The Inclusive Entrepreneur

For this interview, I talked with my good friend, Srin Madipalli. We go back a long way. We both have the same disability, spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a neuromuscular condition that we were born with. I met Srin through the SMA family. There are not many of us in the world. Srin has got a really interesting background with professional experience in the legal sector. He’s also an entrepreneur and does loads around technology.

I began by asking Srin about his diverse career background from university right up to the current day?

‘Before law, I was a geneticist for a very, very short period of time. That was my original undergrad degree. I then decided to do a graduate diploma in law and re-qualify as a lawyer. I practised as a solicitor in the city for four years, primarily doing work related to corporate mergers and acquisitions. I learnt a lot and I was incredibly grateful for the experience and the opportunity. I realised quite early on, it wasn’t the career for life for me. I had started to get more interested in doing things that were entrepreneurial. I was looking for other hobby projects so I could build or make things and my interests were beginning to digress into other directions.

I left the law in 2012. I went back to university again to do an MBA. While I was doing the MBA, I also started to learn how to code a bit. By the time I graduated in 2014, I had started doing some freelance work as a web developer.  That led to being a co-founder of Accomable in 2015,  which was a travel website for disabled people to find accessible accommodation. I led development there for the first 12 months.

That website and the business was acquired by Airbnb in 2017. I moved out to California for two years and lived in San Francisco up until the beginning of this year. 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.

I recently left Airbnb and I am doing a mixture of things in the interim. I do a lot of technology investing and technology consulting. I’m doing some voluntary work with some charities that mean a lot to me, but the bigger picture is that I’m looking to do any start-up again. I rambled on a lot there but that’s the whistle-stop tour of my career.’

Srin’s career is diverse, from geneticist through to legal profession through to entrepreneur, tech entrepreneur, and now, entrepreneurial investing and things like that. I was interested to know if disability ever played a part in some of the career decisions that Srin made?  I asked him, ‘Did you ever come across any challenges or barriers that made you think about whether a particular career path was right for you?’

‘Undeniably. Given the kind of disability that SMA is, I think it is impossible to un-couple disability to any decision made. Whether it be a job search or where we travel, or where we live. I think a condition like SMA intertwines with so many aspects of our life, I don’t think you can ever realistically uncouple it from anything.

Towards the end of my time at university when I was looking and applying for my first roles, 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. With the legal path my perception at the time, and I think has been validated since, was 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. Therefore having a disability is less of a disadvantage compared to doing something that required physical labour every day.

On 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 back by things around my disability. Secondly, 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 important for me that my first role was with somebody reputable. I invested my efforts and time to apply to organisations, whichI knew if I could get my first role there, that in itself would mean future job opportunities would become easier to get.’

I recognised Srin’s thinking to be the same as mine when I left university and was looking for my first jobs. I’ve ended up in jobs where it’s about what you bring with your mind, your creativity, your analytical skills, that kind of thing that counts. When Srin set up Accomable I used to tell people it’s like Airbnb for disabled people. Then in 2017, Airbnb bought Accomable. I asked Srin why they wanted to incorporate his skills into their product?

There’d been a multitude of factors that led to the acquisition on both our sides. From the Accomable side, we were looking for much more investment. The platform had outgrown itself, and we were having more demand than it could cope with. We needed a massive injection of capital to invest in our infrastructure in order to scale the business. 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.

From the Airbnb side, the decision to make an acquisition of Accomable was the culmination of multiple things. There had been 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 to influence the company to improve.

Internally, it is a company with a lot of good people that want to do the right thing. There’d also been an internal drive to seek expertise in order to do this better. I think there was a realisation that understanding the needs of disabled people is very hard unless you’re either immersed in the community or you have personal experience. All credit to the decision-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.

We accomplished a bunch of things whilst I was there. I will caveat it from the beginning, did we accomplish everything I wanted to achieve? Absolutely, no. I think we made really good progress on a number of critical things that over the course of many years I think will lead to some really kind of high-impact improvements.

There is a mixture of things that we’ve done. Firstly, back in the day, there was only one check box for accessibility on an Airbnb listing, and nobody really knew what that meant or what facilities that listing had. 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 a 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.

Thirdly, we started a massive outreach programme of training and education for hosts. No matter how good a technical product is, it is fundamental that people actually understand why accessibility is important and what it entails. So what makes a good travel experience? Those are probably the three key primary areas where we made most of our progress.

There were lots of other internal things that we did. When I joined, there weren’t many people that even understood accessibility internally within the company. Now, there are a lot more people that understand. There’s more different parts of the company that now consider accessibility on new projects, and hopefully, we’ve institutionalised 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 the product.

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. I think whoever takes over my role, one of their big questions is going to be how the business can facilitate the sourcing of much greater numbers of listings.

If I was to sum up what we achieved, it’s like we’ve built the infrastructure. The foundations have been laid, now the next challenge is for somebody to start building on top of them and start building out the critical mass of supply.’

I was curious to find out how Srin feels the work he did at Airbnb influenced the culture. Does he feel hopeful that it will stand the test of time and be a sustainable culture change?

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, learning sessions and teachings with many members of staff on what the challenges of accessible travel are. That was definitely one of the major shifts. Before the Accomable team and I joined, there weren’t that many people that understood this area. Now there are 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.’

It was great to hear that Srin’s left his mark on the culture at Airbnb in that way. Getting accessibility factored in from the very beginning of the whole project lifecycle saves any company making accessibility mistakes which are costly to go back and fix.

Srin has never had any shortage of ideas. When he puts his mind to something, he builds a business up. He’s a great entrepreneur and I’ve learnt tons from him over the years. I asked Srin what the future holds for him now?

‘A mixture of things. So, primarily taking a little bit of a break from being on the frontline of a busy leadership role. 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, ones 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. That covers the near-term. In the longer term, probably from the beginning to the middle of next year I want to go build a new business again. What will that be? I do not know. But definitely, the itch has come back to go build something again.

The key thing is just finding what that will be. I want to use this time away from being busy on a day-to-day basis and have time to reflect on what new problems I feel I could best solve?’

As it was the Inclusive Growth Show I’m always interested in understanding what my guests think inclusive growth is all about, so I posed the question to Srin.

‘Inclusive growth should be the default category of growth, where organisations grow their community, their customer base, their supplier base, all of their stakeholders as fairly and equitably as possible. It is probably the antithesis of 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 marginalised groups behind. I definitely see inclusive growth as a corporate strategy to make sure that everybody has the chance to win and everybody is empowered and franchised together rather than separately.’

There’s no doubt whatever Srin Madipalli does next in his career will be interesting. If you want to get in touch and see what’s next visit his LinkedIn page and drop him a message.

The Inclusive Entrepreneur - Mildon