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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

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and Digital Innovation Strategist

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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.)

I am talking to Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and freelance Digital Innovation Strategist. Tara was selected and recognized by TheNextWeb.com as one of the 500 most talented young people in the Dutch digital scene during the 2017 TNW edition. Tara is known for her creative, entrepreneurial spirit, which she is using to her advantage in leading the change in SMEs and corporates around the globe.

What makes you do what you do?

I tend to see life as a big, complex puzzle. Because of my curious nature, I am in constant development, looking for new angles and new approaches to business problems. Innovation through technology is exploring ideas and pushing boundaries. The most radical technological advances have not come from linear improvements within one area of expertise. Instead, they arise from the combination of seemingly disparate inventions. This is, in fact, the core of innovation. I love going beyond conventional thinking practices. Mashing up different thoughts and components, connecting the dots, and transforming that into something useful to businesses.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I consistently chose to follow my curiosity, which has led me to where I am today. If you want to succeed in the digital industry, you need to have a growth mindset. Seen the fact that the industry is evolving in an astoundingly quick rate, it’s crucial to stay current with the trends and forces in order to spot business opportunities. I believe taking responsibility for your own learning and development is key to success.

Why did you take on the role of Digital Innovation Strategist?

The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, I got frustrated with businesses operating in the exact same way they did a couple of decades ago. Right now we are in the midst of a technology revolution, and the latest possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge technologies are evolving every single day. This means that companies need to stay current and act lean if they want to survive. On a more personal level, I noticed that I felt the need to use my creativity and problem-solving skills to their maximum capacity. In transforming businesses at scale, I change the rules of the game. I love breaking out of traditional, old-fashioned patterns by nurturing innovative ideas. This involves design thinking, extensive collaboration and feedback, the implementation of various strategies and tactics, validated learning, and so on. I get a lot of energy from my work because it is aligned with my personal interests.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries?

Yes, I look up to Drew Boyd. He is a global leader in creativity and innovation. He taught me how to evaluate ideas in order to select the best ones to proceed with. This is crucial because otherwise,you run the risk of ideas creating the criteria for you because of various biases and unrelated factors. He also taught me a great deal on facilitation of creativity workshops.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I tend to have the characteristics of a transformational leader. People have told me that my enthusiasm and positive energy is motivating and even inspiring to them. Even though I take these comments as a huge compliment, I am not sure how I feel about referring to myself as a leader. To me, it still has a somewhat negative connotation. I guess I associate the concept with being a boss who’s throwing around commands. But if a leader means listening to others and igniting intrinsic motivation in people, then yes, I guess I’m a charismatic leader.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, one hundred percent. I believe that creativity and innovation flourish when a highly diverse group of people bounces ideas off each other. Diversity in terms of function, gender,and culture is extremely valuable, especially in the ideation phase of a project, as it can help to see more possibilities and come up with better ideas.

Do you have any advice for others?

Yes, I have some pieces of advice I’d like to share.
First of all: Develop self-awareness. You can do so by actively seeking feedback from the people around you. This will help you understand how others see you, align your intentions with your actions, and eventually enhance your communication- and leadership skills.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable and inspiring people. They might be able to support you in reaching your goals, and help you grow both personally and professionally.

Ask “why?” a couple of times. This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. Make sure to often remind yourself and your team of the outcome of this exercise to have a clear sense of direction and focus.

Data is your friend. Whether it’s extensive quantitative market research or a sufficient amount of in-depth consumer interviews (or both!), your data levels all arguments. However, always be aware of biases and limitations of research.

Say “Yes, and…” instead of “No”. Don’t be an idea killer. Forget about the feasibility and budget, at least in the ideation phase. Instead, encourage your team to generate ideas without restrictions. You can compromise certain aspects later.

Prioritization is key. There is just no way you can execute all your ideas, and, quite frankly, there is no point in trying to do so. Identify the high potential ideas and start executing those first.

Encourage rapid prototyping. Don’t wait too long to experiment, launch, and iterate your product or service. Fail fast and fail often. Adopt an Agile mindset.

If you’d like to get in touch with Tara Velis, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/taravelis/

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Callum Connects

Marek Danyluk, CEO of Space Ventures

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Marek Danyluk has a talent for assessing the competencies of management teams for other businesses and pulling together exceptional teams for his own businesses!

What’s your story?
I am the CEO of a venture capital business, Space Ventures, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses. I also own and run Space Executive, a recruitment business focused on senior to executive hires across sales, marketing, finance, legal and change.

My career started as a trainee underwriter in the Lloyds market but quickly moved into recruitment where I set-up my first business in 2002. The business grew to around 100 people. I moved to Asia in 2009 as a board member of a multinational recruitment business with the mandate to help them scale their Asian entities, which helped contribute to their sale this year, in 2017.

My main talent is assessing the competencies of management teams as well as building high performing recruitment boutiques and putting together exceptional management teams for my own businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
Building the business is very much about attracting the best talent and being able to build a culture which people find invigorating and unique. It’s an exciting proposition to be able to define a culture in that regard and salespeople are a fun bunch, so when you get it right it’s tremendous.

From a VC point of view there is just so much happening. South East Asia is a melting pot of innovation so the ideas and quality of people you have exposure to, is truly phenomenal. The exposure in the VC has taken me away from a career in recruitment. Doing something completely different has given me a new level of focus.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Whilst I came here with work, both my boys were born in Singapore and to them this very much is home. That said, my father in law spent many years in the East so coming and settling here was met with a good degree of support and familiarity.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Possibly Hong Kong. It’s the closest I’ve been to working in London. Whilst there are massive Asian influences people will work with you on the basis you are good at what you do and work hard. I find that approach very honest and straightforward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Always treat people well on the way up!”

Who inspires you?
I like reading about people who have excelled in business such as Jack Ma, James Kahn, Phil Knight, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all have great stories to tell and they are all inspirational. No-one has inspired me more than my parents and they are well aware as to why…

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Pretty much any technology innovation blows me away.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Whilst it is important not to have regrets I do continually wake up thinking I’m still doing my A’ Levels. So, I’d have probably tried a little harder in 6th form.

How do you unwind?
I like the odd glass of red wine and watching sport

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan skiing. I love skiing and Japanese food and it’s a time when I can really enjoy time with the wife and kids. I recently tried the Margaret River which was divine, although not technically Asia.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Barbarians at the Gate

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive is the fastest growing recruitment business in Singapore focused on the mid to senior market across legal, compliance, finance, sales and marketing and change and transformation. Multi-award winning with exceptional growth plans into Hong Kong and London this year, and the US, Japan and Europe by the end of 2022. We are building a truly global brand.

Space Ventures is interested in any businesses that require capital or management and financial guidance or any or all of the above. We have, to date, invested in on-line training, food and beverages, peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring as well as other tech and fintech start-ups. We are always interested in hearing about potential deals.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

Twitter handle?
@Spaceexecutive

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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