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Diversity: Why Bother? Lest we forget – The ‘Nanhi Kali’ wake-up call!


A deep DiveIn is indeed what allows you first hand unhindered insight into the grass root level reality. Thanks to the Chartered Insurance Institute’s D&I event of October 9, we got a telling glimpse into what is not right there. Most diversity discussions end up covering the gender composition and deficits thereof at board and management levels. The Mahindra group’s CSR initiative ‘Nanhi Kali’ (literally little bud), presented by Sheetal Mehta, poignantly reveals the extreme bias against girl child from their very infancy and many a times even before birth.

For those of us who were present – here is the gist and for those who were not – this should serve as a wake-up call:

  • In India, almost 20 million girls are still denied education
  • National Literacy level: 65% for females versus 82% for males
  • Rural Literacy level: 46% for females versus 71% for males
  • Child Sex Ratio: 914 girls to 1000 boys

(Source: 2011 Census)

  • Drop-out Rates: 1 out of every 2 girls by Grade 10

(Source: Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2013-14)

Why does this situation prevail for girls in India?

  • Poverty, household chores, regressive social practices like child labour and child marriage lead to girls dropping out of school
  • Poor quality of education

Setup in 1996, Project ‘Nanhi Kali’ is managed by the KC Mahindra Education Trust and Naandi Foundation. Till date it has educated 300,000 underprivileged girls. It provides academic, material and social support. Is responsible for the yellow tablet revolution and today over 4000 Nanhi Kalis are pursuing undergraduate and graduate courses across 4300 academic centres. Through its dedication and focus, it is able to maintain 83% attendance; learning outcomes have reportedly improved by 10% – 20%.

That we generally obsess with the creamy layer at the very top and tend to miss out the underlying reality – applies here as well! The foundation of Diversity & Inclusivity must be laid at this very level to insure that a today’s Nanhi Kali blossoms as tomorrow’s top manager or a board member and beyond.


Diversity: Why Bother?

Significance of a recent D&I event in Mumbai!

There is a dominant feedback that one keeps hearing since the first ever insurance industry Diversity event, held here recently in Mumbai, under the auspices of the Chartered Insurance Institute. “There was no mention of insurance” during the proceedings. Now, that is precisely why insurance requires a regular and urgent dosage of Diversity!

This country is the world’s oldest melting pot, which continues to brew vigorously. Many of the internal dynamics call for a revisit and reset so as to align with modern times.

The celebrity speaker Nandita Das was candid, crisp and passionate in unpeeling layers after layers of our inherited unconscious biases. Her experiences both inside and outside the country went way beyond skin colour, caste, region, gender and profession. To quote Hetal Dalal, COO Institutional Investors Advisory Services, “I liked Nandita Das’ comment on identity and recognition that historical wrongs get suppressed in the argument towards a pure meritocracy”.  Somewhere something in our historical past did not go right and we started creating barriers and status quo. Some of us became self-serving. How can the insurance business be unaffected? If we must restore trust we need to be more representative.

After a couple of sabbaticals says Samina Patel, who has had a chequered career in the financial services,  “In fact many female HR Heads used to wonder how I can even think I can get back into mainstream after a 3.5 years break. But I believed in myself.” Such courage is generally rare. She adds, “I have also started an initiative in my current role to look for women candidates looking to get back part-time for sales lead generation.”

Sian Fisher, CII CEO, took over the mantle of “HeForShe” well ahead of any other financial service. Proving more than a point – that insurance need not be a laggard and also a lady can lead this charge from the very front.

As this market reaches out to build trust amongst women, digital natives, retirees, rural populace, those who communicate in vernacular and all the potential first time buyers – the very ones who have resisted our embrace – we need to transcend beyond the physics of our business. Apart from a deep DiveIn, we must ensure an intense ongoing chemistry too. This was a call to open up our minds and strive for “Empathy, Education and Engagement”, in Sian’s words. I am tempted to add Endearment, here.

Data seekers at the event too would have realized that Diversity is very much a right brain activity. Insurance is a business of trouble and calls for empathy. We are also currently faced with a talent crunch and a tectonic shift thanks to the arrival of a new generation of employees and customers – the Gen Z which will make the Millennials seem old.  Diversity & Inclusivity (D&I) is one mantra that will reverse the dysfunctionality and hopefully endear insurance to a wider base.

That diverse boards generate superior ROI is well established. We are yet to reconcile with a lesser known fact about the growing power of women in household spend. Why does home insurance not really sell here? If we were to make one and one two – are we pitching and appealing to someone who has it within her to decide? Bandhan Bank, for instance, does it very well – micro-lends only to women. A sure shot way to ensure there are no bad debts!

“It was a truly sincere effort at promoting diversity rather than just a tick in the box sake kind of event”, an observation from Samina that more than sums up the success of the maiden event. This is more vital than any other statistics!

Optimising Trust, not Price & Claims Optimisation: World of Digital Insurance!

Market events in India – around underwriting and claims have become rarer compared to those centering distribution. Very recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at one such and congratulated the organiser. Underwriting and Claims are the heart and soul of our business. What was unique about this event – it had a significant presence of technology practitioners and vendors. Thanks to the rapid advancements in Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Block Chain, IOT et al there is renewed hope. That service levels will lift, customer journey would become less bumpy and trust will return. To what extent is it a wishful thinking and what do global trends portend for us?

Ground reality: The underlying business predominantly remains loss making. There is a creamy layer of valuation that excites ‘irrational exuberance’. The knowledge business that we are supposedly into is stunted by a shallow and shrunken knowledge pool. In the words of a visionary leader “the industry is good at paying small losses but not the big ones”. Underwriting information is not always forthcoming when contracts are entered into. This paves the path for ‘contract uncertainty’. The glamour at the ‘Point of Sale’ overshadows the demands at the ‘Moment of Truth’. Future growth potential drives most stakeholders into a tizzy. Lack of a channel specific value proposition induces channel conflict. NCOR (Net Combined Operating Ratio) loses hands down to ROI (Return on Investment). Needless to mention the ongoing interplay between excess capital and pricing pressures!

Learning from some global trends:

Like in any fast growing emerging market, here too the pace of growth and level of fulfillment will be increasingly technology enabled. If traditional insurers do not get their act right, tech players will quickly displace the old order. However, sheer speed and resulting transparency will not guarantee a new version of loyalty and trust. At this juncture I would like to draw liberally from Duncan Minty – a London based independent ethics consultant and a prolific blogger. In his recent paper titled “The Great Accountability Challenge Facing Insurance Leaders”, Duncan reminds us, “The insurance industry is changing. New technologies and new business models are presenting strategic opportunities that firms are pursuing with enthusiasm. Yet this reshaping also presents new challenges to the accountability of insurance firms.”

Two particular challenges noteworthy amongst a long list of data transformations are: 1. “The accountability gap: The complexity of AI can open up a veritable gulf between the decisions of individual people, and effects that those decisions produce. Even though the detriment is evident, no one in the insurance firm sees it as their responsibility.”

  1. The accountability imbalance: The reach and depth of AI makes it an empowering technology for those utilising it. This can cause insurance firms to see their decisions as perfectly rational, while seeing the decisions of policyholders as much less so. The danger is that such empowerment could cause insurance people to just not see ethical issues associated with AI”, he warns.

Duncan then goes on to remind readers of “Some Harsh Lessons”. “There’s an ironic mismatch happening in insurance at the moment. Many insurance people think that AI and big data are bringing their firms ‘closer to consumers’. That’s confusing proximity with intimacy. And it’s also mistaking proximity to the customer as an informational object, with proximity to them as a person. Consumers will want to get closer to insurers because of the outcomes they experience. AI has the potential to deliver outcomes that push consumers away.”

“Trust falls through the floor when consumers see insurers as just not recognizing, let alone accepting, their accountability for the decisions their businesses are making. And it’s not just consumers – investors and business partners will expect insurance firms to keep a firm handle on their accountability, seeing it as an indicator of performance, confidence and ownership.”

Price and claims optimisation:

It was a couple of years ago that Duncan put up a red flag to remind us on the vices rather than the virtues alone of big data. He saw an emerging trend of regulatory push back on price optimisation. “The price version has the insurer setting the premium for insuring a risk according to what the policyholder is prepared to pay, rather than the level of risk that the policy is presenting. It involves using big data to work out the price at which particular types of customer will start to look for alternative quotes, and then progressively raising the premium to just below the amount.”

He is now going a step further and flagging claims optimisation as yet another potential trust buster. “With claims optimisation, insurers would seem to be abandoning all remaining hope of sustaining trust in a digitized market. Claims optimisation involves using big data to establish the amount that a particular claimant would be prepared to accept as settlement of their claim. So if all those algorithms pinpointed the claimant as someone in financially tight circumstances, then the settlement offered to that claimant would be optimised to reflect their greater and more immediate need for cash. This would involve tweaking the comparative speed of a cash settlement versus a replacement service and setting their relative offers to achieve an optimised position.”

He goes on to emphasise “Let’s be quite clear: claims optimisation is an exploitation of the unequal balance of information and economic power between a consumer and an insurer. It is unprofessional and it is unethical.”

Three cheers for Lemonade!

Given this backdrop, here is something to cheer about. Just over a year old, this New York based insurer does not just have a very non-conformist brand but is vigorously shaking the old order.  They fancy calling themselves the tech company ‘doing’ insurance. Arguably the most disruptive startup the insurance industry has ever seen! While many continue to question its potential longevity – Lemonade is winning laurels for its innovative ways. Amongst the things that stand out the most – donating part of profit from a policy to the insured’s preferred charity; zero deductible covers; drawing a significantly higher proportion of women to insure with them and the super speed of transactions. Behavioural change and reinforcement of trust are their two key accomplishments. They have for instance already seen customers returning back claim monies which they thought were not actual claims.

In conclusion:

So there is indeed hope for underwriting and claims. Perhaps there will be more versions of Lemonade sooner than later delighting customers with speed, transparency and fairness. As more and more individuals and businesses in emerging markets seek to transfer their risks to insurers – optimising trust will not only ensure loyalty but a win-win behavior. This will surely be a welcome prescription for insurers in the growth phase.


Evolving board diversity in India

Source: Evolving board diversity in India

And…Coal on the face!

From the opium trade to the arrival of railways and mishandling of the politico-economy, resulting into a missed opportunity of optimally tapping our own reserves and energy insecurity! India’s coal saga is a fascinating but murky history and literally an egg on the face of governance.

Quite like the previous author-audience interaction, it piggybacked too – though this time on a single book – India’s Coal Story. The issues discussed at the British Empire’s then second most important city after London – Calcutta – ranged from the encephalitis breakout in Gorakhpur, nuclear power, Fukushima, clean energy, social causes and millennials beginning to question ethics of parental professions and businesses.

Subhomoy Bhattacharjee, in this scholarly work, bares the sinews of imperialism – how it manifests itself by drawing energy from coal, with both intended and unintended consequences. The centrepiece being implications for governance or lack thereof in the running of an independent India and the burgeoning corporate culture.

The discovery of coal deposits by British geologists along the right bank of the Damodar river in Bengal coincided with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, points out Subhomoy. Heavy exploitation commenced only after a hiatus of 50 years thanks to a flourishing opium trade, he says. Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore “positioned himself neatly in the East Asian opium triangle that the British built. The opium was manufactured at Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh, transported by Ganga to the ships from Calcutta from where it was shipped to China. The cargo was opium, the fuel was coal and Tagore ran the largest coal business in the country”, to quote Subhomoy.

There was a slump in the demand for coal as the opium trade fizzled out. “Decades later, as the theatre turned to West Asia, interest in coal revived. In the late nineteenth century, Britain and Russia began a fight to control the oil wells of Asia, including Persia. The Indian colony of Britain stepped in to play a crucial supporting hand in this game. The viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, raced to build a pan-Indian network of railways to transport troops and supplies to the possible war fields of Asia. The railways needed coal to run and so begun the second phase of interest in India’s energy game”.

Interestingly, according to Subhomoy, “The business exploded as a new industrial group from Bombay stepped into the cocktail. It was led by Sir Jamsetji Tata’s son, Sir Dorabji Tata, with an extensive interest in the business of steel and consequently of coal to smelt that steel”.

“India’s coal reserves have always proved to be too hot to handle for its governments. It owns the fourth largest reserves in the world. It should have provided a first-class opportunity to keep the economy driving ahead at full speed; it has instead been its first-class curse”, he goes on to observe.

” As the state repeatedly failed to develop the coal mines adequately to provide for the fuel needs of companies, Indian industry was gradually forced to look abroad to source coal on the banks of another river, this time in Africa, Zambezi in Mozambique to deposits of Australia and Indonesia. It is possible that by 2018, every third tonne of coal used in India could come across the seas. That creates a mighty challenge for the energy security of the nation”, predicts Subhomoy.

Unless a renewable source of energy appears dramatically and assumes a sustainable viability, thermal power will remain a major driver of Indian economy for a very long time. India’s Coal Story should be a handy mirror to anyone who wishes not to mess up a critical lifeline of an aspiring superpower. Needless to mention, several lessons for all those wishing not to repeat the risk of governance lapses irrespective of what profession they practise.

Diversifying diversity: A twist in the tale!

Reading a book is like embarking upon a conducted tour. The author navigates you through his or her chosen maze. Sometimes it could be a driver-cum-guide and other times the two could be different. It’s when you get the author outside his or her set script and make him or her work afresh – outside the plot – that you really discover the thought process. Thereby, inventing a whole new narrative. Moreover, if the author is prolific – diversity generally comes hand in hand. Diversifying such a diversity is what ‘unconducted’ tour leads you into…

Once again, Dr. V. Raghunathan and I were at the Ahmedabad Management Association (AMA) – this time to run a panel on “Women Leadership and Governance on Corporate Board”. A subject on which much has been written and talked about. The best thing I thought one could do was to cajole the author to take the audience on a road he had thus far not intended to travel. In return we all had a taste of a new and fascinating account.The weave was complex. Let me, however, pick three major threads. All flow from three books of his.

The Good Indian’s Guide to Queue Jumping: To give you a glimpse in Raghu’s words – In a nation of a billion people, there’s no escaping queues. We find ourselves in one every day — whether to board a flight, for a darshan at Tirupati or, if we are less fortunate, to fetch water from municipal taps. We no longer wait for years for a Fiat car or a rotary-dial phone, but there are still queues that may last days, like those for school admissions. And then there are the virtual ones at call centres in which there’s no knowing when we will make contact with a human. So if you can’t escape ’em, can you beat ’em? Mercifully, yes. (After all, our national hero once pronounced, ‘Hum jahan khade ho jaate hain, line wahin se shuru hoti hai,’ and we made it our motto.) And if so, how can you jump queues better? Which excuse works like a charm? How should you backtrack if someone objects? Does it help to make eye contact? Are we generally accommodating of queue-jumpers and why? More importantly, what does queue-jumping say about us as a people? Does it mean we lack a sense of fairness and basic concern for others? So, my googly to Raghu in this context was – should not women jump the queues so as to break the glass ceiling? Like my subsequent variations to the line and length of my deliveries, he not only answered with usual aplomb but made the cause of HeForShe explicit!

Don’t Sprint the Marathon: Life mimics a marathon more than it does a sprint. Obvious as that may appear, as proud and ambitious parents, we often push our children to excel in ways that may help them achieve some early successes – but may sap their stamina to endure the more difficult challenges which life may throw at them. Life is not a sprint, and it does not in the long run matter very much if you missed out on the best school, college or job as starters. As long as you give yourself the time to develop your personality and skills, you will still get where you want, at your own pace and perhaps far more happily. If we need more and more women not only at the CXO levels but on the boards too, don’t they need to run their marathon faster? His humility and consent towards the cause came to the forefront.

In Games Indians Play – borrowing some extracts from the foreword to the book by Mr N R Narayana Murthy – Raghu examines Indian social behaviour through game theory and behavioural economics. He shares insights into what makes people pursue selfish strategies and maximise personal gain at the expense of public good. Such an attitude has over time led to the present situation of public apathy for law and order, fractured sense of public good and corruption across all sections of Indian society. He was all yes to my suggestion as to whether he would consider a sequel – ‘Games Indian Men Play’ whereby chauvinist menfolk come in the way of women’s journey to the top!

Maybe this was stimulating enough for the versatile author to reconsider respective alternatives. By having batted deftly to my provocations – he not only diversified his diverse themes but took us all, that fine evening, through a memorable tour de force!

And then – a twist in the tale! A perfect weave can only be enhanced by an imperfect intrusion… Just as we were about to conclude a gripping interaction with the audience – jumped in this ‘gentleman’. Should not women, who are weaker than men, be kept away from the competitive world of business? Everyone other than him that evening, men and women, was stunned by his belief. Thankfully, a lone voice that the rest of the benign lot resisted reacting to. After all the convergence we witnessed that evening, someone still chose to remain doggedly prejudiced. I guess that diversifies diversity, too! Some anti-diversity…

@Simla Coffee House!

Rakesh Bedi’s Simla Coffee House is not just unfolding of a fascinating plot. Set in a coffee house, as the name suggests where Mr Bedi plays waiter Satish Kashyap’s role. An exceptional cast lifts the theme way beyond the semi-rustic backdrop where novelist Anup Chander generally parks himself and builds on his magnum opus ‘Tere Chhall’. A runaway success and a bestseller. Every moment of the one and a half hour drama is gripping, with plenty of hilarity. It’s been labelled as a psycho comic.

The story ignites slowly in a placid environment. The waiter as well as the author in ‘residence’ warm up to each other in a rather amusing fashion. Over inquisitiveness, ‘pregnant’ pauses, interesting glimpses and insights… As the plot thickens – plain curiosity turns into shades of cheeky. Streaks of insanity begin to dominate with the arrival of a troubled reader. He is factually better informed on all the stuff the author has ever put together! The unfolding life and times of protagonist Tarun Mathur mirror his own.

A dose of anxiety gets injected as near lunacy begins to overtake. The fanatic fan Rahul Verma, played by Asif Sheikh, seems hell bent on subverting the storyline. Like a nasty malware he is on seize. That literally turns the anxiety of viewers into annoyance. Anup Chander, characterised by SM Zaheer, ends up far more exasperated than flattered given the demands of a nasty fan. The flashbacks from Tarun Mathur’s biography virtually put the audience on a pendulum swing. Versatile Nivedita Baunthiyal dramatises the oscillation from Tarun Mathur to Rahul Verma’s ‘battered half’ successfully.

In authoring the script and directing the play – Rakesh Bedi finally drops his ‘funny guy’ mask that he seems to have forever worn on the stage, small and big screens. Here he very deftly explores the interplay between what seems to be a story teller script’s influence on the life of its characters and how they in turn literally walk away from it! Do they? And it is Rakesh Bedi who eventually comes out shining thanks to his versatility. Being in the front rows at the Prithvi does feel like a fly on the wall of the coffee house. A true jewel showcased recently to commemorate the IPTA anniversary.