By addressing challenges, India can unlock full potential of female workforce: Prerna Mukharya, Outline India

Prerna Mukharya, a research enthusiast, was well aware of the impact of data-driven decision making. But on the other hand, […]


Prerna Mukharya, a research enthusiast, was well aware of the impact of data-driven decision making. But on the other hand, she perceived a significant lack of data resources in India, particularly about the social issues in the rural areas. That’s when she decided to establish a research start-up to change the way in which data is collected and utilised for social welfare.

For her disruptive work, Prerna has won many accolades and has been featured in Fortune magazines’ 30 under 30 list twice. For her latest project, she is currently focusing on developing Track your metrics (TYM), an assessment tool for small NGOs and large funders to enable the creation of impact metrics and to bring accountability to the development world, thereby changing the way we track and finance social programmes at zero-unit cost.

Talking to SME Futures, Prerna Mukharya, Founder, Outline India, talks about her journey of becoming an entrepreneur and about how technology solutions are helping social enterprises in India.

Here are the edited excerpts:

For our readers, can you explain what social research means? Also, what kind of work is done at Outline India, and how does it help others to make a difference?

We at Outline India do social research, which means we systematically study social phenomena to understand society and its problems better. This is typically done through surveys, interviews, observations, experiments, and data analysis. Our primary focus is research and development, where we study various social topics including development, gender, health, and education. We aim to offer data-driven insights to assist NGOs, policymakers, and other stakeholders in making defensible decisions promoting social change.

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To obtain information about social concerns, our team of researchers at Outline India analyses the data to uncover significant insights and patterns using cutting-edge data analysis techniques like network analysis and econometric modelling.

Our on-ground research on education, nutrition, and health, among other things, has helped policymakers and NGOs to develop focused interventions to enhance health, education, and nutrition outcomes in disadvantaged populations.


When and what prompted you to build your social research firm-Outline India?

Outline India was founded in 2012 in response to a need for reliable data and research on the social issues in India. As a graduate student in the United States, I saw first-hand the impact that data-driven decision-making could have on social issues. However, I also saw a lack of high-quality, more reliable data on social issues in India, particularly in the rural areas.

So, I set up Outline India in response to the demand for trustworthy information and analysis of the social issues in India.

Since its inception, how has Outline India evolved thus far?

Since the commencement of our operations, Outline India has evolved and grown significantly. In the past ten years, Outline India has examined 29 states and union territories in areas like livelihood, education, gender, agriculture, and health. Also, we have done more than 200 evaluations across 60,000 Indian villages with over 70 partners.

Our work has impacted more than 50 million people till now. While we have always been sector agnostic, our focus is education, health, and agriculture, and it has since expanded to include gender, water, and sanitation. This has enabled us to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the social issues in India. Also, in addition to the traditional research methods such as surveys and focus groups, we have introduced new ones such as mobile data collection and participatory rural appraisal. This has enabled the collection of more comprehensive and accurate data on social issues in India.

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We have been recognised for our social research and impact work and we have received the Echoing Green Global Fellowship and the South Asia Women’s Fund Leadership Award for the work that we have done. I was also featured in the Fortune 30 under 30 list in 2017 & 2018.

Outline India has evolved into a reliable and impactful social research organisation.


What sort of challenges did you face initially when you started as an entrepreneur? how did you overcome them?

Launching a business, especially a social research company like Outline India, is difficult. While doing primary research, ensuring that the quality controls are in place is also crucial. There are some unique difficulties involved in doing research, particularly in the hinterland. Ensuring that the information gathered is accurate while training the team to collect and analyse the data to provide our clients with the answers quickly, can be challenging.

Concerning the rural landscape, I was very particular about understanding the tone and the regional nuances. An activity as hardline as data collection is not done in isolation and we cannot make the people at the grassroots feel like a sample size. It also took us time to develop a strong and trustworthy field network and to get the people to understand why their participation mattered. These are challenges that one needs to brazen it out through, but my passion for data and my love for what I do keep me going.

The ways of doing business have changed, and India is gaining more female entrepreneurs each day. What will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of female leaders?

The rise of female entrepreneurship in India is a positive development, but there are still several challenges that women entrepreneurs face.

Access to funding: Women entrepreneurs face a lot of difficulty while securing loans or investments due to gender biases or lack of networks. There is a need for more gender-inclusive financing options and mentorship programs.

Networking and mentorship: There is a need for more initiatives and programmes that promote networking and mentorship for women entrepreneurs. This could be done through peer-to-peer support groups and mentorship programmes that match women entrepreneurs with successful business leaders and investors.

Scaling up: Many women-led businesses in India remain small and need more access to resources and support to scale up. To address this challenge, there is a need for more investment in training and capacity-building programmes that will support women entrepreneurs to scale up their businesses and access new markets.

While there are many challenges facing the next generation of women leaders in India, there is also a growing recognition of their significant role in driving economic growth and social development. By addressing the challenges, India can unlock the full potential of its female workforce and support the development of a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

Have you drawn professional inspiration from other women? Tell us about it.

One of the many inspiring women in social research is Esther Duflo, a French American economist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019. She became the second woman and the youngest person to receive this honour. Duflo is known for her pioneering work in using randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to evaluate the effectiveness of social policies to reduce poverty and improve education and healthcare outcomes.

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Another notable woman in the field of social research is Shanta Devarajan. Devarajan is also known for her innovative approach to measuring and analysing development outcomes, and her work has significantly impacted policy decisions at the national and international levels. She is a senior director at the World Bank and has worked on a wide range of development issues, including poverty reduction, governance, and public sector management.

These are just a few examples of the many inspiring woman leaders in social research who have significantly contributed to the field and have helped to advance our understanding of complex social and economic issues. Their work truly inspires me.

What would you tell the young women who are just starting to work?

If you are a young woman just starting to work, be proactive, seek new challenges and experiences, and build a strong support network to help you to navigate your career. It’s essential to speak your mind, hold your ground, not be afraid to be called ‘difficult’, and focus on your mental and physical health.

What has you most excited about the future and what is your roadmap for Outline India?

I am excited for our future and our growth in the coming decade. Overall, the roadmap for Outline India is focused on our mission, our goals, and the evolving needs of our clients and the social impact sector. We will be focused on broadening and expanding our partnerships, investing in technology and data science, and expanding our services and offerings to new countries and broader markets. But we would like to stay agile and responsive to these changing needs to make a meaningful impact in social research and to contribute towards positive social change.