Name: Vasumathi Sriganesh
Company name: QMed Knowledge Foundation (Not-for-profit Trust)
Company URL: www.qmed.org.in
Designation: Honorary CEO
Success in business should lead to social entrepreneurship. That’s a lesson we learn from Vasumathi Sriganesh, who started a not-for-profit organization once her start-up venture QMed Pvt Ltd got up and running successfully. She tells Stars of Startups about her journey as an entrepreneur:
On this Women’s Day, how is being a woman entrepreneur relevant more than ever?
More and more women are discovering strengths that they never knew they had. Entrepreneurship, I believe comes naturally to women, as most manage some level of entrepreneurship even in their homes as home makers.
How did your journey as an entrepreneur start? Do tell in brief about your company.
I first started QMed as a private limited company. It still exists and is running well. But my passion was towards working in the not-for-profit Foundation that came up later. I started the company knowing exactly nothing about how to run a business! I simply wanted to reach out to people with the special expertise that I had developed in my work, and a bunch of ideas I had. All this came about after 12 years of being a homemaker, and then studying further, and working for five years.
Established in 1999, QMed started with a range of services for the medical profession. I was a medical librarian earlier and wanted to share the skills that I picked up during my job. QMed Services offered a whole lot of “technology (Internet & computers) usage” based services to health professionals. We trained them to use the Internet for getting research information and updates, did some of the more complex researches for them, helped them set up websites and ordered articles on their behalf.
Today the company only orders articles for the industry, and we have returned all loans and are making profits.
The QMed Foundation was set up because we felt that the “ignorance” factor about information resources, their complexities and the method of getting one’s hands on resources, was genuinely wide spread. Today, eight years later, the overall ignorance is only increasing, because there are newer types of resources, newer technologies, and newer complexities for ordering them.
The Foundation’s work is ever increasing. We focus on training all health sciences students and professionals in searching and managing the research material they find. When they learn to do this job right, health care provision to society will be “evidence based” – that is – based on the best available worldwide evidence. And Indian medical research will be done better and better, for local contexts.
With eight years of work, I have been recognized by the Maharashtra University of Health Sciences as a Faculty for Research Methodology workshops. And I am also recognized as an “Accredited Specialty Speaker” by the Maharashtra Medical Council. I am probably the only librarian to figure in both these lists.
What challenges have you faced in this journey?
The first challenge was to get acceptance for the need for training to search the Internet correctly. With generic search engines being made to sound like they are the ultimate answer; to even the most complex queries, it was tough to get people to understand that there was a scientific basis and methodology to adopt, while searching. And that there are software to manage such search results and for citing them correctly in research reports.
Today, while we have our lectures going strong, we have not reached the ideal stage, where our full-fledged workshops have become an integral part of the curriculum. And to tackle this, we are creating e-learning courses, so that students and professionals can learn at their pace.
The second major challenge is funding. The powers that be in the medical education field have still not found it important to fund our expertise (or prioritize it in the curriculum). Funding agencies or even individual donors do not exactly understand the nature and importance of our work, and wonder why we should be a non-profit organization, when our target audience can pay. Still with tremendous hard work, we have been raising funds, both from India and abroad, though the main funding still is done by my family.
The third challenge is to get and retain employees or use volunteers. I have fantastic colleagues, but scaling up is again a challenge because of the funding related problem. Our work being highly academic, we need to pay well to retain competent people; it is not fair to expect them to stick on for long in what passes off as “enough to pay in a not-for-profit organization”. Again, it is tough to attract volunteers, because of the niche area we work in. Volunteers require a lot of training, and if they drop out after that, the time invested is lost.
To whom will you give credit for your success?
I will first give credit to myself, for coming up with the idea, working hard and sincerely, without giving up for so many years. And also for taking no salary for five years, a very modest one for a few more, and a reasonable one later on. The need to set up the not-for-profit entity (chiefly for advocacy, and the buy-in for our work) was something that I sensed fairly early in the journey, while several people disagreed about this at first.
Credit goes to my husband who supported the whole venture all along, not only with money, but with his inputs as a professional — finance, legal and more. And then of course my team – my four colleagues in the for-profit venture and two in the Foundation. Without their sincerity, trust and support, it would be very difficult to make this work. I owe credit to UnLtd India, which helped me think through my “journey for change” and putting things in a much better perspective for the Foundation. And credit to the Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy for guiding us through a million things for running a not-for-profit foundation.
What do you think are your strengths?
- Excellence in my field of medical information / informatics.
- A teacher par excellence (my teaching skills being inherited from my father and grandfather!).
- Being a very sensitive employer.
- Sincerity in what I do for my target audience – helping them to the best that I can.
- My ability to get along wonderfully with my core target audience – medical and health sciences students – not only inspiring them to learn more, but also helping them in several other ways – personally and professionally.
What is your support system and source of inspiration?
First is my family. Apart from my husband, my elderly mother-in-law takes keen interest in my work, supports my cause, and sometimes actually gives ideas, and does small amounts of fund raising for me! My sons and their wives also recognize my need for intense time with my work and support me.
My household help – two of them, who take care of most of the housework, leaving me with time to do all that I do.
My team, which is always with me in the ups and downs.
A great number of librarians in the US who have done phenomenal work in the same professional area, and are my guides when needed.
Sources of inspiration for me are those several doctors who teach and mentor brilliantly in the medical research / education area. To name a few – Dr Avinash Supe, Dr Prathap Tharyan, Dr Arjun Rajagopalan, Dr Nithya Gogtay, Dr Priya Ranganathan, Dr CS Pramesh .
Drs Abhay and Rani Bang of SEARCH, Gadchiroli, and Dr Yogesh Jain and his team at JSS, Ganiyari, for their work towards healthcare in the most interior rural areas
Arvind Eye Hospital group and Sankara Nethralaya, for their innovations in running their eye care systems, and their growth from very small beginnings.
Several authors from whom I have learned about handling life – Stephen Covey, Robin Sharma, Anita Moorjani. And my spiritual Guru – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
Family members: My paternal grandmother who by the time I was 9- year-old had demonstrated to me, how to handle being ill, by taking help from different people. My father – for showing me how to teach well. My mother for getting me to develop the courage to pick myself up courage even at the worst of financial crises. My mother-in-law for her self-discipline. My husband, who often points out ways I can do things – ways I simply do not think about!
If you were to mentor or guide women-led startups, what would your top three suggestions be?
Most importantly, listen to your inner-most self or your gut feel. Do not get carried away by people telling you “this cannot happen” or “this is a bad idea”. If you are convinced about your idea, give it your best.
You do not need to “be like a man” to be at the top. Use the best of your feminine qualities and see how things evolve.
Take time off for your personal growth and family at some intervals you set for yourself. It is equivalent of airlines telling you to put on your oxygen mask first; the time you set aside helps your organization more than you can imagine.
What is that one change you suggest that will make women entrepreneurship blossom in this country?
It’s tough to pick one, but here it is. Everyone needs to learn to drop the word “women” from this question. When the question is as it is, it is taken that it is tougher for women. Drop this thought and accept that:
- The only difference between men and women is the ones nature created. Value these differences and work with them.
- All entrepreneurs need to be looked at with respect, simply for the fact that they have chosen to take big risks!