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Prukalpa Sankar, Co-founder of Social Cops

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Prukalpa is the co-founder of Social Cops, a technology social enterprise that harnesses citizen voice as a powerful resource and builds synergystic, connected communities. She started building communities using technology from the age of 10 when she hardcoded an HTML website for Harry Potter Fans around the world. In her university days, she founded the Singapore Entrepreneurship Challenge which unites over 150+ startups and youth in Singapore every year and led teams of 20+ people in university. A certified workaholic, you’ll probably find her penning down thoughts or reading when she’s not working. She also writes a monthly column at Inc42. She has previously worked in the business divisions of Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil. She studied Engineering and Entrepreneurship at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and is currently based out of New Delhi, India.

This week, the Asian Entrepreneur interviews Prukalpa about her entrepreneurial experience working on Social Cops and her thoughts on Asian startups.

What exactly is Social Cops?

Communities are disengaged – citizen voice is not harnessed in any form except media & forums, public agencies have no way of connecting with citizens and there is a lack of a channel to enable data driven decisions. We use web, mobile and voice to crowd source citizen data, engage citizens, and analytics to create connected, synergistic communities.

We empower stakeholders and change makers – be it public agencies, NGOs or just citizen groups to pick up the platform, decide what issue and demographic they want to engage and deploy the platform (depending on whether voice, SMS, Web and Smartphone channels suit them best)

How did you come up with the idea of Social Cops?

Social Cops started when we were in our final year university in Singapore. There were a lot of on-ground protests happening at that time and we saw that the public wanted to be actively involved in the community but their voices were not resulting in any long lasting change. On the other hand, we began to realize the impact of basic issues around us – In India alone 3 people die every hour due to accidents caused by bad roads. Poor waste management leading to diseases, Traffic Congestion leading to accidents, lack of access to public utilities – The basic nature of these problems and the magnitude of their impact frustrated and fascinated us… there needed to be a simpler way to solve these problems.

We took a train journey covering 12 Cities in 15 days. As we travelled through the country, we found one recurring theme. That our neighborhoods were filled with heroes – be it citizens, public agencies or companies who wanted to spearhead change in their communities.

The efforts of our heroes were fragmented, resource intensive and lacked actionable data. It was clear to us that the most sustainable solution would be one that allowed communities to solve their own problems.

Could you walk us through the process of starting up Social Cops?

Social Cops started when we were in our final year university in Singapore. There were a lot of on-ground protests happening at that time and we saw that the public wanted to be actively involved in the community b Social Cops started when we were in our final year university in Singapore. There were a lot of on-ground protests happening at that time and we saw that the public wanted to be actively involved in the community but their voices were not resulting in any long lasting change.

At Social Cops, we believe that with people comes power and with people comes chaos. How do we create community solutions to solve problems? As engineers, we saw ways that we could use the power of crowdsourcing and technology to solve community issues. On September 11th, 2012 we launched a crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo along with a Facebook campaign.

How has it been like managing the business since?

It has been possibly the biggest learning experience ever. Working on a startup is like a roller coaster – one moment you are jumping with happiness, the next moment you are down in the dumps. When you are running a startup – you are constantly learning to do things better, set up things, design things even. And I think that when you start taking it as a learning experience, it becomes enjoyable!

Did you find anything particularly difficult during the startup? How did you overcome it?

We started Social Cops when we were students in University. In order to raise our initial seed capital – we took part in almost all the student business plan competitions in the world. We started winning competitions around the world – winning grants from Microsoft and IBM. We won competitions like the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition, IBM/IEEE Smart Planet Challenge and Singapore International Foundation Young Social Entrepreneurs.

We’ve even given presentations on Skype to Indian Competitions while in Singapore (and ended up winning about 5000$ via that!). I guess the biggest learning for us has been that if you’re genuinely passionate about what you do, things happen to make your dreams possible. An example of the opportunities life presents you with –as young social entrepreneurs, we were invited to present our solution for cities at the Asia Pacific Cities Summit in Taiwan to 102 Mayors from all over the world, which gave us some great leads for the future.

How was the initial reaction from the consumers? Did they buy into the product/service?

Social Cops has evolved interestingly since its inception. Most ventures in the crowdsourcing space failed due to the fact that there was no capacity in the community to solve issues raised. We spent over 6 months talking to various community stakeholders – citizens, corporates, NGOs and Public Authorities. Over this time we undertook various small-scale pilots – to understand what works and what does not.

We use crowdsourced data to install processes and systems that create systemic change. For example, in disrupting Sanitation- in our pilot with Municipal Ward 103 – Crowdsourced data from citizens is used as a checkpoint to monitor the efficiency of third party service providers for garbage collection. Crowdsourced citizen ratings are also used to identify the cleanest streets and thus identify the best “street cleaners” and award them – leading to higher performance rates! The most heartwarming moment for us was when one of the Street cleaners who was awarded (Mukesh) said to us “Madam, for the past 20 years I have been ashamed to tell my son what I do – and today for the first time my son is proud of me”

Our platform has been used by citizen groups like I Lead Ranchi in Ranchi to crowd source reports regarding broken streetlights. This led to an allocation of over 2.15 crores of resources towards fixing broken streetlights in Ranchi in a 2 month long campaign.

We have launched a campaign called SAFE to crowd source a neighborhood watch who can respond to a distress signal from women to make them feel safer on roads. SAFE is being spearheaded by local citizen groups in their own neighborhoods – most recently enabling a group of tenth graders to use the platform to engage the community around them on women’s safety.

We’re already working with brands such as PVR Nest and Michelin India, citizen groups in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and a variety of non-governmental organizations. Some of our initial templates such as our work with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi are already having us noticed and have city councils in other parts of the world seeking proposals from us to replicate initial templates on the platform.

Do you face a lot of competition in this industry? What is your strategy against your competition?

Many entrepreneurs generally make a mistake of building a solution before actually understanding the problem. We wanted to make sure that we understood the problem.

We have spoken extensively to organisations that have attempted to crowdsource citizen reports but have failed to scale to realise that simple Reporting Tools that crowd source citizen complaints die out at some point.

For example, The Delhi Municipal Corporation Facebook page allowed citizens to upload photos regarding complaints of garbage – and was very popular in the first few months of launch, but this initial user traction died down. Why? Because, on one hand – the councils were being overwhelmed with getting the problems reported fixed while on the other hand, citizens were getting tired of reporting problems.

We work differently – we don’t create noise where it is not needed. We work with stakeholders – public agencies and NGOs to crowdsource citizen voices in fields in which they can be used as a resource to solve real-life problems.

How have you managed to stay relevant in this industry?

We started Social Cops because there was a problem we saw and no one else was solving the problem. I think as long as we keep focused on creating community solutions and enabling communities to solve problems – we will remain relevant!

What are your future plans for Social Cops?

 The Social Cops platform essentially aims to enable change makers – who can easily use the platform, deploy an initiative and use engagement tools to crowdsource, engage and analyze data. A cloud hosted platform, the aim is to Create a platform that enables anyone, at any part of the world to pick their issue and demographic – browse templates that work in other countries and deploy a quick technology solution to crowd source, engage and analyze data.

What do you think about startups in Asia?

I think startups in Asia should focus on solving asian problems – I see a lot of startups trying to clone startups in the Silicon Valley but I’m surprised not as many of them are trying to solve some of the biggest problems

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

Marissa Mayer once said that at every point in your career you should decide to do what you will learn the most from. And something that scares you a little bit. I was graduating from university and had chances at working at some of the most sought after jobs but I felt that nothing would teach me as much as starting up.

In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?

Hustle and Passion – and a little bit of naivete and craziness.

Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there?

People will tell you it won’t work – people will tell you that you will fail. Just keep doing your shit, and be passionate about it.

 

Connect
Website: www.socialcops.org
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/socialcops

Callum Connects

Joelle Ung, Founder of Treasure Unity

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Joelle’s entrepreneurial journey has been an interesting one, leading her to the world of network marketing, enabling her to help other entrepreneurs succeed.

What’s your story?
The sense of wanting to make an impact, of needing to add value to ‘something,’ be it focused on business or peoples’ lives, has led me, through many failures, to where I am now, the food and beverage manufacturing industry. My entrepreneurial journey began as a wedding planner. Then, having tasted initial success, my desire to find meaningful business mentors brought me to the world of network marketing.
Having benefited from the teachings of my mentor, plus the time I spent growing up as the daughter of a great father, I realised that the urge to ‘pay it forward,’ by mentoring future entrepreneurs and helping my colleagues, other entrepreneurs to succeed, had become a personal mission.
The Honest Living Program, owned by my current company, Treasure Unity, is a realisation of that dream. The program opens up learning opportunities for women under duress, underprivileged women and single mothers. It provides a platform from which I am able to teach, imparting people skills and the art of presentation through the day-to-day program. It is absolutely free.

What excites you most about your industry?
To be able to keep adding values to others. On stage or off, it doesn’t matter. I enjoy every call I receive, every appointment that is set up, every individual I have met, and have yet to meet. There is only one agenda, and that is to add value to the person I am speaking to.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Having lived in Singapore and Malaysia for the past 39 years, my heart is impacting the people in Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Because of the people who live there, and because there are no barriers to communication for me.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Don’t make any decision out of confusion, disappointment or anger. Decisions should always be made with a restful heart.

Who inspires you?
Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
My husband is an ‘overcomer’ who had a near fatal stroke 18 years ago. He lost the ability to practice his dream career as a medical doctor, yet he chose to be a prisoner of hope rather than be a prisoner within his body, and he has never indulged in self-pity.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Lately, I have learned to be still when an opponent strikes at me. It works! You do not need to immediately rebut an opponent. He, or she, will most probably be waiting for a reaction. When they don’t get one, when you remain still and unmoved, you become unpredictable. They do not know your next move.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have sought advice from more wise counsellors before making major decisions, especially if finance or investments were involved.

How do you unwind?
Sometimes I like to take a short getaway or, on a daily basis, I read bible verses that I find uplifting.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Penang. It is close to home and you can get a premium service at an affordable cost. Also, I can pack light, and it is easy to find anything and everything there.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Like a Virgin, by Richard Branson

Shameless plug for your business:
Become an irresistible woman with substance! We will bring out your natural leadership skills through the Honest Living Program.

How can people connect with you?
They can connect with me by email [email protected], through WhatsApp 92300071, or they can call me on my mobile.

Twitter handle?
My twitter account is inactive. @ungjoelle @treasureunity

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Dr. Vivienne Ming, Co-Founder and Executive Chair at Socos Labs

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Dr. Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, technologist, and an author. She co-founded Socos, her fourth company, where she combines machine learning, cognitive neuroscience, and economics to maximize life outcomes in education and the workplace. Vivienne is also a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, where she pursues her research in neuroprosthetics. In her free time, Vivienne has developed a predictive model of diabetes to better manage the glucose levels of her diabetic son and systems to predict manic episodes in bipolar suffers. In 2013, she was named one of 10 Women to Watch in Tech by Inc. Magazine.

What makes you do what you do?
I grew up reading far too much science fiction. It always seemed not like an escape, but like a guide to a better world that we could build. When I ran into challenges later in my life and learned how easy it is for a high potential life to slip through the cracks, it was that love of science fiction that kept me thinking that something better was possible. I found a purpose in that failure that drove me to earn my PhD in neuroscience and machine learning so that I could build the worlds that I used to read about.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I have worked in several different industries. As an academic, I had a rather shocking amount of success as a graduate student with papers published in top journals and I went on to appointments at Stanford and Berkeley. Then, I started all over again when I founded an education company. When the company rose to prominence and I was giving keynotes at major education conferences, I left that behind to develop technologies for talent acquisition, healthcare, and anything and everything that made better people. My path to success was always forged by me solving problems, with a lot help from simple dumb luck.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
After founding a number of technology companies, I decided I wanted to take what I learned and share it with as many people as possible. I wanted to have an impact on global policy. Based on advice from colleagues and friends, I founded Socos Labs, a think tank that uses machine learning, economics, and behavior research to explore human potential. Socos Labs experiments with whole new visions of work, education, innovation and inclusive economies to inform more human-centered policy.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I’ve been influenced and supported by a great many people in my life, but I cannot say that I’ve ever had a mentor or even a hero that acted as a guide for my career. I’m not belittling the value of great mentorships (my own research argues for its impact), but rather it’s equally important to recognize that a career isn’t a formulaic movie plot with predefined roles.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
My work is about making better people and helping people grow. It has always been very important to me to give people a chance who might not otherwise have the same opportunity elsewhere. I have built companies where people who don’t have traditional credentials can come and work on projects that make a difference in people’s lives. The only component I’m really looking for is potential.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
Supporting diversity is both a mission of Socos Labs and a key part of nearly every company with which I am involved. I sit on the board of companies that foster diversity and I’ve founded companies to find strategies to reduce bias in the hiring process. Creative diversity is crucial to run any high performance organization. My research show that companies should build teams in which everyone brings different, complementary strengths to the table, and diverse life experience is one of the greatest sources of those strengths.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I suspect there are many ways to be a great leader. My personal approach is perhaps naively simple: do good work and share it with the world. I am sure there are more sophisticated and effective ways to gain attention and build high-performance organizations, but my approach (which I heartily advocate for anyone else) is to focus fanatically on what you’re trying to achieve, your purpose, and find or simply create the means for your work to reach other people.

Advice for others?
Seek out problems that are so messy other people have given up on them.

That is exactly where I want to be and what my new think tank, Socos Labs, aims to explore. We partner with companies and NGOs that share in our mission and help advance a new understanding about education, workforce, health, innovation, inclusion, and so much more. Along the way I’ve learned enough to write a couple of books, How to Robot-Proof Your Kids and The Tax on Being Different, which will be out later this year. In both I discuss how we can begin to untangle many of these big messy global problems.


If you’d like to get in touch with Dr. Vivienne Ming, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vivienneming/

To learn more about Socos Labs, please click here.

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