B. S. Nagesh

Ashoka Fellow
This description of B. S. Nagesh's work was prepared when B. S. Nagesh was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019 .

Introduction

Nagesh is creating an inclusive, equitable and productive retail industry for its biggest custodians, the retail employees themselves.

The New Idea

Nagesh is creating a diverse, empowered and equitable retail sector for its biggest stalwarts, the retail employees. Being the second biggest economic sector in the country only after agriculture, India is truly a nation of shopkeepers. With a strong belief that the foundation of success in retail is the lowest paid and most undervalued staff members, Nagesh is ensuring that the same dignity, respect and benefits that the sector brings is trickled down to them.

Through his organization, TRRAIN (Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India), Nagesh is for the first time shining a light on retail associates, their needs and the systemic barriers such as a lack of investment in training and development, that continue to hinder their growth and success in their chosen career in retail. To do this, Nagesh is following a ‘Pride-Respect-Inclusion-Skill ’ model to continue to drive growth and diversity in the sector from the supply side and is also working with large groups of retailers and retail associations to drive mindset shift and hence organizational policies towards this on the demand side.

Nagesh is using his unparalleled reputation in the sector to first bring on board the largest and most influential organizations to be champions of this and then using evidence which shows positive outcomes (higher sales, reputation and so forth) to create a large network of supporters who are pushing reform for retail employees.

The Problem

India’s retail industry is one of the largest in the world ($1.3 trillion by 2020) and one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Buoyed by a rising middle class, lax foreign-direct investment laws, changing consumer preferences and population growth, the industry is already employing over 45 million people and boasts more than 10 million kirana stores (small retail shops) across the country. While the benefits of such a rapidly evolving industry percolate down to most stakeholders, the retail employees are often left behind.

The vast majority of employees who takes up front end sales roles, support staff and back-end office positions in the retail sector come from households where there are lower levels of education and low socio-economic backgrounds. Thus, there exists an inherit stigma that comes with pursuing a career in retail, which is seen for the desperate, uneducated and unskilled members of society. In fact, it is not uncommon for families to disown or hide the occupation of family members who work in retail just to save ‘face’ for the family among their networks.

At the same time, there exists limited growth opportunity for these retail employees as organisations aren’t willing to invest in the growth and development of their staff beyond a point. This leads to a high attrition rate in the sector and a growing level of structural unemployment. Retailers look to address this through using technology or more commonly putting pressure and responsibility on existing staff to perform without the necessary training and skills to do so. As there is no regulation and incentive to pay staff more than the minimum wage, salaries have stayed at the bare minimum in the sector while cost of living has continued to go up. Overall, this has led to stagnant and uncompromising futures for employees in the sector.

The sector has also been defined by a lack of diversity and inclusion in the past. Most managerial and executive level positions are held by those from urban, higher-middle class and educated backgrounds while there continues to be a growing divide in terms of the number of people who come from backgrounds with disabilities or various gender identities. This leads to a danger of an industry defined by elitism and that misses out on creative possibilities that diversity brings with it.

The Strategy

Nagesh sees the role of his organisation, TRRAIN as a catalyst and thought leader for the entire retail sector in India to drive better outcomes for retail workers. By using a Pride-Respect-Inclusion-Skill model, Nagesh is working both on driving a strong supply of motivated and skilled employees while also working to sensitise retailers on the demand side on the need for diversity and growth for all employees in the industry.

As a start, Nagesh believes it is important to shift the perception of careers in retail by celebrating the industry and its achievements. Nagesh created the first ‘Retail Employee’s Day’ in India, a national day to celebrate the work of retail employees and the contribution they make to their workplaces. By engaging with family, friends, customers and other relevant stakeholders, over a thousand retailers across the country and their employees join together through festivities, discounts and activities at retail outlets to expose the work that employees do. For example, in many shops, retail employees are able to bring in their families to show them what their day-to-day tasks look like and how they apply key skills such as problem solving to provide a great customer experience. This instills a huge sense of pride in employees while also importantly putting a national spotlight on them. Nagesh also mobilises mass media strategies to highlight this day across major national platforms.

Nagesh also created India’s first retail awards in the country that brings together the collective stories of thousands of retail shops and celebrates examples of great service and effort. At an awards ceremony every year where the CEO’s of the biggest retailers, celebrities and media are brought together, retail employees are awarded and the stories of service are celebrated. This spotlight and transparency on the sectors employees instills an enormous pride and thus leads to more productivity, effort and greater outcomes for retailers themselves. Nagesh has been able to show that by recognising the efforts of employees, there is an increased level of sales, better reputation of shops as well as more significant contribution by employees that directly makes the workplace better for all. Hundreds of retailers now across India have internally come up with initiatives to incentivise and recognise their employees. Moving forward, Nagesh is in the process of creating what will be the ‘tripadvisor’ of retail customer service; a platform where customers can share stories and give feedback on their customer experience.

With such a burgeoning sector at hand and opportunities for employment growing, Nagesh is also working to make the sector more inclusive for underrepresented groups. His Pankh (for differently abled) and TrrainHer (for women from low socioeconomic backgrounds) programs serve as catalysts to train, assess, certify and place as many people from these often marginalised communities to pursue a career in the retail sector. Nagesh sees many NGO’s as having idle capacity and access to marginalized groups that need a bridge to employment. Nagesh is working with these NGO’s to upskill them, provide resources and quality control in order to create a supply of workers from these groups into retail. TRRAIN is a zero infrastructure organisation and undertakes its programs through the support of partners across the country, with the Pankh and TrrainHer programs now being present in 26 states in India.

At the same time, Nagesh brings together industry stakeholders such as the Retailers Association of India (RAI) (which he founded and serves as the APEX body for retail in India), investors, employers and other stakeholders annually at the Retail Inclusion Summit to discuss how opportunities can be created to make the sector more diverse and inclusive. Nagesh’s intervention has played a significant role in shifting internal policies of many retailers to include quotas related to diversity at their workplace and create pathways to have more representation of people from diverse backgrounds in leadership positions. For example, after employing speech and hearing impaired people from the Pankh program, McDonalds in India now has for the first time in its history hired a diversity and inclusion manager nationwide.

To close the loop, Nagesh believes its imperative to ensure the lives of retail employees are improved holistically. Knowing that taking the route of directly influencing the industry to increase wages and improve livelihoods won’t work, Nagesh is trying to ‘create more for same and same for less’. His TRRAIN Circle Platform (Online), which has already 30,000 employees subscribed, aims to upskill and empower through provision of tailored services. Through a small fee based model, employees are able to get access to training materials in retail that will get them up to speed with the skills they need to navigate and grow in the sector, such as how to use technology such as a particular payments system. Nagesh also partners with many service providers to centralise access to things such as loans, insurance and discounts on many products and services for retail employees. For example, TRRAIN Circle and Ashoka Fellow, Monish Anand, have teamed up to provide low-ticket loans to this underserved market by calculating the willingness and ability to pay back a loan through non-financial data points. These are loans that these employees would not otherwise get due to no formal financial history. Access to these services not only improves the lives of retail employees but The TRRAIN circle also provides access to services such as job boards, psychologists and forums for retail employees to engage with each other, thus creating a community of peers in the industry.

So far TRRAIN has been able to collectively impact the lives of over 50,000 retail employees in India and convinced retailers both large and small to take part and then champion models of inclusion, building respect and pride at their workplaces. TRRAIN’s retail awards as well as retail employees day has been replicated in over 5 different countries, while many others are in the process of getting on board as well.

Moving forward Nagesh aims to continue to catalyse and pave the way for this sector to become more aspirational, growth-inductive and inclusive for all. He is creating evidence based research to show that it only benefits retailers when employees are equally empowered from the highest levels of management to those working in entry level sales positions.

The Person

B.S. Nagesh grew up travelling and living in many different parts of India given his father's role in the Indian Railways. Having completed most of his education in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, Nagesh recalls always driven by extracurricular and leadership opportunities while at school. This was at the expense of his academic growth, where he recalls struggling up until the end of high school. These early years taking up positions such as school head boy, introduced Nagesh to skills that would be valuable to him later on in his career in retail, such as leadership, team management and empathy.

From a young age, identifying a potential career in retail management, Nagesh started to gather as much experience possible in the industry and building a diverse skills base. His rapid growth saw him as one of the youngest manager to be hired by Carona, where he managed over 100 stores across the country. In 1991, Nagesh was given the opportunity to conceptualize and build a mega retail store in Andheri - Mumbai with the goal of revolutionising what modern retail would look like in India. Through introducing technology, new systems and processes and other innovations, Nagesh built what is today one of India’s biggest department stores, Shoppers Stop. He also founded the Apex Body for retail in India, ‘Retailers Association of India’. For his efforts over 35 years in retail, Nagesh has won many accolades, while often being coined, ‘the father of modern retail’ in India.

While Nagesh himself experienced a lot of success and saw the industry grow rapidly, he was also becoming increasingly uncomfortable that the biggest contributor to his success, the retail workers, were being left behind. Nagesh recalls a family refusing to marry their daughter to one of his employees because he was a ‘Salesperson’ and with this came a stigma of low income, bleak outlook and that of a career for failures. He also recalls experiencing countless stories of employees not having the social security or wherewithal to respond to shocks, economic and health while those at managerial and executive positions comfortably survived.

Nagesh’s idea of reforming the sector to benefit the retail employees was born very early on in his career and in his capacity he did what he could to create change. While at Shoppers Stop, he created national store policy to identify the titles of all employees, regardless of what they did, ‘Customer Care Associates’ as an example of his commitment to shifting mindsets. In 2011 he finally quit his role at Shoppers Stop as its Managing Director and started TRRAIN to pursue his vision for the sector full time. He continues to be the Non - Executive Chairman of Shoppers Stop Limited.