Google’s Rajan Anandan believes the internet will transform a billion lives

Rajan Anand, Google’s vice-president for Southeast Asia and India, with Pankaj Mishra, CEO, FactorDaily, in Outliers

Rajan Anandan, Google’s vice-president for Southeast Asia and India, is a diehard believer in India’s internet story. “I’m a perennial India bull… The internet is going to make India reach even greater heights,” he says. He adds that Google’s mission in India is “internet for every Indian.”

He also believes in the country’s potential to produce multi-billion dollar companies in the digital economy. He’s been an active angel investor in the ecosystem, having backed startups such as Instamojo. “A huge number of them (startups) have become profitable, because they had to… When you realise you can’t raise money, you have to get profitable. That’s the agility of Indian entrepreneurs,” he says.

As I sit down with him for this week’s Outliers chat, I fire away questions at him:

Is Snapdeal a failure or a success?

Are current startup founders capable of handling scale and complexity and creating long-lasting companies?

Did everyone create a hype about the potential of Indian ecommerce?

What are Google’s ambitions? Will it ever cross the line and become a service provider in ecommerce and food tech?

And so on.

Anandan holds fort well. He cites Snapdeal as an example of an early starter in India’s ecommerce, which helped change consumer behaviour for good. “Snapdeal will be remembered in a very positive way,” he says, adding it’s one of three-four companies shaping the ecommerce industry and case studies will be written about it.

His obsession with technology is rooted in his stint at MIT. “If you went to MIT, you either love technology or at the end of it, you knew so much about what was happening at the time,” he says, adding he studied neural networks at MIT 20 years ago, something that is mainstreaming only now.

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Shakthi Vadakkepat on the creation of “social media influencers”

“I don’t make 10% of the money that other influencers make,” says V Shakthi, social media and branding consultant and accessibility activist.

His humble two-bedroom apartment in Bengaluru, where we are recording this podcast, has damp patches on the walls and ceilings and is crying out for a whitewash. He lives here with his wife Hema and 14-year-old son Hari. Shakthi may have over 1.6 lakh followers on Twitter and be counted as an “influencer”, but his home is a far cry from reflecting any of the social influence he commands. At least, it’s clear he’s not encashing the social popularity. “Welcome to my home; as you can see, I am not really making money as an influencer,” Shakthi tells me. He has a fierce sense of humour and calls a spade a spade.

“There are food bloggers writing on tech, there are tech bloggers writing on food… I tend to stay away from that, I don’t go behind brands to give me stuff,” says Shakthi, whom we have written about earlier.

I have watched Shakthi over a year now on Twitter and have known him as a credible voice in the social media world, where often you don’t know the motivations behind what people say about brands or companies.

“Social media space is one of the most cluttered and dirty spaces we have online today. Because it’s a space where self-certification is the rule (of the game). You see people calling themselves ‘influencer’ in their bios,” says Shakthi with refreshing candidness.

Shakthi says one of the things that attracts him to the digital world is he can “go anywhere” despite being “mobility-challenged.” As some of you may know, Shakthi is wheelchair-bound because of an illness he contracted as a child.

“When people see me promoting underwear on Monday, water bottled on Tuesday and mobile phones on Wednesday, they are not going to listen to what I have to say on Thursday,” says Shakthi.

Listen to Shakthi talking about the devaluation (and often, the frivolity) of online public discourse, and about his most important goal as an ‘influencer’ — to be an accessibility activist whose voice is heard on this important issue.

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Sairee Chahal says sexism is a ‘cancerous phenomenon’

 

Sairee Chahal is building “a full stack mahila (women) network”. Yes, that’s how she describes Sheroes, an online networking platform for women looking for work that helps them balance career aspirations with personal responsibilities.

As we settle down to our chat at the Sheroes office in Delhi’s Lado Sarai, on a street teeming with art galleries, Chahal remarks that sexism is “a cancerous phenomenon” that has existed for a long time, much before journalists like me started discovering sexism in the startup ecosystem.

Apart from providing a platform for companies to outsource their projects to women on the Sheroes network, Chahal also offers counselling services and helplines for women facing issues at their workplace.

After the recent reports of sexual harassment surfaced against the founder of TVF, Sheroes launched a new product for companies to assess their internal systems and ensure the compliance and sensitivity required.

In this episode of Outliers Podcast, we stay with the topic of sexism and sexual harassment  at the workplace, which we have been talking about consistently, and discuss how Chahal and Sheroes are attempting to change that.

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How Osama Manzar plans to take the next billion Indians online (and fight for net neutrality)


Osama Manzar is a monk in India’s digital ecosystem. And that’s not just because he looks like a monk. Manzar, a digital nomad traveling across the country’s hinterland, runs Digital Empowerment Foundation, and has taken up the mission of helping the next billion Indians get online.

“Half the world, which is not connected, is in South Asia. And in India, 75% of the women are still not online,” he says.

In September 2015, Manzar also took on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for violating net neutrality in India.

Getting the next billion users online is not just a Holy Grail for companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, but also a hidden agenda to hoard all the world’s data. As The Economist pointed out in this article a few days ago, the world’s most valuable resource is not oil, but data.

As I sit down with him for recording the Outliers podcast in his office, he shares his next battle — fighting the greedy companies looking to assemble all of the world’s data and using it to serve their corporate interests.

“All human beings are being treated like data sets,” he says.

“How algorithm and data is a means of exploitation and manipulation… is my next battle. These companies are deciding what I should consume, buy and so on… it’s a dangerous situation, and the next billion are completely ignorant about this.”

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R S Sharma, the bureaucrat who codes

 

Ram Sewak Sharma has been a digital warrior since the mid-eighties, much before the term digital became mainstream. In 1986, Sharma wrote a software application in dBase programming language to keep a record of all stolen firearms in Begusarai, a district in Bihar with high crime rates.

Over the next three decades, Sharma has led teams across different government organisations and Indian states, building applications automating everything from land records keeping to biometric based attendance system and so on.

In the year 2000, Sharma picked up a challenging assignment, and went to do his masters in computer science from the University of California.

“I struggled, failed but did not give up,” said Sharma, now the chairman the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

Being part of the government, Sharma fights many battles from inside, and has played an important role in ensuring the Internet is open and free in India. Last year, during the net neutrality developments he was at the centre of the battle for open internetin India. Also, during his stint as the director general of UIDAI (India’s massive biometric identity system) during 2009 till 2013, Sharma not only fought the early perception and technology battles in building the world’s biggest digital identity database, but also applied his coding skills.

Aadhaar, which is facing a backlash from a group of activists and others in the country because of privacy concerns, is not new to controversies. “I do feel the pain when people try to question the motives and my own conscience, because I know it’s clean and clear,” he says.

“But then, when you’re in the government you face such questions all the time. Earlier it used to be for instance, why a certain road is being built on a particular stretch, whether to favour someone and so on.”

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Podcast produced by Anand Murali.