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It’s an Equal World with Hanisha Vaswani

by Team IA, March 10, 2021

As part of the ongoing interview series kick-started on Women’s Day 2021, Team IA brings you insights of women bosses who inspire with their grit, determination, formidable achievements, and a brilliant career trajectory, owning one goal at a time.

Team IA gets chatting with Hanisha Vaswani, founder of Majority, an early stage impact investor. Majority will invest in deep-tech companies that have the potential to help improve the livelihoods of people living on under Rs. 500 a day. The bottom 50% of people collectively own about 1% of all the earth’s wealth. Majority works closely with seed-stage entrepreneurs who are building businesses helping this segment earn better.

Until April 2020, Hanisha led sourcing for the United Nations World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator in Munich, Germany, a part of the UN World Food Programme, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2020.

She has over 15 years of experience doing product management and digital marketing at companies like MakeMyTrip, TataCLiQ, and Airtel Payments Bank. She holds a Masters in Information Technology from ScuolaSuperioreSant’Anna, Pisa, Italy.

As an early stage impact investor nurturing fledgling teams to success, what is an approximate percentage of women whose businesses you invest in on a yearly basis? 

I’m currently setting up an impact fund called Majority. We have begun identifying teams we’d like to invest in, and our ratio stands at over 70% females. We’re currently advising them so that they are investment-ready by the time we have capital available to deploy. In my previous stint, that number was under 25% for the entire company, but across the subset that I advised, I had only one all-male founding team, in fact. Two were all-female teams, and all the rest were mixed-gender teams.

With your work experience involving several humanitarian projects how is the attitude of people towards investment in AI? And what do the trends indicate?   

There is heightened interest in funding AI projects for humanitarian causes. This is because humanitarian problems that exist are typically either largescale, or rapid-moving, and in both cases, there is little scope for human decision making. But the solutions can’t be a one-size fits all. For example, children who are malnourished until the age of 3 are ‘locked in’ to a lifetime of poor academic and economic growth. However, mostly their malnutrition isn’t even detected because of lack of resources and trained staff. This is where funding an AI app to measure malnutrition is a sound investment. It can be cheaply and widely distributed. And since it uses Machine Learning, it can work equally well for a child in India or a child in Senegal after sufficient training. AI is being used to automate some time-critical decisions too – such as listing out steps for disaster agencies to undertake when a typhoon is approaching.

Could you also share some insights on your new fund ‘Majority’ whose work with seed-stage entrepreneurs who are building businesses to improve the livelihoods of those living on under Rs. 500 a day. With your first-hand knowledge are you doing anything to help these businesses look at the advantages of AI? 

Thanks. As you mentioned, Majority will fund deep tech start ups whose customers currently earn under Rs. 500 a day, and who improve the incomes of such customers. Given their deep tech backgrounds, there’s really no need for us to tell them about using AI – they’re in a better position to tell us, because they usually use AI and ML so extensively!  

Having devoted a lot of your time working in and around e-commerce and Digital Marketing, Product Management, NLP among others, where do you see AI & marketing headed in the next five years? 

The best kind of marketing is baked into the product itself, creating a pull instead of push. AI can help brands tailor products and messaging to a massive number of niche audiences at one go. We’re already seeing this in the personalisation algorithms used to improve shopping experiences on e-commerce sites. These allow users to easily find products suited to them instead of buying via standardised ads that could be mass-targeted. On the brand side, using such technology can reduce unsold inventory significantly, since you understand the user better and are perhaps even designing products that are more likely to appeal to your target audience. 

Where do you think AI could step in to solve real world problems? 

Mapping the world in real time: Over a billion people currently live in places where there are no reliable maps. This makes it very difficult for emergency responders to reach them when a natural disaster occurs. (As you may appreciate, the world’s most unmapped places are also often the poorest, or conflict-ridden, and hence more prone to emergencies). Projects such as the Humanitarian Open Street Maps team are solving this problem, but more efforts in this direction are always welcome. AI that can ‘read’ satellite information, and determine where there are settlements, roads, bridges, etc. could greatly accelerate this effort. Better-still such tech would be even more beneficial if the maps can be auto-updated when disaster strikes, to reflect a rapidly changing real-time picture. We now live in a world where climate change is a reality. For aid-workers rushing to help after a flood in Uttaranchal or an earthquake in Nepal, a reliable map can make operations more streamlined from day 1. 

Climate Change: Further on the subject of climate change, while we consumers know what is good or bad for the planet, we often still don’t have a concrete sense of how our individual actions can help or hinder climate change. For example, shifting from plastic bags to cloth ones is only environmentally beneficial if you reuse the bag over a 700 times. Similarly, steel water bottles are all the rage, but the average customer may not take into account the energy expended in mining, manufacturing, and eventually recycling the bottles. An AI-powered assistant (or rather advisor!) that can wade through the research and data, and help you take informed decisions would be a boon for the planet!

Children’s Nutrition: Nearly half the world’s schoolchildren, some 310 million, in low- and middle-income countries eat a daily meal at school. India now feeds more than 100 million children; Brazil 48 million; China 44 million; South Africa and Nigeria each more than 9 million. Schools administrations that have the day-to-day job of feeding these children have limited budgets to nourish children. What if they could be helped by an AI powered tool which had a list of local recipes, and food prices? The tool could suggest nutritious and cost-effective recipes to cook each day basis prices of fresh vegetables in their neighbouring markets. Come to think of it, this would be a phenomenal tool for busy urban families planning meals as well! 

Healthcare: We’re beset with increases in many non-communicable diseases. AI tools are already helping with better screening of certain cancers at scale. The scope needs to be expanded to more diseases. Better diagnostics, extension of human life and better allocation of healthcare resources are but a few of the many applications that AI will have. The diagnostic process today is scientifically based but still has a good degree of trial and error, as well as gut feeling by clinicians. AI could be the diagnostic assistant and find complex patterns that humans may miss.

Thank you Hanisha for the insightful interview. We at IA are thrilled to bring to you more engaging interviews. Watch this space and do subscribe to our newsletter.

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