By Neha Kirpal
When technology entrepreneurs Madhavi Shankar and Indu Navar met for the first time in Palo Alto a few years ago, their casual chat turned within minutes into a brainstorming session on startup ideas.
Realising that both shared a belief in the core principles of compassionate capitalism and a passion for creating change through the use of technology in underserved sectors in India, Indu invited Madhavi for a whiteboard session the following day.
Keen to work in the education space, the two women decided to explore the pain points in student accommodation. Since Indu’s father was running a not-for-profit hostel for engineering students, Indu had some exposure in the area.
For two consecutive days, the two women spent about 12 to 14 hours discussing the problems that exist in student accommodation, business plan, application, scalability and other aspects. Out of that discussion was born SpaceBasic, an app that digitises student experiences by automating everyday tasks and communication within student hostel communities in India.
Madhavi, an entrepreneur and technology enthusiast named one of the top 30 women transforming India by Niti Aayog and the United Nations, quit her job in Australia and moved to Bengaluru within the month. “That’s what stood out – her commitment and guts to take this bold step!” recalls Indu, who was based in San Francisco and had, over 20 years, achieved success as a CEO and founder of companies developing innovative technology solutions and as a high-tech board member and investor.
With rigorous due diligence, they discovered that the student housing communities within schools and colleges in India follow archaic manual processes to carry out day-to-day tasks like verbal security permissions for students, handwritten data management and more.
“These manual processes were labour intensive, plagued with problems and could not ensure the safety and security of students,” explains Madhavi.
Madhavi got talking to individual students, student-housing communities as well as hostel staff to understand their problems and processes. “I was sure that a tech solution can streamline operations and cut down on all the redundant processes,” she says.
The duo worked closely with over 30 prospective customers across Bengaluru, spending over six months studying the market and understanding their requirements.
The new app, which they launched in 2017, automates redundant time-consuming tasks. Some of its offerings include one-touch attendance, mess management for hostels, automation of maintenance requests, alerts and broadcasts, analysis and reporting of data, and enabling streamlined operations and better student experience. It also offers a host of other services including bulletin boards, fee manager, smart reminders and leave management.
The main challenge the duo faced was in terms of figuring out the product market fit. Additionally, they had to deal with aspects such as the scalability of the product, building the right team, hiring the right people and finding strategic partners.
“One of the initial challenges was that it was difficult for a lot of people to believe that a woman, especially someone as young as me, can work in the hospitality space,” recalls Madhavi.
This was where Indu’s experience as a serial entrepreneur came into the picture. As founder and former CEO of Serus Corporation, USA, she knew about the challenges involved and she encouraged Madhavi to keep at it and continue doing what they do.
Apart from her father, one of Indu’s role models and best friends is her late husband Peter Cohen, “one of the kindest, bighearted, most brilliant persons” she has ever met. An 18-plus year veteran at Amazon, Peter was on the founding team of Amazon Web Services, Mechanical Turk and many other innovations. In 2019, he passed away due to ALS, a neurological disease.
“He is a great influence in my life – and continues to be,” says Indu, who had previously worked at NASA in Moffett Field California. She founded the Peter Cohen Foundation in his honour, a nonprofit functioning as EverythingALS.org with the mission to bring technology innovations like artificial intelligence and data science to find treatments for ALS. After losing her husband to ALS, Indu has focused more on bringing her skills in building scalable platforms and technology innovations to patient-driven non-profits.
Indu also loves mentoring women entrepreneurs. “As a woman entrepreneur in India, there are additional challenges that I am able to relate to, and share some guidance on how to navigate them,” she says. Many of the problems, she has found, can be solved with technology.
Currently, SpaceBasic works with over 60 educational institutions, independent co-living and student housing communities, with 150,000 users pan India.
During Covid-19, various institutions, like Manipal Global Education Academy, DY Patil and Reva University, have been using SpaceBasic to carry out activities such as leave management, zero touch check-ins in hostels, digitising paper records, emergency broadcasts and alerts, smart meters for utilities, and mess management with minimal face-to-face interaction. The plan is to onboard over 200 institutions and a million users within the next two years.
Syndicated to Money Control