Esquire magazine Editor-At-Large AJ Jacobs thinks Honey K Balani looks a bit like an Indian version of Eva Longoria (Desperate Housewives star) as he proceeds to record her "full lips, long hair and skin the color of her first name". All this based on a photograph, sent over the internet. Going by Jacobs' generous observations, one could perhaps conclude that this writer was privileged not just to meet with Honey but also speak to her at some length.
Earlier, we (driver & I) were bumping along the the dusty approach road to Whitefield in Bangalore. This is the other end of the city, you turn right as you exit the airport driveway and keep rolling, largely unhindered, as the road narrows and broadens in the inexplicably Indian way, throwing up scattered groups of vegetable vendors on one bend and an impressive congregation of shops specialising in `seconds' of well known brands on another. And then 6 km or so, you turn left into Whitefield.
Honey works for B2K, a upcoming BPO company housed in a large glass panelled commercial complex at the far end of Whitefield. B2K is co-founded and run by former Karnataka IT secretary Vivek Kulkarni who turned entrepreneur two years ago. Honey's fame (she was interviewed on ABC's Good Morning America last month) is a credit as much to her smartness and grit as it is to Kulkarni's vision of a university-like organisation rather than a process strong,`traditional' BPO. In their own ways, both have built an interesting sub-model in the BPO space.
Getting A Voice
The 19-year-old Honey is not even through college. She is currently studying for her final year, through correspondence. Before joining B2K, she worked for two years as a voice coach with Dell. Till she decided she didn't like the night life. "I was finding it difficult to work by night and attend college by day." The day job options were Accenture and B2K, the latter more so because it was new. B2K told her she would be taken on a voice coach with the possibility of being promoted to voice trainer in two months. "I was promoted in three months," she says.
Life was pretty routine for Honey as a voice trainer, till one day Kulkarni began experimenting with what he hoped would be a new and somewhat different BPO business stream. He called it Brickwork, a service offering remote executive research assistants and analysts, comprising often qualified youngsters on this side. Two things happened. Thomas L Friedman in a recent visit to Bangalore met Kulkarni and wrote about it in his book The World Is Flat. And Esquire's Jacobs read about it.
Jacobs then wrote in to Kulkarni seeking the services of Brickwork for some research related work. Honey, a voice trainer who was showing promise as an intelligent worker was appointed to Jacobs and the two began working together in late May this year. Last month, Jacobs documented his five-month `relationship' with Honey in an article called `My Outsourced Life' in Esquire. The article was picked up by Universal Pictures as a film project for Meet The Fockers director Jay Roach. And Honey turned into a celebrity of sorts.
Honey says it was not that simple in the beginning. "In the first week, he was a little uneasy, so I had to talk to him and make him comfortable. We spoke about a host of things, life in general, his wife, his son Jasper and so on." To the point that Jacobs also told her that he was a little nervous about his meeting with a publisher for a book project he was working on. "Relax, Ill pray to God and it will go well," said Honey. Jacobs got the deal, to write The Year Of Living Biblically, in turn picked up by Paramount Pictures. In and for the book, Jacobs will live for a year by the literal rules of the Old and New Testament.
A Testament To Good Work
Honey helped (all remotely obviously) do research, finding out names of related books, links and came up with some 25 reference books Jacobs could work with. Over the months, their routine (scheduling, general research) relationship took some interesting turns with assignments ranging from the interesting to the truly challenging. One day, Jacobs called her and said he and his wife had a huge debatewhere he claimed that most playwrights were gay. The wife disagreed.
So it was now over to Honey in Bangalore to dig out the truth, overnight. "I was in a fix. We were not allowed to surf websites which may contain such information," she says. So she went to `Vivek Sir' and sought his permission. Kulkarni had a big laugh and granted it. Honey's own research initially seemed to suggest that Jacobs' case was weak. "I was sweating, I had to find stuff that proved his case," she recalls. A day later, she mailed in the names of 12 gay playwrights. "There were about three or four more but were borderline cases," she laughs.
Jacobs then decided to administer the ultimate test. He called Honey saying he needed captions urgently for photographs for the June edition of the magazine and gave her two hours to deliver. Honey says she was in a tizzy again, racking her brains no end before despatching more than 10 captions to Esquire Editor-In-Chief David Granger. "I understand four were selected which according to Mr Granger is a better than average hit rate," she says proudly.
Back To College
Kulkarni says one reason for the easy working relationships some B2K employees have with their clients is because they are in a college or a university like environment. Walking around the well-appointed and carpeted offices, one meets young men and women, some very highly qualified look and work on research-driven projects in areas ranging from engineering design to advanced customer data mining. So much so, he claims he can't really supervise them because each of them is a specialist in his or her own right.
The clincher in this model, says Kulkarni, is that a B2K Brickworks employee is not part of a traditional, highly systems-driven BPO process. "They work directly with clients from day one, talk to them and have a direct contribution to make," he says as we pause next to a young nerdish, engineering graduate from Scandinavia working on a client presentation on energy efficient power generation systems. And thus, according to Kulkarni, the job content is strong, attrition is low and the future looks generally bright.
Honey concurs and quite firmly. "I am very clear. I don't think it's a case of Americans doing high level work and we Indians doing low level work. I said on Good Morning America that if that was the case, how come so many Indians were doing high-end work at NASA ?" Honey says in all her work with Jacobs, she was doing original research and providing original thought. "I am not sure Jacobs' article conveys that correctly," she adds.
We Are High-End Too
According to her, efficiency does not change from place to place, people do. On working with Jacobs, she says, "The way I would like to see it (their relationship ended after he began `living Biblically' for his book) is that he delegated a task to me and I delivered on it. And I worked like mad to do so, including, earlier reading up past editions of Esquire to understand the mind of an average reader in New York." Honey later went on to suggest detailed story ideas that Esquire should work on.Some of these are apparently being worked on.
Honey is now working on a e-learning project, equally exciting as the one with Jacobs she says. "Its high-end stuff," she reminds you. Jacobs and she are still in touch, they talk regularly. She now wants to write a book but maybe intern with a publication for a year before that, a suggestion from Jacobs. Editors back home better start thinking, or better still, handing over the task to Honey.
The original, slightly shortened version, appeared in Hindustan Times, Bombay, this week. The author can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org