NextWealth–Distributed Incubation and a new outsourcing model with profound implications

On a recent trip to Bangalore to visit with Duron Energy, an Idealab company, I was fortunate enough to meet with Dr. Sridhar Mitta, the original Chief Technology Officer of Wipro, one of its earliest employees, and, as President of Wipro Global R&D, the key missionary of outsourced product development. He is the Founder and Managing Director of NextWealth, www.nextwealth.in.  After receiving his M. Tech. from IIT he went on to get a second Masters and his Doctorate at Oklahoma State University. (He did say it was nice to meet another “Okie.”) He returned to India and spent several years in the public sector before joining Wipro in its startup days. He retired in 2001 and subsequently has been involved in a number of technology companies. His career truly traces the development of the IT industry in India. But his primary focus now is NextWealth, which may represent another step along the IT path in India and possibly elsewhere.

NextWealth is a for-profit social enterprise that is taking advantage of a significant cost arbitrage between urban and rural India, but also, profoundly, makes use of and reinforces certain cultural and social aspects of the Indian society.

In addition to the famous network of IIT schools in most of the major urban locales, India has located many very good technical schools in rural areas in an effort to increase the number of college educated members of the workforce.  Many of these campuses have quite complete infrastructures including, importantly, sufficient primary and back-up power. The schools provide a college education to students in rural India who would not be able to move to urban areas because of the costs and the prospect of separation from their families at a young age. This particularly applies to the young women from the rural areas. The problem is that once they receive their degrees, the job opportunities are most likely elsewhere, not in the local community.  In India, culturally, family takes precedence, but the economic realities brought about by the demand for technically trained individuals in the large engineering complexes in the cities require difficult decisions for these graduates. NextWealth finds an entrepreneur or entrepreneurs either living in the rural areas, or more often working in urban areas, who would prefer to be nearer to home and family. NextWealth provides the start-up funds and other support to create a business that can scale locally. Dr. Mitta pointed out that in many ways it is a distributed Idealab concept. While Idealab incubates the companies at its facility on West Union in Pasadena and then moves them out, typically to a nearby location (Duron is an exception!), NextWealth starts the incubation where it knows the workforce will exist to sustain and grow the company. The willingness and ability of the US college-graduate workforce to locate almost anywhere allows for the Idealab model. NextWealth is to some extent capitalizing on the current state of the Indian infrastructure, but more so, the cultural phenomenon of the importance of geography and family.

The NextWealth model, itself, has some profound implications. We have all seen the articles and dissertations on the urbanization of populations globally. The pundits are predicting that, ultimately, 90% of the population will end up living in cities. It is hard to imagine what life will be like if that occurs. In many societies as the migration takes place the disruption to the concept of family is significant and is being resisted. That is certainly the case in India and is happening in China as well. Dr. Mitta is pragmatically taking advantage of the ties to family and geography in India. But in so doing, he is creating an alternative model to this inexorable march toward the mega-cities. In addition, Dr. Mitta told me that NextWealth’s companies are primarily employing educated women, where the pull from family is the strongest and the prospect of moving away to a single life in the city is remote. NextWealth is bringing many more women into the workforce in roles that provide higher incomes than they historically were able to receive and where they are actually making use of their education. The incomes are lower than they might earn if they moved to the city, but the cost of living is more than proportionately lower, while the quality of life and family interaction is higher. The empowerment of these women feeds on itself in the local area providing a model for other younger women to pursue an education without the prospect of it disrupting the pull of place and parents.

For this to work does require Tom Friedman’s Flat World. It requires global connectivity as well as the local infrastructure resulting from the creation of these rural educational facilities. It relates primarily to service businesses as opposed to manufacturing. It also requires acceptance by the customer that a reliable network and an educated workforce does exist in rural India.  Dr. Mitta says the selling process to the customer reminds him of the early days of Wipro, when the first response to the idea of outsourcing to India was “Where’s India? And how can they possibly speak and read English?”  He says the questions today are “Where’s Karnataka? And how can they possibly have that skill set?” Sounds like we still have a bit of work to do in the US educational system on Geography and Global History in addition to Math and Science.

This model won’t apply everywhere, but with some tinkering it might even work in the developed world. Dr. Mitta is exploring that possibility, starting with regional educational institutions in the US. One of the Indian businesses that has been funded is providing math tutoring for K-12 students in the US, www.tutorvista.com . Yes, that’s right. Educated individuals sitting in the town of Mallasamudram, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, are helping US students improve their math skills. Dr. Mitta thinks there is an economic model that doesn’t require outsourcing the service all the way to India. He may be right, but in the meantime, the model is changing lives and bringing more of the world’s population into the global economy.

I must admit that this post has very little to do with Climate Change, and probably belongs in a blog with a different URL. I guess the closest I could come is that the purpose of my trip to Bangalore was to visit Duron, www.duronenergy.com , which is providing solar home lighting to rural India. The original point of contact with Dr. Mitta was his interest in learning more about the company. When one has the opportunity to meet such a unique individual doing some unique and possibly profound work, sharing the story may stimulate others to think outside the box and come up with unique ideas of their own, whether it relates to climate change or other big issues confronting us over this century.