How an IIT Kharagpur alumnus is financially helping the underprivileged, without any funds

The inspiration for Assist The Needy (ATN) goes back to my childhood, when I would see kids begging outside the restaurants of Park Street (in Kolkata), where my Dad would take us for a nice meal once every quarter. I always felt helpless that I could not give my food to those kids and the sense of helplessness still lingered. I felt the same helplessness when I couldn’t help people financially.
Subhajit Mandal went on to be an exceptional student – a graduate from the 2007 batch IIT Kharagpur and a National University of Singapore MBA graduate in 2014 – and made great career choices. In 2015, Subhajit joined LumenLab, the MetLife Innovation Centre, as an MBA intern and was subsequently offered a full time position in August 2015.
Through the years, he continued to ponder over how he could build something that would help the economically underprivileged such as the house help in most Indian homes.
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The impetuses

Subhajit’s work at LumenLab was a drastic shift from most organisations. He says that it is a dedicated corporate innovation lab with a focus on disruptive innovation, keeping customer insight at the centre of their approach. The job entailed that the employees go beyond today’s set rules and methods, begin again with a deep understanding of people’s lives, and rewrite the role of the industry in the 21st century. One of three broad themes that the team worked on was “wealth”, which aligned to his dream of helping the economically backward.
Another freedom of sorts at work is that employees are encouraged to incubate ideas– either on their own or through collaboration with other disruptors that solve the problems that fall in the specified broad categories. Subhajit tells us another interesting aspect, “As corporate innovators, we have the advantage of MetLife’s resources, while, similar to the venture community, we pitch internally for funding and have to conduct stringent experiments to prove our assumptions at every stage to warrant further funding.”
Workwise, Subhajit was being driven in the direction of the solution. The game changer was a fateful conversation with Rajat Singh, COO at Ujjivan, and an old friend from his IIT Kharagpur days. For the uninitiated, Ujjivan is an Indian microfinance services organisation aimed at serving the economically active poor, who are not adequately served by financial institutions. Subhajit asked Rajat, if a website existed where anyone could upload details of someone who needed financial help, would an institution like Ujjivan pay heed? Rajat said a vehement yes and added that “such information was crucial to his business and any lead was worth exploring.”

Assist The Needy

Subhajit launched ATN in January 2016 after multiple iterations within the team, and a select group, to make sure that the idea was being conveyed to a tee. ATN’s ambition is to try and solve one aspect of financial inclusion for the unbanked population of India. ATN aspires to motivate the Internet-savvy middle class of India to connect the unbanked to a source of lending by taking a few minutes out of their day to upload information on people they’ve met or have come into contact with who have a real need but no access to funding. ATN doesn’t provide “loans” but it does connect people. It seeks to find new ways of solving the problems that defy existing banking ontologies.
The process is fairly simple. Let’s say you want to help a driver or a maid. All you have to do is logon to the website and fill in a basic form with the details of the person in need. This simple action will connect the person in need with Ujjivan. The form is small and can be filled out in less than a minute! There is no financial contribution required from the submitter. You don’t even have to be a guarantor for the person.
There is a huge population of “unbanked” people in many countries – those who simply are not served by the established financial structure. Subhajit adds, “In fact, the MetLife Foundation has made financial inclusion a core mission, committing $200 million over four years.”

Working around road blocks

Subhajit (left) and Zia
Subhajit (left) and Zia
Things didn’t come in as easy. Despite the encouragement given at LumenLab to incubate, and funds offered to see it through, Subhajit’s boss rejected his pitch the first time around. Not one to back down, Subhajit didn’t can the idea. Instead, he launched ATN and came back to his boss with the numbers to back his hypothesis.
Within weeks, ATN’s Facebook page received 4,400+ likes, more than 6,000 people have viewed the ATN video and they have received six requests for loans on ATN. Subhajit’s boss, Zia Zaman( CEO, LumenLab) agreed. Subhajit’s boss adds, “When anyone brings market data to the table, we need to reassess. It’s about taking little bets. With some ideas, the pivot is more successful than the original. Getting 4,400 likes is compelling.
Our hypothesis is that there are enough interested people who care enough to help someone in need. We are not sure if this will work, but we believe that the only way to know is to try something quickly and cheaply.”
He adds that as with all new businesses, customer acquisition is hard, and finding a profitable and sustainable business model is even harder. He stresses, “We need to see concrete data that the business model can be scaled and the unit economics of such a business works.”

Challenges and future plans

Subhajit agrees on both accounts and tells us that they haven’t zeroed in on the revenue model just yet. “We brainstormed multiple revenue models, but honestly, until we really run the experiment, it is premature to discuss the revenue model. This is especially true when working on the bottom of the pyramid of ideas.” He adds that a sustainable business model is the most challenging part of social entrepreneurship. “A one-time good deed, as noble as it is, has limited impact unless it is sustainable. We strive for a sustainable social enterprise that can have a wide-reaching positive social impact”, says Subhajit.
Currently, conversion is the biggest challenge for ATN. While there has been decent traction on Facebook (posts, videos, likes), the conversion has been low. Subhajit says, “We are engaging our current consumers on Facebook now to figure out the reason for the lack of conversion. We expect to learn a lot as we get more data.”
Subhajit and ATN have a long way to go. With other MFI and crowdfunding platforms on the rise, it will be interesting to watch ATN evolve and find a sweet spot for itself. On a parting note, Subhajit shares how he wants to see his childhood dream grow, “I want to see ATN helps 1 million people get the financial assistance that they would have never had otherwise.
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