Sajan Pillai is CEO of UST Global, an IT company with centers in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Mexico. Pillai previously co-founded software company Softek Systems in India. Under Pillai, UST Global has moved ahead with plans to expand into new regions, including Africa. But the company is also working to create opportunities in the U.S. with a program called Step It Up America, which trains minority women from inner cities to work in the knowledge economy.
According to Pillai, the era of dominance of financial capital and intellectual capital is giving way to a new form of capital — social capital. He expects the Step It Up America program to be a catalyst. “It may create a social momentum like what we have seen in other parts of the world,” he says in this interview with Knowledge at Wharton and Wharton management professor Katherine Klein, who is also vice-dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us a little about UST Global’s business operations and your social impact philosophy?
Sajan Pillai: UST Global is an information technology (IT) services company providing high technology services for global 1000 companies. That is our core focus. We are a Southern California-headquartered company. We have operations in 24 countries in North America, Latin America, Western Europe and Asia, and are now going into Africa. We have a large number of engineers in North America, Mexico and India.
Knowledge at Wharton: What is your social impact philosophy?
Pillai: When the company was formed in the late 1990s, we figured that IT — particularly knowledge economy jobs — was going to compete for talent. And this talent — the new knowledge economy talent — is a little different from the talent we have had so far. The folks that join the new firms are looking for something beyond the quarterly profit and loss and financial performance.
We figured that, in order for a company to be successful for the next millennium, you need to have a purpose larger than oneself — something beyond a traditional sense of business operations. So the whole notion was to create something like that. We also figured that while the traditional industrial revolution had brought about industrial companies, which had financial capital as their competitive differentiator, in the last century it gave way to intellectual capital. Companies with large intellectual capital succeeded.
I think a new type of capital is evolving — social capital, which has to be a fundamental fabric of the company. Our model was transforming lives. What it meant was that by using technology we intended to transform the lives of the community, of our customers and our employees. That was the original mission.
We focused on two things as a social purpose: women and children, and health and education. This philosophy was woven very deeply into the fabric of the company. It is not something you do as an initiative. It is something that is inherent in how we work, how we promote people and how we select people.
“We have the ability to train large numbers of people; we have done this in Mexico and in India and in other parts of the world. Why not bring it to the inner cities of America…?” –Sajan Pillai
Katherine Klein: Your latest initiative is Step It Up America. Tell us a little bit about what your vision and objective is for this program.
Pillai: The Step It Up America concept was formed because I chair the Council for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Innovation. It is a federal council. The whole notion [behind the council] was to figure out the incredible gap of talent between what is required for the country — and for the whole world — in science, technology, engineering and math compared with what is being produced. For example, the U.S. is trying to be oil independent by 2030. It is possible because of natural resources. But the U.S. as a country needs to have 2.5 million to three million STEM-educated professionals. We produce about 130,000 STEM graduates every year. So there is a huge gap. That is just one example.
You see a lot of the kids the world over who are facing unemployment as they come out of college. But jobs are going unfilled. So we said there has to be a better way to map these two things, and we can create a socially responsible initiative [based on that].
We said IT is the new oil. It is a very fungible kind of employment in the knowledge economy. It is not dependent on where you are. We have the ability to train large numbers of people; we have done this in Mexico and in India and in other parts of the world. Why not bring it to the inner cities of America, where we would pick minority women who haven’t really had the chance to go to university, but who have displayed the determination to go to a community college? We will select them, train them, take a risk on them and make them information technologists. We will support them through our global workforce and give them an opportunity to be participants in the knowledge economy.
We saw how societies were transformed when we did this in Mexico and in other parts of the world. We have no doubt that we can do the same thing here. Our objective is to go to 10 cities in 10 months — [choosing] 100 women from each — so 1,000 women in 10 months. Then we will scale up.
Klein: Tell us a bit about how you are going to select these women. Then I want to clarify the concept. You select and train these women, and then they are employed by your company? Do they go on to employment elsewhere? What is the plan?
Pillai: The answer to the first question is that we are looking at different ways of selecting these women. These candidates can all be selected through traditional techniques. So we are actually using civic leaders. We are going to the local churches. We are [talking to] local community leaders to ask for their input and opinion. Then we are going to use some internal testing. What we are really looking for is fire in the belly. That is the real driver. The whole notion here is that in the knowledge economy low income does not equate to low I.Q. That is a big myth that many corporations have. It is somewhat embedded in our educational system and in our corporations.
We know that is not true. We are going to give these women a shot. They are going to be hired and will be our employees. But they will be building these technologies as our employees and as consultants for many other corporations because that is our core business. If [a person lives] in Atlanta, we would be hiring them into our Atlanta office as UST Global employees. But they will be providing services for large corporations in the Atlanta region. That’s the model. It’s a self-sustaining model. They should not have to relocate somewhere and leave their kids and their families behind. That’s the whole idea.
Knowledge at Wharton: How will you assess their skills? And what is the training program going to look like?
Pillai: The training program is being customized for this type of demographic. It will be a combination of critical thinking skills, social behavioral skills and, of course, IT skills — our core curriculum. We have now perfected the technique of accelerating human capital development. As long as the aptitude exists, we can take someone who is not an engineering graduate and make him or her an information technologist in less than six months of training and give him or her a high-paying job. We think that will be the time frame for the training. As the program scales, we will know if we need to fine-tune or recalibrate that.
The training will have multiple components. One is the core training and the other the softer skills. One of the challenges that many of them face is not having a visible role model. So we are going to bring in women — particularly minority women who have done exceedingly well in their careers — as instructors so they can see role models.
Knowledge at Wharton: Who are your partners in this venture? Have you already signed up a group of companies who have agreed to employ these women once they pass through your training process?
Pillai: In the city of Atlanta we have [done so]; all the major corporations in Atlanta are interested in helping us. They are waiting for this to get launched. There has been a tremendous amount of interest from political leaders, civic leaders and corporate leaders. Bringing jobs to inner cities and transforming [residents’] lives is very important for these companies and these leaders. But there has never been a scalable, results-driven program of this nature. So, many of them are backing us.
Klein: Help us visualize the typical candidate. Should we be thinking about women who are unemployed? Who have had a professional career but maybe quit? Who are young and just starting out?
Pillai: We are going to initially start with women who have been through community college and are just starting to enter the work force. The economic situation is not great. It is not a job-friendly economy at the moment. Many have gone through [community college] but are underemployed. That is the bulk of the initial selection.
Then we will expand to other categories, such as women who cannot take a traveling job because their economic situation does not allow them to do that. In this kind of business, in a knowledge economy, these women do not have to travel. So, they can be more responsible, more available to their families and at the same time can work in a high-paying job.
Knowledge at Wharton: It’s a very ambitious program. You said that you want to roll it out in 10 other cities after Atlanta. Can you give us a sense of how much UST Global plans to invest in Step It Up America? Do you have any co-investors? And how will you sustain it over time?
“As long as the aptitude exists, we can take someone who is not an engineering graduate and make him or her an information technologist in less than six months of training….” –Sajan Pillai
Pillai: The initial investment will be in the vicinity of $20 million or $30 million. I want this to be a self-sustaining program. As the women are trained and they become employed, that becomes revenue that can underwrite some of the ongoing costs. I understand that there is a financial risk to the company, but we think it is worth taking. Every community, every society — all of us — wants to get one more shot. This may give these women one more shot at a career. This will hopefully help them transform their communities and their homes. It may create a social momentum like what we have seen in other parts of the world. I am a big believer. I am an optimistic. I think this could turn on a social dynamic — an economic dynamic — that could make it sustaining.
Klein: So based on the kind of work you have done in other countries, can you tell us the success factors? What are the key points that allow you to train people this quickly to ensure that they actually become skilled and effective employees?
Pillai: Let me give a couple of examples. When we went to Mexico, we looked at second or third tier cities like León or Centro Fox. The traditional wisdom was that [the people we hired] had to be four-year or five-year engineering graduates. As we did not have such people in that area, we started looking at other disciplines. We found we could use a variety of techniques for accelerated competence or development, which includes traditional classroom training and a self-paced online virtual education.
We said time is variable. But you have to reach a certain level of competency. That was the magic sauce. People from different backgrounds learn the initial, foundational blocks of knowledge at a different pace. But once they get a minimum set of standards, they accelerate at the same pace. That was the shift in the training program that we implemented.
Klein: What are the challenges that you are facing now as you go forward in Atlanta?
Pillai: First and foremost, to get the right candidates you have to be careful. You have to attract them. We are going into a section of society that may not have had this particular job as a career plan. So we have to convince them, make them aware, make them excited, make them engaged and recruit them.
The second thing is preparing these women to be corporate citizens. There are a lot of things we take for granted that may not be part of their ecosystem, such as dressing for success.
Keeping them in the program can sometimes be a challenge because they have kids or parents to take care of. Usually, the women have this responsibility so we have to balance their schedule with the education.
Finally, we have to find the companies that will employ them and give them a chance. This is not a program many companies are comfortable with or have done before. So you need some business leaders who want to take the risk on this program and to say, you know what, do this with us.
For example, one of the leaders that I was very impressed with was Frank Blake, the CEO and chairman of Home Depot. I went and met with him. Within a few minutes he said, “This is a fantastic program. Come to Atlanta. I will participate in this. My team will participate. I will take the risk with you.” These leaders are the ones we need.
Knowledge at Wharton: What value do you see this program creating for the young women, for the companies that employ them, for UST Global, and for society as a whole?
Pillai: That is a great question. I see the value in those four dimensions. First is for the companies that employ this program. Many of them have been in these locations and in these cities for decades. We are talking about very large companies. Many of the business leaders know that they have to make a difference in the community because it is a community in which they operate. Goodwill and the ability to make a positive impact in these local communities are critical for the CEOs and the executives. It gives them another tool to be relevant in these communities. So it is important for them.
It is important for the women who are employed in this program because it is the first time, in many cases, anybody in the family has had a job in the knowledge economy or, for that matter, a white-collar job. So that’s a big deal; it’s a transformative deal. They become the role models in their society. It is a high-paying job. These jobs start at about $30,000 or $35,000 a year and can very quickly go up to $70,000 or $100,000 a year and even higher. So this can be quite a lucrative and rewarding career. It is a career of the future. That is important for those communities.
“Every community, every society … wants to get one more shot. This may give these women one more shot at a career.” –Sajan Pillai
For UST Global, it is significant because it aligns with our mission of jobs, technology, training and peace, which are the four pillars of what we stand for. It impacts and transforms lives in the communities in which we operate. It brings in a huge amount of diversity. And if you look at it, it is interesting because we are a global player. We are IT providers so we use talent from all over the world. In IT, demand is high. Yet almost all this demand is supplied by a few talent-hot locations in the world. We think IT is the new oil of the world. It can be distributed more evenly. So we are trying to make it a global phenomenon as opposed to being concentrated in one or two locations. We think that can be a disruptive model and a competitive strength for us to say we are going to do these things somewhat differently. So we think that will be significant for us. It is a win-win for all parties.
Job creation, of course, is at the top of the agenda for the government — and especially jobs in STEM. Some programs take decades to fulfill their promise. We are talking about giving jobs in a few months.
Klein: How have your employees responded to this idea?
Pillai: They are very excited. If you are working in IT — one of the hottest sectors — you are going to be successful. But if you want to be significant, this gives them an opportunity. That’s what gets their juices going. Everybody looks at it positively.
Knowledge at Wharton: How do you measure the program’s social impact?
Pillai: I am not a social scientist, so I am not sure. When I go to Mexico, I sit down and talk to the people who got the jobs with UST Global. Those people did not come from a background that you and I can imagine. Their passion and commitment is probably one of the biggest rewards of being in the business. That is what I am looking for. This is not only commercial; I do hope that it will be very successful. But it could be extremely rewarding to see the impact. Creating 1,000 jobs in high-tech in 10 months and then scaling up to several thousand could be one of the largest job-creating initiatives in the country today.
Klein: Do you see yourself taking this initiative globally? Or have you already in some ways taken it global and are now bringing it domestically?
Pillai: We have been approached by Prime Minister [Mariano] Rajoy of Spain. I went and met with him a couple of times. He wanted to start a program in Spain. So we are starting the program to train 5,000 people. Spain has a lot of unemployment these days. So this will make an impact.
We are just initiating another effort to go to a country in Africa. Another initiative that is very much on the cards is to do a similar program for women in Saudi Arabia. So we think this is a true global phenomenon.
But this particular initiative is going to be focused on the U.S. to create jobs here.
Knowledge at Wharton: One last question. Where do you see the Step It Up America program in five years?
Pillai: We would want to be known for having disrupted the social ecosystem in a positive manner, giving jobs in high-tech, [increasing] diversity in STEM jobs. Some 27% of the work force is made up of minorities and women, yet only 3% of STEM jobs are held by minorities. I hope this effort will bring a renaissance in having minorities participate in the knowledge economy, which is so significant.
The numbers? I don’t know how many. But you don’t have to create the fire [on your own]. All you have to do is have a spark and hopefully the winds of change will fan it into flame of relevance. So that is what we are looking for.