This is the story of an Entrepreneur living in India who also happens to be a painter, an avid classical music lover, a computer science engineer and uses a wheelchair to overcome her disability. I first met Maitri Shah in 2015 in Mumbai, India at the launch of Ycenter India Entrepreneurship program. She was just starting with her final year studies toward finishing her Bachelors in Computer Science Engineering degree from K J Somaiya College of Engineering — KJSCE. The KJSCE had an elevator for her to get access to the upper floors classrooms and they built a ramp so they do not miss the opportunity to recruit the talent of students like Maitri just because of the lack of facilities; that most colleges in Mumbai could afford to build but haven’t done so yet.
In our first meeting, Maitri told me she wanted to solve the problem for many other people in the city that are wheelchair bound. She didn’t know the How and the What. But she was very sure of the Why! It started from her own experience of not having enough information on accessible theaters in the city to accessible public restrooms (even access to regular public restrooms in Mumbai are sparse and often not maintained). Let’s say even if you find some accessible public areas, malls, shops and restaurants, there aren’t many accessible transportation options. Unless you choose to own a specially modified vehicle (Maitri’s family can afford this, which isn’t the case for most of the others) or order a specialized expensive and limited cab service. There isn’t any city public transportation built for people on wheelchair, absolutely none. This was just the first layer of issues that prompted Maitri to think in this direction. Let’s say even if public infrastructure gets better in terms of accessibility, people do not have access to affordable motorized wheelchairs — she adds.
She kept sharing her other experiences, without an ounce of complaint or hint of regret. She is very objective in describing the state of accessibility in our country and the policies (or lack thereof). She is extremely well aware of the conditions in countries like the USA and the kind of social equity they receive. But her pragmatic smartness never lets her make the comparisons for the situation in these countries and immediately jumps on to tell me how much she loves living in India for all its glory of festivities, communities, culture, and traditions.
In 2016, when I was visiting India again for the second version of our Entrepreneurship program, Maitri was the first participant to sign up for this one month program. Her parents came to our training center a day before Maitri decides to join our program, to ensure that the place is accessible. This is a regular routine practice for Maitri’s family to visit the places she plans to travel a day before to ensure that she can get there. Yes, they can just call up or find out on the venue’s website (if it exists) about the accessibility options, but unfortunately, sometimes even the venue owner doesn’t know this. They confuse having an elevator with having an accessible option at their venues. More often than not it has happened that there are stairs to get to the elevator and hence making the places practically inaccessible to Maitri and others on a wheelchair unless a bunch of people lift the wheelchair and get her to the elevators. An inconvenience and a highly risky act in itself for lifters and the person in the wheelchair who is being lifted.
Further Maitri shared the experience of getting a disability certificate that proves her disability by passing or rather failing the test of how she cannot perform certain tasks. I found the whole story shameful when I first heard and my feelings are recreated while recollecting that event to write this story. The other issues include weird stares from people and getting the unwanted attention in public areas. She jokes about how sometimes her showing up at an event in itself is considered an act of valor and celebrated as an inspiration for many.
After a month of working in our startup program, Maitri had the first version of her business idea — Mindassets. She pitched to the investors and got critical feedback. She didn’t get an investment offer on that day, but through our continued mentorship program, I started working with Maitri. She also got selected by a nationally recognized incubator in Mumbai — RIIDL.
Maitri went through series of hurdles like every other entrepreneur. But she had additional hurdles like people would label her company — Mindassets as a charitable or a non-profit organization, but cannot conceive the business ingenuity of her model. Hers is an epitome of running a double bottom line business, like B-corporations in USA and Social Enterprises in the UK or South Korea. She had a series of events like partners dropping out, employees leaving without notice, getting false promises from big investors who love her idea but wouldn’t respond to any of the emails she sent out. These are some external problems. She also had additional issues with the handicapped candidates who were trained in digital skills like social media training and other related avenues, but they were not yet ready for employment because of lack of communication or just plain disinterest in working a job. Maitri soon realized, she not only has to solve the problem of employability, skills training but the overall mindsets of her candidates.Here is how Mindassets work
Jobs of the future Many assumptions were broken and theories were reversed once Maitri started going to market. She had a core assumption that the companies might not be willing to hire people with disabilities at all.
That was proven untrue when she started getting right companies showing the willingness to hire. They mentioned they had a problem with training these employees. And this is exactly the gap Mindassets was here to fill. This not only makes social sense but also business sense. As companies grow bigger and want to go global, they need people working for them from different parts of the world. They want to cut down time on commuting, reducing their carbon footprint, reducing the overhead of pretentious glass cabins and fancy beanbags and possibly spend those dollars on health and wellbeing. We are starting to see the scales tipping from investment in physical infrastructure to digital infrastructure as they go high in clouds. Pun intended! And mindsets in catering to these demands for companies that are ready to create jobs of the future.
Toughest job in the world for a company Maitri found out that some of the candidates were so used to being dependent, they had lost motivation to learn and earn. I remember spending hours and week by week on phone, and as a mentor, I didn’t have answers for her. Because when your business is trying to sell something and customers don’t want to buy, you adopt marketing strategies and you adopt educational tools. But when you are in the business of changing attitudes and behaviors, the going gets tough.
Building for the extreme While Maitri started designing her business for people in the wheelchair, it is open for anyone who is looking for a work from home opportunity. It could be for someone who suffers from an injury that keeps them bed-ridden, or a home-maker or a retired service personnel, it is for anyone and everyone who needs a work from home opportunity.
Milestones for Mindassets so far
After months of fighting the challenge of raising capital, bootstrapping and paying employees, having candidates with little motivation, trouble with corporates complaining about the quality of work, being mistaken as a charity, being intentionally patronized and 10,000 other issues, Maitri’s Mindassets is now LIVE and in business. In fact, just a couple of days ago, before the publishing date for this article, she received a call from the Maharashtra Chief Minister’s office that they are looking to hire candidates from Maitri’s pool of candidates trained and certified by Mindassets.