Is madam here?” Nishi Dhillon asked the maid, in the soft voice she’d been trained to use at work as a beautician. “Can you ask her to call out to me?” 

For her own safety, Dhillon is not allowed to work with men. If she doesn’t see her client on arrival, she must insist on hearing their voice. The maid sighed. “Madamji,” she called.

Dhillon glanced down the corridor. The walls were covered in art. There was an expensive-looking carpet, and lush plants with glossy leaves. “Aajao,” a woman’s voice beckoned in Hindi. Come on in.

Dhillon slipped off her black sneakers and hoisted up her kit bag.  She couldn’t say how much it weighed, but her son had likened it to an eight-kilogram dumbbell. Dhillon followed the voice to a bedroom, where she found her client skimming a magazine. The hum of an air purifier confirmed money and status. 

“Hello ma’am,” Dhillon said. The woman glanced up. The beautician stood deferentially before her, wearing trousers and a purple tunic with the words “Urban Company” emblazoned on the breast. Not one strand of hair was out of place. 

Dhillon expected to be sized up. During her training, Urban Company had warned her that clients mustn’t see that she’d tattooed the names of her children on her arm. Or hear her voice unless necessary. If a client asked, “Are you married?” Dhillon should nod rather than tell the whole truth — that at 45, she was already widowed — because she didn’t want to put off her client and risk getting a low rating. 

Dhillon took a selfie to prove that it was really her at the job site, poured sanitizer into the palms of her hands, and scrubbed her fingers and wrists, ready to begin a pedicure. Her trainer always said, “Use the best products, give the best service, and show your best attitude.” 

Dhillon never forgets. She is always smiling.

Dhillon is one of roughly 45,000 contract employees who work for Urban Company, a gig work platform that launched in India in 2014 advertising “Home services, on demand.” It is now Asia’s largest home services platform, one of India’s highest venture capital-funded organizations, and a unicorn valued in 2021 at over $2 billion. Today, it is present in 54 cities in India, and has expanded to the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. On the Urban Company app, customers can order all kinds of in-home services, including cleaning, DIY jobs such as painting or plumbing, and beauty treatments such as massages and manicures.

Owing to the nature of much of this work, Urban Company has become the biggest employer of women in India’s platform economy, otherwise made up largely of male-dominated jobs such as delivery drivers. Around a third of Urban Company’s contract workforce is female, and there are plans to train at least 200,000 more women to work for the service by 2030.

For many women working for the platform, Urban Company represents an opportunity they may not otherwise have had: to earn their own money, make their own choices, and, in some cases, take up a new position in a society where about a quarter of women participate in the formal workforce. The company has taken one of India’s oldest, most informal sectors — domestic work — and brought it into the age of the gig economy. 

But this work model can also pose challenges, with workers complaining about safety concerns, high commissions, training costs, and the pressure to perform to algorithmic requirements. In 2021, Urban Company faced two protests in three months, after female workers raised issues around safety and working conditions. It made headlines for responding to the second protest by suing some of the workers involved. 

Dhillon was born in the northern Indian city of Ambala, to parents who were from an oppressed caste and forced to follow their caste profession of musicians. She is the first in her family to have left her home city and made for New Delhi to pursue a different career. To pay the bills, she works seven days a week. “Roz kua khodo, roz paani peeyo” is how she describes the pressure — “Every day I dig a well, just to drink water.” 

But she works for one of India’s top tech startups. And because of her job, her children are privately educated. One son drives a scooter, they all have mobile phones. They will determine their own future. And to Dhillon, this is the hallmark of privilege. 

“To be able to choose,” she said, “is to be free.”

A photo of Dhillon, an Urban Company employee, standing outside.

There is nothing as abundant and cheap in India as labor. Virtually every middle-class family has some staff, such as a cook or cleaner. They may also pay someone to drive their car, walk their dog, and tend to their garden. But for reasons of safety, finding domestic help has always taken place through word of mouth with existing staff — the watchman, for instance, may be tasked with recruiting people that he knows, often from back in the same village, to come to the city to work. 

While this old, informal way of finding staff may still serve established families, it is often inaccessible to the tidal wave of Indians migrating from towns to cities or between cities. The young, educated, well-salaried beneficiaries of India’s economic boom may not have a pre-existing network to tap into. Getting it wrong comes with the real costs of letting a stranger into your home. And the sector is so vast and unorganized that even the National Domestic Workers’ Movement, which has championed workers’ rights for nearly 40 years, can’t put a figure on the number of people involved. They say it could be anywhere from 4.2 million to more than 50 million.

The founders of Urban Company experienced this problem firsthand. Abhiraj Singh Bhal and Varun Khaitan met as engineering students in the 2000s and worked together at the Boston Consulting Group. They were later introduced to Raghav Chandra, a software engineer who had worked at Twitter’s Bay Area office. The three decided to brainstorm ideas for a company of their own. In Delhi, where they set up a base, they found that even getting a plumber was a near-impossible task. “[The space] hadn’t seen any real solving,” Bhal told the podcast Seed to Scale. “Will the person show up? Will they show up on time? How much will they charge?” 

India’s home services industry was a disruptor’s dream. It offered a huge market opportunity with a clearly defined problem. The system was as broken for the customers as it was for the service workers, who felt dependent on go-betweens, such as the building watchman, to get jobs. “It’s like ideal grounds for a technology marketplace to go in and try to disrupt it,” Bhal said

In its own way, Urban Company appears, at least on the surface, to be trying to shift ideas around domestic labor in India, where a feudal attitude towards who should serve and how they can be treated has persisted. These ideas were influenced by the 3,000-year-old caste system, which bestowed privileges on those who were born into the dominant castes, and legitimized the discrimination and abuse of those who were not. Indians from oppressed castes, such as Dalits, were most often forced to find work in informal sectors.

Caste is also responsible for the country’s complicated relationship with cleanliness. Hindu notions of purity encouraged the idea that human waste was so unclean, it was preferable to defecate in the open rather than have a toilet in the house. Anyone cleaning human waste was also considered soiled.

These ideas may explain why the sector had defied disruption for so long. “Our families would always ask us, ‘Keechad industry mein kyun phas gaye,’” Chandra said in an interview with the podcast Stars & Startups — “Why are you stuck in this filthy industry?”

In late 2014, Bhal, Khaitan, and Chandra incorporated their company, eventually raising $1.6 million in seed funding from investors, which included a private equity firm, a VC firm, and the founders of the online marketplace Snapdeal. They called it Urban Clap to reflect the ease and speed at which they hoped to deliver services — “In a clap,” Bhal told the press, shortly after launching. They later changed the name to something “globally acceptable.” Social media conjecture suggested it could be because “clap” is a euphemism for gonorrhea.

By June 2015, the company had raised an additional $10 million from existing investors. It had 100 full-time employees, and operated in three cities. It didn’t lack for competition. According to a 2019 estimate, India’s home services market is projected to reach $65 billion by 2026 — a figure that many other startups, like Housejoy in Bengaluru, and now-defunct companies like Taskbob in Mumbai and SBricks in Hyderabad had already noted. JustDial, one of India’s earliest internet-first businesses, had launched its company, including a database of service providers, in 1996. 

Urban Company quickly pulled ahead of the herd by making some strategic choices. They prioritized customer experience and invested heavily in design. 

In 2020, the company split its beauty vertical into three sub-brands, for women, men, and spa services. Mukund Kulashekaran, the company’s chief business officer, told Rest of World the decision to bolster beauty was specifically intended to appeal to the app’s key target consumers: women. 

“We serve households,” he said, during an interview at the company’s Scandi-vibe headquarters in Gurugram, on the outskirts of New Delhi. “And while I’m not saying that men don’t take interest, the woman in the house drives decisions. So, she’s one of the key consumers for us. And one of the services that caters to women and helps them become very loyal to a platform is beauty, because it’s recurring in nature.”

Beauty is now among the company’s most profitable segments, and the growing demand prompted a recruitment drive for female contract employees.

“Given the nature of our services, a lot of them have been performed by women,” Kulashekaran said. “Because they are intimate, some are sensitive in nature. Our women consumers might prefer a woman driver, for example, but would they be alright being driven by a man? Yes. But a woman at home only wants a woman service provider.” 

The company hoovered up talent, cold-calling beauticians, posting ads on Facebook, and strongly encouraging existing workers to get friends to join. Recruiters enticed candidates by telling them they could make good money on their own terms. The promise of flexibility was particularly appealing to women with children. For many women, even those with qualifications, Urban Company was far more accessible than the beauty salon industry. It was relatively easy to apply, get accepted, and make good money. 

Urban Company pays close attention to its image among both customers and workers. An active blog and YouTube channel have helped perpetuate the idea that it is more than just a service provider — that it is committed to transforming the lives of employees, particularly those lower down the chain. It calls its gig workers “partners,” and refers to one of its training processes as “upskilling.” To work with Urban Company as a contract employee, according to a 2022 company blog post, is to transform into a “respected, well groomed and a responsible person.”

A photo of a woman's hands holding out a phone, showing the Urban Company app opened.

Patricia Kumar grew up in a slum on the outskirts of Bengaluru, when the southern city was making a name for itself as the Silicon Valley of India. But the benefits of the 1990s tech boom bypassed her family entirely. 

As the city was revamped with industrial parks, highways, and trendy pubs for the skilled workers arriving from across the country, Kumar’s parents took the only jobs available to them: working as daily wage laborers in construction and garment manufacturing. 

APP NAME:Urban Company, formerly Urban Clap
FOUNDERS:Abhiraj Singh Bhal, Varun Khaitan, and Raghav Chandra
HQ:Gurugram, India
FOUNDED:November 2014
NETWORK:42,000 professionals

“We had a very low background,” Kumar told Rest of World. “Very poor, very simple.” Her parents pulled her out of school when she was 16 years old to work as a receptionist at a dental clinic, a job that she held until the birth of her son 15 years later. She then quit to be a stay-at-home mother.

But Kumar’s job at the dental clinic had given her a taste of independence, and her husband Suresh, a sales manager, shared her aspirations. The demands of India’s rapidly growing economy meant that a once largely insular and conservative society — in which access to opportunity was tightly controlled — was forced to open. Together, they bought a house, a two-wheeler, and then a car. They were in the process of adding a new floor to take in tenants. Last year, Kumar decided to rejoin the workforce so that she could continue to pursue the social mobility of which her parents had been deprived. A friend introduced her to Urban Company, and she completed a nearly two-month-long training program. She has worked steadily since, marking her availability on the app from 8 a.m. 

A screenshot of the Urban Company app.
Urban Company

At noon one weekday in January, Kumar had just finished giving a client an oil massage in their bedroom. Afterwards, Kumar moved quickly, stripping the massage bed, sanitizing it, and scrubbing her hands clean. She folded the bed and returned the oil, gloves, and disposable linens to her bag. Her next appointment was at 3 p.m., in a completely different part of the city, and she had to figure out how to get there. Her colleagues often traveled by Uber auto rickshaws, but the mobile bed and trolley that she had to drag along only fit in the boot of a car. She decided to hail a cab, even though it would consume a significant chunk of the day’s earnings.

It was exhausting — and frightening — to enter the homes of strangers. Once, she had arrived to massage a female client, only to find herself being verbally coerced by the woman’s “husband” to give him a massage instead. It appeared to be a setup: The “husband” claimed that his “wife” was in the bathroom, and that Kumar could just go ahead and massage him instead. She declined, and left immediately. 

But Kumar doesn’t focus on the downsides of working for Urban Company. She makes around 44,000 rupees ($540) every month, which is 20% more than her husband makes from his sales job. It is enough to help with household expenses and loans, as well as to pay for an advanced course in beauty so that she can acquire more qualifications. She is able to send her son to a private school. He wants to be a pilot.

Kumar’s husband acknowledges her contribution by taking on more child care, and he’ll often drive her to work in their car. They have a specific evening ritual: playing games. “We’re always playing, playing, playing,” she said with a laugh. They love the Indian board game carrom and kicking a football through the rooms of the house. “I’m working hard,” she said, with a grateful sigh. “But I’m happy now. I have money.”

A photo of women at the Urban Company training center taking a break.

For many women, the journey to a job at Urban Company begins in Sultanpur, a mud-caked city around 30 minutes away from the company headquarters. One January afternoon, on the ground floor of a nondescript building, a young woman smartly clad in a pale sweater and black trousers walked up and down a thickly curtained room. She murmured “slowly” in a singsong voice. 

There were a dozen beauticians in the room — each perched on the back of a woman wrapped in a towel. The room was steeped in the aroma of massage oil. One of the beauticians kneaded with all her might, earning a reprimand. “Aaram se!” the trainer said. Take it easy. 

The beautician’s face fell. She was wiry-limbed, with scraped-back hair and creases around her eyes. Her sneakers were ripped at the seams.

“I need to know you have some skin in the game.”

The beautician had paid 2,000 rupees ($24) to register with Urban Company, and then some more for a kit. The fees were a sore point with the beauticians Rest of World spoke to, most of whom already had professional qualifications and experience.

Several women complained that all they really got for their money was an introduction to the employee app and tips on how to talk to clients — they already knew everything else. Urban Company’s Kulashekaran called the fees an “investment.” He said they “test intent.” 

“I need to know you have some skin in the game,” he told Rest of World

A photo of the brick facade of the Urban Company office entrance with parked motorbikes.

But the investment on the part of workers never stops. Once a beautician is onboarded and anointed as a “partner,” she must load her company app with in-app credits in order to be able to take on jobs. She pays a commission of up to 24% on every job completed. The jobs are supposed to be within 10 kilometers of her residence, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes she must travel longer distances, which can mean spending money on Ubers and Olas. She must buy all her branded products from Urban Company. At one time, workers complained they received, and were charged for, huge boxes of products without their consent. 

“They’re put into an ecosystem where they are constantly buying things,” Divyansha Sehgal, one of the co-authors of a study on Urban Company, published in 2022 by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru, told Rest of World. “Urban Company is one of the country’s highest venture capital-funded organizations. Given that workers also spend a lot of money on the platform, why are they not treated as primary stakeholders of the app?”

Seema Singh, 35, used to run her own salon in Delhi when, she said, she was aggressively headhunted on behalf of the company. “They told me, ‘You can work while your child is in school. You can take the jobs you want when you want,’” she told Rest of World. But after she joined in 2019, Singh learned that contract workers were expected to book at least 30 jobs a month. 

Even workers who want to stick to this schedule may be unable to. A job that lasts only 45 minutes can take hours longer because of the travel to and from a client’s home. Workers aren’t compensated for this extra time, and neither are their travel costs subsidized. Every job, therefore, involves a calculation: Is it worth it? Retraining is also mandatory for those whose rating falls short of 4.5 stars.

A worker who wants to question these rules might feel they have little recourse. The company does not provide partners with a direct manager or immediate superior. They can call the employee help center, but once they step into the Urban Company universe, workers often feel like their only contact with their employer is through an app. Many workers have taken matters into their own hands by creating WhatsApp communities to share information. It was through these whisper networks in 2021 that some workers decided it was time to stand up for themselves.

A photo of a sign 'No men allowed

That October, roughly 100 partners gathered at the company headquarters to protest working conditions such as high commissions and safety concerns. About a week later, Urban Company posted a conciliatory message on Medium, in which it announced several measures to improve work conditions. 

Female workers were already assigned only female customers and didn’t take appointments after 7 p.m. The updated safety measures included an SOS button for women on the app, which would connect workers to a company helpline in case of an emergency. The app now also requested that clients offer workers a glass of water and permission to use the bathroom — a minimal token of dignity that nevertheless has the potential to break taboos in a society where some people still refuse to share food, utensils, and social spaces with others.

But some workers felt this didn’t adequately address all of the issues. Several sought — and were granted — meetings with management. Two months later, the workers felt these talks had stalled, and on a December evening, the protestors were back at the gates shouting “Stop looting us!” This time, management called the police.

The next day, said Singh, several Urban Company employees attempted to hand over legal notices to some of the protestors, including her (Urban Company disputes this). Singh said she refused, as did the others. Singh later learned she’d been named in a civil suit, and an accompanying injunction described the protests as “a deeply meditated criminal conspiracy” against the company.

The company’s response was a public relations debacle that inspired the Twitter hashtag #BoycottUrbanCompany.

The protest came around the time of mass layoffs in the Indian tech sector, when workers were just starting to speak out against toxic business practices. Although tech workers had protested before, the demonstrations against Urban Company were possibly the first ever to be led by female gig workers, and potentially also the first time in India that a company had filed an injunction to prevent its own workers from protesting. 

Kulashekaran said he has no regrets about how the matter was handled. “We are willing to change and be better,” he said. “But there’s a difference between that and people putting a gun to your head.” 

Urban Company later introduced several social security measures, such as accident insurance, comprehensive health insurance, and its largest stock option sale, which the company said raised its valuation to $2.8 billion. In December 2022, it was ranked first in the annual Fairwork India Ratings, which investigate labor standards in the global platform economy. 

Although Singh said the company withdrew its lawsuit against her and other protesters in 2022, Singh said she was assigned fewer and fewer jobs, ultimately making her position untenable. As she tapped out her resignation letter on her phone, she realized that she didn’t know to whom to address it. She raked through her memory for a name. Finding nothing, she addressed her final email to the company’s help desk.

Meanwhile, India’s home services sector continues to grow. In October 2022, Urban Company registered profits for the first time since it was founded. The following spring, CNBC TV18 reported that the company had leased a new workspace in Bengaluru, measuring around 2,300 square meters, for more than 500 corporate employees. Challengers are also taking note.

Urban Company is still the largest of its kind in Asia — a status that’s unlikely to change soon. To the workers, though, the potential competition is good news, as they feel the company earns more from their labor than they do. One late morning in January, in a dingy Delhi mall, 26-year-old Renu Roy and her husband Amarnath sipped coffee at a pastry shop. The fresh-faced couple stood out in this setting — she wore skinny jeans and a hoodie, and kohl in her eyes; he sported an Elvis puff of hair and chewed gum. They leaned into each other like they were afraid of being pulled apart, a concern that wasn’t entirely without merit. 

The couple had decamped to Delhi after having created something of a scandal in Roy’s village in the eastern state of Bihar when they got together — Amarnath was her brother-in-law’s younger brother. They had married in 2020 despite objections. In Delhi, Amarnath found stable work as a relationship manager at a bank, while Roy, a charismatic maverick, studied cosmetology. 

Roy’s parents belonged to a scheduled caste, a social group that used to be deemed “untouchable.” While her father watched over his land, her strong-willed mother had turned to politics, becoming the democratically elected leader of their village council. Both parents had great hopes for Roy. She had grown up in nature, so botany was a natural fit. But she realized that making people look beautiful came naturally to her, and also brought her joy. “I was threading my friends’ eyebrows even before I learned how to thread,” she told Rest of World.  

A portrait photo of Urban Company employee Renu Roy and her husband, taken indoors in front of a curtain.

It was while Roy was studying for a diploma in cosmetology that she was headhunted by Urban Company. Exasperated by their persistence — they called constantly, she said — but also in need of the money, Roy accepted a job with the platform in August 2022. 

Roy’s education had left her better equipped than some to understand the technology that drove her work. But even she was confused by the jargon that the company’s employee app kept throwing at her. “What is a ‘surge charge’? And what is a ‘safety charge’?” she wondered. The other day, a message on her app had informed her that she’d been given an “incentive” — a credit of 810 rupees ($10). Though Roy was pleased with the money, she couldn’t help but wonder: What is ‘incentive’? 

In September 2022, after earning 51,664 rupees ($630), Roy’s take-home pay was 41,028 rupees ($500). Although the company had deducted more than 10,000 rupees it was still a spectacular sum of money. According to government figures during a three month period in 2019, urban women in India earn an average of 15,031 ($183) a month. Her husband makes around 27,000 rupees ($330). 

But Roy soon realized that her wages were subject to a fluctuation. In October, she earned around 40,000 rupees ($488), in November, 21,659 rupees ($264), and in January 2023 20,796 rupees ($253). “Given the standard of living,” she told Rest of World. “It’s not enough.” She came to the conclusion it wasn’t a reliable long term option. Roy might get an incentive, but she would never get a promotion. The company didn’t even issue contractors with an identity card.

At the heart of Roy’s misgivings was the belated realization that where she was now was where she would remain forever. “The reality is that it is a pyramid,” Urban Company’s Kulashekaran told Rest of World. “For every thousand partners I have, I have one manager. I can’t create more managers; that doesn’t make the business any smarter. Should we try to make more people go up? Yes. Can we do it for all 100%? I think that might be challenging.”

That afternoon at the cafe, Roy repeated the words that had become her mantra: “Do something. Something different. Don’t overthink. Just do it.”

A photo of Renu, Urban Company employee, carrying her equipment in a backpack.

Her husband nodded approvingly. In his pocket he carried a diary where he jotted down ideas for business ventures.

Amarnath was content with his job — he had a steady income. Like his wife, though, he wanted to do more. When he dropped her off at work on his two-wheeler, he got a taste of the new world to which she had suddenly been granted access: Driveways with BMWs. Houses that looked like they were etched from marble. The loved-up young couple may have lived in a tiny apartment near a mall where stray dogs strolled in and out, but their adopted city, as they were coming to realize, brimmed with wealth. “We want the same things,” Amarnath said.

Roy knows she won’t get there working for Urban Company. So she is making plans for her future. Sometimes, clients offer their phone number to her. She isn’t supposed to take it. But this small act of subversion makes her feel like she has some control over her life. One day, she said, she’ll launch her own salon. She’ll call it “The Bellissimo Studio.” Then, she’ll launch her own line of beauty products. 

If there’s one thing she’s learned from working with Urban Company, it’s this: “There’s plenty of money in India. You just need a good idea.”