Empower Pragati focuses on vocational skill training, striving to “transform lives, skill India.” The company provides young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with skill training and supports them to find secure employment or start their own business.
To start, could you briefly introduce yourselves?
Rajiv: I am Rajiv Sharma. Ten years ago, I founded Empower Pragati.
Pritha: I am Pritha Dutt, Director and Board Member at Empower Pragati. I oversee the Human Resources, Training, Marketing and Project Design functions.
Mohtashim: I am Mohtashim Khan, Assistant Vice President of Empower Pragati. I am responsible for the government vertical.
Mrinal: I am Mrinal Kant. As Assistant Vice President of Empower Pragati, I launched a new vertical focusing on courses that are self-funded by students.
To start, could you briefly introduce Empower Pragati?
Pritha: We are a social enterprise focused on vocational skill training. Our mission is to “transform lives, skill India.” We provide young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with skill training and then support them to find secure employment or start their own business.
Mohtashim: From the enrolment stage itself, we make sure that candidates are serious about employment after their training. These students are provided ongoing counselling, training, and, in several projects, hostel facilities during the training period – all free of cost. In the end, they are certified by the relevant industry-led Sector Skills Council and offered options in entry-level jobs. Alumni can also call our tele-counsellors for further support. Our goal is for them to stay on the job for at least half a year.
Mrinal: We also upskill workers in the informal sector. For example, we run technical courses and a hotline for roadside mechanics. Also, we help them network among each other to increase their negotiation power. These courses are mostly fee-based.
What is the special value you create for women?
Pritha: Women from low-income communities face double challenges. The first one is that they are not provided opportunities for education or career choices. The second one is that very often, their life choices are made by male family members. So, we offer extra counseling and mentoring to women, especially those from low-income backgrounds. We also run women-only programs with modules on gender sensitivity and awareness of law and women’s rights. In addition, we have recently launched a course on women’s entrepreneurship. Overall, 33 percent of our students are female. We want to make it 40 percent over the next few years.
How many people do you reach?
Mohtashim: Since 2010, we have trained 450,000 students. We run 58 professional education centres and offer classes in over 1,000 government schools across India.
How else do you engage with the vocational training ecosystem?
Pritha: When Rajiv started Empower Pragati, the formal vocational education sector didn’t really exist. We were among the first partners of the National Skill Development Corporation, a publicly supported entity promoting skill development in India for youth at the ‘bottom of the pyramid.’
Rajiv: I support others who want to enter the sector. Instead of competing, I have decided to collaborate and mentor other entrepreneurs. We are working towards the same goals.
Pritha: We are also founding members of the Alliance of Skill Training Partners (ASTP), a nationally registered body. Generally, we are very actively involved in advocacy, giving policy recommendations and partnering with government and industry to make vocational skill training in India aspirational and high quality. We are especially proud of our work for domestic labourers, who formed a completely disorganised sector ten years ago. Now, there is a Sector Skill Council, for which we are founding members and where Rajiv is on the Board, a government mandate on their wages, and courses at National Skill Qualification Framework level for them. This is our lasting contribution.
Mohtashim: We collaborate with international partners, too. In 2013, we became the first social enterprise to partner with BCtA in India.
How are these courses financed?
Mohtashim: The Indian central and state governments fund most of our courses. In addition, we run CSR (corporate social responsibility) projects for companies. We also offer fee-based courses, which the students themselves pay for. Other courses are financed by employers in need of skilled labour.
What makes your business model commercially viable?
Rajiv: We operate economically. For example, we hire young graduates as trainees and train them by ourselves. We have a lean organisational structure and mould it every year to adapt to changing circumstances.
Mohtashim: We also serve a huge and growing market. India had 1.3 billion inhabitants in 2017, one third of them youths. The Indian government has realized the importance of skilling them and intends to invest more in the sector. Private companies, too, spent 326 million dollars on CSR activities in the education sector in 2017. Meanwhile, the online education market in India is expected to grow to 978 million dollars in fiscal year 2021.
What are your goals for the next decade?
Pritha: Our ambition is to train two million youths. This is a fraction of the 500 million youths who need employment and skill training in the country.
Rajiv: We also want to foster local entrepreneurship to help stem the rural exodus. We will give extra mentorship to some students and facilitate loans for them. Our goal is to create some 40 to 50 microentrepreneurs in each of our 58 training centres every year.
How are you planning to reach these goals?
Rajiv: When we started off, we focused on setting up training centres. Now, we are institutionalising processes. In addition, we are expanding online and hybrid training offers by creating our own learning management system and online training model.
Mrinal: To reduce our dependence on government-funded schemes, we will increase the number of fee-based courses, especially online. We also want to open 80 to 85 CSR centres across India in the next five years.
Why do you think this will work out?
Rajiv: We have a strong track record. Within the first two years after founding the company, we became financially self-sustainable. For the last seven years, we have been making profits. Our revenue has been growing year on year, from roughly 20,000 dollars in 2010/11 to nearly 10 million dollars in 2019/20. We have a mild debt burden and have never defaulted on any credits.
What kind of additional funding are you looking for?
Rajiv: We need anywhere between five and ten million dollars within the next five years. Investors should be interested in impact, not just financial returns.
What challenges did Empower Pragati overcome?
Rajiv: Plenty. The past ten years, ever since I quit my high-profile corporate job, have been the toughest period of my career. When I started off, I believed that all poor people were unhappy and would queue up for the free training and employment opportunities I had to offer. I had to move on from this misconception, learn about their needs, their aspirations, the expectations of companies, the way to mobilize and counsel youth and families, and hiring passionate team members – especially trainers. Alongside all this, I had to build a scalable, sustainable business. Also, ensuring students were retained on the jobs was an issue in the beginning. We had to redesign our courses, create our own call centre for closer mentoring and connect and build a stronger relationship with industry. I keep going on because I know that every day our trainings have transformed someone’s life. This is the biggest inspiration of my life. Every challenge has made me and us stronger.
What do you recommend to other companies?
Pritha: You need to demonstrate what you preach. Your purpose is important and key. For us therefore, everyone we employ must be inspired by our mission and core values.
Rajiv: Be transparent and allow for flexibility in your business plans. Do not let your failures put you off but build on the lessons you learn. Focus on collaboration rather than competition. Stay focused on your impact. If you remain committed to your course, money will follow.
Mrinal: Developing a relationship with a community and creating lasting impact takes time. Be patient and give it three or four years.