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Recently, the Mint carried an interview  with Yannick Binvel of Korn Ferry on his take on what the future of the workplace will look like. 

http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/kQMkzYo0DcAw40NsWSsvHK/Yannick-Binvel-What-the-future-of-the-workplace-will-look-l.html He talks of reverse mentoring (my previous article) but he also talks about AI technology changing the work place.  

So heres my take on AI….A few days ago I caught up with a friend whom I have not seen in a long time and who has changed his job. Now after being in the driving seat and Director of a US$6.3 billion company he was now being given a different mandate. His area of operation too had changed to a very large geographical area. He has always been a very humble man when it comes to describing the work he does and this time was no different. ‘I am a landlord. I have to look after buildings, and chairs and tables, and make sure employees have laptops’, was his response to what he is now doing for the company. Conversation moved from real estate and procuring square feet to how he now has to prepare for the challenging time of having to replace men with bots.

Businesses have come to realize that going digital is the way to do business in the new world today. Making work processes easier, more energy efficient, data warehousing etc. But listening to him break down the reality of machines taking the place of his employees in his very easy conversational style, hit me hard. Well just to give you a flavor of just how he said things - ‘I have to start a new process that needs about 500 people. And so I have to find place for them to sit, find chairs, find laptops for them to work and tables to place these laptops on. This is for now. But in about five years I also have to replace these people with 10 bots that will fit into your hall (dimensions of my living room: a 3 bed house, so you can imagine) and will more efficiently do the work of these 500 people with a whole lot less cost. No real estate, no laptops, no chairs, no tables’.

Now from a business point of view this sounds hunky dory. Imagine managing bots. No late coming, no coffee breaks, smoke breaks, absenteeism, office romances, nothing. Just work, productivity, efficiency...all the words that corporates like to hear.

So sometime soon instead of getting Mr. Shukla, Relationship Manager at the end of line, explaining to you why your check didn't clear or such like (whilst ‘neath his breath he mutters, ‘Dumb Maca Pao, sign your f....check first’.) it is likely that you will have a bot telling you much the same even down to the profanity. How can this be possible? Aren't the machines designed to do away with communication slippages and make things easier for you. Wasn’t this why we thought it was good to interface with a machine. We wouldn't have rude government officials blissfully ignoring us even though we are right up against their noses, trying to get their attention?

Beauty.ai announced a beauty contest that was to be judged by Artificial Intelligence (AI). The idea was to take the bias out of judging. The project was to also study what constituted beauty objectively. A fair number of people sent in their pictures which were fed into the system. But when the results came out, 37 of the 44 winners were white. Well Beauty.ai poo poohed it away by saying that most of the sample pictures that got sent in were of white people. So the results were skewed.

But not too long ago Microsoft launched a twitter bot named Tay. Well Tay got things mixed up too. Tay hated feminists and said that they needed to burn in hell and found ole Dolphie Hitler someone he’d like to invite to tea and play Monopoly with.

Google Photos (GP) was to identify objects on its own. Well that didn't work too well either. GP labelled a couple of African-origin, as ‘gorillas’.

Seems like replacing humans with machines doesn't seem to have gotten rid of the bias. What are our Indian Bots going to be saying? Those Chinkys have great fashion sense. Or those Madrasis only know Mathematics? What I learnt 32 years ago still hold true. GIGO: Garbage in Garbage out.

AI bots are very much like kids. A bot undergoes something called Deep Learning where it is exposed to humungous quantities of data and human behavior. With algorithms, the bot then forms its own ways of deciding how to act. Well, our world is made up of so much data and that data is a reflection of who we are as people. Which is: biased, biased, biased data. Sometimes positively but mostly negatively as we know. All the literature, advertising and other written material that exists on the internet simmers with bias. The bot is being sensitized in much the same way that we are being sensitized today. When reading about rape, terrorism, death everyday, don't we too get desensitized. It doesn't bother us too much to learn of yet another rape, death, falling building, plane crash, the list goes on.

What is of more concern is that if a bot is exposed to data like this early on in its training, much like a child, this is what it is unlikely to forget and it colors his every action and communication henceforth. When computers have done word association with words like ‘management’ and ‘salary’ it threw up more male names than female names. And words like ‘home’, ‘family’ were associated with female ones.

Seems all is not lost though, as Abhinav Aggarwal of Fluid.ai let us know that does not let the AI it puts in banks know what the customers they are interacting with look like. With the definite possibility of greater interaction with bots in the near future we have to accept that prejudices are intrinsic to our society and it will take a great amount of proactivity to stop bots from continuing them.

It is worrying that AI’s biases are being revealed in real decisions like the ones I have mentioned above. In some prisons software decides which prisoners are more likely to commit a crime again and this affects length of incarceration, bail and parole. No surprises there, the software consistently throws up black criminals as re-offenders.

To the large majority of us understanding how these algorithms work is like black hole. So calling out a bot on the basis of racism is that much harder than calling someone a bigot. Geeks still refer to AI as impartial when it is clear that bots adopt our prejudices and are far from partial.

I think that my friend will face challenges of a different kind and possibly of larger magnitude when he gets his 10 bots to work his processes. Can he ensure that his bots have been ‘deep trained’ not just to learn from humans but also guard themselves against picking up their biases?

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Listening in to the orientation session at a ‘Becoming a Mentor’ program, the organizer repeatedly reminded us that we, the mentors, get more out of mentoring than that what we put in. That mentoring is a two way process and apart from the satisfaction of being able to guide and help someone in their path to a good life, the mentor greatly benefits.  

I sat there thinking that it was quite true. After each mentoring session I could go home feeling all warmed up inside, much like the feeling after a tot of brandy in a coffee, satisfied that my previous hour changed a life. That the ‘life’ was going to someday look back on the mentoring sessions and say that ‘yours truly’ made a difference. Yes, that story has a ‘happily ever after’ kind of ending.

All this is true. Mentoring in the traditional sense of the term is a relationship between mentor and mentee where the mentor provides guidance and direction to the mentee, who is usually younger. Areas like clarity on life and career, different perspectives and cultural values, opportunities to develop new networks, access to new resources that lead to greater likelihood of career success are part of the mentoring ‘syllabus’. Organizations that have a structured mentoring program benefit a great deal by developing the pipeline of talent and setting up a structure to transfer formal leadership skills. Employee retention, improved communication and a demonstrable commitment by the employer to the employee are the up-sides to mentoring.

All this sounds perfect in the world today, right? Not entirely so. The work force today has demographics quite different from those of 15 years ago. The channels of communication are changing and on an almost daily basis - new social networks, new technologies are stressing the efficiencies of the ‘old experienced hands’. Experience is no longer the only teacher. 

With a growing generational gap and shifting expectations, leaders are faced with new challenges. If these senior leaders want to stay relevant and ahead in an age where digital natives will soon represent half the global workforce and will soon be a force to contend with, they will need to stay on the cutting ‘digital’ edge. 

Reverse mentoring is not entirely a new concept. In 2014, Microsoft came out with a reverse mentoring program. Realizing that millennials consume services quite differently and understanding that this is key to business strategy and execution, senior executives are engaged in this program where they turn to their younger colleagues for insights into what they value, insights into more information and for guidance through the millennial maze.

I can almost hear you dear reader saying, but this is what analytics does. It collects millions of data points and with clever computing spews forth information that understands the behavior of the consumer and drives business decisions. Yes, it does. But analytics is used mostly for the external customer not the internal customer, your employee.

Reverse mentoring is a win win program.The older manager mentoring a younger colleague switch roles where the younger colleague becomes the mentor. It goes beyond getting an insight ONLY for business decisions. Senior leaders get to know and appreciate the need for new ways of communicating and newer trends and the younger ones get invaluable insights into the larger picture and leadership. Exposed to new behaviors and motivations, senior leaders can better understand what drives the younger workforce and how one can attract the best of talent. This way companies can stay relevant as employers and can engage with an important customer segment. Understanding what makes them ‘tick’ will make companies explore newer marketing ideas.

My own experience with engaging in informal reverse mentoring has helped me learn better collaboration and the ability to leverage the strengths of those I manage. As is managing and motivating a younger workforce is challenging. Reverse mentoring helps bridge this divide. One finds, very often, that we are leading people who are doing jobs that we have never done and probably didn't exist before this time. Gone are the days when a 40+ year old dictating what should be happening without listening to opinions and experts, exists.

When all is said and done it isn't only about learning new tools and technologies and behaviors. It challenges one to move out of their comfort zones and at some point becomes an introspective tool to reflect on managing styles. More power to reverse mentoring! 

The author is CDO with Investronaut - Vishwakarma Group & a Mentor with Katalyst an organization that provides an enabling environment to enhance the employability of girl students pursuing professional degrees or courses.

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The word being bandied around these days is crowd funding platforms (Kickstarter & IndieGogo) and is expected to ramp up the usual entrepreneur’s ability to get funding through this new opportunity.  Whilst this avenue seems to be a good alternative to angel investing, it is doubtful that it will kill the need for angel groups.

Traditionally entrepreneurs who require funding tap family, friends, high net worth individuals to fulfil their needs before they go on to bigger sources of funding.  According to Wikipedia, angel investors contribute over $20 billion annually to entrepreneurs in the U.S., while the latest figures on crowd funding show about $9.5 billion collected in 2014. Both figures are impressive.  But to think that crowd funding will take the place of angel funding is something that David S Rose, one of the most active investors in New York thinks unlikely.  

His advice to entrepreneurs and investors is sound and he says and I quote ‘skip the hype and recognize the fundamental truths of the startup industry, before joining the crowd, or joining angels’.

It is a fact that most startups fail.  Statistics say that this failure rate is higher than 50%. To start with crossing the ‘valley of death’, the time when a startup is being funded usually by friends and family is a path strewn with the skeletons of ‘has-been’ startups.  The reason is usually running out of money or not getting funded.  Investing in startups has to be looked at like any other investment, approach with care, do your research and know that it is a low odds game.

There is no angel investor or professional venture capitalists who can be sure that a startup is going to be a success.  Investing in startups is a numbers game. The ‘portfolio approach’ which counts on hitting on a couple of big winners, while the others return very little is how angel investing and venture capitalists look at this sector.  Unsuccessful startups tend to fail early and big successful exits tend to take a long time to develop.  This means investors need to spread their  investments across a long period of time and across a large number.

Thus every serious investor reserves a certain amount of his investment capital for subsequent rounds of funding, which allows them to stay the course to success, even with dilution. Investing can be satisfying, if not always lucrative. For the rest of us, it is keeping up with technology, a give-back to entrepreneurs, and building a legacy. 

As our government looks to new way to raise taxes and the compliance issues with crowdfunding in our country much in a ‘gray’ area it will be a long time before crowdfunding can be a serious alternative to angel investing. 

Investors of all types who fund entrepreneurs, starting with friends and family, have always been all about creating win-win situations. The investor wins only when the startup wins, and today's angels can only cover a small percent of funding requests. We have a long way to go, in this new era of the entrepreneur, before angel investors aren't needed.

Investronaut

Reference: Angel Investing: The Gust Guide to Making Money and Having Fun Investing in Startups

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With this opening statement Dr. Shailesh Kasande commenced the first session of the Lecture Series: ’Ideation Management’ organised by Investronaut.  Investronaut is an incubator that helps startup and early growth businesses become viable in the market place.

A great idea does not necessarily lead to a great value proposition.  A value proposition by definition is a promise of value embedded in satisfying customer needs and in your company’s ability to deliver it to the market.  We can all have ‘good’ ideas, however, the value proposition needs information and insight from external sources.  You cannot discover the value of an idea sitting in a room no matter how smart you are and no matter how experienced you or your teams might be.  Value propositions need connection with customers coupled with your company’s delivery mechanisms.  Information alone does not create a value proposition.

Taking this a step further, the follow on from ideation through thorough insights, external and internal, clarity on the value proposition and right funding along with a motivated team still is incomplete unless you have the right mentor to guide your through the minefield of your start up journey.

The question one needs to answer is can one traverse this minefield alone?

You need to constantly collect and synthesize information; think tactically and long-term simultaneously.  You have so many hats to wear to make your business happen. It can be hard to keep the bigger picture in mind, it can be hard to think big and just know where to go next.

This can be a very lonely journey, and having someone that fully understands what you are going through, is crucial. As an entrepreneur, do you have blind spots that you cannot see?

Will you find yourself in situations where you “don’t know what you don’t know” but you have to stay in motion and make decisions regardless.

Well the long and the short of it is that you can’t expect to assemble the plane alone; that’s where good mentors can help. The correct mentor will:

Help to shape your mindset. 

Challenge your ideas and plans

Help you avoid reinventing the wheel

Help you derive insights from varied experiences – learn from other’s failures

Push you to dream bigger

Tell you stories and give encouragement that what you are doing is right & this is very comforting, less lonely

Manage expectations and help you stay focused on your core business 

Help you not be afraid of reaching beyond yourself.

Mentor will engage with you at a deeper level – integrate your life goals with the startup

It is no secret - there would be no Sachin Tendulkar if there was no Ramakant Achrekar!!

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As I close my account for 2016 I find that there are others out there in the new business space who are of the similar mind set as myself, Ranju Sarkar who writes for the Business Standard, being one of them. Go back to the basics, improve your fundamentals and then look at funding.

Founders trying to get their companies off the ground often find themselves caught between venture capital and a hard place. Like the devil and the deep blue sea it seems a hopeless choice. One that either forces founders to bootstrap - work out of their homes, have the dining table double up as a work station and a conference table or compels them to succumb to the dreaded equity sucking financing rounds.

 This begets the question if there really are no other options for founders at the early stages of their business. Dipti Vaidya & Bharat Agarwal, founders of Pune based Investronaut, believe that there is an alternative route that startups might do well to consider. According to them right now the startup industry finds itself choosing venture capital or multiple traditional funding rounds with mixed results. They believe that there needs to be a reinterpretation of the idea of ‘funding. A re-interpretation that is based on a set of principles that determines how equity will be treated, how growth will be evaluated and how to view employees. This they say is a more sustainable way to grow companies that doesn’t keep venture capitalists at one end and startup entrepreneurs on the other end.  

 Such an approach automatically focusses less on creating value for the investors by building up to an IPO, eyeing a lucrative exit or forcing that ‘next big acquisition’. Instead it relies more on building a self-sustainable organization. The idea here is that if one has a long term horizon and have a more humane way of building companies than we do right now, the multibagger returns will follow in due course.

 An even more unfortunate consequence of the short sightedness towards returns is that a founder, who has put in countless manhours and sacrificed much money in terms of opportunity cost is often left holding and small and insignificant piece of the very company he started and built a few years down the line.

 A more sustainable way to grow companies

Here is where Investronaut believes it can make a meaningful difference in the venture capital industry.

Investronaut, is a mentor driven business advisory in the startup world. Its founders believe that it plays a small but critical part in helping companies become self-sustaining in the market place. Investronaut works with startups in the early or growth stage of their lifecycle. The Investronaut approach is to bring self-sustainability into the core building blocks of the company - the management, the board structures, goal setting, strategic decision making and more. It is known that good governance practices in all areas of a business help a company to be in a better position to mitigate risks and capitalise on emerging opportunities. Startups that approach Investronaut are advised to look beyond funding as a solution to their pain points. Instead, every startup goes through a set of management tools designed to construct an ‘as is’ story of the business. Each aspect of business right from whether the business idea solves a problem or addresses social need to finance, the life-blood of any business is discussed thread-bare. 

Then starts the process of plugging the loop holes and fixing the gaps in the business model coupled with the supporting aspects of business to make the business profitable. Startups that are incubated with Investronaut can either work out of the incubation centre or from their own offices. A detailed statement of work is designed along with the mentor for each pain point of the customer. This period is for 3 months and can be extended depending on the need of the customer. 

 Rakesh Jhunjhunwala in an interview with CNBC TV18 said that real companies who have given returns to investors have been built by cash flows generated by the business and not by spending investor’s money. The Investronaut approaqch is a firm believer in this as can be seen by the above outlined process.

Therefore, when investors of the mind-set of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, ask how will a company be profitable, Investronaut clients would have already gone through one of more cycles of tweaking and managing challenges on the path to positive cash flows and self-sustainability. While this might result in higher valuations more importantly it ensures that startups are not forced to divest large amounts of equity for small amounts of funds.

With the focus on being in business for the long haul Investronaut works to advise their clients on the importance of stakeholder engagement. This process is valuable for identifying key risks and opportunities on sustainability challenges.

You can read the full article of Ranju Sarkar here: http://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/vcs-go-back-to-basics-start-ups-told-to-imrove-unit-economics-116122801294_1.html

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