Image: Madhu Kapparath
Founder & CEO, Outline India
As a research associate at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, Prerna Mukharya’s work involved analysing data collated by field workers in order to understand the quality of health and education across rural India.
“We have a lot of donor money and the Indian government spends a lot too,” says Mukharya, who has always been obsessed with studying data. “But if the data is skewed or inaccurate, then the foundation of all policy-making tends to suffer.”
Troubled by the lack of quality data, particularly since there were no firms focusing on social research, Mukharya, 31, decided to start Outline India, a for-profit social enterprise.
“We have a lot of market research firms, but very few for social research,” Mukharya, 31, an economics postgraduate from Boston University, says. “Almost 89 percent of India lives in villages and while digital is a great tool, the only way to reach real India is to go and have conversations on the ground,”
Set up in 2012, the organisation has so far covered over 4,000 villages across 23 states. “We have been undertaking programmes that are labour- and capital-intensive and span from five weeks to three years,” Mukharya adds. “But we want to ensure quality data. Our researchers spend a lot of time on the ground, conversing with people to understand things.”
Mukharya set up Outline India with ₹1.5 lakh from her own savings and a few interns.
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“Thankfully, I could risk quitting my job and start on my own as my family was very supportive,” she says. “I did not come from a business family, but they were very open-minded about the venture.”
Over the past few years, Outline India has steadily built up a client base that includes various government ministries and the World Bank, among others. Now, it has 17 researchers, four consultants and a field team in excess of 75. The company is yet to raise any money from investors but has already become profitable, thanks to its clients.
“Prerna is somebody who is very clear about what she is doing,” Nitya Jacob, a former head of policy at WaterAid India and an independent consultant, says. “She does her homework well, often provides valuable suggestions and has always delivered. She and her team have
been able to make a change in the quality of primary data available in the country.”
The company is now in the midst of launching a tech tool, Track Your Metrics, which is aimed at NGOs in India. “There are over 3.1 million NGOs in India, which is 200 times the number of government hospitals,” Mukharya says. “This tool will allow for a real-time update on how NGOs are using their funds from their grantees.”