Womenforce Special: Translating cultures, one language at a time


Ekta Capoor, Editor-in-Chief of Amazing Workplaces, in a candid conversation with Alifya Thingna, Founding Member & COO of Vernac Language Technologies, about the parameters that contribute to an amazing workplace, especially one where 90% of the workforce comprises women.

Typically, people associate an amazing workplace with cool infrastructure, understanding colleagues, empathetic superiors, approachable management, adequate facilities and general appreciation & recognition of their work. For Alifya, Vernac Language Technologies, which was incubated at BITS Private Limited (a well-rooted translation and localisation company), not just checks all the boxes on that list, but also provides flexibility, the right balance of intellectual stimulation and creativity, and overall, a great working environment to anyone looking for a non-intrusive, politics-free and individual-oriented surrounding that inspires you to discover your potential. She further explains how one of the primary reasons for this is the lack of conventional patriarchal values.

So Alifya, tell us about your company Vernac Language Technologies and the space that you work in?

This language technology start-up is actually a spinoff of the Indian languages division of BITS, a language services company with a global presence that is three decades old. Most of our in-house resources are naturally translators, reviewers and language professionals. I call the activity of translating a perfect blend of creativity and intellectual stimulation, because you are using your language and more often than not, your mother tongue, along with extensive research to make sure your translated documents (which could be from the technical, financial, legal, software or practically any other domain) are not just comprehensible to your readers, but have a certain standard of globally-accepted quality.

The idea of Vernac Language Technologies came with the ubiquity of mobile phones, affordability of internet prices and broadly, the rise in demand for web content in regional and vernacular languages. So a few of us set out to disrupt the language services market, by coming up with a crowdsourced solution for faster and inexpensive translations, a first-of-its-kind platform in India. The initial idea of such a platform was to directly address the quintessential challenges of shortage of good quality translators in India and expand the supply chain, while bringing down the market rates for clients.

Your workforce mostly comprises women folk. How would you define this decision?

Very honestly, I don’t think this was ever a conscious decision in the HR’s screening process. Historically, there have been a lot of popular theories on women being better language learners, and they have often been the conventional carriers and inculcators of culture in a family, so naturally, a lot of them tend to pick fine arts, languages or translation studies as a career, or even as a second option along with an existing career. Hence, we just happened to have received more applicants who were women, so we made the most of it, while constantly inspiring them to be independent-minded. A cursory look at the localisation landscape in India in general, also suggests that a significant majority of the localisation workforce is comprised of women.

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What would you say, are the pros and cons to working in an environment that is so women-centric?

When I joined BITS back in 2010, as a French-English translator, I remember being in complete awe of all the women who worked here, especially on the management team. They were confident, down-to-earth, extremely professional and they were oozing with confidence – and for good reason too – because they were brilliant at their work! I have “grown up” here (at least professionally) watching many of these self-sufficient, inspiring women amidst this wonderful family-like working environment, which I often feel people tend to lose out on in bigger corporations, amidst the hire-and-fire culture and cut-throat competition for seemingly fancy packages.

I can think of a lot of pros for working in a relatively smaller company, especially one that is so women-centric. People actually look out for each other and stay in sync with the essence of humanity. Everyone generally talks about how ‘employees drive the company culture’, and yet, most corporate-slaves I know, are working their way toward a robot-like automated-looking ‘culture’, where the bean bags and fancy interiors are very thrilling no doubt, but for how many days and at the end of the day, how much does your company really value you, beyond the work you are expected to do? Women are genetically more compassionate and this reflects in how we manage our workforce, men as well as women. As for cons, honestly, I can’t think of any at this point.

How has this women-centric environment shaped your vision for your company?

I have long been passionate about women empowerment, although I discovered its true essence only here, thanks to my friend, colleague and mentor, and the Founder & CEO of both companies, Mr Sandeep Nulkar. So when we founded Vernac, the idea was to offer women never-heard-of flexibility in working hours. But for a women-centric work environment, the compassion needed to think about the women with family, physical or social limitations would have never come to our minds.

The best the world offers such women currently is a part-time job and we wanted to go beyond that. Women are virtually thrown out of the workforce because they are unable to do even part time jobs. So we used technology to allow women, irrespective of where they are and how little time they have at their disposal, to be able to work for as little as a few minutes to as much as a few hours, all from the comfort of their mobile phones. You could be dropping your child off to a swimming class or be travelling back home on a bus, you can now aspire to be independent by earning in whatever spare time you have. We have seen that this works beautifully well for working women professionals looking for some extra income as well as for men too.

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So is everything automated and over an app now?

Like most things, we made sure to add a human touch to this too. Traditionally, translators are extremely accustomed to working over email all around the world, and that’s where all the introductions and feedbacks are done. While some part of the company continues to work that way for regular human translations and for translators based in other parts of the country, we wanted to change a lot of things with the new app-based way of working. So while setting up initially, we made it a point to make trips to many Indian cities to onboard new translators for the platform, train them, listen to their feedback, and made sure to meet everyone on a personal level, whom we were onboarding, and leave them not just with a nice warm feeling but also a souvenir from back home. It might not mean much to some, and it might just mean the world to some others, but I genuinely feel that basics like these add so much to the bigger picture, rather than offering fancy ‘Employee Wellness Programmes’ and not even giving people the bare minimum comfort of being able to talk to you. The app merely offers comfort and ease to work, it is not supposed to do away with human contact. 

In general, we are just not huge on fancy terminology or typical HR-jargon, so we wouldn’t really have a ‘Go Green initiative’, but we eat lunch on the terrace amidst plants, birds and squirrels. That is our human side! We are culture-loving and problem-solving geeks by nature, and make sure to come up with intellectually stimulating games or a treasure hunt, or other fun office activities from time to time. In fact, even while screening CVs, we prefer focusing on a candidate’s personality and personal values, rather than their qualifications. Being hugely people-oriented, your principles certainly hold more value to us than merely your degrees.

What would you say, are the advantages of working with your organization?

While employees are known to drive culture, today, however, the culture of a workplace is not just limited to the physical office. With people increasingly working from home, our focus has always been to create a great value system virtually as well. BITS has long set the bar of motivating and encouraging translators pretty high, by its various initiatives such as the annual industry awards, coordination with the University and other major language learning institutes to make students more industry-ready, etc.

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One of the key advantages would be an extremely transparent relationship. We don’t shy away from weekly assessments, post-project analysis and even ensuring your payments have been made on time, just as we wouldn’t think twice before telling you that you should probably consider upskilling (and help you find the right tools and courses to do so too!)

I think it is important to work at places that offer advantages like recognition, respect, flexibility, empathetic colleagues and the fact that you can work with human beings who actually care about your well-being. Gone are the days, when salaries and entitlements were the foundation of typical “employee benefits”. It is the little things that speak volumes. For example, in spite of working with thousands of translators even globally, we have an in-house rule: we discourage the use of terms like ‘employee’ and ‘boss’, and consider it a hindrance in our effort to create entrepreneurs who innovate and add greater value to their peers as well as our customers. First names are preferred – not to take away from the respect they deserve or their achievements, but to breed an ease while communicating, and with no mental hierarchies,newer ideasand skills are explored with ease. To sum it up, that’s the kind of people we are. 🙂

Any parting words of advice for the youth of today?

Oh I am the youth! (laughs) No advice as such, I would just like to share a quick thought, in relation to an exercise we did some days ago. There is a Japanese concept of ‘ikigai’, which roughly means “the thing that you live for” or “the reason to jump out of bed each morning”. A good place to start (anything new), is to look for it: something in the world you are truly passionate about, and that is sure to drive what you do eventually. After all, your ikigai is a sum total of four components – What you love, What you are good at, What you can be paid for and What the world needs. Of course it won’t be an overnight decision, maybe it will be a life-long search, but make sure to have given each of the components some thought, and not simply go after a job that sounds cool on your Instagram stories.

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