At just 30, Umesh Sachdev has attained high honours for a Chennai-based technologist — he is the only Indian to find a place in Time Magazine’s list of “10 millennials who are changing the world”.
Umesh is the CEO and co-founder of Uniphore, a startup that produces software that lets people access digital services by speaking in their native languages. Umesh says that his innovation journey began in 2008, working with Uniphore co-founder and COO Ravi Saraogi, at the Incubation Centre in IIT Madras.
“This idea came to us when we realized that 70 percent of people, that is 700 million people live in smaller towns and villages. This is the population which is largely disconnected from the digital revolution. They are disconnected, largely because of language literacy and most of these people are not English literate,” he says.
When their journey began, the mobile phone had penetrated a majority of households, and this technology became the focus of their innovation strategies. “So the idea was to use mobile phones as a communication channel and vernacular language as the medium of communication and bridge the digital divide,” he says.
But it was not an easy task. The first edition of their ideas depended on interfacing with people through a call centre, but this did not seem scalable to the large numbers they sought to reach. And so, they decided to emulate humans in the call centre through technology. “So the technology should have speech recognition of Indian languages, then search online and the result should be spoken back in the local language,” he explains.
They began with 16 major local languages in India but realised that dialects also significantly matter. Hence, they expanded their solutions to include more than 150 dialects and 70 global languages into the system. Today, their solutions have more than 500 million users.
The most difficult part of the new venture, says Umesh, was the sheer newness of it. “We were doing something cutting edge, something new. We were creating an intellectual property which did not exist anywhere in the world. It was hard to build it,” he says.
But the challenge didn’t end with merely creating a new technology solution. Marketing it was just as large a challenge. “So after creating it, it is so new that people have not heard about it. So we had to invest in educating our customers, marketing and branding,” he says.
But the result has been making a significant difference in the world, Umesh. “We have worked with Jan Dhan Yojana. People in villages are far from their banks and cannot transact online either. So we told them to dial a number and say what they want. So, a housewife from Hyderabad calls and says, ‘I want to transfer Rs 500 to a friend,’ and the transaction gets done.” In this transaction, he explains, the machine she speaks to understands what she says, as well as carrying out biometric authentication to sanction the transaction.
On another front, the company is working with farmers in Tamil Nadu, who can “call up to ask ‘mandi’ prices, weather conditions, and any questions on crops,” he says.
Uniphore’s software solutions offer benefits not only to rural customers but urban ones as well. “Even in call centres, during a conversation, if executives are not able to find the problem, they can use the software to give better suggestions,” he says.
Umesh is honoured by his inclusion in the Time Magazine list, but is unwilling to simply sit back and enjoy such laurels. “It’s always humbling, I’m the only technologist. It’s great but we have learnt in the last eight years that these are good milestones to stop and celebrate, but the next day we need to go back and continue our work. That’s why we are here,” he says.