services. iMerit is a prototype for the way technology-enabled services can be delivered in this new economy – fostering inclusion, using technology effectively and driving business and social impact at the same rate.
Q. Would you talk about the company in details?
iMerit is a technology services company, delivering data and digital services for some of the most innovative companies in machine learning, computer vision and ecommerce. Its “humans in the loop” AI services are recognised globally to enable advanced computing capabilities. We do so while effecting positive social and economic change by empowering marginalised youth and young women. Our workforce powers transformative technologies such as helping driverless cars understand their environment, advancing cancer cell research, improving crop-yield through the analysis of geospatial data and delivery of on-demand financial information.
Around 82 per cent of our taskforce come from marginalised backgrounds. 70 per cent are below 25 years and 52 per cent of our total taskforce is women. Recently we won a global Silver Stevie Award for diversity and inclusion. Capability assessment, training and up skilling are integral to our model, where people don’t necessarily come from conventional backgrounds with formal certifications.
Q. How has your professional journey been and what are your future plans?
It has been amazing. Starting with a single, now we have half a dozen centres spread across two countries. The organisation has grown with our collective efforts. There was a lot of experimentation, learning and dusting off failures. We’ve stood in the face of several assumptions, that technology will eliminate jobs, that people without formal qualifications can’t have aspirational tech careers, even against pre-conceived notions about gender diversity. The constant factor remains our faith in the potential of people from all backgrounds and our confidence to challenge them in the workplace continuously.
We are partners in innovation. We work with companies developing or applying cutting-edge technologies and we work as an extension of their own workforce, delivering the data services they need to power their technology. So the data we work on could come from a driverless car manufacturer or geospatial drones or an ecommerce company or medical research. The tasks we perform on this data also vary widely.
90 per cent of our business is from the US. Data will remain central to technology innovation in future, so we intend to expand our presence in Europe and Asia. We’ll also be ramping up our presence actively in the US, our key market, and in India.
Q. Where did you start from and how did you bring your first apprentice into iMerit?
Things we take for granted today like broadband, fast mobile data and affordable smartphones, were still very new two decades ago.
We incubated in a small centre in Metiabruz, Kolkata, and took a few eligible workers from our non-profit skilling partner. One of the big achievements was getting various Telcos to install high speed bandwidth in this neighbourhood just for us.
Our first apprentice was Arfana, Metiabruz, a conservative community. Initially, the girls faced resistance from their families and we paid visits to their houses. This helped in conveying the message of economic empowerment and getting the support from their families. Arfana is now a team-lead working on a number of projects in computer vision.
Q. What is your view on the process of financial inclusion in India?
Financial inclusion has emerged as a pre-requisite of economic growth. It has become a life skill and not just a job skill. Even in rural areas, people cannot access various services without financial and digital literacy.
At the same time, financial inclusion is needed for political and social stability, which are in turn pre-requisites for business success and economic growth.
We feel that we cannot have a healthy economic environment without financial inclusion, and we cannot unlock the peak potential without tapping the energies of disadvantaged youth and especially of women. iMerit has created a globally differentiated aspirational business out of thin air, simply by re-imagining inclusion and diversity, and by shedding old prejudices.
Q. Do you see yourself bridging the gap between the rich and poor?
There will always be rich and poor people, but technology can close gaps in access, aspiration, knowledge and opportunity. The new social contract between the business world and society has to be about inclusiveness. We are definitely contributing to this with our emphasis on the human factor.
Q. How challenging is the responsibility to be the employer of over 800 people?
When there is a huge team of dedicated co-workers from a special section of the society, the stakes are even higher. It’s our daily mission to prove to the world that our young men and women from the social impact background are of global calibre. The culture that they build reflects in the message they carry back to their communities, so mutual respect and positivity in the workplace are our responsibilities. We also need to prove this model to the rest of the world. We have this responsibility to succeed and prove the case.