Society ladies - The New Indian Express

Society ladies

Published: 16th September 2012 12:00 AM

Last Updated: 14th September 2012 08:58 AM

While shooting a corporate film in Delhi, Sonal Kapoor, 27, was perturbed by the sight of a woman trying to send one of her children, an eight-year-old girl, to work in a red light area. “My heart tore at the simple fact that one’s own mother can willingly give her girl child up for money. Simply said, her extreme poverty demanded that she sacrifice one child, in order to pay for food for five others,” Kapoor reminisces. Pregnant with her seventh child, Kapoor asked her if it is a girl child again what will she do? “If it is a girl again this time, I will strangle her the minute she is born,” the woman told her. Shocked at the apathy of the woman towards the girl child, Kapoor decided that she would start a creative arts school for the sexually abused girls in the area. Driven by a desire to do something for the underprivileged, she carried a feasibility study and within three weeks started the creative arts school. Protsahan was thus born as a one-room creative arts centre for educating the girl child in the ghettos.

Having started in 2010, Protsahan has made a difference in the lives of over 800 people. Hailing from Delhi, Kapoor says the aim is to reach at least over 10,000 families by 2025. “If 800 lives could change in the 24 months, we have no reason to not believe that 80,000 won’t someday. We are a non-profit organisation and we count our revenue in terms of number of lives we have impacted and transformed for the better. We call it the Gross Happiness Index,” she says.

Kapoor is one of the many womentrepreneurs who are working in the development sector and bringing about a significant change. A recent study by computer giant Dell Inc in June  2012 ranked India as the best country for entrepreneurial ventures for women. Not only are Indian women business owners more confident but are at ease plunging into uncharted territory. The report states that when asked about expectations for business growth, womentrepreneurs in India anticipated an average of 90 per cent over the next five years. About 71 per cent interviewed say that their business is very successful, and eight in 10 in India say they are hiring. The New Sunday Express Magazine profiles 10 such womentrepreneurs who are working to bring quality education and skill development to every doorstep.

Anjali Prakash, 51, eminent Delhi-based educationist and techno-pedagogist, founded a not-for-profit trust working in the field of formal and non formal education — Learning Links Foundation (LLF) in 2002. It began with training programmes for the professional development of teachers which was followed by community development programmesin 2004.

“I decided to work in this field because I strongly believe that education is the key to opening up infinite possibilities,” says Prakash, chief executive officer, LLF. The foundation has been working across India and Asia, to improve the quality of education, strengthen citizenship amongst youth, harness the power of technology for educational and social improvement and support sustainable social innovation. LLF’s team of 180 members has trained over two lakh professionals from 15 states, 35,000 faculties across 6,200 colleges and over 1.75 million teachers.

“With respect to school enhancement programmes, we have impacted over 10,000 students and 50,000 teachers,” she says. LLF representatives are spread across 15 states and work in partnership with 55 universities across India. The foundation emphasises on training youth in workplace skills.

As Prakash works towards taking formal education to every doorstep, the dream of Sunanda Mane, 52, founder, Lend-A-Hand-India, is an India with superskills. Mane, moved to Pune from her native village in Maharashtra when she was 17, to complete her higher studies and worked her way through college. During this time, she assisted in redesigning the business management course at the University of Pune — where she was also studying — to adapt it to the changed environment and also to formulate a course for the then recently privatised insurance sector. This gave Mane insights into the significant disconnect between educational curriculum and the bureaucratic fossilisation  in educational institutions.

She then proceeded to work with several non-profit support service organisations around Pune — a nascent space in India back then. “I founded Lend-A-Hand-India (LAHI) which works with government-aided high schools in the remote villages in three Indian states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa and offers a three-year multi-skill job and life skills programme,” she says.

But in all professions, decision making skills are primary to all others. Studying for her masters at the University of Southern California, Pune-based Suruchi Wagh, 26, would often discuss with Mohit Gundecha, 27, co-founder of YourNextLeap.com and her future life partner, about how friends and colleagues made critical decisions about careers. Wagh figured out that most career decisions were either based on herd mentality or were influenced by peer pressure.

“There is huge under-utilisation of resources and loss of productivity because professionals don’t find or choose the right jobs. The result is ‘career casualty’,” Wagh says. And YourNextLeap.com — an online platform for high school and college students wanting to know about study options and fresh graduates looking for jobs — was born. “We want to impact the way millions of graduates and young professionals make career choices,” Wagh feels.

For someone looking for a job or trying to find out the profession best suited for a person, the way YourNextLeap.com works is simple. After asking a series of career related questions around job preferences, skills, interests and career ambitions, the website builds a career profile of the person scouting for a job. Yournextleap.com’s advanced recommendation engine then provides the most relevant jobs matching the profile of the person.

As the popularity and reach of the virtual career counselling website YourNextLeap.com expanded, so did the interest of investors. In August last year, YourNextLeap landed its first round of funding from Nirvana Venture Advisors, a venture capital fund backed by the Patni family and focused on the digital and electronic markets segments.

Though entrepreneurship is equally hard for women and men, Wagh believes women entrepreneurship in India is still evolving and is in its nascent stage. “Apart from the common challenges most entrepreneurs face, women at times can be affected of a pro-male bias,” she says.

According to the Dell Women’s Global Entrepreneurship study, technology supports the basic operational needs of every nine in 10 womentrepreneurs in India. Twenty six per cent of those interviewed handle technology by themselves and 74 per cent say their needs are more complex now and expect higher performance levels from technology.

Basing their business around technology are Delhi-based entrepreneurs Anita Vasudevan, 52, and Sairee Chahal, 36, who started Fleximoms in 2009. The idea was to connect women looking to enter or re-enter the workplace with job opportunities, information and mentoring.

Chahal says, “Women who want a job and are ready to work on demand need work-flex opportunities. It is especially true for those who return to work after having stayed away for a while. They would’ve missed out on several developments and need to be coached to be at par with professionals. We provide that training.” The blueprint for the company started between 2008 and 2009. “We drew from our own experiences and speaking with other women. The venture was inspired by answers to basic questions on skill requirement in the market and the ability to fill the gap between demand and supply of trained professionals,” says Chahal.

Soon Fleximoms established a network of women across the country. Chahal adds, “Historically it has been seen that if a few women start a venture it is projected as ‘naari shakti.’ (women power). We are not going to be an NGO. Even though, at heart we are a social enterprise, we are trying to make a social shift in the lives of women who want to go back to work after having taken care of personal responsibilities. But we curate it as a business case.” She also adds that a changing mindset about work-flex was another challenge. “There is no way of getting rich quickly. There are many poorly paid people, and there is no dignity about it. We managed to change their cynicism and we’re glad, that flexibility at the work place is the talk of the town.” Fleximoms is currently operational in six cities including Delhi, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Pune, Lucknow and Mumbai. It organises several events and workshops to help women plan businesses, get angel investors or simply train for a new job.

It’s not just the urban technospace that interests the social womentrepreneur. Mumbai-based Vijaya Pastala, 45, founder, Under The Mango Tree (UTMT), quit her job with an NGO to do something on her own. It’s not just the money, honey: reading a National Commission of Farmers report about the importance of honey bees in agriculture gave her the push she needed and she founded UTMT in 2008.

UTMT is a hybrid model that promotes beekeeping as a tool to increase agricultural productivity and provide farmers an additional livelihood. “Given that bees play a crucial role as pollinators in increasing productivity, a powerful idea began to take shape: what if farmers were trained to add bee boxes on farms to facilitate cross-pollination and provided markets to sell the honey collected?,” says Pastala.

Today, UTMT’s foundation trains farmers in beekeeping, provides them with bee boxes, and a for-profit entity that buys back the honey and sells it as a high-end product in urban markets. UTMT has grown from just a honey sourcing unit to one providing beekeeping training, capacity-building and ensuring market access to nearly 3,000 farmers across six states over the country impacting more than 15,000 rural lives including farmer’ families. “We have trained 1,432 farmers in beekeeping including women, thereby increasing their income by `10,000 to `12,000 annually. We also provide 1,500 small beekeepers direct market access for their sustainably harvested honey and increasing their annual income by 25 per cent,” she says.

Her organisation has so far brought eight metric tonnes of honey and five metric tonnes of beeswax to the market. “By 2015, we plan to train over 10,000 marginal farmers creating self sufficient beekeeping clusters in various states across India. We are also launching in Delhi and Bangalore in the honey products market soon. In Mumbai it will retail in shops and in Bangalore we will retail to an e-commerce site, likewise in Delhi. This will start between September and October this year,” she says.

Social sector womentrepreneurs have a strong compulsion to work in the rural sector and rural retail. The work done by Bangalore-based Jayanti Varma, 47, founder and promoter, Retail Interface, was converted as a case study by the Kellogg School of Business-University of Wharton. She attributes her success to the philosophy that, “Learning is an ageless process”. The first-time entrepreneur, along with business partner Arun D’Silva, started the company which linked existing mom-and-pop shops and kirana stores in below poverty line markets, by using delivery vans to supply them excellent quality daily use products. The initiative was called Kalpavruksha.

This soon expanded to a network of over 800 stores and by the end of 2010, Kalpavruksha touched close to 10,000 stores and 60 lakh lives. While this was impressive, for Arun D’Silva and Jayanti, true value addition was that Kalpavruksha predominantly worked with women. “Most of the stores are managed by women, and being a part of the Kalpavruksha supply chain allows them to manage their work and families,” says Varma.

Kalpavruksha’s social objective is to improve local employment potential of women, offer skill-based training and nutrition. “Our market is below poverty line petty shops with sales revenue of approximately `3,000 to `6,000 a week. Women for whom going to the mandi to shop means locking up the shop, leaving small children in the neighbours’ care, losing the day’s sales, and incurring added expense on transportation. Further, they lack access to a complete range of products at a single point and no guarantee of quality. Most importantly they do not have options. They are forced to buy what reaches them, which are only multi-national products,” she says.

From retail to rural development, Indian womentrepreneurs are going all out to bring out the best of India, including its heritage. Mumbai-based Momi Mazumder Mukherjee, 40, the founder of Devi, is one such entrepreneur for whom empowering the faceless workers that keep India’s ethnic heritage alive is a mutually sustaining business model. Born to parents with corporate careers, Mukherjee began hers in Kolkata in the hospitality industry. Post her marriage, she moved cities a few times before landing in Delhi where after working for a year with a luxury hotel, she became a retail banker. However, the global economic meltdown post the collapse of investment banking giant Lehman Brothers in September 2008 changed her course of life forever. A deadly cocktail of falling markets, scarcity of jobs, loss of business and lack of integrity showed the worst in people around Mukherjee. “These people were the best in the industry and from the best B-schools,” she says.

That was when Mukherjee decided that by the time she hit 40, she wanted to do something on her own instead of holding down a corporate job.

“To do something meaningful. To do something with Indian textiles. To do something that would allow me to meet real people, travel and use my camera. To be my own boss, and not having to toe the line no matter how stupid it is,” is how she explains it. Devi was born on June 11, 2012. The mission — “To be able to be part of employment generating system in the rural areas, as handicrafts is the second highest revenue generator after agriculture. This in turn will reduce the number of people migrating from villages to cities and live a deplorable life.”

Devi is still in its infancy, a startup that caters to a niche segment that likes wearing handwoven sarees. Inspired by the Fabindia model that links craft-based rural producers to modern urban markets, Mukherjee wants to increase the repertoire of products to bed and bath linen. Devi’s next step is to involve more stand-alone artisans and weaver cooperatives across various states. While she has been able to rope in artisans from West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu as of now, Mukherjee is also in talks with Punjab and Bihar Development Trust and some weavers of Madhya Pradesh. “As a woman entrepreneur, there might be challenges ahead, but I am willing to catch the bull by its horns,” she says.

As the numbers of women entrepreneurs in the country escalate, it brings the hope of a truly shining India where equality and innovation take centre stage and remove all gender biases.

The Dell Inc report states that around 85 per cent women want their businesses to make a positive social impact. This has led to many being pioneers in their respective fields while contributing greatly to various communities. One such pioneer is Padmini Somani, 37, founder and director, Salaam Bombay Foundation. When she was just 18, her father was diagnosed with oral cancer caused by tobacco. This prompted her to tirelessly study the extent of tobacco prevalence in the country. Somani is from a traditional Marwari family with a bachelor’s degree in Arts from Mumbai’s Sophia College, a postgraduate diploma in Economics from the London School of Economics and a Masters in Science in Financial Economics from the University of London. With her pedigree she could have taken up any lucrative corporate job or a position in the family concern. But she chose not to. The easy availability of tobacco and the absence of social disapproval among the poor has made tobacco use a dangerous epidemic among children in the lower socio economic strata. Every day, more than 55,000 children in India below 15 start on tobacco. Five million Indian children are said to be addicted to it. One third are likely to die a painful death due to this addiction.

Somani found the statistics so alarming that taking up cudgels on behalf of the anti-tobacco issue became the motto of her life. She gave up a high flying corporate career to join Prince Aly Khan Hospital in Mumbai’s Mazgaon area where she was responsible for developing a special programme for educating children against the use of tobacco. Along with Dr Sultan Pradhan of Prince Aly Khan Hospital, Somani launched a successful awareness programme in the form of 30-minute plays with Hindi movie songs in city schools. “Principals were complaining of children littering the schools with gutkha packets, which is an indication of the seriousness of the problem,” she recalls.

What followed was a bigger endeavour. In 2001, she established Salaam Bombay Foundation — an organisation that empowers children to live their life free from the threat of tobacco and to become confident adults. Today, Salaam Bombay Foundation is active in 87 municipal and 34 government-aided schools in Mumbai. Its outreach programmes have reached 27 districts of rural Maharashtra.

The number of womentrepreneurs of India, driven by the singular passion to change the lives of millions of Indians less fortunate than them who lack the necessary training or knowledge, is increasing. It’s good news for India.

The Pioneer

Sometime in the 1970s, after working at the Toshi Yoshida studio, a young women named Laila Tyabji decided to stop being an “artist” and became a “craftswoman”. The result was Dastakar, founded along with five other women in 1981 as a link between the rural craftsperson and the urban consumer.

“Dastkar means craftsperson—literally someone who works with their hands. We try to fulfill their needs. If those needs change, we change too accordingly,” Tyabji says.

Dastkar attempts to develop craft communities as a whole. Each year it selects about 8-10 groups and concentrates on every aspect of their working. Once these groups have picked up some or most of the required skills, Dastkar slowly phases itself out

from intensive input. “We work with over 35,000 craftspeople all over India in about 21 states. We are connected with about 250 groups working in every skill and material from terracotta to metal, folk art to basketry,” Tyabji says.

The number of craftspeople at Dastkar increases every year, as does their confidence, earnings and standards of living. In as much as it is a source of huge satisfaction for Tyabji, it is also disappointing as more and more craftspeople are leaving the sector in search of alternative employment.

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