Radha Basu: AI, iMerit, and the Power of Youth

The 2024 LBS Social Impact Club Conference concluded with a keynote on leveraging technology for social impact. Radha Basu (Founder and CEO of iMerit and co-founder of Anudip Foundation) shared her journey as a pioneer in the Indian software industry and a tech entrepreneur dedicated to addressing youth unemployment.

Through iMerit and Anudip, Radha has employed and upskilled hundreds of marginalised women and youth in digital services. Before her work with these foundations, she led SupportSoft (now Support.com) as Chairman & CEO and spent two decades at Hewlett Packard, where she founded HP’s India operations. Radha has also served on the boards of NetHope, Jhumki Basu Foundation, and Santa Clara CSTS. 

The conversation was moderated by Rajesh Chandy (Professor of Marketing and the Tony and Maureen Wheeler Chair in Entrepreneurship at London Business School, and Co-Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute). 

iMerit’s Mission and Inclusivity

The discussion started off with Radha providing an overview of iMerit’s mission. As an AI technology company, it focuses on AI solutions and products. iMerit specialises in data annotation and labelling to train AI models for clients. These models, essential for AI development, rely on annotated data to function effectively. iMerit’s projects include autonomous technologies, medical AI for surgical robots, and social media analytics for issues like suicide prevention. The company handles edge cases, simulations, and test scenarios to ensure model reliability. Radha highlighted iMerit’s competitive edge, partially stemming from its focus on client success and business growth. This focus was reflected in the company’s high net revenue retention, implying strong client relationships.

Another important achievement mentioned by Radha was the 50-50 gender split among the employees at iMerit which includes young people from low-income and underrepresented communities, extending opportunities beyond established tech hubs. The company operates in areas like Shillong, Bhuvaneshwar, and Calcutta, focusing on critical job creation regions. 

Engaging with the Next Generation of Employees

Radha described her collaborative and approachable communication style with younger employees at iMerit, where the average age is 24.6 years. Despite being the CEO and founder, Radha is affectionately called “Dee,” meaning older sister. Young employees are confident and often challenge her decisions. For instance, they might recall a time when Radha doubted a complex project, only to see it succeed later. This dynamic keeps her energised and fulfilled, as the employees’ persistence and enthusiasm drive the company’s success.

Radha’s Personal Journey

Moving on to Radha’s personal journey, she talked about her decision to pursue engineering the strict traditional environment. She recounted a clear gender imbalance during her university years, being one of only 17 girls among 2,700 boys in her engineering university. 

Joining HP’s R&D lab marked the beginning of her successful career. Radha credited HP for honing her business skills, understanding financials, and blending technology with community impact. During her years at HP, Radha had a transformative moment that connected her past experiences to her current work. She described how these experiences shaped her approach to technology, entrepreneurship, and impact. Radha’s journey illustrates the blend of perseverance, learning, and seizing opportunities, ultimately leading her to create meaningful social impact through iMerit. 

From HP to Support.com and Beyond

After 20 years at HP, Radha joined Support.com in 2000 as a CEO, just before the dot-com bust. Despite the timing, the company thrived, and she gained valuable experience. This led her to establish a non-profit called Anudip Foundation focused on training young people from marginalised backgrounds. Over 15 years, the organisation upskilled over 500,000 people, with 75% securing jobs and over 50% being women. 

Radha’s vision extended to digital skills and AI. She initiated training in computer vision and AI, targeting large clients and skilling individuals in advanced technologies like autonomous vehicles and 3D mapping. Her focus on high standards and selective investors ensured the company’s growth and success. One of iMerit’s centres became a global hub of excellence in computer vision, celebrating a decade of impactful work. 

Aligning Social Impact with Profitability

The importance of aligning social impact with business goals was discussed as well. Indeed, Radha maintained that companies seek solutions, high-quality technology, and profitability. While they may appreciate noble causes, their primary concern is business success. To maintain competitiveness, expertise, technology, and adaptability are crucial, especially with the rapid evolution of AI. 

The establishment of iMerit’s training academy became a business differentiator, reducing retraining costs and fostering a consistent, skilled workforce. Radha reiterated the importance of believing in young people’s potential, taking risks, and embracing change. Rajesh acknowledged how Radha’s experiences at HP and the emergence of Bangalore as a tech centre influenced her. He noted that such transformations could happen in other cities, highlighting the potential for new tech hubs to emerge globally. 

Regulation of AI

When asked about the dialogue between the business community and policymakers regarding AI regulation, Radha underscored the importance of responsible AI. She noted that AI models are trained by examples, making it essential to consider who provides these examples and how they shape AI. 

Radha advocated for a collaborative approach to regulation, involving AI experts from technology and enterprise sectors working with government officials. While monitoring and security are important, she argued that regulations should not stifle innovation. There’s an ongoing debate about pausing AI development until proper regulations are in place. However, it was pointed out that young innovators are unlikely to wait for older generations to catch up. They will continue to develop and push boundaries, which is essential for progress. 

Adapting to Generative AI: Workforce Challenges and Solutions

IMerit has come a long way, adapting to the challenges posed by the rise of generative AI and automation. Radha explained that while iMerit initially focused on annotation and labelling, achieving high-quality results through extensive training and skilling academies, generative AI has introduced new complexities requiring different skills. 

According to Radha, comprehension, communication, and confidence, are essential for prompt engineering and response, where employees must interact effectively with AI models. To tackle this, iMerit prioritises training in logical reasoning, judgment, and critical thinking, alongside advanced English skills. iMerit invested in retraining programs, allowing employees to take some time off from projects to build their skills and prepare better for future challenges. 

Innovative Solutions Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, iMerit faced a true existential crisis, as it was forced to close its centres overnight. Yet those centres were not only workplaces but also social hubs for employees. With 300 employees suddenly at home, many in remote areas without broadband, maintaining operations seemed daunting. 

Demonstrating its adaptability, iMerit worked with broadband providers to extend last-mile connectivity to employees’ homes. They initiated “combat coding,” where employees were equipped with the necessary tools and support. Remarkably, employees travelled up to 50 kilometres on motorbikes to deliver and install equipment. 

Radha shared inspiring stories of resilience: women carrying desktops home, pregnant employees balancing work and family, and innovative setups like using kitchen spaces or rooftops for better connectivity. One particularly memorable image was of an employee working under an umbrella on her roof to get a better signal. This spirit of innovation and dedication allowed iMerit to continue operations. Within five weeks, they resumed work community by community, project by project. The company’s culture of responsibility and problem-solving was crucial. Employees supported each other, ensuring projects stayed on track.

About the speakers

Radha Ramaswami Basu is the founder and CEO of iMerit, a global AI data solutions company delivering high-quality data that powers machine learning and artificial intelligence applications for Fortune 500 companies. Under Radha’s leadership, iMerit employs an inclusive workforce of more than 5500 people worldwide, with 80% from underserved communities and 54% are women. Radha led iMerit through two funding rounds, raising $23.5 million to date from investors and led the company to reach new revenue heights. Previously, Radha was the SupportSoft Chairwoman and CEO. She spent 20 years at Hewlett Packard, where she grew HP’s electronic software division into a $1.2 billion business and launched HP in India. Radha has received accolades including the Global Thinkers Forum Award, UN Women-ITU Gender-Equality Mainstreaming Technology Award, Silicon Valley Business Journal Women of Influence Award, Top 25 Women of the Web and CEO of the Year. She serves on the boards of NetHope, Jhumki Basu Foundation and the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Radha founded the SCU’s Frugal Innovation Hub and co-founded the Anudip Foundation.

Rajesh Chandy is Professor of Marketing and the Tony and Maureen Wheeler Chair in Entrepreneurship at London Business School, where he is also the Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development. Rajesh’s current research lies at the intersection of business and development. His recent projects have covered the impact of business skills among micro-entrepreneurs in South Africa, novel financing approaches in Ghana, property rights in slums in Egypt, innovation among farmers in India, highways and private education expenditures in India, and using big data for development outcomes.

Chandy is a member of the advisory board of the Journal of Marketing and a Co-Editor of the journal’s special issue on “Better Marketing for a Better World”. He is also co-editor of the Management Science special issue on “Business and Climate Change,” and previously served as an Area Editor for the Entrepreneurship and Innovation area at Management Science. Chandy’s research and publications have received several awards, including the Mahajan Award for Lifetime Contributions to Marketing Strategy Research, the ISMS Gary Lilien Practice Prize for research that contributes most to the practice of marketing, the Journal of Marketing Harold Maynard Award for contributions to marketing theory and thought, the AMA TechSIG Award for the best article on Technology and Innovation (twice), the Gerald E. Hills Award for the Best Paper on Entrepreneurial Marketing, and the Albert Page Award for best professional paper on innovation. He has also received the AMA Early Career Award for contributions to marketing strategy research, and has been named an MSI Young Scholar. Fortune magazine described Chandy’s findings on innovation as “an unorthodox and bracing set of management principles.”

About the author

Vitaly Zakalskiy (LBS MiM 2024) is an Outreach and Communications Intern at the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development. Vitaly holds a BSc in Economics & Politics from the London School of Economics. He has experience in strategy consulting and research in the field of business strategy in emerging markets.

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