Meet Pooja Shahi, an entrepreneur from a Tier III district called Deoria, in rural Uttar Pradesh. Enterprising since childhood, her elder sister taught her rudimentary macrame knots.
“I didn’t even know what it was called. I called it “mikrum”. And when I went to shopkeepers in my village, asking for ‘mikrum’ threads, nobody had it. I was never so good at studies, so I’d just take up threads and play around with them, experimenting. I couldn’t even afford proper threads in the beginning, I’d use ‘sutli’ threads used to make rucksacks.”
She started making small key rings, and other knick-knacks and would sell them in autos, and nearby schools and colleges. The small community she lived in rebelled at her resourcefulness.
“My brother would curse my father. ‘Beti ke haath ka paisa khaate ho, mar hi jaao isse toh achha (You’re using your daughter’s earnings, might as well kill yourself).’ I’d stay up all night, designing earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and people would say that I was up all night talking on the phone. My own family members would hover outside the door, to make sure I was really working. When other women started coming to me for training, other members in the village complained I was corrupting their daughters and ruining their lives. My brother would beat me up, my own family refused to speak with me for days.”
The turning point in her life came when some of her designs were spotted hanging in the Jagriti Stitching Centre, by Shashi Tripathi. She offered Pooja work in the centre, but because of personal reasons, she couldn’t take it up.
Fortunately for us, fate has a way of making things happen.
“I found myself at the stitching centre a few months later, as I was looking for a friend. There I found Ashutosh sir, who is the Executive Director of Jagriti Yatra. He immediately asked me to take him to my home and show him my work. When the villagers saw a four-wheeler, they wouldn’t stop talking about it. They complained I was associating with bad company, ‘bade log’ that had no business in our small village.”
Meeting Ashutosh was perhaps the turning point for Pooja. As ED, he, along with the other Jagriti Team, put the entire force of Jagriti and things started happening.
It started with the Jagriti Conclave in August 2014, where Pooja addressed an audience of 150+ people, including the core team of JY members, ex-yatris, local entrepreneurs, and even a few high-level executives.
It was only the beginning of pushing Pooja’s comfort zone. She was invited to be a part of Jagriti Yatra, a unique 15-day train journey that takes 480+ handpicked entrepreneurs from over 15 countries, across 8000 km to interact with 10 role models that are building India.
“I was so sure my family would never permit it, that I tried not to even think about it. My grandfather flat out refused, but that night, as I served dinner, my father asked me, “So when are you going on the yatra?” I was so happy it was hard not to feed him all the rotis.”
“The first day of the yatra…I couldn’t believe how quickly people could speak English. I almost turned around and headed home, but then in the evening, Shashank sir spoke about me on the stage in front of everyone…everyone immediately knew me. It gave me the courage to go on.”
The Yatra was a crucial stepping stone for her. In the Yatra, the women went totally head-over-heels for her designs. It came as much needed validation for her work. However, the push came when she attended a party a few month’s later at Shashank Mani’s house, and one of the guests took one look at her jewellery and told her she wanted to work with her and help her with market access.
And thus Deoria Design was born.
Currently, Pooja has trained almost 40 women, and they sell beautiful macrame necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.
She’s looking to go online soon (she already has a Facebook page) and is looking to build partnerships that would allow her army with consistent work. She is constantly training new women, and aims to eventually make Deoria Design a banner under which every woman’s skill will flourish.
“It’s not just about thread. There are women who are magicians with knitting sticks. I want to empower at least two women from every household and change their lives, the way Jagriti changed my life.”