Shanti Raghavan is transforming attitudes towards employment of the disabled by carefully assessing companies’ visions and values, competitive pressures, and the skills required to face those challenges. She is creating a new market in which the needs of the corporate sector are met by a growing group of disabled professionals who will dispel the myths and stereotypes that discriminate against these citizens.
The New Idea
Disability-friendly foreign companies are crowding into India, faced with an increasing need to recruit and retain well-trained employees. To capitalize on this opportunity, Shanti is employing a business-school approach to disabled employee training that emphasizes problem solving, team building, and other soft skills. She shares these new methodologies with other training organizations and uses them as a tool to professionalize and pool trained candidates for strategic job opportunities that she identifies.
Rather than answering individual job advertisements, Shanti uses her high-level contacts to conduct corporation-wide assessments in order to identify strategic areas to which she can introduce disabled employees. She then shares her diagnostic approach and results with other organizations who train the disabled and encourages them to approach companies in a similar manner.
In the meantime, Shanti sees the need for a professional organization that can track changing marketplace requirements and supply performance recommendations to business and engineering schools that train the next generation of disabled professionals. As a first step in this direction, she is emphasizing ongoing corporate career counseling for the disabled people and creating that capability within the corporations she serves.
While disability training organizations have had some success in training disabled people for low-level jobs in the public and private sectors, there has not been a concerted effort to match the capabilities of the disabled with the challenges of the corporate marketplace. With no commitment to address the issue from senior management, human resource directors do not independently venture into this area, though there is considerable evidence in other countries that the disabled are able to take on increasingly higher levels of supervisory and executive-level jobs and contribute entrepreneurial ideas.
The effort to address disabled employment has until now consisted only of government training programs and grants to non-governmental organizations. In these schemes, there is a tendency to emphasize quantity of people trained over quality of training, with periodic “charity placements” that are effectively a form of disguised unemployment.
Shanti’s organization, Enable India, focuses on comprehensive development and people skills in order to ensure that disabled candidates are well-equipped to face work challenges in the corporate sector. Candidates gain exposure to real world environments and are taught effective communication skills, English, work ethic, social interaction skills, proficiency in following written instructions, and quality control. She uses internship placements with incubator employment units to help students practice these skills and gain exposure to the corporate environment. The personal development aspect of the training focuses on job interview skills and confidence-building.
Shanti has also created an innovative computer training program for the disabled that focuses on applications for specific problem statements. She has specially designed course content, materials, and assistive aids such as tactile diagrams that help disabled students achieve very high levels of computing proficiency.
In addition to this, Shanti has created an Employer Outreach Program that works with companies to help them understand how disabled persons can effectively perform tasks that would be required of them. Company management is often not aware of varying degrees of disability, and hence management tends to be reluctant to hire disabled people. To convince them of the candidate’s ability, Shanti creates and shares business case-studies that illustrate exactly how a disabled person can perform the required job. Shanti realizes that her goal is not simply placement but continual career development for the disabled. Hence, post-placement collaborative training models are devised that realistically take the company’s organizational needs into account. Shanti utilizes post-placement reviews as well as regular progress meetings with the company management to assess whether the candidate was a right fit. Shanti then uses this feedback to continually improve the quality of candidates and placement procedures so as to precisely meet the company’s needs.
One key criterion that Shanti employs in engaging new corporate partners is their spread and franchise prevalence in the country. With the help of other citizen sector organizations, she is able to employ disabled professionals at the same corporation in different cities. Shanti also capitalizes on parallels between different companies and among job profiles. For instance, after successfully engaging Café Coffee Day, she can easily engaged Barista, another café chain. Or, if disabled persons are placed in packaging jobs in the manufacturing industry, Shanti can successfully place them in packaging jobs in grocery stores. She has created successful partnerships with corporations such as IBM, Coffee Day, Shell, Transworks, TESCO, Dendrite SIPL, Britannia, Maintec, Youngsoft 24/7 and others.
Shanti is working on policy change, widespread awareness, and acceptance of disabled in the corporate sector by utilizing forums such as NASSCOM and CII (Confederation of Indian Industries). Knowledge management is a key component of Shanti’s work. She documents success stories, case-studies, and employer testimonials to spread knowledge within and outside the organization and maximize job placements. This knowledge can be shared with industry forums to generate new opportunities and redesign hiring policies and employment targets within companies.
Once a critical mass of disabled people reaches high-level positions in the corporate sector, they can influence hiring and training policies for others. Shanti is aware that citizen sector organizations cannot continue to act as intermediaries; eventually companies themselves must seek out qualified disabled persons. Shanti envisions a reality in which companies will invest in engineering and business schools to tap and train the next generation of disabled students for current market requirements.
Shanti is partnering with several citizen sector organizations. She has worked with the National Association for Blind in Delhi and Karnataka, Association for People with Disability, Mobility India, Mitra Jyoti, Ability Foundation, Helen Keller Institute for Deaf Blind in Mumbai, and many others. Enable India currently has 4 employees, all four of which are disabled. Shanti does not want to fall into the trap of creating a huge organization, and therefore continues to work to build creative partnerships with companies and other citizen sector organizations.
An electronics engineer from Mumbai, Shanti has had over 10 years of experience working in the corporate sector. After receiving her masters in the United States, she joined Bell Labs and then moved on to AT&T, where she was made a team leader. She flourished as a team leader and was given increasing management responsibilities. At AT&T, Shanti learnt that what distinguished truly successful team members were good people skills. She realized that she was herself a people-person, which gave her a knack for management. Her time at AT&T gave her first-hand experience with what makes a good employee in the eyes of a corporation.
When Shanti’s brother Hari was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RPT), a degenerative disease that eventually robbed him of his vision, Shanti and her husband Dipesh Sutariya were deeply involved in helping Hari become independent and build a future for himself. As part of his rehabilitation, Shanti invited him to the United States and accompanied him in activities like swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, tandem cycling and many others. Shanti and her husband also taught Hari computer skills that helped him prepare to receive a MBA. Today Hari is a branch manager in personal finance at GE in India.
In 1997, Shanti and her husband decided to return to India, where she joined Cybercash. Then, in September 2002 Shanti joined GE as part of their aircraft engines IT division. She credits GE with teaching her to anticipate challenges and employ goal-oriented thinking.
Shanti witnessed first-hand Hari’s struggle for obtaining employment. Despite finishing his MBA in the top of his class, he was rejected in almost 60 job interviews. She started teaching computer skills to blind students and working to create employment opportunities for them. Shanti says her driving force was the satisfaction of having more than just one “Hari” gainfully employed and truly independent. In 1999, Enable India was registered as a citizen sector organization, and in January 2004, Shanti left GE to focus full-time on her work.
Shanti’s unique ability is to think big and yet focus on the details. She thinks of herself as a “road builder.” “Everyone,” she says determinedly, “has the right to have a good road.” What really motivates her is the thrill she gets out of realizing the “impossible.” “I’m still a child inside,” she says with a laugh. “I love to see things being done differently; things which are dismissed as impossible, made to happen.”