Women Entrepreneurs: Doing Good, Good Business

Posted: April 13, 2010

Meet these gutsy women entrepreneurs in India who lead the way on social entrepreneurship, even as they build profitable businesses.

By Aparna Vedapuri Singh

Remember those dreary classes in school where you had to create ‘wealth from waste’? Bangalore-based Poonam Bir Kasturi’s Daily Dump works on the same principle, except it is a lot more useful! Daily Dump provides modular composting units to convert household and other waste to high quality compost; they also help you manage composting easily. So if you find the waste crawling with maggots or don’t know your greens from your browns, they’ll come to your aid.

Social Entrepreneurship In India: Doing Good Is Good Business

A recent entrant into the ‘eco-friendly business’ market is Bamboo House India, aimed at promoting environmentally friendly bamboo furniture, with an ambitious long-term goal of using bamboo for low-cost rural housing. Aruna Kappagantula, Co-Founder of Bamboo House India says, “We established our enterprise with a three point clear mandate – to provide market linkages to bamboo based products, provide better employment and livelihood opportunities to rural and tribal artisans in the bamboo sector…and do our bit in providing low cost housing solutions to the rural population.” Started in 2008, they have set up a bamboo furniture showroom in Hyderabad to test market the concept. Talking about their motivation in venturing into this relatively uncharted area, Aruna claims that conventional 9 to 5 jobs “offer no risk and kick.”

Conventional 9 to 5 jobs offer no risk and kick.

Indeed, Alison Adnitt, Director of Investor Relations, Dasra, an organization that works closely with social entrepreneurs, investors and NGOs sees increasing interest in such start-ups. She says, “There is an understanding that social and financial return can be combined and that sharing wealth creation is important in a country where over two-thirds of the population are living in poverty. Where I see a change and an upswing is in the ambition of social entrepreneurs to now scale their enterprises and transcend local application. With this ambition however comes a real need for skills development.” Such is the demand for skill development that Dasra runs Social Impact, a subsidized training program catering to social entrepreneurs and NGOs. Adnitt lists heritage arts and crafts, rural women and agri-communities’ empowerment, curriculum development, rain water harvesting and eco-tourism as some of the areas that there is tremendous interest in.

Women and social entrepreneurship in India

Among the women-owned social ventures that have gone through their program or form part of their portfolio include Culture Aangan, an eco-tourism venture, Sahaj India and Industree that work with bringing traditional arts and crafts to mainstream markets and Mann Deshi Mahila, an institution that includes a bank, self-help groups as well as a business school for rural women.

Of course, the big daddy (or big mommy!) in terms of age and size is Industree, which works with rural artisans and natural materials such as bamboo and sisal to create cool-looking handicrafts, home furnishings and furniture. Set up by Gita Ram and Neelam Chibber ten years ago, Industree products today retail at many large lifestyle stores and the company has received funding from the Future Group. Industree uses a hybrid model where Industree Crafts Private Ltd., the ‘for-profit’ wing focuses on design, distribution and retail, while Industree Crafts Foundation, the non-profit wing, helps artisans build their skills and become successful business owners.

Another such venture is Earthy Goods, started in 2006 by Reshma Anand, an IIM-Bangalore and Hindustan Unilever alumnus. Earthy Goods’ corporate brochure explains the rationale behind the venture as follows, “…Earthy Goods was inspired by a road trip we took to villages in remote rural outposts of India in 2007. As we traveled around the country, we met many small farm enterprises and artisans who made quality products but faced enormous challenges to market their produce …We set up Earthy Goods so that we could bring a wide range of high quality ethically sourced products made in farms and villages around the country to urban consumers.” As with Industree, they adopt a hybrid business model.

Equal participation of women in producing technology and decision making around technology is important to make sure that widely used technology does not work adversely for women.

Technology enabling women entrepreneurs

Indeed, the hybrid business model is not restricted to ventures in ecology or rural empowerment. In August 2007, Gayatri Buragohain started Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT), a non-profit society to facilitate easy and accessible technology education for women, especially for underprivileged women. She says, “Technology is a great determinant of a society’s materialistic development and in turn influences the standard of life… Every women needs to feel comfortable using the most common technologies/technical equipments around her and also have access to the same. On the other hand, equal participation of women in producing technology and decision making around technology is important to make sure that widely used technology does not work adversely for women.” FAT uses technology in the broader sense to include things like handling electrical equipment and not just computers or ICT.

Part of FAT’s work is to help women’s organizations use technology effectively, due to which the team realized the potential of such work to create sustainable funding. That’s how Joint Leap Technologies (JLT), a for-profit web development and online solutions firm came about, with a special focus on such services for non-profits.

Rural empowerment, poverty alleviation, preserving heritage crafts and skills, educating the underprivileged – indeed, there is no shortage of causes in India, and as these women entrepreneurs are demonstrating, no shortage of business skills and resources that can be applied to benefit society and shareholders.

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