Nuggets From Pavithra Sundareshan's Call
Posted by Rahul Brown on Sep 7, 2019
Pavithra Sundareshan was 22 years old when she and her husband started Vindhya, an outsourcing company in Bangalore, India, which may be the first and only for-profit enterprise in which the majority of employees are people with disabilities -- physically challenged, hearing or visually impaired, socially disadvantaged women, or on the autism spectrum. Since it began in 2006, the company is now comprised of 1600 employees, more than 60% of which (or 900 employees) are differently abled, and 70% of which are women. “Bringing business and philanthropy together for a cause, but helping people live with dignity. That is how we started the company,” the couple says. Pavithra has come to realize that “the only disability in life is bad attitude.” Pavitra has been selected by Times of India as one of the “25 Leaders of Tomorrow” and has been a recipient of the “100 Women Achievers Award.”
Below are a few highly abridged and edited nuggets from the call that stood out for me.
Jaideep: How did you get to where you are? Could you share what was the influence was that your parents had in you becoming an entrepreneur at age 22?
Pavithra: I’m a twin, and from the womb itself I’ve been sharing! I come from a traditional family, and I’m the most talkative member of my family. Everyone thought I’d become a lawyer. Both my parents were working, and I grew up in a joint family. My dad is a very loving person. My mom is a doctor, where she often took clinics in slums and underprivileged areas. That’s where we picked up this idea of bringing smiles to others. From then, my heart was always into doing something good where we can bring smiles. I was a commence graduate and did chartered accountancy in my studies, and wanted to quickly take on the reigns of responsibility. I got married at 21 and had a child at 22, and then with my husbands Ashok’s support, we decided to start helping people with disabilities. We started Vindhya in 2006. We feel lucky to be among people giving us so much love.
J: Could you take us through the various birthdays of Vindhya?
P: Like any business, we had our ups and downs but what was beautiful was the amazing people who came to us. One guy came to us who was 90% disabled and he applied for a job. He came to a building that didn’t have a lift or a ramp. I met him downstairs, and we conducted an interview as he attempted to walk the stairs. I hired him on the spot at the top of the stairs for his positive attitude. From that day forward, our primary qualification is hiring people with positive attitudes. We had a hearing impaired person, and our deal was that she taught us sign language and she taught us how to do a job. Soon after starting Vindhya, my daughter’s first birthday happened. On her special day, I didn’t have any money to celebrate because we put it all into the company. At that moment, I felt really sad, because I felt my daughter was getting deprived for this. We had about 22 people on the team right then, and they pooled money and got a dress and cake for her. That was the most special birthdays at the office. To this day, her birthday is celebrated at the office.
J: How did this family vibe happen in your company?
P: One of the best thing that happened to me, I never worked anywhere, so all I had as an example is the family and that;s what I modeled everything after. When people started coming to us, we realized the magnitude of the problem. We also wanted to change the public perception that disabled people are unable to live a life of dignity. We converted our conference room to living quarters and gave people a place to live. All these things are from a heart-to-heart connection where we’re working on making a difference for a larger community. I owe so much to all the people who came together to make this happen.
J: I notice that you remember everyone’s names, you are learning braille—what is it that drives all this care?
P: Sign language is the most beautiful languages I learned. I loved speaking in sign language on the bus. I think its beautiful to be able to learn to communicate with people in the way they are most comfortable. There is no hierarchy I want to create, but more live together as a beautiful family.
J: I know you have family in the home and office. How have you seen your own journey transform given the values you are holding?
P: Something I inherited from my dad is being true to yourself and doing what you love to do. In terms our company values, fidelity, quality, and humanity—we try to embed this is all we do.
J: You trust people so strongly. How do you trust so easily? Its tough for many of us.
P: The people who come to us are freshers—this is their first job. We say that we have empathy, but no sympathy. People come together who have a particular impairment, they see others with a different impairment, but then they are grateful that they can compliment each other. People end up valuing what they have, the job, the abilities, the support, and that is the beauty of it. They want to make a larger impact. That creates the shared vision that allows trust to be natural.
J: You practice the notion that everyone is good at something indeed. I know you have so much going on outside work and are very busy. How do you have the time do it all?
P: I have a very supportive family that enables a lot. The walkathon started very organically with a bike ride with Kiran Bedi in Pondicherry, very organically. Yet in our first we had 2000 people walking, and did a blindfolded buddy walk. This year we have 6000 people walking in Bangalore. In future years we want people in multiple city walking simultaneously. All this is possible through the kindness and cooperation of my family and so many others.
J: This lets so many people build friendships!
P: Absolutely! Mothers, childrens, diabled, gov’t, teachers etc so beautiful to see them all walking together. We even had a pet who joined us as a buddy.
J: Is there a roadmap or hurdles you see to make India an inclusion nation? How do you overcome obstacles?
P: One of our employees was more than 80% disability, but barely managed to finish his 10th grade. A training center opened up next to his house. We ended up hiring up and both he and his family was so surprised but we had a role for him. My larger goal Is to create a larger family and a campus that is accessible to people with all types of different abilities.
J: Tell us about being a mother.
P: Both kids are different. One is aggressive, the other quiet and smart. Yet both are very independent. They like what I do and being with the people I’m with, even though they may not necessarily share the dream that I have. My younger daughter loves storytelling and drawing etc. My older one is a tomboy who is always out. But both are super supportive of the dream I hold.
J: What does it feel like to be doing all of this?
P: I feel like I have a larger responsibility to make sure all these things happen. The kind of love I got from the community, the trust they have in me, makes me feel that we have to make this much bigger.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen! Please do listen in on the call as there were many more inspiring and fascinating areas covered.