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Good to Great-How iridium Interactive made the Leap

Marching to their own beat


A quirk of fate made Sriram Bharatham and Bharathi trade their lucrative jobs for social entrepreneurship.

The office space in iridium Interactive is cluttered and spacious, all at once. We walk through a maze of cubicles where employees are busy at their workstations and then walk through a long pathway with plenty of natural light streaming in through the huge glass panes. On a row of bamboo modas, a long winding sheet of paper rests bearing a long list of names. “We celebrated the company’s eleventh anniversary recently and this list has the names of each and every one who worked with us in all these years,” says Sriram Bharatam, the CEO, as he greets us.

The spacious walkway is where ‘Iridium’ites have their morning huddle and the creative and logic teams come together to share ideas. Sriram Bharatam is an engineer who went on to studyinternational business, pursued higher education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, returned to India to join Hewlett-Packard JV, New Delhi, working in the strategy and consulting practice. He swiftly rose among the ranks when in his 20s and then, by a quirk of fate, turned a social entrepreneur with Cause an Effect (CnE) and Iridium Interactive. Giving him company is his wife Bharathi, a chartered accountant, who never got to do accounting but revels in the social pursuits of Cause an Effect.

Ripple effect

The devastating cyclone that hit Orissa in 1999 triggered the change for Sriram and Bharathi. “We were both in New Delhi a year after our wedding. Sriram was pretty much a jetsetter. He lost his passport and we came to Hyderabad to get a duplicate passport,” Bharathi rewinds. The news of the cyclone made them want to do their bit. “We walked into a cyber cafe and created a portal for Cause an Effect and helped in raising funds for victims through Prime Minister and Chief Minister relief funds,” says Sriram. Within days, they had gunny bags full of cheques. They raised nearly 1.5 million dollars as contribution from 18 million people. “We felt responsible and accountable. We channelised the cheques to the respective relief funds,” adds Bharathi.

The effort that went towards building a global community of 18 million in just 45 days through CnE won Sriram the Kauffman Community Award for social entrepreneurship in 2004. The cushy, high paying job in New Delhi soon became a thing of the past. Sriram and Bharathi stayed put in Hyderabad and spearheaded Cause an Effect, which became a non-for-profit organisation with a focus on sustainable livelihoods, women, health, childcare, disability and much more.

Within no time, iridium Interactive was also born. While iridium became a commercial enterprise, CnE thrived on social entrepreneurship. “During the tsunami, we understood that more funds were flowing in than manpower. People needed temporary livelihood measures than anything else. We produced seven movies on topics such as mushroom cultivation, vermi compost, how to repair mechanised boats, kitchen farming, etc in four languages and shared them with our partner NGOs including NASSCOM Foundation, who in turn trained people in their centres. Around 1500 to 2000 volunteers were trained in each module; they in turn spread the message among people affected by tsunami,” says Bharathi.

From a one-room office to an enterprise that now meets requirements of more than 2000 clients within Hyderabad alone, iridium has come a long way. Even within the commercial setup, Sriram and Bharathi have donned their Good Samaritan hats. One of the many things that Iridium is credited for is the process of making websites ‘accessible’. Accessibility refers to developing websites that can be navigated by differently-abled users. What’s more? The company has employed visually challenged software developers. “It’s high time companies look beyond employing differently-abled people merely as telephone operators. Some of the people trained by us in mainstream work are now well placed in larger companies and the NASSCOM inclusion team, where there is more scope to grow,” says Sriram. In fact, Iridium is now in the process of creating voice-enabled websites to make the Net accessible to the hearing impaired.

SWOT, modules and mobile streaming

Sriram recently spent a few weeks in East Africa, testing new modules. He lets us in on what’s brewing: “We are working towards capacity building exercises for micro and small entrepreneurs. A company that has just two people also has needs policies, regulations, HR, accounting, finance management, etc but doesn’t know how to handle diverse portfolios. These are companies that aren’t able to make steady progress and reach out to new clients. We faced these problems when we started off and know what it takes. Ideally we shouldn’t have taken this long to reach where we are today.”

Sriram’s team has created ‘How to…’ modules that help small and micro entrepreneurs. Modules such as how to evaluate balance sheets and how to review a company through SWOT analysis will be soon streamed through mobile phones. “We did pilot projects in East Africa involving five countries and more than 200 clients,” informs Sriram. If logistics are worked out, expect similar modules to be introduced in India as well.

Their office is a mix of professionals with different core strengths. “We don’t strictly go by qualification. We look for people who are passionate about their work and those who can look beyond mere technology,” echo Bharathi and Sriram. And those passionate about doing out-of-the-box work have been knocking at their doors, even from premier institutes. “Right now, we have a few interns from IIT Guwahati,” smiles Sriram.

He hastens to add, “But now and then we are faced with the situation where candidates are compelled to move out because their parents want to see them placed in larger companies with fatter paycheques. Though the candidates themselves are very happy with their work, parental pressure takes a toll. Culturally, in India we are conditioned to believe that it is rude to say NO to our elders.”

Sriram and Bharathi know firsthand about parental perceptions. “Even today, our respective parents feel we should have done what our peers did — be ‘well settled’ in the US. For us, that seems like the worst thing. We’d rather work here and create opportunities for others than run away to the United States,” smiles Sriram.

As Published in Hindu



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