Shilpi Kapoor: Breaking barriers of disability

Last Updated: Thu, Jul 23, 2009 11:35 hrs

With a view to fostering women entrepreneurship,, in association with TiE Streeshakti (TSS), an entrepreneurship platform for Indian women, features a series on successful women entrepreneurs. TSS, set up by The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), was conceptualized to reach out to women who run micro, medium and large-scale enterprises across manufacturing, services and social sectors.

The first in the series: Fusing fashion with passion

For over two years, Shilpi Kapoor had been regularly interacting online from her Mumbai office with her US counterpart, Patrick (name changed).

While they had never met, they had been in constant touch over various projects handled by their networking consultancy firm. But one fateful day, Shilpi discovered that Patrick was a paraplegic, paralysed below the neck. The knowledge changed her life dramatically.

In 1995, Shilpi gave up a lucrative career to start a computer-training center for the disabled in association with an NGO and the Microsoft Bill Gates Foundation at her residence.

But she soon realized that even after ample training, there were no job opportunities for the disabled in India.
"It was sad to see that we gave them (disabled people) hope but with nowhere to go," says Shilpi, who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from St.Xavier’s College and is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.

So she started Net Systems Solutions, now known as Net Systems Informatics (India) Pvt. Ltd. (N-syst), which provides knowledge management and accessibility solutions.  In 1997, with the support and guidance of TiE Streeshakti, she also set up BarrierBreak Technologies, to provide accessibility consultancy services.

Today, 40 per cent of her 60 or so employees are physically challenged.

In 2008, Shilpi along with the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB) UK organized the Techshare India conference, the first ever Accessibility and Disability conference to be organized in India.

The proud recipient of the Shell Helen Keller 2008 award in the Role Model category, Shilpi derives inspiration from the disabled. "Seeing them smile through what we perceive as an issue makes you understand that there is more to life," she says.

Excerpts from an interview with K.Sreedevi.

  • How did the idea of teaching computers to the visually impaired come to you?

In 1995 people were just moving from Dos to Windows based machines. I was intrigued by how visually impaired users would understand Graphics. Then went on to realize that no one, including the main NGOs in this area, was even talking of computers for the visually impaired.  So I started to work in this area.

Second in the series: A 'creative' use of technology

  • How many disabled folks are working at Barrierbreak tech?

Approximately 40 per cent of BarrierBreak Technologies staff has a disability,  that is approximately 24 people.

  • What are the additional facilities that you have incorporated in your working system to accommodate them?

Other than ensuring the physical infrastructure is accessible to them such as an accessible toilet and entry points such as having a lift access and staircases, we have concentrated more on the softer elements like ensuring that they are treated no different from other employees, our project leaders have learnt how to communicate with the hearing impaired and ensure that in meetings they are sitting at the front. But beyond such basics, they don't need very much. It is we who think that we need to do a lot to accommodate them but in reality they adapt with us.

  • What prompted you to conduct the TechShare conference?

India might be a software development hub, but one of the main things that we lack is adherence to compliance. Accessibility of websites and software are mandated in most countries. Indian software companies need to see the opportunity in this market. Therefore along with Royal National Institute of the Blind, UK, Barrierbreak Technologies conceived Techshare India to bring about awareness, to help build capacity and showcase what is happening in the world and India on accessibility. Our aim is that India should be an accessibility hub in the next 5 years.

  • How has TiE/ TiE Stree Shakti helped you in your career?

TiE has been a great platform especially for mentoring. It is nice to meet others and learn from their experiences as well as often reach out to others that have faced similar challenges. I have in the past gone to other TiE members and asked for advice on my business idea as well as operational and marketing issues that I have faced.
  • As an initative, what is your take on TiE Streeshakti and its role in fostering women entrepreneurship?

Women Entrepreneurs need to be recognized. In a country like India, most women don't identify themselves as entrepreneurs. They might be selling cakes or chocolates from home or then running a beauty salon, but the same women won't identify with herself as an entrepreneur. I hope that over a period TiE Streeshakti can help bring recognition to these women. Also the platform will help in create a mentoring system for other women.

  • What are the future plans of your company?
We are working in different areas of accessibility such as education of the persons with disabilities, Accessibility in the IT sector and Assistive technology and aids for the persons with disabilities. We hope to ensure that the impact of accessibility reaches the masses. We have been commissioned by NCPEDP to develop the National Policy on Electronic Accessibility. This itself will be a huge step for us and persons with disabilities in India.

  •  Who is your inspiration?
I think the biggest inspiration comes from people with disabilities themselves. Seeing them smile through what we perceive as an issue makes you understand that there is more to life.

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  • How does your family support you in this venture?

My family has fully supported the idea whether it was through the down times or the positive ones. It hasn't been easy to work as a corporate in the disability sector. So my family’s belief in the idea and me has ensured that I go on to the next challenge.

  • What is your advice to budding entrepreneurs?

If you believe in your idea, go for it but remember that there will be tough times and you will have to hold through it. Don't hesitate to ask people for help and advice.

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