Inducing a new wave of workforce: Project Starfish aims to empower millions of visually impairedSnigdha Sinha
“Two years back, on a very cold Boston morning, my wife and I were invited to film a job fair held for the blind,” recalls Subhashish Acharya, Founder, mentor, and trainer, Project Starfish.
Subhashish adds, “being an Indian, I wanted to film it for other blind people so they could experience what strides these attendees had made. It was thrilling to me, seeing these eager professionals lining up with resume in hand to pitch their skills to the employers. I was shocked when none of those 150 capable educated folks were hired. This was a major turning point in my life because I saw firsthand the problems those with disabilities face.”
Imagine a platform where visually impaired individuals are provided experience and matched with employers who can utilize the skills they’ve gained as a result of these experiences. Imagine a new, unique model, one that is global, self-sustaining and that creates value to both employers and employees. Unlike philanthropic models which are based on charity and sympathy, this model would survive on the skills and talents of those utilizing this platform. This is what Project Starfish is all about.
The untapped workforce
Today, the biggest difficulty for anyone seeking employment is ‘work experience.’ The blind lack this experience, so they are unable to find a job. Mobility is a problem as well. Employers won’t hire them despite their education. There are over 250 million people with visual impairments, and this number is only growing.
In the US, the only source of income for approximately 80 per cent of blind professionals are the benefits they receive from the Social Security Administration, which is not much at all. And globally, not many are as lucky, living on alms, sympathy, and with no hope, for something that happened to them which they had no control. Globally, there are dozens of other groups of disadvantaged people whose economic independence is threatened simply because they lack opportunity. We can regard them with sympathy or compassion or inspiration, but until we create a platform that provides them equal opportunity or a professional start towards economic independence, nothing will change. Over the past centuries, billions of dollars have been invested, yet the needle hasn’t moved even a bit.
Most blind professionals are educated, smart, intelligent and heavy IT users. They use screen readers that amplify what’s on their computer screen. Smartphones are accessible, and can do the same with assistive technology. This enables blind/disabled professionals to do most of the work that a sighted person does, just differently and sometimes in less time.
The success rate for emerging businesses is low. Some die out within the first five years. Fifty to sixty per cent of a country’s economy is dependent on them, and there are millions of them globally. Why do they fail? Simple. They fail to execute and generate money. Growing a business from scratch requires a lot of effort. Just like an airplane, it takes the maximum energy to get off the ground. Unfortunately, small businesses do not have the resources to get off the ground quickly.
Today, the barrier to market goods or services is nonexistent because of technology and availability of information. One can do business globally, from anywhere. So if the world is one’s stage, why do businesses fail? The answer lies in customer acquisition and speed of engagement. There is so much information that synthesizing and generating leads is a major problem, which takes away time for engagement.
There lies the biggest Catch 22 of the digital economy. Data or information is the new oil, but it’s a huge time consuming effort. It’s a knowledge economy where speed is of the essence. It’s not about the big fish eating the small fish. It’s the fast fish eating the slow fish.
Building a new model
Subhashish tells us, “The Starfish platform is free, and will remain so for anyone who meets our explicit criteria. We have created a structured training program that accelerates our member’s skill sets in weeks. We accept no donations or charity. We are a model that’s built on the premise “learning how to fish”, instead of “feeding fish”, which doesn’t solve the problem. It’s disruptive. It’s needed. Without any funding, we’ve built an international organization. Perhaps the leanest startup in history”.
We’re surprised when Subhashish tells us that except for him, the rest of his team is blind. He adds,
We have people with no education, members with Master’s degrees in diverse fields and backgrounds, PhDs, MBAs. All of them work together in a business culture, carving out their own opportunities. I have come to understand that success is about attitude. Skills can be learned. We hire passionate people, we grow skills. Work is our worship. Project Starfish has become a mission. A new possibility. A new frontier. It’s disruptive. Change is inevitable. Change is constant. We are creating.
Making it a business: the cloud approach
Project Starfish aims at reaching a thousand people in five years. Their goal requires a thorough understanding of industry needs. It is all about creating speed and enabling customer engagement.
1. Creating a Human Big Data Research machine: There is immense research needed in the knowledge industry. Every salesperson needs to mine data, study customers, understand them and then engage with them. Project Starfish intends to become on-demand researchers aligned to big corporate sales teams. Big market research projects are divided into small chunks, distributed globally to Project Starfish’s blind members in multiple countries for execution, and are finally integrated by a project manager. A serial process converted to a distributed process (like a Big Data machine), executed 24X7, and creates information for engagement. In less time with less money. It has tangible business value.
2. Writing /proof-reading as a service: Any article written professionally needs proof-reading and subtle writing changes that take time. Blind professionals who use screen readers can take up the time consuming work of proof-reading documents.
3. Reading 90% of the world’s borehole data: Yes, quite true. Boreholes help understand the layers of rocks under the earth to help in excavation. There is software that creates ’sonification‘ out of data to interpret rocks. The same method is used in understanding data streams from stars as well. Blind professionals can do the work, and be well paid to do the same.
4. Recruitment/sourcing as a service: There are many recruitment agencies, recruiters, and sources which spend 80% of their time researching information. Imagine if the blind could do the sourcing, researching, appointment setting – a recruiter can actually double the engagement rates, close deals faster, and make more money. Project Starfish is already executing a pilot on this.
5. On-demand researchers/appointment-setters for startup incubators: Imagine a subscription service where all startups in an incubator can get their research done, test their market, and have their appointments set to allow them to focus on strategic activities and engage with customers. Project Starfish is carrying out a pilot in this space as well.
He adds his two cents here, “We have failed, tested, got up and found out what works and what doesn’t. We failed quickly, learned our lessons and immediately changed our path. This is key to any startup. There is no failure. Just learn your lessons. Learn it quickly. Develop patience and the mindset of acceptance.”
The beginning was not easy. Businesses weren’t willing to take a chance on this untried concept. Even though the project was great, it wasn’t accepted with open arms at first. Subhashish used to go to his job in the morning and spend six to seven hours training people in the evening. Eventually, they gained momentum in the US.
Along the way, Subhashish has learnt two things, he tells us.
The first is – people and trust are the only currency in the world. Develop them. The second is – the speed of the train is the speed of the engine. It’s about leading. When you lead and believe strongly in what you are doing, people believe in you.
Fast forward a year and a half. Project Starfish has trained nearly 100 blind professionals (and others with severe disabilities), in nine countries. They have worked with over 45 startup and emerging businesses in eight countries, and generated over $100,000 without taking a single donation and with people who have had no employment for decades. Seventy per cent of the members work, earn money, and have found new possibilities, new hope and a better life. Several have moved on with full time or part-time jobs.
Subhashish works 18 hours a day (including his day job), makes no money for himself from the venture (since the businesses pay the members directly), trains and mentors the members and wants to grow this to thousands globally. We ask him about his inspiration. He replies,
The answer is simple, yet difficult to understand. Our professionals who are blind or disabled inspire me every day. They have challenges everywhere; they can’t see their loved ones, or the movie their friends did, or drive a car. They can’t see the beauty of nature. They can’t see the rainbow after the storm. They can’t always take vacations and many things that most of us take for granted.
The Project Starfish team hits the ground running every day, working together, growing the organization, making a better tomorrow without ever complaining about their disability. Subhashish adds, “It would inspire and humble you too, if you could see what I do. Seeing them become leaders personally and professionally is my reward. I grow as a leader, I can grow any business and make it big if I want to. I have transformed from just a worker in society to a value-added leader.”
In short, Project Starfish has a visionary, creative business model that creates business and social impact. A readymade, skilled workforce available on demand to businesses needing its diverse services, paid by companies. Thus, a system which can sustain itself through creating new, and small jobs. This model, over time, can grow to massive proportions, bringing value to the business world, to its workforce and society as a whole. As a result, there can now be hope in the eyes of those who lost their sight, dignity and economic independence.
On a parting note, Subhashish adds,
They say, true discovery is not about finding a new product, land, or invention. True discovery is about seeing the same thing through a different perspective. I see the possibilities every day and I see a brighter tomorrow for millions.