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This Women’s History Month, Let’s Celebrate These Four Women Entrepreneurs

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Women’s History Month is celebrated every year in March. It embodies the outstanding accomplishments of women in our society. This year is no different and marks the 34th anniversary of the celebration. To commemorate this year’s Women’s History Month, I talked to women leaders from India. They explain the difficulties they have faced, and the opportunities and risks they took to overcome them and become successful entrepreneurs.

Shaili Chopra

Credits: TOI

Among Shaili Chopra’s greatest strengths is her ability to empower women by telling their stories of perseverance to the world. Though she never imagined she would be an entrepreneur, today, Chopra leads her organisation, SheThePeople.TV, India’s largest digital news platform that caters to women.

Her journey started when she was 10 years old. As a young girl, she did not see any female journalists in India. There was a wide gap that existed in the industry and she saw the opportunity to fill it. After working for prominent news platforms for 18 years, Chopra said she wanted to focus on giving women a stronger voice in the media.

Her journey began as a young journalist in organisations such as ET Now and NDTV Profit, India’s prominent news platforms. By 2012, she won the Ram Nath Goenka Award for Excellence in Business Journalism. It was uncommon for women to win that award since business to date is a male-centric industry.

In 2015, she started SheThePeople.TV (STP). “I wanted to work for women who were under-represented by the media,” Chopra said. “The idea of STP was to tell stories from a female’s perspective, and normalise the needs and voices of women,” she added.

She went on to say that being from a working family, she never thought about starting something her own. “I never thought I would have my own organisations. I was sold on the idea of working for somebody else. I was also raised like that,” she said. She added that people with non-entrepreneurial parents do not know how to take risks like starting their own business. “You’re shaped and molded to be a person who is very happy getting her salary check at the end of the year,” Chopra said. She said that it was a considerable risk for her, starting from ground zero. And along came many challenges as well. But, by then, it was not uncommon for her to face these obstacles.

In addition to the normal risks that come with becoming an entrepreneur, she faced additional challenges as a woman. “If you’re a woman, the challenges grow in number, and they get severe,” Chopra said. “They also get highly complicated.” She said that there were several questions by both men and women since day one, asking her why one needed a women’s channel. Thankfully, she said that a lot of people have changed since then. “I think the inability of men and women to see that they are part of the stereotype we live with is mind-boggling,” Chopra said.

She faced many hurdles even as she was started out as a journalist. She said, “I primarily worked with channels. I grew up in an era where it was widespread for women to not go out there and get pregnant because they had a career to keep or the channel needed them.” She said that her male colleagues would scuttle her ambition, “I had male colleagues who would try to scuttle my ambition by saying that the editorial head office’s cabin is only meant for men. I was extremely manipulated by them.”

She also said that journalism is relatively egalitarian at the bottom in a male-dominated leadership space, but it gets gender unequal at the top. She is not wrong. The UN Women’s report titled, ‘Gender Inequality in Indian Media,’ presents that TV channels employed 20.9 percent and magazines employed 13.6% women in leadership positions.

But she persevered. “I was not bothered by the power of bureaucracy.”

For her, success has been highly subjective. She says that success for her was not money but the extent of her platform’s reach got and the number of stories highlighting women’s voices. “It is a platform that has reached without promoting vanities, such as make-up or fashion,” Chopra said. “People come to STP not for fashion, but if they want to have a conversation,” she said.

Having working in the journalism industry for so long, she said that journalists need not be the same as everyone and can try something different. “You need to figure out the audience you want to impact, and then go for it,” she suggested.  While her advice for young women entrepreneurs is no different, she says that one needs thick skin and a cause in mind, and the rest comes naturally. But one will learn it the hard way.

Sucharita Eashwar

Credits: Deutschland.de

Sucharita Eashwar changed her career multiple times. From working in a profit-oriented world, she transformed into the world of non-profits, and since then, she has only gone up the ladder. She started her own business, Catalyst for Women Entrepreneurs (CWE) in 2015.

The CWE fosters women’s new businesses. It is a platform that offers women entrepreneurs access to various business skills, finance, technology, mentorship and information about government schemes. In 2018, CWE, along with the Government of Karnataka, set up the first incubator and co-working space for women entrepreneurs in Bengaluru.

“As a woman, your personal and professional lives intersect,” Eashwar said. She said that when she had her first child when she started in the advertising industry. Eventually, she found out she had no time for her daughter.

She wondered why she had a baby if she couldn’t spend time with her, and that is when a thought arrived to find alternatives or else she’d have to miss seeing her baby growing up.

The alternative came knocking at her door, “I got an offer I could not refuse. It was to set up a social research organisation. And the offer came with an apartment that would have an office.”

She said it was an ideal situation where she could be with her baby and work, which would be rewarding to both a mother and a career-oriented woman. She then had her second daughter. “By that time, I had two daughters, and I was a single mother. I realised I had to look at something that would give me more income,” she said.

She added that as a single mother, she faced an umpteen number of challenges. She had to be both a father and a mother to her child, “I had both the responsibility of taking care of the children as well as financially supporting them.”

So, she got an opportunity because by that time, India was liberalising its economy and the idea to set up her own non-profit came into play. “A lot was happening in the field of technology and the communication sector, and I did not want to lose out,” she said.

Along the way, she faced many challenges. They CWE started with four founders. They all had come in very enthusiastically. “But at one point, they dropped out. They never thought it’s going to be a long time before they got profits,” said Eashwar. She was the only founder left who had the dream and mission to empower other women entrepreneurs like her. Today, she has thousands of women on her platform.

She said that she has women from all backgrounds and ages whom she helps to grow. One of her success stories is a woman whose husband, the sole family earning member, lost his job due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This led her to start her own business selling her grandma’s home-cooked recipes and the food she made for her baby. Eashwar said the woman has now been able to sustain her own family by doing so.

Eashwar’s dream to nurture other women had also come when she was able to help set up a biotech firm for Shridesi Raju. Her firm has been able to sell a range of food and medicines in Europe, Asia and the US.

Jyotsna Pattabiraman

Credits: YourStory

Raised in a conservative South Indian family, Jyotsna Pattabiraman entered Silicon Valley after being a Stanford University graduate. Once this part of her life ended, she brought a lot of tit his back to India and started her organisation called GrowFit. GrowFit works to promote the health and wellness of individuals. It is a healthcare app that uses artificial intelligence to guide you towards your fitness goals. Founded in 2015, the best aspect of this application is that it has two separate physical and mental health platforms.

She recalls that there were many instances of microaggressions where she felt discriminated against. “One does not get the same salary for the same work you do as your male colleague,” she said.

She adds that in terms of developing a relationship with your boss, small ways to build companionships like going to the washroom together or going late at night to bars and clubs do not happen as a woman. “There is an inbuilt culture of going out for drinks afterward in the Silicon Valley.” She further retells her story, saying that it’s a boys club with lots of yelling and profanity that forms the work culture. “It was very unusual for me. Coming from a South Asian family, hearing the F-bomb a lot was something no woman should face,” she said.

Moreover, she said that the access to mentorship as a woman does not exist. These are just some examples. She said that California is not a very parent-friendly place. “Once, the companies’ management got all the women together to talk about raising families and everyone was a version of Sheryl Sandberg. They leaned into not acknowledging the difficulties. One of them said I had trained my children to sleep at a particular time.”

She came back to India with an idea to open her own company. “Coming back from Silicon Valley, I saw a lot of disparity in the logistics and infrastructure of medical services here. This motivated me to start my own company,” she said. She says she started this after seeing the health problems her own family was facing, more so, because there was a casual culture of popping medicines on your own without seeking consultation from the doctor: “Indian people promote a stigma of mental health that we wanted to reduce.”

She says that her advice to young women entrepreneurs is just one — start somewhere, be it starting your blog or your application. “Women often feel restricted and never start. Incubators can help women establish their businesses and it’s worth it. Looking back 10-15 years down the line, a woman entrepreneur will realise the legacy she has left behind with her work.”

Radhika Khandelwal

Credits: Verve Magazine

From being a hairdresser in Australia to starting her own restaurants, Radhika Khandelwal has done it all. Her two restaurants in New Delhi are named Ivy Bean and Fig & Maple in New Delhi.

Her journey started as a hairdresser and student. “Being in Australia as a student and hairdresser meant being able to experience an array of flavours from across the globe.”

Her true calling was to become a chef. She got the right opportunity in Delhi, but it was a journey full of hurdles, more so as a female chef in a male-dominated industry.

She said that the kitchen is not kinder to any gender, be it male or female. “I do not like being referred to as a female chef. We’re indeed in a male-dominated society, so you constantly feel the need to do more and more to prove yourself.”

But she took up the challenge.

She said she faced many rebukes from her male colleagues at first. “You find yourself amidst colleagues who would set aside so-called ‘dainty’ tasks for you because they’d assume, ‘Hey you’re a girl and you most likely cannot make 10kgs of mashed potatoes by yourself’ or ‘You can’t clean the kitchen exhaust’ because they don’t think you’re going to scrub hard enough.”

She recalls this and says it was very annoying at that time, but today she could laugh at these absurdities. She went on to highlight her unique concept called Zero Waste, an attempt to decrease food wastage. “A major problem in our food system is that a large chunk of the food produced goes to waste. As I developed an understanding of the issue, I realised that this could be addressed by creating awareness. Zero Waste is a humble attempt to thwart traditional notions of food waste and encourage people to consume all edible parts of produce.”

She added that locally sourced ingredients procured directly from farmers are an integral part of her cooking, “These ingredients are not only much more robust in terms of flavours, but they also enable me to put forth a biodiverse menu.” She said that the inspiration to use locally sourced ingredients came from closely observing Indian culinary traditions. “The sheer abundance that regional recipes celebrate has a lot that one can learn from,” she said.

All this hard work takes well-earned rest and she enjoys cooking for herself. She says that her favourite go-to meal after a day’s work is a quick stir-fry with chicken, bok choy and mushrooms, “It’s quite a no-fuss meal.”

Her dream is to work at the ground level in creating a community of chefs, farmers and policymakers to develop a healthy food system. Laughingly, she said, “I probably see myself washing down some paella with a good wine somewhere by the beach in Spain.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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