Mildon Diversity and Inclusion Consultancy

Ep. 36: The Inclusive Entrepreneur

S?: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.
Toby Mildon: Hello there. Thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. I’m Toby Mildon. And today, I’m joined by my good friend, Srin Madipalli. So Srin and I go back a long way. We both have the same disability, which is spinal muscular atrophy, which is a neuromuscular condition that we were born with. I met Srin through the SMA family. There are not many of us in the world. But Srin has got a really, really interesting background, so he has got professional experience in the legal sector, he’s an entrepreneur, he does loads around technology, and it’s always great to hang out with Srin, and so it’s great to have him on the show so, hey Srin, welcome along.
Srin Madipalli: You’re too kind Toby, thank you so much for having me.
Toby Mildon: Well, I have to be kind to you because we’re recording this. Normally, I would like snap you up or something like that.
Srin Madipalli: And still, I’ll take whatever I can get, if it has to be recorded, I’ll accept that.
[chuckle]
Toby Mildon: So Srin, I gave a whistle-stop tour of your background, but you do have an interesting career background, because when you left university, you began working in the legal profession, so probably let’s begin there and can you let us know about your career background from university up to current day? 
Srin Madipalli: Sure, it is a bit of a mixed background, so I started off life, actually, even before that, I was a geneticist for a very, very short period of time. That was my original undergrad degree, I then decided to do the graduate diploma in law and re-qualify as a lawyer, so I practiced as a solicitor in the city for four years from primarily doing work related to corporate mergers and acquisitions, and yeah, I did that for four years. And while I learnt a lot and I was incredibly grateful for the experience and the opportunity. I realized quite relatively early on, I realized that this wasn’t the career for life for me, and already by then, I had started to get more interested in doing things that were more entrepreneurial and looking for other hobby projects so I could build or make things and yeah, my interests were beginning to digress into other directions.
Srin Madipalli: So I left the law in 2012, I went back to university again to do an MBA. And while I was doing the MBA, I also started to learn how to code a bit, and by the time I graduated in 2014, I started doing some freelance work as a web developer, so in that period, I had learnt enough to make basic applications and to build products for people… And that then led to being a co-founder of Accomable in 2015, where I led development for the first 12 months. So Accomable was a travel website for disabled people to find accessible accommodation.
Srin Madipalli: And that website and the business was acquired by Airbnb in 2017, and then I moved out to California for two years, so I lived in San Francisco up until the beginning of this year, and I led the new accessible travel unit within the accommodation category of Airbnb for two years to build out this new team and start getting some foundational changes made at the company. So, integrating what we learned at Accomable within Airbnb. So I recently left Airbnb, so I now do a mixture of things in the interim, so I do a lot of technology investing, I do a lot of technology consulting, I’m doing some voluntary work with some charities that mean a lot to me, but a bigger picture, looking to do any start-up again. So I apologise, I rambled on a lot there but that’s basically a whistle-stop tour of my career today.
Toby Mildon: That’s really cool, ’cause you do have such a diverse, excuse upon, because this is the Inclusive Growth Show and we talk about diversity and inclusion, but you do have a diverse career.
Srin Madipalli: Yeah, it’s gotta be done, right? 
Toby Mildon: Exactly. You have to get in there somehow, but you’ve been from geneticist through to legal profession through to entrepreneur, tech entrepreneur, and now, entrepreneurial investing and things like that. I’m interested to know if throughout your career, disability ever played a part in some of the decisions that you made? Did you ever come across any challenges or barriers that made you think about whether a particular career path was right for you or…
Srin Madipalli: Undeniably. Given the kind of disability that SMA is, I think it is impossible to un-couple disability to any decision made, like whether it be job search or where we travel, or where we live, I think a condition like SMA, what we have, I think it intertwines with so many aspects of our life, I don’t think you can ever realistically uncouple it from anything.
Srin Madipalli: So in terms of career search and job applications, so if I hop back towards the end of my time at university and I’m looking and I’m applying for my first roles, for me it was important to apply for something or take a career path where having a physical disability was going to be less of an issue, hence why I didn’t go down the legal path, because my perception at the time, and I think has been validated since that careers like law are more about your mind and your capability of interpreting the law and advising clients and less dependent on physical ability. So therefore having a disability doesn’t really… It’s less of a disadvantage compared to like, I don’t know, if we were doing something that required physical labour every day.
Srin Madipalli: And so from one level, yes, I try to think about careers where my disability is less likely to pose a massive obstacle and where I can lean into the things that I am good at, rather than be held backed by things around my disability. Secondly, at the time, I’d say less this was about disability, but more about the economic impact of disability. I was very conscious that unemployment rates around disability can be higher, so it was really important for me that my first role was with somebody reputable and I really wanted to make sure that I worked with an organiser, or I invested my efforts and time to apply to organisations, or I knew if I could get my first role there, that in itself would mean future job opportunities become easier to get.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s pretty much the same thinking that I had when I left university and was looking for my first jobs as well. And I’ve ended up in jobs that it’s about what you bring with your mind, your creativity, your analytical skills, that kind of thing that really counts. The thing is like when you were creating Accomable, I used to always explain to people that it’s just like Airbnb but for disabled people. And then in 2017, Airbnb brought you out. So I don’t know if that was serendipitous but why did Airbnb? 
Srin Madipalli: Yeah, it was all thanks to you, Toby. It was that description that basically done the deal.
Toby Mildon: But I should have got some commission for my marketing tagline work right there, but…
Srin Madipalli: Thank goodness the invoices never come, yeah.
Toby Mildon: I just say, loads of people set up businesses and they go, “It’s like the Uber of… ” or, “It’s like the Deliveroo of… ” They always kinda link it back to one of the big brands. But Airbnb did buy you out in 2017, why did they take interest in Accomable and why did they want to incorporate you into their product? 
Srin Madipalli: There’d been a multitude of factors that led to the acquisition on both our sides. So from the Accomable side, we were looking, at the time, so in the summer of 2017, we were looking for much more investment, so the platform had outgrown itself, we were having more demand than what we could cope with and we needed a massive injection of capital to invest in our infrastructure in order to scale the business. And we were looking for a partner who could help us scale and one of my investors at the time suggested maybe speaking to another travel business that already had that scale and reach to see whether there could be some tie up. Through that investing network, the introduction to Airbnb was made.
Srin Madipalli: From the Airbnb side, the decision to make an acquisition of Accomable was the culmination of multiple things. There had been a various amounts of criticism in the press about the inability of disabled people to use Airbnb because of inadequacies in the product. There’d been a lot of complaints and there’d been a lot of external pressure that had been exerted in order to help, in order to influence the company to improve, and I think on a reciprocal, internally, it is a company with a lot of good people that wanna do the right thing. And there’d also been an internal drive to seek expertise in order to do this better and I think there was an understanding that, and as you know, Tobes, and probably many of the folks on this podcast listening will attest to, that understanding the needs of disabled people is very hard unless you’re either immersed in the community or you have personal experience. And all credit to the decision to makers at Airbnb, instead of trying to make it up as they went along, the decision was made to go out there and seek expertise. So there was a combination of push and pull factors that brought us closer to Airbnb, but also brought Airbnb to want to acquire us as well.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, so you went over to San Francisco, I won’t hold against you but you left me for a few years, lording it up. What did you manage to accomplish whilst you were working with Airbnb over in Silicon Valley? 
Srin Madipalli: Sure, we accomplished a bunch of things. I will caveat from the beginning, did we accomplish everything I wanted to achieve? Absolutely, no. I think we made really good progress on a critical number of things that over the course of many years I think will lead to some really kind of high-impact improvements. So, there were a mixture of things that we’ve done, so firstly, back in the day, there was only one check box saying we all share accessible on an Airbnb listing, and nobody really knew what that meant, and you just had no idea what that listing had. And so we unbundled that box into lots of different features like roll-in shower, step-free entry, grab rails, the entire spectrum of different accessibility features that a home could have was re-engineered into the product. Secondly, we rebuilt a lot of the host side tooling, so again, back in the early days there was no way for host to add photos of accessibility features in their bathrooms or to be able to describe different parts of accessibility in their home. So we built a lot more tools and photography collection systems to facilitate the collection of that data.
Srin Madipalli: And third, we started a massive outreach program of training and education for hosts. No matter how good a technical product is, it is really fundamental that people actually understand why accessibility is important, what does it entail? What makes a good travel experience? So those are probably the three key primary areas that we made most of our progress. And then there were just lots of other internal things that we did. So when I joined, there weren’t many people that even understood accessibility internally within the company. So now as I leave, there are a lot more people that understand, there’s a lot more different parts of the company that now consider accessibility on new projects, and hopefully, we’ve institutionalized a lot of knowledge and understanding and fundamental culture change. So as things develop in the years to come, you will just see better and better accessibility in product. I think the one area that I feel like, unfortunately, I was not able to make the progress I wanted to make progress on was around quantity of supply, so if you do a search for a listing in London, which has a roll-in shower and step-free entry, unfortunately, there just isn’t the critical mass of supply in the first place, and I think whoever takes over my role, one of their big questions is going to be, “How do we facilitate the sourcing of much greater numbers of listings?”
Toby Mildon: Absolutely. Yeah. Because either the platform is there, but not necessarily the places to go and stay.
Srin Madipalli: Yeah. So if I was to sum up what we achieved, it’s like we’ve built the infrastructure, the foundations have been made, now the next challenge is for somebody to start building on top of them and start building out the critical mass of supply.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, so since Airbnb incorporated disability into their overall product, how do you think that, I suppose, the quality of the overall offering has improved? 
Srin Madipalli: Again, I think it comes down to the previous question, in the sense that there’s two aspects to the quality of the product, there is yes, “Are they good search filters? Are they good photography tools?” I think that is in place, but unfortunately, where product lacks is that there is just not enough supply. But having enough supply is core to the product as well, right? So yeah, it’s like the foundations are there, but the product does not have enough supply.
Toby Mildon: Yeah, that’s understandable. And also, how do you think the work that you did influenced the culture, ’cause you did touch upon that as well, ’cause that should hopefully stand the test of time as well, going forward.
Srin Madipalli: I think that was one of the biggest things where you don’t notice at the time, but the feedback I’ve got from peers, which is one of the biggest things that will outlast anything else, is the culture shift. In that, we did a lot of internal outreach, a lot of lunch and learns, a lot of bringing local members of the Bay Area Disability Community into the office to do talks and learning sessions and teachings with many, many members of staff on what the challenges of accessible travel are. So that was definitely one of the major shifts where before me and the Accomable team joined, there weren’t that many people that understood this area, but now, you do have a lot more allies and advocates within the company that are constantly raising the importance of making sure that accessibility is thought about as early as possible.
Toby Mildon: Definitely, definitely. I think, yeah, it’s important to factor in accessibility at the beginning. It’s like if you’re building a website, any website, and then you wait until you’ve launched your website to do an order to find all of the accessibility defects, it’s gonna cost you a lot more time and energy to fix it. You just need to get accessibility factored in from the very beginning of the whole project lifecycle.
Srin Madipalli: Completely.
Toby Mildon: Yeah. So you’ve now left Airbnb, what are you doing now? 
Srin Madipalli: A mixture of things. So, primarily leaving to take a little bit of a break from being on the frontline of a busy kind of leadership role. So, I’m taking a step back to do a few things. I am still doing a bit of consulting work on startups and companies that I have close connections with, and are doing things that I care about. I also do a lot of mentoring and support to entrepreneurs within the tech community, and that often involves making direct investments into start-ups myself, and so that covers the near-term. And then, the longer term, probably from early… The beginning of… Early to beginning middle of next year some time, I want to go build a new business again. What that will be? I do not know. But definitely the itch has come back to go build something again.
Toby Mildon: And I know you will do it because you’ve got no shortage of ideas, and when you do put your mind to something, you do build a business up. Yeah, I mean, you are a great entrepreneur and I’ve learnt tons from you over the years.
Srin Madipalli: Thank you. And yeah, the key thing is just finding what that is, so I wanna use this time away from just being busy on a day-to-day basis and just have that time to reflect on what new problems, I feel I could best solve? 
Toby Mildon: Yeah. So this is The Inclusive Growth Show and before we go, I’m just interested in understanding what you think inclusive growth is all about? 
Srin Madipalli: So to me, I think inclusive growth is, it is a category, or it should be the default category of growth, where organizations grow their community, their customer base, their supplier base, all of their stakeholders as fairly and equitably as possible, and it is probably the antithesis of maybe what has happened to date, where growth has over-indexed on one particular set of group or individuals that then maybe leaves many other more marginalized groups behind. And so yeah, I definitely see inclusive growth as a corporate strategy to make sure that everybody has the chance to win and everybody is kind of empowered and franchised together rather than separately.
Toby Mildon: Brilliant. You might have just come up with my own marketing strategy line.
Srin Madipalli: There you go. So we’re equal now right? 
Toby Mildon: Exactly. Quid pro quo, so to speak. Srin, thank you for joining me on this episode. If the person listening to our chat wants to get hold of you, what’s the best way of doing that? 
Srin Madipalli: The best way is probably to look me up on LinkedIn. I’m not really a big user of social media like Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, so I think the only thing I really use these days is LinkedIn, so probably just Google my name and LinkedIn and just add me as a connection with a note is probably the easiest way.
Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Well Srin, thank you ever so much for joining me on this episode. It’s been lovely to chat with you. And, well, I will see you soon. So yeah.
Srin Madipalli: Well, thank you for having me, and yeah, speak to you soon.
Toby Mildon: That’s right. And thank you for listening to this episode with Srin and myself. Hopefully, you’ve found it an interesting conversation, and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of The Inclusive Growth Show, which will be coming up very shortly. Until then, take care.
S?: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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