The lady Elon Musk of India

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In India, women in tech conjure an image of software engineers and project managers but not a woman willing to get her hands dirty and do some core engineering. Hemalatha Annamalai broke such myths when she founded Ampere Electric in 2007. Ampere manufactures a wide range of reliable, cost-effective and quality Electric Vehicles with a vision to empower the lives of people through affordable mobility solutions, worldwide. Last week, I had the opportunity to interact with her when she addressed our company (Applied Materials) as part of the Engineering Week celebrations at Bangalore.

She started her journey as an entrepreneur at the age of 27 and started several other successful ventures over the years. When quizzed about what the secret behind her success as a serial entrepreneur, Hema told her life revolved around these four pillars that gave her strength and vigour:
1. Family
2. Yoga and meditation
3. Health
4. Business

Family

The idea to build an electric scooter was planted in her head by her husband Pachyappa Bala, who after seeing an electric scooter in Japan thought this technology could revolutionise the world’s transportation problem. He urged her to consider starting up a company and be part of the change. Recollecting a conversation Hema had with her kids before selling their $1.8 million apartment in Singapore and relocating to Coimbatore, a small city in Tamil Nadu, India she said

I don’t want to be a successful entrepreneur, but a failed mother.

Yoga and meditation

The idea of inculcating spiritual practices in her daily life was influenced by her mentors many years back. As an entrepreneur, it is important to rely on your gut to take some decisions. Yoga and meditation have enabled her to be centered and make good judgments, both in personal life and business.

Health

A healthy body makes a healthy mind. Hema begins her day early with a game of shuttle and yoga to keep her fit and active for the rest of the day.

Business

If you start a business with the sole aim of making money, then you are most probably going to fail.

Money, success, fame are all merely by-products of solving a greater problem for the society. When a person in the audience asked her, “When I have taken a loan to start my business my focus should be on the money, shouldn’t it?” She replied in the affirmative that money is indeed essential to sustain any business, but that should not mislead a person from the path they set out to.

Lead by example

When starting a new business, the entrepreneur should bootstrap the venture and begin with a small pilot. This would bring accountability as opposed to burning away investor money. Also, it is very important to start small, make mistakes, iterate and then refine the product rather than going all in and ending up with a perfectly product that nobody wants to buy.

Another aspect she is proud of is not greasing palms to get things done. While setting up her company in Coimbatore, she ran into some officials who expected bribes to issue the license. But she stood her own and submitted all the documents drafted perfectly to the tee and surged ahead. She refutes the fact that one cannot do business in India without bending the rules. It is definitely tough to maintain a moral ground but not impossible. Also, it is our responsibility as well to stop bribing people just to get our applications on top.

Obstacles and solutions are equally aplenty

In 2013, Tamil Nadu was undergoing a severe power crisis and Coimbatore, where Ampere is situated had electricity for only 6–7 hours a day! A lot of textile mills went out of business and shut down. It was a trying time especially for manufacturing industries. I asked Hema how she navigated this crisis. She said initially she hired the people who were working in textile mills and re-trained them. Talk of making the best use of a situation. But when the going got very tough, she was forced to let go of some people. Even then, she made it a point to retain the senior talent on her team. She feels it was a wise move in hindsight. Ups and downs are a part of the business, but it is difficult to find experienced staff.

Finding talent

How does a startup compete with well-established brands to attract and retain talent is an age old question? Hema has found an innovative way to tackle this problem. One issue she faces while interviewing college students is that lot of them is from small towns and quite shy to speak up. So she gives them a tiny assignment and asks them to complete it. The ones who crack it get appointed and it also serves as an icebreaker. In fact, some of the projects undertaken by the interns have become a full-fledged project at Ampere.

The right fit matters a lot

Hema interviews everyone right from the engineer to the janitor. She says a person should believe in the values of a company they are working for or else problems are bound to arise. Once when she wanted to hire more female workers to work on the production line, the manager then complained that women would not be ideal for this work and kept coming up with various excuses. So she first fired him and hired more women!

Empowering women

Right now, about 25% of her workforce is women. She dreams of the day when the entire production line is staffed by women. As a woman, Hema did not wait for others to empower her but rather took the initiative on her own. Now that she has broken through the glass ceiling, she wants to empower more women. She believes by hiring women, she not only provides a means of livelihood to them but also their family gets uplifted through the kids’ education.

Meeting the Man of Steel

Meeting Mr. Ratan Tata was one of the high moments in Hema’s life. With a strong intent to democratize automotive industry, she wrote to Ratan Tata several times to secure face time with him and talk to him about bringing the electric vehicle revolution to Indian villages. Finally, she got an opportunity to meet him for 10 minutes when he was in Coimbatore. That meeting turned into a 45-minute session and later lead to Mr. Tata investing in Ampere buoyed by Hema’s vision!

Clad in a light blue shirt and a dark blue trouser, the uniform worn by her employees, Hema captivated her audience with candour and authenticity. When women address a technology conference, questions tend to be on their personal lives such as how they manage their work-life balance or are they a good mother as opposed to their talent which put them in the limelight. Thankfully, none of the audience treated her as a ‘woman’ but rather as a ‘successful entrepreneur’ who had lots of wisdom to share. It is time we stopped judging women based on their gender but rather on their talent.

I wish Ms.Hemalatha loads of luck in her journey and may she inspire more women to get their hands dirty.

Yes, I am an Apple fanboy

Last week I read an article about on Medium about a Windows convert who has found asylum in Apple Camp and it got me thinking about my own experience.

Long, long ago

My first computer was a Windows 95 desktop that my dad owned. I must have probably been 12. It was the day of dial-up internet and 8-bit video games. Those were such simpler times! The novelty of ‘creating art’ with MS Paint and countless hours spent playing Dangerous Dave and Prince of Persia sum up my childhood bonding with computers. As a kid, I did not know what was an operating system and assumed a computer meant‘Windows machine’.

Image credit: Wikipedia

It was only when I was in high school I understood what an OS was and got a taste of Linux. Around 2006, the Linux distros became popular spearheaded by the popularity of Ubuntu as a layman’s Linux. While in college, I got my first laptop. The price was cheap and the specs were decent enough for a college kid.

If my laptop could speak, it might have some nasty 1’s and 0’s to say about me!

Unleash the Penguins

Bored of being a Windows user for years, I started experimenting with different Linux distros. Almost a new one each month. I would install Linux alongside Windows and play around with it. Sometimes the installation would fault in between, the boot loader might get corrupted or worse I end up losing all the data on the hard disk. Then I would start all over again by re-installing Windows.

After a week, my hands would itch and I would pop in another Linux boot disc.

Given the fact I had lot of time to kill in college and a curiosity to explore new stuff I kept tinkering with my laptop and learnt some useful invaluable lessons like always back up your data periodically or keep the computer plugged into a charging port while installing an OS. Sometimes the results were nasty but mostly they were fun.

Things changed after I graduated college. No longer did I have to install different IDEs to practice different programming languages. With the time left after toiling away at the office all I wanted to do was to kick back and watch a movie on my laptop when I got back home. I ceased to be a tinker monkey and decided to ‘settle down’.

The beginning of an era

My dad bought a Macbook Pro for himself and it was my first tryst with the forbidden apple. The laptop was a beautiful piece of art, the screen so vivid I wanted to lick the icons, the chiclet keyboard redefined typing on a laptop.

Running my fingers across the polished aluminum chassis gave me mini orgasms.

Beauty comes with a heavy price tag

While the rational side of me struggled to justify spending a fortune on a show pony, the Gollum in me murmured, “My precious”.

After saving up for a year, I spent it all in an Apple Store and got myself a shiny Macbook Pro. Once I got over the initial hiccups of adapting myself to work on Mac, things have been pretty smooth. Personally I found OS X much more intuitive than Linux.

I have been using the Mac for over two years and I do not have much to complain. My activities mostly involve browsing, watching movies, iTunes, and some casual photo editing. Till date, my laptop has crashed twice and I could not recover the data — once during OS upgrade and once for some weird reason no one knows.

Recovering a Mac is a pain in the ass

In a Windows laptop, I would have popped in a Linux recovery disk, recovered the data and then formatted the hard disk before doing a fresh install of Windows. Service Cost — ZERO. Very rarely did I have to take my Windows laptop to a service center but when it comes to Mac I try not to fiddle around much. As such the service charges are high, I don’t want to further complicate the situation. Not renewing the AppleCare after a year was definitely not a wise choice.

So is Apple better than Microsoft?

The answer to this question is highly subjective. A Macbook totally serves my purpose. It works almost always and I do not have to worry about virus and malware. Plus Apple has started offering OS upgrade free of charge to existing customers. And my other iDevices (Phone/Pod/Pad) all sync perfectly well the Mac making my life easier. So pick one that best suits your purpose.

My next laptop would definitely be a Mac. Even if I have to sell a kidney to buy it!

Is Uber taking its drivers for a ride?

Today I took a Uber ride from Indira Nagar to Whitefield in Bangalore and the traffic out on the streets on a Sunday evening gave enough time for a nice gossipy chat with the driver. Once I called the driver after booking, he started speaking to me Tamil, deducing the language I spoke from my name. Brownie points to him for that.

In India, everybody talks with everybody and we like to shove our opinions down other’s throats. The driver was happy to find a customer with whom he could converse in his mother tongue. Occasionally I do not mind a chit-chat rather than looking at the cars stuck in traffic and craning my head over the phone. Once we got talking, I heard some really inside story about Uber.

It was about the new policy rolled out by Uber to the drivers. As per the instructions, all drivers aka ‘Uber partners’ had to do three shifts mandatorily. The rough break up was:

12 AM — 6 AM => 4 trips

12 PM — 4 PM => 2 trips

6 PM onwards => 6 trips

This was a new ‘rule’ rolled out by Uber that seems to be making the drivers angry. As a business, I can understand the rationale behind the move. Making sure, there are cars on the road at all possible times ensures more customers and in turn more revenue. But what I fail to understand is how can a company ‘force’ it’s ‘independent contractors’ to work fixed timings. Is it even legally binding?

In a day, a driver is expected to complete 12 trips which should not be tough in a metro like Bangalore but the problem arises when ‘shift timings’ come into the picture. As per my understanding, the new rule expects the driver to be on the road pretty much the whole day to complete their quota.

How could a person do three shifts without compromising on their health is beyond my cognition? Will the sleep deprivation not cause rash driving and lead to more accidents?

Uber seems to be negating its own motto of “Drive when you want” and “No office, no boss” with such rules. As a customer, I definitely appreciate having more choices at dirt low prices but it comes at what cost?

The Incentive Game

There is intense competition in the taxi wars and each platform is offering various incentives to attract more drivers to its platform. In India, currently the two big players are Uber and Ola. There are frequent reports on each company cutting back on incentives over time. Uber seems to have reduced the cash incentives for each trip and the drivers are not happy about it. Uber’s Bangalore office was vandalised recently for cutting back incentives. Word on the street is they have agreed to re-instantiate the old terms. Ola seems to be offering better incentives for TaxiForSure and my driver has no qualms of switching loyalties.

If the companies want to use us, then why can’t we use them.

Transparent Rating anyone?

One other frequent complaint I hear from Uber drivers is they get blocked from using the service for 3 days if they get a bad review from a user. I appreciate Uber’s stringent actions is the reason that ensures good quality cabs. Like me, many of my friends prefer a Uber to Ola based on the assumption that an Uber car will be neat and well maintained. But how transparent are the ratings?

Best case scenario: Driver was rude, a customer gave an honest feedback and so he had to be blocked.

Worst case scenario: Customer was pissed at his own life and decided to mess the driver’s life. Customer needs to be booted out and not the other way round.

To give an example, in Bangalore we have people from different states speaking different languages. The majority population in the city are from a different state. It is not possible for a driver to know all the languages. The driver’s inability to speak a language correctly should not penalise him with a bad rating.

Also to get the ‘ban’ revoked the drivers needed to visit the office in person and speak to the concerned executives. Feels like we are back in the time of kings.

Kneel before me, you chauffeur!

If the driver is not at fault, would he be reimbursed for travelling all the way to the office? And what about the lost source of income for 3 days?

The one who owns the car makes the rules

A lot of drivers do not own the car they drive. Instead they ‘work’ for the car owner who pockets the major chunk of the profit. My driver told me that if he gets Rs.2500, then Rs.2000 goes to the owner and only Rs.500 is his to keep. While I do not know the nitty-gritty of the details and would not like to comment on who is on the right side of the fence, perhaps this a problem that Uber can solve for drivers.

In the case of such scenarios, the company could step in and set up revenue sharing agreements on a mutually beneficial manner for both parties. No other taxi aggregator seems to be doing this. It will be a great way to retain drivers.

What more can Uber teach its drivers?

I have always found Uber drivers quite friendly and well-behaved. The one who drove me today got way too comfortable with me once I started speaking in a common language.

  • He started using cuss words a lot at the other drivers and pedestrians.
  • Asking too personal questions like what was my salary. When I ignored him, he started guessing. Took a few curt response on my side to shut him down.

It is good to be friendly with customers but not necessarily get in bed with them.

I hope Uber coaches its ‘partners’ a bit more not to encroach its customer’s personal space.

My advice for a better rating

My driver told me he never understood why some people remain calm during the ride but then end up giving lower ratings. From the conversation I had with him, he has a motor mouth and needs to trim it down a notch. But there is one suggestion I offered. I told him to ask the customers what is the one thing that he could improve to make their ride more comfortable. The fact that a driver asks such a question is bound to have a feel-good feeling in the customers who might pardon him and give a better rating. I know, I would!

He brushed it aside nonchalantly. But still I gave him a piece of my mind and asked him to refrain from using cuss words just because I happen to speak the same language. I wonder if he will take it, but it was my duty to give it.

Image credit: Uber

The one word that describes you the best

In the book, “Eat, Pray, Love” the author Elizabeth Gilbert chronicles her journey through a bitter divorce and then embarking on a lifelong adventure of living in three different countries (Italy, India and Bali) in a year. This book is one of my all-time favourites and the movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts is probably one of the best re-creation of a book on celluloid.

In the book, Elizabeth is engaged in a conversation with her Italian friend, Giulio. He asks her what she thought of Rome. She says, “I told him I really loved the place, of course, but somehow knew it was not my city, not where I’d end up living for the rest of my life. There was something about Rome that didn’t belong to me, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was…”

Giulio says, “Maybe you and Rome just have different words.”

“What do you mean?”

Then he went on to explain, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. For instance, New York City meant ACHIEVE.

Next Giulio asks, “What’s your word?”

This seemingly innocuous question sends not just the author but also the readers down a soul searching path. Finally Elizabeth picks the Italian word,Attraversiamo, meaning let’s cross over. It identified with what she was going through at that point of time. She was a divorced middle-aged woman going through a bitter divorce and trying to find the missing passion in her life. And this word fit the bit perfectly.

In my own journey of soul searching to find the x factor, I have been speaking with friends and poring through every memory to identify the things that make my eyes sparkle. That is when I inadvertently stumbled on my word:facilitator. I am an extrovert and draw energy from the people around me. I am quite comfortable meeting new people and sort of look forward to it. I am interested in helping people get where they want in their lives. When I see that I have had a positive impact on another person’s life, I can sleep tight that day. I solicited my friends’ opinions about me as a person and it is along similar lines. I am basically a ‘catalyst’ and take pride in that role. So now that I know the word that defines me, it gives me some clarity in defining the career that I want to be in.

So, what is your word and what was your experience when you found ‘the word’ that describes you the most?

Take off your coloured glasses

Recently a video of Angelina Jolie in an acting class fifteen years ago has been doing the rounds on the Internet. It is amazing to see how she has gotten better at her craft over the years. I was reminded of the movie, Wanted, a 2008 Hollywood blockbuster. It had the right mix of action, style, special effects and of course Angeline Jolie. More people remember Jolie stepping half naked from a bath than her killing a dozen people with a single bullet in the climax; to each man his own.

One my favourite scene in the movie was when Fox ( the character played by Jolie) tells Wesley ( the character played by James McAvoy) to curve a bullet. When he asks how, Morgan Freeman says:
“It’s not a question of how. It’s a question of what. If no one told you that bullets flew straight, and I gave you a gun and told you to hit the target, what would you do ? Let your instincts guide you.”

While I am not really sure if Newton and the laws of physics would agree with Freeman but there is a stark truth to that statement. In life, we make choices based on the past experiences of ourselves or our friends and family. Seldom do we stick our toe out of the line. 100,000 years ago when men lived in caves and had to hunt their food, it made sense to rely on the crowd intelligence. It would be foolish to charge at a lion with a spear all alone. The strength in numbers ensured we survived as a species. But times have changed and we pick our food from supermarkets these days, yet we refuse to change our thinking.

Everyone is biased in one way or the other and a person who says otherwise is definitely in denial. People grow up saying that they never want to do the same mistakes that their parents did, but the apple seldom falls far from the tree. As a kid, we do not know our limits and so we are not afraid of jumping from the terrace to discover our super powers. But as we grow older, our mind is conditioned by our family, friends and society to rely the collective intelligence of the crowd as opposed to sticking our head above the herd. Growing up in India I could not agree more.

As a son, I always wondered why a sane man such as my father made such terrible decisions at times. But when I introspect on the decisions that I have made over the years I am no better than him. I was seeing the world through my father’s eyes and basing my judgements on the biases I picked up from him. His biases do not make him a lesser man. He is a great dad and I do owe some of my positive traits to him. When you wear yellow tinted glasses, the whole world appears yellow.

Nobody likes to be the black sheep and so we paint ourselves white.

It is time to take off the glasses and see the world for what it is. Accept the situations and people for who they are. Heck, if you don’t like it pick a new colour for your glasses. Go Bananas!