Ronald Abraham, an IDinsight co-founder, is moving on to new adventures after a decade with the organisation. He will continue to serve on the IDinsight Board. Here he shares his reflections from his time at IDinsight.
IDinsight India team celebrates the holidays. ©IDinsight/Sukhmani Sethi
I began my journey at IDinsight exactly ten years and three months ago. I have spent most of the last decade helping build our presence in India. Now the time has come for me to bring my journey to a close, and embark upon a new one.
At IDinsight, we support government and NGO leaders make better decisions using data and research. We work across Asia and Africa to help our partners improve education and health outcomes, increase livelihood opportunities, and make their organisations more effective.
When I joined IDinsight, I was the only employee based out of India. Ten years hence, 175 past and present IDinsighters have experienced IDinsight India as their professional home.
In my first few months, I worked from friends’ apartments and hotel rooms. Today, we have a wonderful office in Delhi in the narrow bylanes of Hauz Khas Village. Inside the office, we have hot desks, hot coffee, and an endless supply of murukku. And from our terrace, we have an unbeatable view of a dense forest and an ancient reservoir.
In our early days, our business model, and revenue streams were uncertain. In fact, my first contract was only for three months – that was all IDinsight could afford. Today, our annual revenue in India is about Rs. 30 crores (~ 4M USD) and growing. And we are lucky to be in a position to choose among excellent opportunities.
In the early phase of IDinsight India, not everyone understood us. Some academics disparagingly called us “consultants.” Some consultants felt we were “unpolished.” And some government counterparts said we were too “rigid.” Today, the niche we carved out is growing. When it comes to using data and research to inform policy, more people recognise the need to balance rigour with practicality, polish with substance, and client-responsiveness with quality. If I am allowed a small boast, IDinsight is a pioneer in finding this balance in India’s research and evidence space.
We have gotten far as an institution and I am proud of what we have built. We are still learning and growing, and I believe our best years are ahead of us. But as I reflect upon my last decade, it isn’t only what we have achieved that gives me joy, but also how we went about achieving it.
One of our values is “ownership.” We believe that each of us at IDinsight are owners of the organisation and help build and improve our institution. To past and present IDinsighters: I am thankful to each of you for helping build IDinsight brick by brick. When you saw the need for more female enumerators for our household surveys, you helped implement the right changes. When the accounts team was struggling, you stepped in and volunteered to help. When you realised that project teams were reinventing the wheel for common processes, you set up a team to develop templates and how-to guides. These are just a few examples, and there are countless more.
At IDinsight, we value ourselves as part of a common “community of leaders.” A diverse group of practitioners have entrusted us with their careers and call IDinsight India their professional home. Here you will find a small-town female engineer from Kerala developing software to support our data collection teams. A son of an agricultural family from Bihar leading some of our most complex client-facing projects. An Indian-Nigerian working in our operations team and onboarding new teammates. An economist from Delhi who wanted to serve his country more directly than what academia in America or Europe would allow. For each member of our community, we try to provide an inclusive and caring work environment; opportunities for learning and growth; a fair wage; and individualised attention and investment. Of course, we are not perfect, and get it wrong sometimes. But in an environment where many Indian institutions pay scant attention to their employees, we hope to set a positive example.
“Service” is a value that animates us as IDinsighters. “We understand that it is a privilege – not a sacrifice – to serve a cause bigger than ourselves.” In May 2020, when COVID-19 cases were increasing exponentially and little was known about the disease, representatives from the Government of Delhi called upon us for support. They asked if IDinsight could make sense of and manage reams of data that was pouring in from multiple sources. Our city was asking for our help and we couldn’t say no. Within two days, we secured internal approvals, resources, and volunteers to set up an in-person team of IDinsighters to work at the Delhi Secretariat. What followed was weeks and months of some of the hardest challenges we faced as an organisation. Days and nights blended into each other, our families were ignored, and our health suffered. It felt like the previous eight years of IDinsight was being tested every moment. But when a global pandemic was surging, that we could be of some use to our home city, one of the world’s largest, felt like a privilege, not a sacrifice. That period was not a sustainable pace for the long marathon that we as IDinsighters are running. I hope we never have to repeat it. But if the moment calls for it again, I am confident that IDinsighters will always step forward to serve.
An immense amount of privilege and luck brought me to – and sustained me at – IDinsight. I have tried to make the most of this opportunity over the last ten years. My years at IDinsight have taught me to trust and empower – not micromanage – my teams. To rely on values – not frameworks – to make hard judgement calls. To push for clarity and simplicity – not a laundry list of exceptions and caveats – to expand my thinking. And to work with diverse teams – not agreeable ones – to deliver high-quality work. As my colleagues would attest, I don’t always get these aspects right. But I try and I am indebted to IDinsight and IDinsighters for helping me grow and learn.
A word also to our partners who are working tirelessly to make this world a better place: You partnered with us, resourced us, supported us, and inspired us. Your support, constructive feedback, and encouragement has meant the world to me.
This has been a transformational decade for me. It’s hard for me to imagine a world beyond IDinsight but the time is right for me to begin anew. For my next leg, I am keen to join forces with like-minded folks to help rekindle a more egalitarian ethos in India. I know that sounds vague. Admittedly, I don’t know the specifics yet. So for now, I plan to take a one-year sabbatical to research, develop, and test some ideas out. I am both excited about the possibilities that lie ahead and nervous about the accompanying uncertainties. However, I am hopeful that I will once again find a community of leaders to collaborate with, learn from, and build bonds with as we work together for a common cause.
And with that, it’s a wrap!
1 March 2019
7 March 2019
2 April 2019
29 April 2019