After Covid-19, companies with a heart will thrive


The economic crisis borne out of Covid-19 is motivating businesses to become more compassionate

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Tue 28 Apr 2020, 10:14 AM

Last updated: Tue 28 Apr 2020, 12:24 PM

In 2014, I spent about four months in a remote Indian village. One fine day, a lady who worked on the farm had to leave early to attend an important village meeting. Her enthusiasm piqued my curiosity. It turned out that her neighbour was struggling to repay the local money lender.
"So, what will you discuss in the meeting?" I asked her.
"We will discuss a fair amount that he can repay and in how many months should he pay," she replied with a firm countenance.
As she walked away with an air of purpose, I was struck by how deeply invested she was in resolving her neighbour's problem. Perhaps, she was hoping for the same consideration when she would run into trouble.
Her entire community did meet up that evening to deliberate on an acceptable solution for both parties. While such a congregation would not be feasible during this Covid-19 lockdown, the spirit of collectively resolving a problem is a new bug that businesses are catching today. 
Suddenly businesses are operating as though they are part of a close-knit tribe. Banks in the UAE are deferring loan repayments and waiving interest for several months to help small and medium businesses tide over tough economic conditions. In Dubai, large developer-landlords are providing financial support to their commercial tenants on a case-by-case basis.
Globally, there are numerous soul-soothing examples such as Airbnb's new fund to extend support to landlords with cancelled bookings. Its other initiative provides free housing to health and relief workers closer to their workplace. Gyms, college dorms and conference halls are turning into isolation wards.
The economic crisis borne out of Covid-19 is motivating businesses to become more compassionate. After the dust settles, tech startups will pull the industry towards compassionate capitalism. While the concept of compassionate capitalism is not new, the onus was almost always on the government to provide social and community support. Nordic countries have largely followed this model. But Covid-19 has compelled private enterprise to chip in. They are saying - we are in this together. Yet, this has been a reaction to the current challenges.
Future tech startups will proactively rethink the technology service providers' relationship with customers and partners. Let's not forget that the sharing economy was already a step in this direction. The widespread tragedies during this pandemic has unmasked the implicit oneness of the human civilisation. Our interdependency is not lost on entrepreneurs who are reimagining the future world that is built on compassion, steering clear of the winner-takes-all approach shown by the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook.
Post Covid-19, many technology innovations will be driven by the urge to blur the divide between businesses and customers, between self and society. The new technology platforms will draw on a sense of community, and collective action and responsibility. The spirit will not be as much about profiteering as about durability of revenue streams, renewal of the society and the planet, and reuse of resources.
The new crop of tech startups and unicorns will be shaped by Gen Z who will draw on their uncommon experiences during the pandemic. Their worldview and motivations will forge the next generation of technology platforms and services.
Gen Z has a sobering realisation that one can have all the wealth in the world, but one can still test Covid-19 positive. Even though the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, the virus treats everyone alike. Many surveys show that the Millennials and Gen Z are not favorable towards conventional forms of capitalism. They will work for startups that have a greater wage parity between senior and junior management. The 2008 financial crisis is still fresh in our minds, when the stimulus money was redirected to unhealthy financial institutions. The frequent collapse of economies is revealing that conventional business models purely riveted on profiteering or shareholder value are failing.
The slow down induced by the lockdown has shown that creative disruptions do not necessarily need speed and hyper-competition. Slowing down does not mean being non-productive, but rather being measured but constant. It means pacing things out. Tanzanians have a powerful Swahili phrase called 'pole pole', which means slowly. While climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, our guide would constantly remind us to go pole pole, which helped us all beat altitude sickness.
Becoming completely attuned to or empathic towards imminent market needs will be a key driver. Startups even today are pivoting in response to ground realities. Tunisian bike-taxi startup IntiGo pivoted to delivering groceries and other supplies once Covid-19 destroyed the demand for its taxi and bike hailing service. 3D printer companies are making personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face shield, and nasal swabs for the purpose of Covid-19 testing.
With a greater sense of shared responsibility, new tech startups will not compete for overnight success but for a robust brand that is based on goodwill and trust. They will carefully choose their partners that are kindred spirits. The next generation of tech startups will in a sense 'bend the curve' of growth rate to have more sustained revenues, while tempering expectations of return of investment.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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