In the closing months OF 2008, Surga Thilakan was involved with a $8-billion structured loan for a client at Goldman Sachs in the US. Shortly thereafter, she was in Bangalore at Ujjivan Financial Services, this time involved with a Rs 8,000 loan to a group of urban poor women. It was here that she, just 29 then, found her calling. "My job was intellectually challenging but not meaningful." This got her to re-locate to India and begin at Ujjivan, where she was involved in designing and launching innovative loan products for the urban poor. "Ujjivan familiarised me with urban poverty-related issued and gave me a first-hand feel of the core issues facing the poor." Later, she and her batchmate at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and now her husband, Sreeraman Vaidyanathan, gradually began focusing on ensuring that the poor got regular income.
This, they noticed, was at the time (around 2010) when industry was facing a severe skill shortage. This led to the creation of iSTAR (quickspeak for integrated Skill Training And Recruitment) whose focus is to find innovative technology solutions to problems facing the masses, especially job seekers who want to upgrade their skills. This led iSTAR to build Talentify, which leverages artificial intelligence, machine learning, data sciences and natural language processing. A user, with the help of a low-cost smartphone, can interact with a bot or a virtual trainer and improve conversation skills so that he or she can find a job in areas such as customer service, automobile sales or banking in support or customer-facing roles.
iSTAR has raised $2 million from Unitus Ventures, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and National Skill Development Corporation since 2013. Talentify has been used by over 10,000 job seekers and entry-level employees in the last two years. iSTAR is today present in eight states and has trained and skilled 20,000 job seekers. Of these, 17,000 have been employed at an average pay of Rs 15,000 per month. This meant doubling of income in most cases.
That is quite a distance for Thilakan, an MBA in finance from Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, and an associate member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India who started her career at Ernst and Young in India and later moved to London and the US to work at Goldman Sachs' private equity and structured finance groups and origination desk. She has even managed Goldman Sachs' investments in infrastructure assets across countries. For her, it has been quite a journey.