In conversation with Vivek Seshadri, Co-founder & CTO at Karya
December 14, 2023

In conversation with Vivek Seshadri, Co-founder & CTO at Karya

Karya: Revolutionizing Ethical Data Work in India’s Villages with a Nonprofit

An Indian startup named Karya is pioneering a groundbreaking model that challenges the norms of the data industry. Established as the world's first ethical data company in 2021 in Bengaluru, Karya stands out by redefining the concept of profit in the data market. Karya has at its core a mission towards the upliftment of the rural poor in India by bringing dignified, digital work to economically disadvantaged Indians, giving them a pathway out of poverty. It partners with local NGOs to prioritize job opportunities for the most marginalized communities. What sets Karya apart is its commitment to providing workers not only with a fair wage but also de-facto ownership of the data they generate, ensuring a unique model of economic empowerment. As Co-founder Vivek Seshadri states, Karya's mission goes beyond profit—it's about addressing market failures and creating meaningful opportunities for those who need it the most. The impact reaches beyond financial gains, extending to technological inclusivity and language diversity, making Karya a pioneering force in ethical data practices with a vision for a more equitable future.

1. Tell us about your early life and the motivation behind pursuing an entrepreneurial life.

Being an entrepreneur was never in my roadmap. I always wanted to be a teacher. I was fortunate enough to get a good education and ended up in a Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon. Conversations with my peers as I was finishing up my Ph.D. led me to a realization that the top 5% of the world is working on making its life more efficient. New technologies are typically built for that population and things trickle down. As I was figuring out what to do next, I stumbled upon the Technology and Empowerment group at Microsoft Research India. I was once again fortunate to get a position there with an amazing mentor. I started Karya as a research project, and after a series of studies, it was clear that spinning off the project as a startup was the best course of action to scale the impact of the idea.

2. What was the point at which you took the plunge and founded Karya? How did your product evolve over the years?


I joined Microsoft Research in 2016 with a broad goal of working on problems affecting low-income and vulnerable populations. At the time, technology was getting better and cheaper. Specifically, the cost of smartphones and data connectivity were reducing. India was also investing in technology to enable building applications. We started with the question: can we provide employment opportunities to people in low-income communities through their smartphones. That is when I met Manu. He had just finished at Stanford and moved back to India with a similarly strong motivation to work on mitigating poverty. My mentor connected Manu and me, given our mutual interest. We started Karya as a research project at Microsoft Research India.  The broad idea behind Karya was to provide digital work opportunities for people in rural communities through a smartphone-based platform. 


There were several questions surrounding the idea: 

  1. What kind of tasks can we provide through a smartphone-based platform?
  2. Can users in rural communities complete those tasks with high enough accuracy and efficiency to compete in the market? 
  3. Can we use technology to make it easier for users to complete digital tasks? 

We conducted a series of user studies to answer these questions. We started with language-based digital tasks as most of the users in our target community are already skilled in their regional language: almost everyone can speak, most people can read, and our research showed people can quickly learn to type. As the focus was on feasibility, our initial studies were run using offline applications on the smartphone.

Platform Development:

As our user studies were getting larger, we needed a better platform to smoothly run those studies. One of our key goals was to build an inclusive digital work platform. We designed and built the initial version of our platform that supported a few different types of tasks and could be deployed in even regions without connectivity. We had two deployments for speech data collection.


A couple of years ago, we realized the idea was largely positive and could have an immense impact. It was clear that the best path was to spin it off as an independent startup to help scale the impact of the idea. It was also when I met Safiya through a different collaboration.

Safiya has a strong background in impact research and evaluation. She was excited by the idea behind Karya and its potential impact, and the three of us started the spin-off. We got an initial grant from Microsoft to set ourselves up. Today, we have grown into a strong team of 30+ people. We have made significant strides in many aspects including our digital work platform and our on-ground operations.

By verbalizing text in their native language, rural Indians have utilized Karya's app to earn an hourly income nearly 20 times the Indian minimum wage

3. What is your impact to date and what are your key strategies for success?

On the tech side, an open-source version of our platform is currently used by multiple major data collection efforts in the country. Through further improvements, we have made our platform significantly more flexible and robust for a variety of data collection needs. We are committed to making our platform available for any organization that subscribes to ethical data principles.

Across the various deployments, our platform has reached over 30,000 users and we have made over Rs.  3 crores in payments to them for completing a variety of tasks. We will be aiming to at least triple these numbers in the next few months. 

Going forward:

  1. We want to make our platform more exhaustive and accessible so that data requesters can directly post tasks on our platform. We will have checks in place to ensure that the pay rates are ethical. 
  2. We will increase our outreach to bring more work to our platform. This is the only way for us to provide more opportunities for our workers and also expand our team to scale to more users.     

4. What specific measures does Karya have in place to ensure that it makes a meaningful impact in the livelihoods of people who need it the most? What are your aspirations on the depth and breadth of scale and how do you plan to achieve them?

Our broad strategy is to: 

  1. Maximize wages for our workers for any task we offer on our platform while remaining sustainable, and 
  2. Ensure that the work reaches the people who can significantly benefit from the high wages. 

Today, we are constantly improving the technology in our platform to provide assistance and feedback to our users so that they can submit high-quality work. To ensure that work reaches the right people, today we rely on our non-profit partners whose beneficiaries typically intersect with our target demography.

Karya aims to function as a data cooperative, generating worker-owned datasets that enable workers to earn royalties from data sales

5. What are the insights or lessons you've gained through your engagements with a variety of stakeholders, including communities, non-profits, tech companies, and governments, in the context of your efforts?


They typically love the work as it is something different than what they usually consider work. The opportunities are significant enough for them to put in the effort to learn to do the work better, particularly from other members of the communities. 

Learning and knowledge acquisition may be an important side-effect of our interventions and can open up other interesting opportunities for engagement.

Non-profit Partners: 

Our engagements with non-profits have been largely positive. They not only help us scale better on the ground but also break the trust barriers that may exist as we are often an unknown entity to new communities.

Tech companies:

Our engagements with tech companies are mostly transactional: we give them data and they pay us for the data. However, we have been able to highlight the potential impact of the work to our clients and sensitize them to issues surrounding ethics in the data work domain.

Besides tech companies, we have also had fruitful engagements (past and ongoing) with large foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and GiZ (from Germany) in understanding gaps in AI (e.g., biases, low-resource settings) and mitigating those gaps.


Governments can be the biggest source of work and money. While we have not yet had any large-scale engagements directly with the government, we hope to make efforts in that direction this coming year. 

6. Please share a few key reflections on the trials and tribulations of being a founder building livelihoods and the ways to build resilience.

  1. My biggest lesson, which is actually obvious, is that a research project is very different from a startup. But I realize the magnitude of the difference having gone through the experience of both. Things move much faster in the startup world, and many times, it could feel like there is no pause.
  2. The best way to address the above problem is to hire good people. Hiring can be a draining task especially if there are a lot of things to complete. There is a constant dilemma between hiring someone who in the future can help you complete many of the tasks or completing those tasks oneself. But again through experience, I have learned that it always pays off to hire good people.
  3. It is important to have a measurable metric for success and impact. Today, we track a few (number of users, amount of tasks/money distributed, etc). However, we are still working on a good metric that will truly capture the impact of our organization.
Karya's platform is built on five years of peer-reviewed research and can be deployed even in regions without the Internet

7.Would you like to share anything else with your fellow entrepreneurs?

Build organizational capacity sooner rather than later. A company requires a lot of cogs and wheels to function which is beyond just the idea. It is important to hire good people to keep them in motion while you focus on the idea and scale as an entrepreneur.

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