Founded in 2012, Outline India is a for-profit, social enterprise that stands for creating social impact through data. Started by Prerna Mukharya, the company creates value in the social sector using data and engaging in evaluations. Prerna has worked on over 60 evaluations spanning different sectors, and she does a little bit of everything. She likes data, research, and believes fieldwork builds character. She believes in the idea of independent, non-partisan research and hence her for-profit business model.
Here are a few excerpts from the interview where Prerna unfolded Outline India’s journey and its future plans with HelloPost Team:
Tell us something about yourself and Outline India.
Hi, I am Prerna. I founded Outline India in 2012. Since then, my team and I have conducted over 60 evaluations that have taken us to over 7000 villages in 24 states and Union Territories.
I hold a masters degree in Economics from Boston University and have worked briefly as a research assistant at Harvard, MIT, and Centre for Policy Research. I’m a Chevening fellow from Oxford University and a Raisinia Fellow. In 2017 and 2018, I was on Fortunes’ 40under40 list and on Forbes’ list of trailblazing women. I was also on India Today’s Top 10 Most Powerful Innovators in 2018.
When and how did the idea of Outline India come into existence?
I set up Outline India with the intention of trying to solve the first-mile problem in the development sector. We are data collectors and we help you measure impact.
Whether you are launching a new social scheme as the government or looking to measure the effectiveness of your CSR program, we are the evaluators. We help you understand how to create behavioral change, how to spend funds to create maximum social impact, how to reach the farthest of villages or your target audience. We conduct research studies (surveys, data collection, etc.) and come back to you with insights. We help our partners do their job better.
How has been the journey of Outline India so far?
As I briefly mentioned, since Outline India began its journey in 2012, we’ve conducted over 60 research/evaluations for think tanks, independent researchers, educational institutions and govt. agencies across a wide range of sectors, including education, gender, water, sanitation, hygiene, skill development, etc. We recently started operations in Nepal.
Our work has taken us to the remotest of villages in states like Bihar and Jharkhand. We’ve had the good fortune of visiting over 7000 villages in 24 states and UTs across the country. Outline India’s journey has been the most enlightening and humbling experience and continues to be so every single day.
What challenges did you face while starting Outline India?
Setting up a company is never easy. At the onset, we got flak for being for-profit. I do think that incentives are crucial to be sustainable, to grow and to innovate. We never went after investors and have maintained a low-key profile as Outline India.
On the field, we had to reassess our strategies in different places as a large part of the team comprised of women. It happened many times during data collection that OI researchers had to deal with gendered barriers. We’ve learned from our experiences, and it has helped our data collection processes tremendously.
Who are your key clients?
Over the years, and to name a few, we’ve worked with reputed international non-governmental organizations like WaterAid, Save The Children and IMPAQ International. We’ve also worked with educational institutions including the likes of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, University of Maryland, and IIM Ahmedabad. Recently, we also worked with the World Bank Group.
How are you creating social impact through data?
Outline India only takes up projects that have a strong impact component to them. Our clients want to bring about change at the grassroots level, and we get them the data they need to be able to achieve that goal.
What are the most interesting projects you have handled so far?
Most of the projects we work on are very interesting. For now, I can recollect our study with Sesame Street. We worked with very young children who were in the age groups of 3-6. It was very challenging but it was also a lot of fun. We used a human-centered design approach to arrive at what the child “needed” and “wanted” by using colorful showcards with cartoons on them.
On a different occasion, we worked in the realm of child labor with a not for profit that has made a dent in this space. We were trying to figure out why young kids run off from schools to work in hazardous, and dangerous mining conditions. We were hoping to figure out whether it was poverty, pressure from the family or a need to start earning from a young age. Child labor is illegal in our country and children working in mining areas is a hush-hush subject. It was tough to get our respondents to speak on the subject and to arrive at conclusive evidence was akin to an in-depth investigation.
How do you source and manage funds?
We’re a profitable social enterprise. We’ve not raised money but we’re profitable. We charge a fee for the work we take on. On certain occasions, we take on work for a reduced fee if it has academic or certain social merit.
How important is quality data for the inclusive growth of the country?
Quality data is the non-negotiable aspect of the research work we do. When it comes to the type of data, right now, the buzzword maybe ‘big data’ (data collected through platforms like Facebook and Google) but I believe it’s high time we turn our attention to small data sets as that’s where the jackpot lies.
We will only understand the country’s populace and their problems better if we reach out to the very last individual and record their responses about their lived realities. It’s absolutely essential to focus on the quality of data so that the bigger picture can be representative of many different (and accurate) realities. Once we have the knowledge we need (without compromising on quality), socioeconomic policies can be created from a place of maximum awareness which hopefully will lead to inclusive growth.
What are your future plans?
We’re looking to expand operations to other countries in the sub-continent as well as Africa. We’re very excited about what lies ahead.
What helped you to stay motivated and continue your way towards your dream?
Remember the hard days on the good ones and the good days on the hard ones. Keep your eye on the prize – the larger goal you’re trying to achieve.
Do you have any thoughts to share with our readers?
Young people should work towards developing solutions and technology that solve problems that the superset of India faces. The delta is so high when you work at the bottom of the pyramid, the thrill of it, the good feeling of doing so is amazing!