COVER STORY : Dash Of drive

While he finds it imperative to promote a corporate ecosystem for green transportation and add dignity to the lives of cab drivers, his better half comes to the aid of working women by offering a safe haven for tiny tots, helping them balance their work-life corporate goals. Meet Sanjay Krishnan, CEO of Bengaluru-based Lithium Urban Technologies Pvt. Ltd, India’s first B2B (business to business) electric cab service company and Priya Krishnan, CEO of KLAY (Kids, Learning and You) and TLC (The Little Company), under the flagship - Founding Years Learning Solutions India Private Limited. Corporate Citizen tagged the two on the spirit that keeps them rooted to their contributions to each other and the dynamics of their respective businesses

Sanjay Krishnan founded Lithium Urban in January 2014, which attempts to fill in the need for an alternate, sustainable and dynamic corporate mobility solution that not only staves off vehicular pollution but also synchronises the perpetuity of corporate drop and pick routes on a tech-based delivery process platform. In doing so, he has also resurrected and instilled a ‘pride’ factor into the lives of the ubiquitous cab drivers within Lithium. With a background in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Sanjay Krishnan has worked across diverse companies-the likes of Honeywell, Mosaic Capital Services and Ispat Industries. He has also lent his expertise to managing international businesses spread across four countries by initiating growth in diverse geographies, verticals and product categories. He is a recipient of the National Talent Search Scholarship by the Government of India, the N R Badekar prize, and NASSCOM’s ‘Best Small Company Award'.

Priya Krishnan, an alumnus of the London Business School, has traversed careers in consulting, also with IT outsourcer Mphasis, where she headed their European business. She also held leadership positions with Anderson Consulting and Mphasis across Singapore, New York, London and India. She thinks working with adults is over-rated, and that working with young children is an enriching experience. She moved back to India in 2010 from the UK and conceptualised KLAY in July 2011, which functions across 52 schools nationwide, with centres in Dubai and Singapore on the anvil. The two pronged model of these centres is to set up either day care for corporate houses or community preschools, or day care centres close to either the workplace or home. She re-modelled her learning-cum-day care centres to combat societal stigma for working women, be it her customers (corporate working mums) or her caregivers at the centres, and be self-reliant. For her business plan, Priya Krishnan ensures that education, social and learning developments are integral to her centres.

Sanjay and Priya Krishnan, while recognising each other’s contributions to their lives together, also pack in individual strengths to power and fuel their own growth stories.

Juggling busy and successful businesses and also thriving as a cohesive couple can be daunting enough, but Priya and Sanjay Krishnan have built up an openness and flexibility as the two key factors that help them manage their careers and personal lives. They are also proud parents of Arjun and Aditya, who according to Priya, “Like to do things they genuinely enjoy and also try and make decisions on what they think is good for them regardless of their tender age.”

For Sanjay Krishnan, “Recognising the contribution that the other person makes is prime; recognition of his/her strengths and weaknesses is equally important. First is to recognise your own weaknesses and then the other person’s strengths. Acknowledge what the other person brings to the table and value that above everything else.”

Nudging roots

Priya and Sanjay both started out as ‘Mumbaikars’ in their individual journeys and had an arranged marriage. “We are both Tamilians. But his parents live in Hyderabad, so they speak Telugu, while my parents speak Tamil. He and I speak in Hindi, so sometimes I wonder what our children are going to learn. They should have one sense of identity. Given that we were both nomadic in our earlier lives, we also have this dire need for them (our boys) to be rooted to something and imbibe a part of the culture,” says Priya.

They both believe in recognising the contribution that the other person makes. For a successful marriage, Priya acknowledges, “Given the nature of both our roles in our respective careers, we both have an understanding that at least one of us has to be available to attend calls from the family, and depending on how busy either of us may be, one of us is always ready to pitch in. At the same time, it helps that both our extended families are also on the same page and are able to help us out when the need arises.”

Cherishing lives and business

Sanjay has a very simple ‘mantra’ on cherishing their lives together and as independent individuals, and believes in banking on the strength and confidence that each of them nurtures in their relationship. “At the end of the day, each of us recognises the strength and has the confidence in the other. There is of course more pressure on her than on me. We are very clear on that. She has borne a lot more than I have, and thereby given me the greater ability to go out. I know that if not anybody else in the world, she believes in me and that for me is my dose of strength,” says Sanjay.

As for Priya, she cherishes Sanjay more as a friend first. “The fact that I have a friend in Sanjay, more than just a husband, is something I truly cherish. We often take time out after work to go and spend time at cafés and restaurants together, where we simply talk as friends and not about the various other issues that we both may face. Having that support is truly immense.”

Being successful entrepreneurs themselves, they also believe in not influencing each other’s business decisions. “In terms of our businesses, we are completely different but there is a very fine line between what is considered advice and what is considered overbearing. I think each of us, while we celebrate happiness together, we also have got to be careful in terms of only giving advice when it is sought,” says Sanjay.

On Challenges in balancing individual interests and business pressures, priya explains that Sanjay has traversed his path as an entrepreneur many times before finally setting up Lithium, so it was perhaps not too daunting for Sanjay. “I am the one who is a corporate rat, I think. When we moved back to India, I was not 100 per cent sure on how this (Lithium) would do; it was a new industry and a new venture. Sanjay transited between employment and business thrice, but we did not hold back.” And as Sanjay says, “It’s a question of who wants to do what. Also, we did not have to hold on to a job to sustain a lifestyle and that has really helped in our transitions and growth.”

"In terms of our businesses, we are completely different, but there is a very fine line between what is considered advice and what is considered overbearing. I think both of us, while we celebrate happiness together, have also got to be careful in terms of only giving advice when it is sought”

— Sanjay

Parenting and all

On being a hands-on parent, Sanjay quips, “Who me? Oh God! It is such a lie.” Priya does not mince her words, “I don’t think parenting is any unique in today’s age and time. Since parenting does not come with a handbook, you stumble along the way and eventually figure out. Given the fact that kids have so much more exposure and they have so many more avenues to keep them distracted, just keeping them straight to the line is very critical. Our boys (aged 12 and 8) are very good children and they are very proud of the fact that we both work.”

And as any confident mother, she adds, “They (Arjun and Aditya) often talk about us running our own individual businesses and so I anticipate that they will never hold on to mainstream jobs, but rather start companies of their own! They are very proud and there were never situations where they have not come back to us and asked us why we do not spend as much time with them and adjust around this fact, despite their young ages.”

On parenting tactics, says Priya: “One of the things we have learnt is to not protect our kids to the point that they do not experience the world for themselves. As parents, we always try and are available for advice and guidance. However, as parents neither of us is in favour of spoon-feeding our boys.”

On work-life balance, Priya adds, “We both strongly believe that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to spending time with family. Over the weekends, we always ensure that we take time out with the kids to do something fun and exciting and that is usually something outdoors. We also have a fairly active social circle which keeps us relaxed and charged for our personal and professional commitments.” As for Sanjay, “Our life balance is driven by her (Priya) because it is easy to err on the side of work which is never ending. I really look to her to drive us on the ‘life’ side because she manages that much better than I do!”

One common hobby they both nurture is their penchant for reading. “I read and we just read all kinds of books. I read a lot more junk, while he reads a little bit more of philosophy. I don’t like reading management books,” says Priya. While Sanjay has a flair for reading multiple books at a time, he concurs, “I don’t like reading management books either but enjoy books on anthropology.” And it is such ‘common’ traits in their duality that perhaps keeps the Krishnans ticking.

Priya’s calm exuberance hides the silent ‘victory’ of having empowered innumerable working women in urban zones who would have otherwise succumbed to ‘silent societal pressures’ of either staying at home or being guilt ridden for having placed their tiny tots at the hands of untrained informal domestic help, reluctant relatives or at crèches or standalone care centres. KLAY started in Bengaluru as a provider for toddler, pre-school, and after-care programmes. A part of the model is to locate these centres within corporate premises for working women. In her empathy for Indian moms who battle higher expectations at home and at work, she has attempted in getting mothers to ask for help and for fathers to engage with their kids through workshops, teaching them the basics and especially on how to support their wives in taking care of their children. In doing so, Priya has endeavoured to make ‘caring’ a dignified profession by bringing her customers (working mums) and KLAY care-givers in a symbiotic gesture that enables emancipation for both sets of women.

"Recognising the contribution that the other person makes is prime; recognition of his/her strengths and weaknesses is equally important. First is to recognise your own weaknesses and then the other person’s strengths. Acknowledge what the other person brings to the table and value that above everything else”

— Sanjay

From consulting to nurturing

“I am not a qualified educationist, but I love children,” says Priya. With a toddler in tow, and as a working mother in London, she acknowledges the child care system there that enabled her to pursue her goals. It was during her LBS days that she conceptualised her idea of KLAY. But it was on her return to India in 2010 that she actually got prompted to start her own day care and learning centres. She saw a business opportunity in setting up these centres and her younger one was one of the first children at KLAY when she launched it in 2011. “I saw a lot of women quitting after they had kids and I thought it was wrong because they are either doing it because of social norms or for the guilt associated, or for a lack of options. In cities like Bengaluru, parents are unwilling to move in and support their sons and daughters (for childcare) as it is very expensive here especially for a pair of young software engineers. For them, bringing a child into the family, then getting either of their parents and sustaining them as a household is very difficult. I knew that the Indian market was ripe enough to nurture a new venture in the early child education space, as I believed that the Indian parent community needed the kind of support KLAY aspired to offer.”

Breaking stigma

Priya’s focus while starting off with their first centre at Whitefield, Bengaluru, was to build a community connect first, and then provide service to those parents who were returning from abroad or belonged to the expat community; who according to her were accustomed to the high quality child care system in the west which was largely missing in India. “In the initial stages, we soon realized that our audience was not just the expats/ parents returning to India but also in large measure, the local communities who were seeking premium child care service too.”

She and her team found that the biggest test to their early years was finding a personal connect within the local communities to set up centres in Bengaluru. “As we expanded across regions, the challenge was to ensure consistency in quality and standardised operations, so that every child got the same environment at KLAY, regardless of the cities where we provided the facilities. For this, it was also critical to set up an easily replicable training module for teachers and align the leadership team on our collective mission.”

Traditional to professional care

KLAY’s conviction in its professional model meant that child care would now shift hands from grandparents or nannies from the unorganised sectors. “With grandparents, the quality of interaction is outstanding - they have way more patience than parents and will do everything in their capacity to make sure that a child learns and interacts. But the downside is that not all grandparents are around, and a lot of urban parents choose to have one child. So, a child goes through too much of an adult-to-child interaction and for the first six years of its life, this is not at all healthy for the child. Even if there is a grandparent around, the child-to-child interaction is critical, with more peer interaction and socialisation. Otherwise, the child becomes very adult-like or very baby-like. An at-home maid or nanny is definitely not an accountable service and the quality of interaction is very questionable,” says Priya.

One of her well-researched strategies was to avoid locating their centres around large BPOs or tech parks, considering the age profile of the working crowd there. “We typically set up KLAY centres where there are IT services and banking companies; where the age profile is that of new mothers or working mothers who have a dire requirement for a service like ours. We have a real estate team that studies the viability of locations. We also cater to companies with global centres.”

In fact, they have introduced Hindi as part of the curriculum for their migrant population. “With most kids going to CBSE schools, these working parents want to make sure that their child is able to read and write Hindi".

The full day care programme is built around kids from age six years until they go to Grade 1. But a lot of the children also attend the after-school programme at KLAY. “We have developed our own curriculum. We also cater to post-hours activities like karate and abacus within KLAY, along with Maths and English. We thus take away the ‘soccer mum’ syndrome where mums take kids from one after-school activity to the other. We take away everything that a mum will feel guilty about!” The retail price of RS. 15000/17000 per month for 9 to 11 hours of trained care is seen comparable and more accountable than an untrained domestic nanny.

The Company's Act in 2014 in fact has nudged corporate houses on the need for more women on the board of organisations, and with the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill 2016 (MB Bill) recently passed by the Lok Sabha, a lot of companies are looking more seriously to accommodate more women in the workforce. “A shift is definitely happening, and a lot of companies are looking at this more seriously, and today we work with all of these organisations - Unilever, P&G - and run day care centres for them. They are viewing this clearly as a method to attract women to get back to the workforce. While this need not be the only solution, it serves as part of the solution along with flexible hours and other multiple options. The maternity bill is a huge inflection point for us because there is compliance associated with it and you know that not all companies are looking at it just yet. But data shows that this is a method by which corporate India will be able to attract women back into their work space.”

"I don’t think parenting is any unique in today’s age and time. Since parenting does not come with a handbook, you stumble along the way and eventually figure out. Given the fact that kids have so much more exposure and they have so many more avenues to keep them distracted, just keeping them straight to the line is very critical. Our boys are very good children and they are very proud of the fact that we both work”

— Priya

Priya explains that they allow a lot of women, who have taken a career break to join them, even at the age of 45 and 50. “Most retail segment of care would want women between 25 and 32 years of age but we want women who are older because chances are that they are much more stable .We also hire women from fairly marginalised backgrounds, rape and acid-attack victims to work with kids. It is an irony that such women are held back by society when a lot of them want to get back to normalcy. So, while we are enabling women to work as customers, we also make a big difference to the women employed with us.”

With much ambiguity existing in the structure and workings of the loosely formatted pre-school, day cares, crèche or learning centres, Priya wishes for set stipulations from the government. “If there is a basic qualification stipulated by the government, then the human capital that we rely on can be standardised. The person that interacts and holds these tiny minds can be resurrected to a certain calibre. Getting standard qualified teachers is one of my biggest issues. The need is also to develop a formal framework for day care or preschools that should adhere to sound teacher-to-child ratios.”

A McKinsey report says that bringing 68 million women back into India’s workforce will increase the country’s GDP by $700 billion by 2025. And with Indian mothers playing superwomen, enterprises like KLAY might just be a precursor of hope for many mothers and women for a comeback into the workforce.

It is the battery that powers everything these days, says Sanjay Krishnan, CEO and co-founder of Lithium Urban Technologies, so there is a bit of Lithium in everybody’s life. Besides being driven by the urge to play straight by the environment by offering sustainable mobility, corporate transportation using electric vehicles also makes plain business sense, argues Krishnan...

Battery of Cabs

“There is a bit of Lithium in everybody’s life”, says Sanjay Krishnan, CEO and co-founder of Lithium Urban Technologies Pvt. Ltd, Bengaluru, India’s first B2B (business to business) electric cab service company. “Maybe ten years back it might have seemed esoteric, but now while it maintains its essence, it is also a very simple thing. Everybody knows that Lithium is a major component of batteries, phones et al, and that battery content is what is powering everything.” What started off with just ten electric cars has grown to some 350+ EVs (electric vehicles) that ply across Bengaluru and more recently NCR (National Capital Region). If each of the EVs clock around 200-300 kilometres per day, it indicates some 1,00,000 kilometres of pollution free and hydrocarbon emission-free transportation each day!

With such conviction in battery power, Sanjay Krishnan has unleashed this ‘Lithium’ energy by introducing a pioneering corporate and urban transportation model and is raring to take this technology nationwide, and perhaps beyond.

Why did you embark upon another urban mobility concept?

Sanjay Krishnan: It is just a realisation that sustainable mobility is a challenge. The world is running out of natural resources and we can all agree that it is finite. But we can also disagree on when it can get over. You might say another 48 or 50 years; some others might say we will finish in the next 20 years. Here the inevitability is not in question, it is only the timeline. So if that be the case, is the concept viable today? What is it that we can do today? Can electricals be used today? That is how we started out on our journey. We proved that our idea is conducive and in certain areas, more viable than others.

What was the thought behind utilising EVs in your transportation model?

In the retail segment, the usage of EVs has been there for a long time. One of the aspects is that while it is more expensive to buy an electric car, the cost-effectiveness is higher in the long-run.

While it is expensive to buy a Mahindra e2o than to buy say, a diesel or petrol run Tata Indica, Hyundaii10 or a Maruti Swift; the cost of operations is lower for the e2o that runs on electricity. The next step was to understand our market-so as to access power, operate in viable locations with good infrastructure and help devise routes and schedules to be drawn up much in advance.

We saw that the corporate employee transport requirement fitted this bill. We realised that in cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, Pune, NCR or Hyderabad, almost a million people in each of these cities work in the 24/7 slot and synced it to the thought that the maximum viability of an electric vehicle is derived by running it more kilometres.

The strategy behind incorporating Mahindra EVs in your fleet?

A typical retail user uses an EV for maybe 20-30 kilometres a day, but commercial usage is almost 200-250 or 300 kilometres per day. So, when you are running that many more kilometres, the viability of buying more expensive car upfront results in low operating costs, which gives a better return on investment. A retail user drives only 30-40 kilometres a day, so, how much cost can one save? But in a commercial fleet, EVs will find greater adoption because one is more interested in controlling the cost.

The price parity for your clients with EVs?

We acted upon game changing propositions and tried to remove this whole bean-counting pricing dictum that is linked to mere kilometres and trip counts. We work on unlimited mileage and on productivity. So, our computation of more number of trips and more the kilometres clocked is also based on the back of transportation analytics that we have developed. A corporate house is not charged on the number of trips made but on a monthly cost structure. For gas or diesel cars, the run cost is `5-6 per km; but for an EV it is 75 paise/kilometre. Savings varies from client to client. Typically, it is 10-15% cheaper than the usual diesel/petrol-run services for the simple reason that Lithium cars run on electricity.

How did you get stalwarts like Chetan Maini and urban experts like Ashwin Mahesh on-board Lithium Urban Tech.?

Chetan was on the other side of the table as CEO of Mahindra Reva and once he exited Mahindra, we spoke to Anand Mahindra and asked if we could get him on to this side of the table. Ashwin Mahesh started the company and is the second partner, and Chetan is the third. Ashwin is one of the foremost urban transportation experts today and one of the few in the world. An Ashoka Fellow, he worked as a climate scientist at NASA and is the driving force behind numerous urban development projects in Bengaluru including traffic management solutions. Ashwin brings to the table his expertise on city governance and other guidance. He is also on the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) advisory board.

What is your target market?

We are not a retail business or B2C like Ola or Uber. We are B2B; we go to each corporate house, sell our services and offer unlimited kilometre deals to interested companies. Today, we have about ten corporate customers and a pipeline of about 400 cars. We own not only our fleet but the EV charging infrastructure too. That sums up our role as a total fleet management service including driver welfare, which is at the centre of our proposition. Post the first fleet run in 2015, we have broken even in April 2016.

How has the market matured since 2015 for EVs in the B2B business?

There is a big change in the realisation of the benefits of EVs. Also, there is a lot of realisation within the government on electrical mobility powered by renewable energy. There is a huge scope for that in India and there are lots of plans underway at the government level to ensure that it goes from where it is today to say a million vehicles or even 5 million over the next few years.

When we got into the market, there were many apprehensions on Lithium being a new concept and the viability of the business using EVs. A lot of those questions have been addressed, and the market is slowly moving from early adoption to becoming mainstream, EVs being seen as a cheaper option to the existing transportation models or vehicles. The government is also getting mobilised under ‘Niti Aayog’ and is trying to change directions. It can’t happen all at once as it is a policy makeover. It will take time but it will happen.

"There is a lot of realisation within the government on electrical mobility powered by renewable energy. There are lots of plans underway at the government level to ensure that it goes from where it is today to say a million vehicles or even 5 million over the next few years”

What is your current fleet size?

We have a running fleet size of 250-300 cars and a pipeline of 400 cars under Lithium’s ownership and service model and plans are to expand the reach across business and corporate hubs across Delhi, Pune, Mumbai and Chennai.

Your future goals and success points?

We will be on the course and grow. As for success, we never expected to have gotten this far. We have done it in the way we have and it is not about ‘X’ number of vehicles on the road. In doing so, we also carry everyone along with it-be it our stake holders, suppliers, drivers or employees.

By way of brand positioning, Sanjay Krishnan sums up, “Lithium is a manifestation of ethics and honesty. That is the core culture. What Ashwin and I founded in the company will never be compromised. Whether it is driver or employee welfare, we will do things the old fashioned way and never sacrifice ethics for profitability or growth.”

By Sangeeta Ghosh Dastidar