18 October 2016 07:05:09 IST

Lending a hand to the disabled

Chennai-based v-shesh trains persons with disabilities and assists them with finding a job

Getting a job is extremely difficult for persons with disabilities. Two friends set out to build an enterprise that seeks to help with just that. Their impact enterprise v-shesh trains persons with disabilities – physical and sensory – and assists with finding a job.

The company has trained 1,500 candidates with different disabilities in the last five years. They placed 400 candidates in 2015 alone. They brought over a hundred employers on board including ANZ Bank, Accenture, Bank of America, Barclays Bank, Cognizant, HDFC Group, Indigo, IndusInd Bank, ITC Hotels, JP Morgan, Mercer, Royal Bank of Scotland, RR Donnelley, Societe General, Standard Chartered Bank, Svenska Hotels and TCS.

Realising the impact that language development has on learning and access to opportunities, v-shesh runs English language classes for 750 students in schools for deaf in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Delhi and Mumbai.

This was not what the founders P Rajasekharan and Shashaank Awasthi started out with. “We asked ourselves what was the difference between us versus the many who struggle? It came down to job access,” says Awasthi. Getting the first job is not easy for many due to where they are from, skills including communication or disability and attitudinal barriers at employer organisations.

The duo, classmates in MBA before their decade-long successful corporate stints, started v-shesh in 2008 to provide job access to rural youth. Shesh, in many Indian languages, means being left behind and v-shesh is the expression used for special.

Their initial model of training young job-seekers in rural areas to work for micro-finance institutions was a runaway success. “We had three centres – in Indore, Varanasi and Bhubaneshwar – where we conducted two-week-long training programmes teaching the skills needed to work in a micro-finance institution,” says Rajasekharan. The company earned a placement fee from the employer for every successful candidate placement.

But when the micro-finance crisis hit, that business went to nothing overnight. They moved training operations back to Chennai in 2011 and restarted, but this time working with job seekers with disabilities.

The shift led to new opportunities, but also many operational issues. For example, Chennai has two colleges for hearing impaired students, but many graduates were not able to find suitable jobs. They had to get an interpreter to communicate in sign language but managed to train 15 candidates.

The founders realised that making job connections was as much a function of preparedness of employer organisations as it was about the trainees being qualified.

“We tend to use ‘people with disability’ as an umbrella term. Each of the disabilities needs a complete re-orientation to understand the issues, train and find suitable job placement,” says Awasthi. For instance, when working with autistic people, providing training in groups is not effective and individual attention is required.

How hard is convincing companies to expand their candidate search criteria? “When a job is broken down in a granular way, it is easy to see what are the real requirements for the candidate and hence evaluate the kind of accommodation required,” says Rajasekharan. Often co-workers also need to be sensitised as there may be some apprehensions and a shift in attitude may be required. v-shesh’s team engages with the new employee, peers as well as the manager for at least a month until they settle in the job.

There are situations when, like any recruitment, there is no fit due to a variety of reasons. Awasthi says that companies and new employees worry about exits as they are not sure how to handle it sensitively. v-shesh helps in the communication process to benefit both the sides.

Success stories

v-shesh has been able to build a successful business model for its services. The company’s operations are lean, with each of its 30 employees filling in multiple roles. It offers services in Chennai, Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi and assists schools in rural Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Their model is to charge trainees a fee for training programme that prepares them accessing jobs in sectors such as IT, ITeS, BFSI, hospitality and retail. They also charge employers a hiring fee like any other recruitment agency, for every candidate hired.

Business has been growing at 10 per cent annually in the last three years and turned viable thanks to its portfolio of disability inclusion and recruitment services. This includes awareness and sensitisation workshops, job mapping, hiring as well as pre- and post-hiring support and interpretation services.

The company runs a programme to work with organisations to improve disability inclusion. It has worked on assessments and/or access audits at IIM-Ahmedabad, IIM-Bangalore, IIM-Kolkata, IIM-Indore; companies such as SAP, Flipkart; entities such as Chennai Metro Rail Ltd.