“It’s about making a positive impact, not just about giving money.” – Prayag
Last month, the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) hosted the San Francisco Digital Economy Conference. The conference highlighted how smarter machines in alignment with human intelligence, powerful platforms, and connected crowds are shaping the digital economy and the future of work.
For the capstone discussion of the conference, Devin Cook, the executive producer of the Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC), interviewed Prayag Narula, CEO of LeadGenius, one of last year’s IIC winners.
In keeping up with the theme of the conference, the two talked about what it means to be an inclusive innovator and how LeadGenius is leading the future of digital work by creating user-friendly tools and software to provide job opportunities for low to middle skilled workers and establishing benchmarks for good work to make a positive, sustainable impact.
LeadGenius utilizes machine learning coupled with human researchers. In the interview, Prayag speaks to the idea of the “wisdom of the crowd” that helps deliver a superior product for LeadGenius customers such as Goggle, Square, Amazon, IBM and more.
As an additional segment of the discussion, Devin Cook interviewed four of LeadGenius data researchers from all over the world and had them share about their experiences with LeadGenius and how LeadGenius provided them opportunities for growth.
- Wills O., Kenya
- Christina T., Romania
- Shilpi K., Mauritius
- Kirk R., Jamaica
With the rise of the digital economy, inclusive innovators like LeadGenius are reinventing the future of digital work by making positive impacts in the lives of workers all around the world and connecting the traditional workforce with the technology revolution.
[Devin Cook, IIC]: Good afternoon, everyone. I am Devin Cook. I am the Executive Producer of the Inclusive Innovation Challenge and I am delighted to have one of last year’s IIC winners, Prayag Narula from LeadGenius, with us here today. And our goal is to give you a better sense of what some of these really incredible inclusive innovating organizations are doing to make work in the future better for more people. So, with that, welcome.
[Prayag, LeadGenius]: Thank you. Thank you for having us. And thank you for the prize last year.
[Devin]: You are very welcome. We were thrilled to be able to give it to you. You were among almost 300 organizations that applied and rose to the top among 24 other winners. So, a big honor for our first year. And just for the benefit of the audience and to give you that opportunity to share what I’m sure is a finely honed pitch, why don’t you give us some context? What is it that LeadGenius does?
[Prayag]: Never a finely-honed pitch. It’s always evolving. So LeadGenius is a market intelligence lead generation analytics platform for marketing and sales organization. So we help primarily big companies identify their best prospects that they can sell to. We help them identify who are the best companies, who are the best decision makers in those companies. We help them understand how big their market is. We help them understand how to tackle a new market, or how to bring optimization in the market that they’re already working with. So, primarily, working with larger sales and marketing organizations to help them, especially on the data gathering and analytics side of their sales processes.
[Devin]: Great. And so you’ve described a business challenge that you’re solving with your organization, and people may be wondering, “Well, how does that make you an inclusive innovator?” As Andy said in the video, an inclusive innovation is a new technology or a new business model that is helping an average worker have more economic opportunities and a better future of work for themselves. So what makes LeadGenius an inclusive innovator?
[Prayag]: That’s a great question. So the technology behind our products is actually a combination of machine learning, large-scale data mining, and AI combined with a crowd of people that we have developed. Our crowd spans about 40 different countries with about 500 different people that help us train the algorithms and collect and validate the data to give our customers kind of a competitive advantage that they won’t have with purely algorithms. Algorithms, especially machine learning algorithms, are error-prone. You cannot take them and implement them right in a business setting. You have to have some sort of an oversight, some sort of a training. So, we have, as I said, 500 people in 40 different countries.
And we have a kind of interesting history because we started out primarily as a crowd-sourcing company. We were basically training algorithms for our customers. So we would have companies (this is back in 2011 so AI and machine learning wasn’t as a hot topic as it is today) that were trying to build AI systems, and they would need a large set of both training data as well as a validation system, and we helped them provide that through our crowd. And once we started building that part of the piece, we had to build the sales and marketing pieces to scale out our revenue. But I have a computer science background so I didn’t know what selling was. I thought, you know, you just like open a stall, you build a company, and people would come and give you checks.
[Devin]: Easy as that.
[Prayag]: Yeah. And so we had to build out this marketing. And so I went to like did a crash course on sales and marketing and realized there’s this process called LeadGen. There’s this process of understanding the market. And so they told us “Oh, just go hire people to do that.” And we said, “No, no, no. We can automate this using our technology.” So we built a system for our internal use, and then we gave it out to some of our friendly companies, and they were like, “This is really good. You should just sell this.” And so we basically kind of verticalized and that’s when LeadGenius was born — about a year and a half after the initial company was born.
[Prayag]: So we have always been a crowd company. We’ve always kind of had this ethos of the wisdom of the crowd. The crowd is one of the major innovations that has happened in the last decade because of the connectedness that has been available for the first time in the world.
[Devin]: Right. So I’m already hearing that there’s a machine, there’s a crowd, there’s a platform. There may be a specific strategic reason why we asked you to come today and be the final speaker of the day. But in addition to the fact that you were solving this business need for your own organization and for other organizations, you really started as a socially mission-driven organization, right? And that was kind of at the core of what you’re looking to do.
[Prayag]: Right. So I grew up in New Delhi, India, and I distinctly remember back in 2000 and 2001, the mobile revolution was at its peak in India. And I saw all these people that have never owned a computing device, have never been connected. I didn’t have a regular telephone until I was 16 years old so, like dark ages, right? So I saw billions of people being connected, and I saw this as a big advantage. Now how do you translate that into an economic impact? So we thought that crowdsourcing itself was a really good way of using these new people that are coming online, providing jobs and opportunities to people in all these different areas where you don’t have traditional opportunities — from villages in India to inner cities in the United States. And so that’s kind of how it all started. We were a social enterprise. The idea of job creation came first, and then came the idea of implementing the crowd for particular use cases and business use cases.
[Devin]: Right. So marrying that and the realization that you had for your own startup LeadGen operation with that social purpose?
[Prayag]: That’s exactly right.
[Devin]: So as you think about how you brought on this crowd, you provided jobs to people in 40 countries around the world, right? So that’s clearly a large distributed workforce that are all working very much digitally. What are you integrating into your business as good work tenets? Specifically, the tenets of good digital work.
[Prayag]: That’s a great question. So, we have this question at the top of our mind because when we were initially thinking about this idea of crowdsourcing for business use cases and providing jobs, the first thing that we learned was the basic tenet of creating any technologies to do no evil. Like, you should not have a negative impact on people’s lives. So, from the very beginning, we were cognizant of the fact that you have to think about this in the long term, and you have to think about this in a way that’s not just about giving money to people. It’s bigger than that. It’s about the long-term impact of this new way of training systems and getting work done in a way that’s sustainable. So we spent a lot of time thinking about not just providing job opportunities, but providing growth opportunities as well.
The first two people that we hired are still with us, six years later. They have a bigger tenure than two of my co-founders. So what does it mean for someone like that to stay with us for six years? And what kind of growth opportunities are we providing? What kind of skills are we building that helps them either transition into a more traditional workforce or do more fulfilling work as a part of LeadGenius? So that’s something that we spent a lot of time thinking about. And initially, the idea was, “How can we transition these people into a regular workforce?” Six years later, I don’t think that that’s going to happen. The digital work is here to stay. It’s not just part-time work anymore. So we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this career path for digital workers. And we have implemented that into our own systems, as I said, as the first two people to have worked with us are still with us in very senior positions. We developed this tiered model where you start out as a researcher, then you start helping other people, and you get to climb the virtual corporate ladder and become one of the top dogs if you put in good work. And so far it has been the right thing to do, and we have been supporting other crowd-sourcing businesses to include similar principles into their business practices as well.
There is this organization called Good Work Code that has actually codified some of the ideas that we initially started with. And we’ve been talking about how every organization that is doing any kind of crowd-related work or any kind of AI work needs to be a signer of the Good Work Code to make sure that the people are being treated fairly. It’s about making a positive impact, not just about giving money.
[Devin]: Right. And you’re one of the first and largest organizations to sign on to the Good Work Code, correct?
[Prayag]: When we first signed it, we were the largest organization. I think now Lyft has signed it if I’m not wrong. So the tail winds are here. It’s exciting times.
[Devin]: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things I love most about LeadGenius and the work you do is that you really do put the people that work as researchers at the center of your business, coupled with the customers that you’re working with. And to me, that is something that many organizations are looking at more, especially as we move from the social contract of jobs to more distributed forms of work. And making sure that we can move away from talk of the future of work in abstract terms, but rather think about the people that are being affected by it. That is why we’re hoping to use technology to augment our talk today because we have actually brought in four LeadGenius researchers via Google Hangout to share a little bit of their experiences with us today.
So, here are four of the LeadGenius researchers from all around the globe. We have Kirk Radway from Jamaica, Christina Tinc from Romania, Shilpi Kumari from India, and Wills Ong’esa from Kenya. So, we have a couple questions for each of them so we can hear a little bit more about their experience working as digital workers. We’ll start with Wills. So, Wills, how did you find out about LeadGenius and what were you doing before you started working for LeadGenius? Just a little bit about your background.
[Wills Ong’esa, Kenya]: Okay. First of all, before I was working at LeadGenius, I was a trader, trading in crafts. I was dealing in soapstone, which is a white rock that is curved, wooden carvings, art, and paintings in a tourist market in a city called Kisumu, which is a lakeside city here in Kenya. And now I’m in Nairobi, which is the capital. So, while I was trading, this was my student job, because at the same time, I was taking classes. And there was this one time I was traveling to my village for stock and I ran into two international travelers, a couple who were also heading to my village. So we were talking and getting to know each other and I told them that the village is where we going has the soapstone, the art that is being carved, and also where we have the quarry. So, I said , “Oh, you can also come and see my village.” And it was good to talk with them. They asked me what I was doing. We asked each other about life. And they asked me how hopeful I was now that I had just graduated. And I told them, “I’m hopeful, but not very hopeful because we don’t have many job opportunities in my country.” And they asked me, “How about working online?” And they informed me about all of the opportunities to work online.
[Devin]: Right. So really it was word of mouth how you learned about this opportunity?
[Devin]: That’s perfect.
[Prayag]: So these stories are completely new to me. This is the first time I’m hearing this.
[Devin]: But, is that a story that you hear on a fairly regular basis? That kind of word of mouth? That’s how we’re finding out that digital work, this in a more, much more traditional way?
[Prayag]: Yeah. We do marketing as well, but word of mouth is one of the major ways in which people find out about us.
[Devin]: Right. And, actually, Wills shared with me that in Kenya they are starting to promote digital work as a way to find more job opportunities. So that was news to me as well, that this is even a message coming from the government of different organizations or different countries that digital work is something that people should pursue. So, thank you, Wills, for that example. And Christina, I wanted to ask you, same thing, a little bit about your background. But also, how has LeadGenius actually helped you to get up to speed, and be successful in your role as a researcher? Because I imagine that the work itself was fairly new to you.
[Christina Tinc, Romania]: Oh, yeah. Hi, everyone. I’m Christina. I’m from Romania. Before working at LeadGenius, I used to be an assistant manager. I worked all kinds of jobs that involved marketing and sales because I’m a marketing major. But I just hit a plateau. I couldn’t evolve on a career level. So I found LeadGenius online and I applied. And it was great to see that as I was starting out with the researching process, I would get help from all over the place. People were very open-minded, the kind of people that work smart rather than working hard. And all the tools they developed are very useful for our life as researchers and for friends too because the user interface is very friendly. Anyone can manage the tools we use. We don’t spend a lot of time searching for various emails, for instance. Our Crowd Genius tool also helps us to build a schedule every week. So it’s very user interactive, very user-friendly. And this is very important for us. It makes our life so much easier.
[Devin]: Yeah, that’s perfect. So there’s been some tools that you’ve provided to the researchers, Prayag, right? To help them get up the speed, to really ensure that there are those growth opportunities to come, right?
[Prayag]: Yes. So one thing to remember is that people are paid hourly, right? And when we charge our customers, we charge them on unit of databases. So it’s in our best interest to generate the most data from a minimum amount of work, and similarly, it’s in the researcher’s best interest to be able to be more efficient so that they can do stuff that needs to be done by humans, stuff that computers can’t do. So we’re always striving to do more through technology and making sure that people are being used for work that is specifically human intelligence. So the entire technology mantra behind LeadGenius is that. And with that mantra, we have built a lot of tools, an entire platform, and we’ve invested a lot in data science and machine learning algorithms as well. So, just because we are a socially-driven company doesn’t mean that investing in technology to make people efficient is not a big part. It really is.
[Devin]: Right. And not only efficient but actually have growth opportunities like you talked about a little bit earlier, right? And actually, Shilpi, I know you have a really interesting background and have had great opportunities to grow in your role a little more at LeadGenius too. So, again, how did you end up in your role at LeadGenius, and what is that opportunity that you told us about the other day?
[Shilpi Kumari, Mauritius]: Hi guys. I was a manager in a reputable company in this town in India for all of South India. But then, after relocating to Mauritius, which is a small island, I wasn’t able to work freely because of the language constraint. Hence, I found LeadGenius, and LeadGenius gave me an opportunity to work with a team which never sleeps. Any part of the day, any hour, you will always find people online to help you, and that is the best thing, that anyone will help you. And we have a team of more than 400 people, which are always around to help us with any of the tools, whether it be sourcing an email or collecting data in a proper way. Every tool, like Mail Genius for reaching out to the clients by means of outreach, Crowd Genius for generating an email, or Overdrive, a very sophisticated but user-friendly software, for inputting data, has been given to us. And another aspect of LeadGenius that I like is that it is not like any other online organization. It is a full-fledged company who works with us to help us do better work.
[Devin]: And you have the opportunity to manage a large team, and kind of grow into the role that you have now. And how many people are you managing now remotely?
[Shilpi]: I am managing 58 people with me for LeadGenius.
[Prayag]: That’s bigger than my team.
[Devin]: So, definitely a good opportunity to be surpassing those who are employing you. And what’s great is that Shilpi is someone who has moved from place to place, needing to find work in a new environment. Providing that opportunity for people around the world is something that’s very much at the core of what you do, right?
[Prayag]: That is one of the biggest use cases that we see. In fact, here’s a great story about how I found my EA, my Executive Assistant. She had moved to Idaho and she was looking for online work. She found out about LeadGenius, started working with us, got in touch with me, and she was actually helping me kind of on the side with my schedule. At that point, I had gone through two EAs pretty quickly, we just didn’t have chemistry. So then I was like, “If you move from Idaho to San Francisco next month, I’ll make you my EA.” She said, “If you have two months, I’ll move my family.” And, sure enough, two months later, she’s in our office. She’s my EA, our IT person, and our office manager. So people moving into a new place where they are not that many opportunities is a pretty big use case, especially for women. What I’ve seen, at least in the community, is that it’s a lot more common for women to move with their husbands, and in turn let go of the economic opportunity that they had. Companies like LeadGenius can help.
[Devin]: Yeah. Huge opportunity for more inclusion of more people that might have otherwise been left out in the workforce.
[Devin]: And I think just creating new opportunities for people, which can change their lives for the better. I know, Kirk, you’re from Jamaica. You’ve had some amazing experiences with LeadGenius. What opportunities have you had that you might not otherwise have had if it wasn’t for the role you now play at LeadGenius?
[Kirk Radway, Jamaica]: Hi everyone. Kirk Radway here from Jamaica. Just a little about me, I was working with the Jamaican Government in their legal department but I felt stuck in the job. There wasn’t much opportunity for growth. My wife introduced me to LeadGenius. And what I loved about LeadGenius at first was they actually awarded you for your hard work. So if you put in the work, you found yourself growing with the company, which is something that I didn’t have with my old job. One of the things that it has given me is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world with different backgrounds, and, in turn, it has helped me to improve my communication and leadership skills by working with different people from different backgrounds every day. And that’s one of the most important things that I’ve learned while working here.
[Devin]: Yeah. And I love that because, again, it’s that effort of putting people at the center of a digitally-enabled business. And I think, too often, like we said earlier, we’re talking about the future of work in this sort of conceptual abstract way, ignoring that there are real working people like Christina, Shilpi, Wills, and Kirk, and Kirk’s son, who I’m assuming is behind him. Hi.
[Kirk]: That’s Kupta right there.
[Devin]: But, giving people the flexibility to have families, to work from home, that is such a key piece of this.
[Prayag]: It is. And one thing about Jamaica that I want to point out is that we actually have a pretty big presence there. The reason for that is World Bank actually invited us to talk about digital work in Jamaica. So we went and recruited several hundred people over a course of a year. And so that just goes to show how much impact the public sector can have on promoting this work, by providing more job opportunities. Governments need to support this as a way of job creation, especially in communities that have limited job opportunities. And Jamaica is a really good case study for that. Eastern Europe is a really good case study for that. The only reason we have such a big presence in Jamaica is because we were invited to be there. And now we have around 150 Jamaicans working with us. So we’re talking a little bit about how governments can take advantage of this. This is an ideal scenario.
[Devin]: Absolutely. And with the public sector and the private sector working together and aligning, others, like LeadGenius, can use technology in a way to create more progress for people all around the world. I think we need to figure out how to do that across sectors.
Well, with that, please join me in thanking Prayag and the entire LeadGenius team for sharing their experiences. Thank you!