Amazon India’s delivery centre in Kadi, Gujarat, has no delivery boys. It’s an all-women station with five-six women associates who deliver packages across the town. Amazon has not just sensitised the people of Kadi about women delivery associates, it has also created a 24-hour helpline where they can call in case of any trouble. The e-commerce giant has five such delivery stations: Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. These women associates (mostly from nearby villages), who go door-to-door delivering packages on an electric scooter, narrate poignant stories of how the job has changed their lives.

In Gurugram, Shweta Arora is founder of ₹11-crore Kavya Enterprises a distributor for chocolate-maker Mars Wrigley and brands, including Emami, Sundrop Oil, Bector Foods and Gowardhan ghee. She is surprised with the respect she gets from retailers who have been used to only male distributor sales representatives (DSRs). She wants to build an all-woman distribution team. “Brands are looking for diversity and asking for women DSRs. I see this as an opportunity to bring more women into my workforce.”

Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has an initiative called Ahilya, under which it plans to recruit 5,000 women in frontline sales by 2025. “We want our employer base to mirror our consumers, therefore, inclusion is about being gender-balanced at the frontline, too,” says Anuradha Razdan, executive director, HR, HUL. The FMCG major is looking to hire 3,000 women in the next three years on the shopfloor, even in remote locations such as Suhelpur in Uttar Pradesh. “To begin with, we are encouraging girls in those villages to study,” says Razdan.

Amazon is also looking to set up delivery stations manned by transgenders as well as physically disabled people. “We do a lot of programmes and training to make sure they deliver like everybody else. We also have transgenders in our delivery network as well as fulfilment and sorting centres,” says Swati Rustagi, director, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), international markets, Amazon.

Encouraging business partners to hire women is a great CSR (corporate social responsibility) gesture. But it’s much more than that. Companies are looking at diversity across their larger ecosystem of distributors, suppliers and vendors as a serious business case.

Technology major Cisco has set itself a goal of enabling 1 billion vendors globally and 50 million in India to embrace diversity practices by 2025. This will include hiring not only women but also differently abled, and people from LGBTQ communities. Mondelez International has launched an initiative called Economic Inclusion and Supplier Diversity. The goal is to spend $1 billion by 2024 to ensure diversity at suppliers’ firms. “We are tracking small suppliers, and businesses owned by women and differently abled,” says Shilpa Vaid, senior director, people lead, Mondelez India. Diversity and inclusion-enabling company Avtar has set a target of helping 1,00,000 MSMEs adopt diversity practices by 2027.

Good for Business

There is a reason for the trend. Diversity is good for business and profitability. According to Credit Suisse, companies where women held 20% or more management roles generated 2.04% higher cash flow return on investment than those with 15% or less women in management roles.

A McKinsey & Company’s global study of more than 1,000 companies in 15 countries found that organisations in the top quartile in gender diversity were more likely to outperform on profitability — 25% more likely for gender-diverse executive teams and 28% for gender-diverse boards. Organisations in top quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity among executives were 36% more likely to achieve above-average profitability. In contrast, companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic/cultural diversity were 27% less likely to report above-average profitability. According to Research and Markets, inclusive teams are 35% more productive.

An organisation whose workforce mirrors its buyers is more innovative and creates better products. But why is it important for the ecosystem to also reflect its consumers? “I could be doing exceptional work in terms of leveraging diversity, equity and inclusion at my workplace, but my customers are exposed to people who are part of my last-mile connectivity (distributors, franchisees or suppliers) system. If my customer doesn’t feel inclusive while interacting with them, I am doing a disservice,” says Saundarya Rajesh, founder-president, Avtar. “The second part of being inclusive is creating the same kind of atmosphere for vendors, distributors and partners so that people who work in their organisations also abide by the same value system as the people who work for you,” she says.

In Amazon’s case, a woman delivery associate can make women customers feel safer. “It gives the consumer comfort that not only does Amazon cater to her needs by offering products that she wants, it also cares for her safety,” says Amazon’s Rustagi.

A diverse workforce helps increase productivity, too. Mars Wrigley India runs a programme called ‘Sangini’ at its factory in Pune, under which the company has hired 55 women from local communities. “Not only has our relationship with the local community improved significantly, the attendance at the factory has gone up too. Absenteeism has reduced from 15% to 4%,” says Kalpesh Parmar, country general manager, Mars Wrigley India.

Helping partners embrace diversity also helps the latter flourish. “The internal value system starts reflecting in the way we operate. They (partners) start asking if we can mentor them,” says Sirisha Palepu, director, people and communities, Cisco India and SAARC. Palepu cites the example of agritech start-up GreenPod Labs, which asked Cisco to become its mentor. Palepu told them the importance of having a diverse team, not just women, but also from various states and communities. “Six months ago, our women-to-men ratio was 2:8. Now, 45% of our team is women. Diversity has helped expand our customer base. Now, we have people from different states, and that is helping us reach new markets,” says Deepak Rajmohan, CEO, GreenPod Labs.

Image : Sanjay Rawat

The Challenge

Though diversity across gender, communities, religions and languages is important, India is struggling with the most basic form of diversity — getting more women into the workforce.

Covid had put the diversity agenda on fast-track mode for India Inc., and big companies have made considerable progress. But a lot of ground still needs to be covered. India slipped 28 places and was ranked 140th among 156 nations in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, 2021. The economic participation and opportunity gap declined 3% in 2021 vs 2020. While the share of women in professional and technical roles fell to 29%, those in senior and managerial positions declined to 14.6%. According to estimates, only 8.9% of firms in India have top female managers. Also, women earn one-fifth of men, and the country fares among the bottom 10 globally on this indicator.

“Small and medium-sized companies lose 45-50% of their women employees within 16-24 months,” says Rajesh of Avtar. Since most large companies work with MSMEs in the supply and distribution side, it becomes crucial for them to support MSMEs to embrace diversity. “Most of these companies don’t even have a POSH (policy for sexual harassment). Most don’t employ women on payroll because they will have to give maternity leave. If large firms tell their smaller partners, ‘if you want to be a supplier, please have 20% women in your workforce’, it will help them understand the value of diversity,” she adds.

Though organisations are happy to push their larger ecosystem to embrace diversity, distributors and vendors are sceptical. Ilma Khan works as a DSR at Subhash Jain and Mukesh Kumar Jain — where she is the only woman employee — which distributes products for Mars Wrigley, Capital Foods and Kellogg’s in West Delhi. “Firms are pressing to hire women employees, but distributors are not keen because they are not comfortable sending women to sell for safety reasons,” says Khan. Arora of Kavya Enterprises says six months ago she had four women DSRs but now she is left with just one. “They don’t want to work as they are not comfortable with travel and long hours. I tell them to work flexible hours and even punch orders from home, but despite doing that I am finding it difficult to retain them.”

According to Amazon’s Rustagi, a lot of times partners have genuine challenges as well. “Most of these businesses are small and they don’t have deep pockets to put policies in place.” In such circumstances, the onus, says Rustagi, lies on the company to ensure its associate embraces diversity.

Mars Wrigley ensures distribution partners give women DSRs territories closer to their homes. “Most of them have challenges with mobility. Unless we take care of them, it will be difficult to retain them,” says Parmar.

“In one of the largest corporate conglomerates in south India we work with, we have observed the practice of mentoring partner networks across the value chain. It has enabled the right culture in most of these smaller companies,” says Vidya Sagar Gannamani, chairman and MD, Adecco India.

P. Vishwanath, MD and CEO, Randstad India, cites the example of Ola Electric, which asked the talent-hiring company to bring on board women technicians as part of its test-ride team. “When a consumer books a test ride, it’s a woman technician who goes to her doorstep. These women are not just part of the company’s payroll, they are also part of the payrolls of its partner ecosystem.”

Taking Baby Steps

Large companies understand the need to enable their ecosystem to embrace diversity, but there’s still a long way to go. As Vaid of Mondelez says, their first step would be to bring on board diverse suppliers. “Enabling distributors and suppliers to strengthen their diversity agenda would be the next.”

French alcoholic beverage company Pernod Ricard has started its diversity journey by procuring house-keeping services from firms run by women or businesses that employ the differently abled. “Since the alcobev industry is a late mover in terms of embracing diversity, our biggest priority and focus currently is to ensure we have a diverse workforce within our own organisation. However, when we were moving to our new office and it came to sourcing joining kits or identity cards or even the caterer, we intentionally went looking for diverse suppliers. Eventually, we plan to source our ingredients locally, versus going with one big supplier,” says Nitu Bhushan, CHRO, South Asia, Pernod Ricard India.

FMCG major Nestle India, on the other hand, has a dairy development programme to encourage women to take up dairy farming. The company is already making a difference to more than 70,000 women dairy farmers, says CHRO Anurag Patnaik.

Like Nestle, Mondelez India has empowered 5,000 women farmers to take up cocoa farming through its Cocoa Life Programme. Mars Wrigley is engaging with mint farmers in Lucknow’s Barabanki district to help them develop an ecosystem of good farming practices. The company has partnered with 24,000 farmers, out of which 8,000 are women.

Prerna, an initiative by Mahindra Group’s farm equipment business, helps empower women farmers. In the first phase in 2017, around 2,000 women farmers across 40 villages in Odisha were given implements to reduce drudgery in farming. In the second phase, Prerna touched upon the lives of another 6,000 women across 60 villages in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. As part of this project, the company not just works with NGOs, it also encourages its dealers to work with women farmers. Women farmers are also taught agricultural best practices and tractor driving. “Equal representation of women in the workplace can have a positive impact across an organisation... We are incentivising our hiring partners in sourcing women candidates. All-women assembly lines have been set up at some of our manufacturing facilities, including Nagpur and Mohali,” says Hemant Sikka, president, farm equipment sector, M&M.

The intent is there, but it’s going to take a lot of investment in terms of money as well as time to set the diversity ball rolling across the larger ecosystem. As Rajesh of Avtar says, the need of the hour is for larger organisations to build diversity as part of the culture of their ecosystem. Simply hiring women or people with disabilities isn’t enough, firms have to find a way to retain them in their workforce.

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