Lockdown Economy USA in an Innovation Consulting & Design Firm with Dhairya Pujara

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Megan Cansfield

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview hosted by Christiana Finnegan, we meet Dhairya Pujara, the CEO of Ycenter, a Global Experiential Learning, Innovation consulting and Design firm in New York. The tech innovation and design and consulting company CEO explains how the pandemic has been positive for the Ycenter and looks forward to the coming years. Ycenter benefited from this virtual work environment by cutting down operation costs and using their problem-solving perspective to branch out to different companies and clients this year. And with the “extra” time the lockdown has provided all of us, Ycenter is taking advantage to do a brand revolution improving different channels. They also expect to expand, have more partnerships and work with more clients in the future.

Watch the video version of the interview.

What do you do as a business?

Dhairya: Ycenter is a global experiential learning, innovation consulting, and design forum. In short, we solve really complex business and social problems for our clients.

Can you elaborate a little bit? What kind of clients would you have?

Dhairya: A typical client for us is a university when it comes to learning, so we design and deliver programs on entrepreneurship, which is a big thing for 2020 and has always been a big thing for young people to learn how to solve problems and make money. We create entrepreneurship, social innovation, and creative thinking programs for universities, incubators, and maker spaces. That’s a learning service.

But for innovation consulting and design, we have clients including Fortune 500 companies who are looking to think like an entrepreneurial startup company, who are looking to bring a very new, exciting, disruptive product or service to the market. We help them learn how to think entrepreneurially to bring this product quicker and make fewer mistakes. In innovation consulting and design, we have everyone from a Fortune 500 client to a very small startup company, and sometimes NGO and government authorities.

We work in 15+ countries across four continents, so our clients range from someone in a small innovation centre in Burkina Faso, West Africa, to a large-scale pharmaceutical company in India, or an agricultural insurance company in Kenya. So, we have clients all around the world.

That sounds so exciting! Where are you located?

Dhairya: I’m based in New York. Ycenter as an entity is registered in Philadelphia, and we had an office pre-COVID in Philadelphia, Mumbai, India, and Nairobi, Kenya. Of course, just like a lot of other companies — and we are a smaller company — we decided to go virtual. So we are now based on where our employers are based and where our clients are based. We are based out of the digital world, so we are everywhere, and we are also nowhere if you really think about it. We are a US-based global company.

And I think that will become a more normalized thing to be a virtual company not located at a specific office in a geographic location.

Dhairya: Yeah, absolutely. Also, it allows our employees to maybe be with their families during times like this. And I think it looks like a trend moving forward as well.

I agree. Do you have any employees? You said you have companies in various other places. How many employees do you have in Ycenter?

Dhairya: With the kind of work we do, it feels like we have 50 to 100 employees, but we do all of that just with our ten employees. We have five full-time employees, and then we work with independent contractors, consultants, and freelancers at any given time. So that brings our strength to around ten. But as I mentioned, the kind of work we do usually feels like a lot more than ten employees — almost doubled up, or five times the efficiency as much as 50 employees.

A very hardworking team! How did you start your business? When did you start your business?

Dhairya: That’s a long story!

I started my business officially and legally in January of 2014. It was started purely as an education experiential learning company. It was based on my experience of working firsthand in Africa with the communities in Mozambique, where I spent almost half a year living in a country where no one speaks English or any of the languages that I speak. I realized that despite having a master’s degree in Engineering and six years of Engineering research experience and being entrepreneurially driven, I wasn’t able to do much while I was living in that community for six months. One of the big factors I realized was the gap between the conventional traditional education system and real-world problems. So Ycenter was created to fill that gap between people’s theoretical knowledge and the passion they have to solve real-world problems.

So we started the company back in 2014, just purely fixing that gap. But as we move forward in the last almost seven years — we’re going to be celebrating our 7th anniversary in January 2021 — we now have a will to bring that expertise of problem-solving real-world problems forward to companies as well, so we have moved beyond learning and ventured into innovation consulting and design work as well. That’s a quick version of my story.

Congratulations on your seven-year anniversary!

Dhairya: Thank you so much.

So you’ve been doing this for quite a while — seven years is a significant time. And this year has been a dramatic change for all businesses. How did the lockdown and the pandemic affect your business?

Dhairya: Just like you mentioned in your question itself, it has affected the whole world. No one has been spared from the effects of the pandemic, and we are going to still see it for the next few years, if not just 2021. At Ycenter, there were a couple of things that changed for us, all of them I like to believe for good.

For one, obviously, we cut down our overhead expenses like office space and things like that. We all went virtual and remote. And because Ycenter has been operating in three continents, and our employees have been distributed across three different countries, we always had a limited virtual working environment because we couldn’t all get into the same city or the same room all the time. So we benefited from our previous experience of handling this situation. We had a culture of being able to understand each other across cultures, across borders, across time zones, so that really helped us cement our virtual work environment in 2020.

But most importantly, Ycenter does problem-solving. I think that’s true for most entrepreneurial startup companies: that they’re in the business of solving problems. So 2020 has been — I hate to use this word in this context — but it’s been exciting because there are so many problems. There’s so much disparity in the world that needs to be fixed. Ycenter has been working on the UN Sustainable Development Goals since the last four years, so I was very excited when I read about the work that you guys are doing: working with entrepreneurs, interviewing, and bringing their stories out. We have also worked around the framework of UN SDGs on zero hunger and no poverty.

This year, 2020, has been exceptional in the sense that a lot of problems that went under the surface have come out. There is no way that we are not going to accept the truth about climate change, or racial inequality, or gender inequality — women who are working at home, taking care of the family, same goes for the men — how do you balance all of that?

So there are so many issues. And for Ycenter being in the business of solving problems, it really allowed us to pivot and work with a lot more different kinds of companies and clients. We’re trying to struggle with, “How do we bring technology into our workplace to meet these new changing demands?” So Ycenter is consulting to create these solutions, tech solutions, for companies like that. For us, 2020 has been, as I mentioned, exciting because we are filled with problems around us, and we have been on our feet thinking about solutions for ourselves and for our clients. That I think has been the major shift.

The second biggest thing that happened for us besides problem-solving is that we as small companies are constantly chasing clients, money, funding, just like every other company. We do not get time to introspect and look back at our own operation, or if something is broken to fix it. And this year has been nothing but a lot of time for us, on a personal level and as a company. We used that time to our advantage, and we actually are going through a huge brand evolution ourselves. We changed our logo for the first time, and with a new logo and a new identity, our communication and our whole marketing channels have been improved. So we, fortunately, got to rethink how we are communicating, how we position ourselves in the complicated market. I think that was one of the biggest things that happened to us in the long-term: we got a chance to work on our own brand.

I think for tech solutions and solving problems and self-improvement, improving your company, that has been definitely part of all this “extra time” that we think we have. That’s great, I’m glad that you’re excited. It is an exciting time, definitely with a lot of changes!

Do you feel like you had to change your business model in any way to attract more customers? Do you get more customers now, or did anything change in terms of you having customers and clients?

Dhairya: There have been minor changes. For example, for learning programs, we used to go on university campuses or in a different country and work with an incubation centre or a maker space, so we can’t do that, especially because we are not teaching hard science — we are talking about entrepreneurship, creative problem-solving, innovation. One of the ways you can make that really effective is by facilitating those workshops in-person in a hands-on activity or project. So moving all of that to a virtual environment initially was tricky.

It was not a problem because we had been doing that for three years. But this year, because the whole hundred-person of our business went online — the learning business — we were competing with everything that’s online, which is everything like Netflix, Youtube, all these universities that are online. So choosing, “Should I go for a workshop, or should I watch my next series?” You are competing with people’s attention on the screen.

So that has been a major shift: that all our operations, just like everyone else, have gone virtual. But I think that’s a blessing that we are in a business where we can deliver the value even virtually, unlike a lot of other essential businesses where they still need a physical store. I think that has been one big shift. We did see a dip in our university work because universities have gone through a rough time this year, and they’re figuring out their own model, their funding has been affected. So that spot has been a little challenging.

But when we look at the innovation consulting and design work that Ycenter has been doing, it has been quite a good year for us because as I mentioned, we are in the business of solving problems for our customers, for our organizations. And there is no lack of problems for them this year, or for that matter anyone. So we have been able to work with some really big organizations and collaborate with them to help create their solution.

For example, we worked with a California-based not-for-profit who’s been organizing a huge education workshop for the last couple of years with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Usually, they do it in a big hotel, like Grand Hyatt, Mariott, or something like that. Obviously, because of the pandemic, they couldn’t do the workshop. And it’s quite an important one because you get continuing legal education credit. If you want to export some essential goods from America to other countries, you have to go through this workshop — it’s mandated by the U.S. government. So we were able to quickly, within a month, take all the workshop needs, maintain the security of all the users who are attending the workshop, and put all of that experience into an online classroom in just a month.

So we had experiences like this that taught us about our own strengths but also allowed us to collaborate with organizations that we would have never imagined the other way around if this hadn’t happened. I think in 2020 we saw a dip in the university world, but we saw really a good amount of clients coming to us for the technology solutions we can build for them. It has been a good balance overall I would say.

It seems like to you, even the problems you see as a good thing, as a challenge. From your perspective so far, it feels like this pandemic has been somewhat positive and exciting. Do you know how your customers or your competitors are doing?

Dhairya: Customers have been struggling. As I mentioned, the universities have been really affected badly because of the situation that has been created. For students: “Should they come on campus? Shouldn’t they?” and all of that.

But for our corporate organization companies, they have been really struggling to have the budget for learning activities for their employees, for example, or upskilling. We had issues pre-pandemic like workplace challenges with the new generation coming into the workplace and the generation gap issue in the workplace: with the millennials and the more experienced workforce, how do you make a culture that works for both of them? So issues like that persisted before, but now having everything gone digital, there has been a huge section of employees that have been left hanging because they’re not used to working online.

For example, my mother is a teacher in a public school for the last 32 years in India. She teaches primary school. It’s so difficult for someone who’s never used Zoom or Skype to teach online. Not only do they have to learn technology, now they have to completely adapt the curriculum and the delivery mechanisms for the online world in a primary school setup. And she teaches low-income group students, and they don’t necessarily have good internet or even the internet for that matter. So how you deal with challenges like that is something I’ve seen with Ycenter customers and clients as well that they’ve been struggling with.

The most basic need that has come out is, “Do our clients have internet right now?” Because if they don’t, we can’t deliver the service that they are looking for from us. So Ycenter has been working in Africa and Asia as well besides America, and there are places in those continents and those parts of the world where internet is not as good as we have here in the US. Even in America challenges exist. For example, in Philadelphia, the disparity between people who have access to the internet and those who don’t is really huge.

So overall, I think our clients, customers, and people who we work with have had a challenging year, and we have figured out a way to as much as possible overcome those challenges.

In terms of competition, I think that we are right there with other smaller consulting agencies or learning companies: they all have gone virtual. It feels good that the agencies we think we compete with are also doing well because we do wish that every business thrives and comes out of this on the higher side. Even if one of our competitors fails to do that, it affects the whole industry. So we are really hoping that everyone who works like us or works with us are able to overcome this challenge because that’s what’s going to take us all out of the economic challenges that we have right now and are going to be coming in the next few months.

We all need to collectively work on this problem. One thing we have learned out of all of these issues is that we have to stop thinking about just us and myself; the world is way more connected than we could ever think of, and I think this year has presented that particular point very strongly.

I love that attitude of being connected and working together. It’s interesting that you’re the second person I’m interviewing that mentions the internet being a major problem in hindering people from having access to the global market nowadays.

Looking to the future, how is your business going now and what are you planning for the next coming months now that the vaccine has been out in the UK and people should be vaccinated within the next year. Looking to the future, what are your plans business-wise?

Dhairya: Just like a lot of other people and organizations, we hope we can have some travel back in our lives. I do miss the airports! I hated them when I used to travel a lot, but I do miss the travel experience of going to a university, a new city, or a new client location and working with them in person. So that’s the first hope that we are hoping will happen, but I don’t think it’s going to happen too soon. The vaccine rollout is going to take a lot of time, and also it’s important that it first gets to healthcare workers and teachers. We are last in the line, very rightfully so. So I think we are going to try to be patient on that; we are going to continue improving our virtual services.

The first big thing we are focusing on is officially putting our new brand of Ycenter, the new story and evolution of Ycenter, out there. We also really hope that in the process of doing that — hopefully in January as we celebrate our 7th anniversary — that we’ll also be able to share the story of our own evolution in these past seven years, and most importantly in this last one year, which might help other companies who are struggling if there is some learning that they can take out of our own experiences. So, the goal to share our story and our new brand is also to help other companies. That’s the first area we’re looking forward to.

Other than that, I wish to work with a lot more organizations next year to bring them the power of technology so they can continue to be in business and not only survive but also thrive. Also hopefully work on the challenges like the lack of good internet, and figure out a way to do that: other offline kits that could be delivered to these communities that can make it work. I think those are the two big things: launching our own new brand and story and working with more clients around the world, here in the US and elsewhere in the world. Those are two big broad agendas for Ycenter in 2021.

I also hope that we will get to be in-person doing things and having interaction with other human beings. To end this interview, I have one more question: could you name three things that you need help with?

Dhairya: This is the most difficult question because, on one hand, I think there are so many things that we need right now. The most obvious for a lot of small companies is you need access to more funds so you can grow and make sure you can pay everyone’s salary. I think the first thing would be that we are hungry for good work, so we are looking for more clients who are looking for an innovative way to solve problems, looking for human-centred design-based consulting work. I think that’s our first need as a business: can we seek out more clients, more customers who are looking to solve problems using our methodology of human-centred innovation. That would be the number one priority for us.

A number two need would be that I think a lot of people have suffered because of this pandemic, like losing jobs or not being able to work in their full capacity, especially a lot of freelancers and consultants. We as a company need to partner with some of those people, so we welcome the opportunity to work with more freelancers or consultants who are looking to get more projects or are looking to work with a much more established organization. So I think Ycenter would love to provide a platform to some of those people. You might be a web designer, a marketer, an ad developer — we would love to explore working with some way. I’m not talking about “We have 10,000 job openings”, but we would love to figure out a way to partner. That’s actually a need for us as well because we are looking to grow in the next few months or a few years, so I think that would be our second need.

For the third need, I can’t pinpoint one specific need, so I’m just going to make up something: that we can all get to 2021 in a healthy way. And hopefully, we can get through the economic pressure that’s going to be building up in 2021, and we can hopefully pay for all our employees and even grow our team if we are ambitious, and just hope for everyone to be healthy.

I think that’s a need, for all of us to be healthy, and happy. We are in a very tricky situation; it’s frustrating sitting at home and not getting to do a lot of things that we are used to, or getting that genuine human connection. So I think there is a need for all of us to be healthy and happy as a company, and a company’s nothing but a collective of a bunch of passionate people. So when I say our company has a need to be healthy and happy, I’m talking about the people who drive this, all of us. I think that would be a need. And if someone has a very clear idea to make sure that would happen, I welcome that!

About the Guest

Dhairya Pujara is the Founder CEO at Ycenter — a Global Experiential Learning, Innovation consulting and Design organization. At Ycenter, Dhairya and his team works with universities, Fortune 500 companies and startups to solve complex business and social problems using a human-centred design framework.

https://y-center.org/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/dhairyapujara/

@ycenterglobal on Instagram and Twitter

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.