Delivering miracles

Mirakle Couriers is a place where change is visible and progress is steady and unusually silent. The courier service company seeks to empower a generation of low income hearing impaired adults


Mirakle Couriers is a place where change is visible and progress is steady and unusually silent. The courier service company seeks to empower a generation of low income hearing impaired adults

His smile forces you to smile. His jolly nature puts you at ease. His warm eyes could melt even the toughest. And then he narrates a history that chills you to your bone. Bhupesh Bhoir (23), one of the star performers of Mirakle couriers, was taken to a spiritual leader when he was four. In the name of healing, the leader pulled out his entire lingual frenulum in one attempt. He could not speak well after that. Later his father got divorced, resorted to heavy drinking and started physically abusing Bhupesh. One day, Bhupesh was hit so hard on the head that he could hear no more. Stories like these lurk around every corner of Mirakle couriers.

Mirakle Couriers is a National Award winning courier agency, a social enterprise that employs low-income deaf adults. They offer on-time, customisable courier solutions for clients in Mumbai.

Working a Miracle

Mirakle Courier staff

The enthusiastic courier team from Mirakle. Pic courtesy: Mirakle

Mirakle owes its existence to Dhruv Lakhra, a commerce graduate who quit his job with Merill Lynch and started work with Dasra, an organisation that helps social entrepreneurs in India.

When Dhruv returned to India post an Oxford social entrepreneurship degree, his dad suffered from a spine accident and became partially paralyzed. This made him sensitive towards those with disabilities. While he was dabbling with ideas and thoughts about helping such people he chanced upon a deaf person in a bus. The boy was looking around anxiously, slightly lost. Dhruv asked him where he was going but got no response. It took him a few seconds to realise that the boy couldn’t hear or speak – he was deaf. Dhruv took out a piece of paper and wrote to him in Hindi asking him where he was going.

“This is a disability that cannot be seen. How many of us actually realise that the person sitting or standing next to us in a train or a bus might be deaf?” says Rohan Mehta, Media and Marketing, Mirakle couriers. The courier idea was born out of the fact that deaf people generally have good eyesight. Their sense of direction is really good as well, and they are great at reading maps. Essentials for a delivery person. “Also because you don’t really need to communicate anything, it makes more sense. All you have to do is get a sign from the client,” says Rohan.

Business as usual

 

Mirakle guarantees pickup between 5:30 and 6 pm anywhere in Mumbai, 24 hours for local deliveries (except far flung areas like Thane), and 2 to 4 days for international shipments. The figures are impressive: 65,000 deliveries a month which means that each of their 44 agents do anywhere between 100 and 150 deliveries a day, and a 98-99% on-time delivery. All through public transportation and walk (the deaf cannot get driving licenses in India).

Mirakle office

The sound of silence. The quiet humdrum of work at Mirakle Courier office. Pic: Mirakle

Behind those numbers is a rigorous process that works like clockwork: Collections from clients posted via SMS, a backend entirely managed by women who sort, process and prepare packages, and field agents who deliver it to areas they are ‘designated’ to.

This rigour has won them high profile business houses as clients, from Vodafone to the Aditya Birla group, Blue Star, Tehelka and Infomedia 18, to name a few.

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover

Dhruv started by visiting deaf schools and speaking to bright students there. With five employees and initial capital from an Echoing Green award, the business kick started in January 2009. According to Rohan and Vidya Iyer, HR Manager, deaf kids are mostly either too protected or too ignored. In both cases, the kids do not gain the confidence that will help them sustain on their own.

“We know that the kids are going to come with some kind of baggage and issues. However, what we look for is, if the person is ready to put his past behind and move forward. Is he or she ready to work hard to earn that self respect and money? Can they be team players?”, says Rohan.

That it isn’t business as usual hit me on entering the main company office in Churchgate, premises given for free by Aditya Birla Group – absolute silence in a small room with more than 20 people, all of them gesturing frantically! The peace made me wish everyone knew how to talk like that. Vidya laughs and adds, “Most of the deaf schools actually do not allow them to use sign language though. They are forced to talk. People have this conception that if they start using sign language, they won’t be able to make use of their voice. By not allowing them their natural way, they are taking away freedom of expression”. Everyone at Mirakle, deaf or not, communicates in sign language.

Till six months back, Dhruv was still spending time at schools, talking to parents and students, exploring deaf culture and learning the Indian Sign Language. Thanks to media reports and word-of-mouth, Mirakle has slowly become a hotspot for the deaf who want to work.

“Initially I used to take in anyone who wanted to work. Now I am choosy,” says Vidya. Basic reading, writing skills and young age is what she looks at. Young age because the work requires a lot of running around. Review meetings are held every month to assess progress of employees and deal with their problems.

Empathy and Not Sympathy

Mirakle staff

We can deliver! The employees at Mirakle are treated like any other company. Pic: Mirakle

Employees are treated like any regular person. Office timings are from 9:30 to 5. If you are late, you will have to make up for the lost time. And you have to work hard.

However, one cannot expect to simply forget all the misery that makes up one’s life. So how does one handle that? To this Vidya smiles and replies, “Well, that is what this place is all about. You have people here that are just like you. Who have faced or are facing similar problems like you. It’s like having a family”. Vidya is their HR manager at work, as much as she is their counsellor and friend afterwards. She even gets a ‘dabba’ for Bhupesh almost everday, as she knows that he goes hungry otherwise.

Is it easy for them to trust those with hearing abilities? I ask her curiously. “Well it is a little difficult initially. They don’t open up that easily. However, once they become close to you they tell you everything”, she says.

Women empowerment is a concept that Mirakle has actually made tangible. The back office is completely women managed. Men in the company take their orders from women, figuratively and literally. “It’s quite difficult for women with this disability. Parents just get their daughters married off without really thinking about if the match is compatible enough”, rues Rohan.

It is easy to see why those that come to Mirakle stay. Most of them have come through references, having done physical work before. Cleaning, serving tea and small things like that. However, because of their disability they were given less money than the rest. They were abused both physically and verbally by colleagues. For girls it has mostly been a data entry job. Or, in a lot of cases, marriage. Here, they get a regular salary, benefits like PF and insurance. And a chance to grow.

Employees are encouraged to shoulder more responsibility, get promoted and become role models. Like Vidya declares, “With expansion, our employees will get a chance at promotion. The ones who are delivering today, will become managers later. They will be the inspiration for the rest”.

Accolades

Beginning with the prestigious National Award, Mirakle has won wide recognition for its contribution towards empowering the disabled – an Echoing Green fellowship, the Helen Keller award, #4 on Springwise’s top business ideas an opportunities in 2011 among others. Clients are also beaming. Like Sarmishta of Under The Mango Tree who says, “We use Mirakle to courier honey bottles to our clients across Mumbai every month. They take special care while carrying our glass bottles and hand delivering them. From the delivery boy to the top, everyone is humble, warm and enthusiastic. Even our clients love the Mirakle boys!!!! ”

Money Matters

We now come to the tricky part – sustainability. “We charge more than Vichare courier does but less than Blue Dart. It becomes difficult for us to make companies understand the reason for it. To make them understand that we are a business working on impact. In Europe, they respect the social angle of a business and do not mind shelling out a little extra. India is yet to mature on that sensibility”, says Rohan. Further, there cannot be a breach in efficiency as that will reflect badly on the company. People are watching very closely. Reporting is therefore done daily. Employees are expected to be professional and deliver on time.

The company has been running off revenues all through and is looking to break even around June this year, shared Rohan. Why haven’t they sought investment? “We don’t want to be ruled by our shareholders. The purpose of the business is to help a social cause. Money is needed to keep it afloat. With too many people on board, and the decision power in so many hands, it becomes difficult to convince everyone on your social cause”, cautions Rohan. Rohan admitted that it would become inevitable soon, as the company scaled.

The scale goal

Balancing business and impact is hard. Currently, Mirakle is expanding to Delhi, Bangalore and Pune, and that keeps them fully occupied. Rohan admits that there are times when the balance tips a little. The hope is that when they eventually grow and have more money, it will get better.

Another challenge is that the model is scalable with effort but not necessarily easily replicable. The reason being that the deaf have their own culture in place. Their own community. And community leaders. “You have to understand this culture. You have to spend a lot of time to gain their confidence. You cannot employ 100 people at one go”, says Dhruv. Since they rely heavily on public transport, this is also a source of concern in other cities for ensuring on-time delivery.

Nilam, one of the women working in the back office has been teaching people in her train compartment sign language these days. She has a group now with whom she travels daily to and fro from Dombivali to Churchgate. Nilam’s drunkard and jobless husband doesn’t know where she works. Post an unsuccessful job as the only deaf data entry person, she joined Mirakle. Bhupesh is now able to feed himself and his brother. And Vanita, who now handles the administration of the entire office, talks eagerly about her initial wish that one day she would attend meetings like others. In Mirakle, that wish came true.

And that, I suppose, sums up their real success.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pooja Gautam works as an IT journalist in the morning and lives by the words of Agha Shaid Ali and Ghalib by the night. A dreamer by nature, she likes to write her dreams out as poetry. She is also a story teller on weekends. She loves painting and photography. On some days she also fancies herself as a dancer.A curious cat with many fancies, Pooja loves to explore the new and the unknown.She is a... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pooja Gautam works as an IT journalist in the morning and lives by the words of Agha Shaid Ali and Ghalib by the night. A dreamer by nature, she likes to write her dreams out as poetry. She is also a story teller on weekends. She loves painting and photography. On some days she also fancies herself as a dancer.A curious cat with many fancies, Pooja loves to explore the new and the unknown.She is a... more
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