Having worked with women entrepreneurs over the last couple of years, I have witnessed their stories of struggle. Start-ups, in general, come with their own set of obstacles and issues. As entrepreneurs, women have even bigger mountains to climb. Resisting gender biases and preconceived notions regarding ambition, it is not easy for them to step into the world of business. Lack of family support, inadequate structures around accessing finance, limited access to education, technology, and insufficient collateral rights, are just some of the challenges.
The same sentiment is reflected in statistics.
The MasterCard 2018 Index of Women Entrepreneurs ranks India 52nd of 57 countries surveyed. At the same time, the World Bank report (2018) ranks India 120th among 131 countries in terms of female labour-force participation. This is despite gender equality and economic empowerment of women being at the core of the 2030 Agenda.
Only around 14 per cent of the businesses in India are run by women, with around 79 per cent of them being self-financed due to the lack of access to financial assistance.
Investing in women is good for everyone. Because when you invest in a woman, she invests back in her family, her children, and the society. Women entrepreneurs have the power to bring about positive outcomes for everyone (especially women) and in the creation of employment.
According to the sixth economic census, an estimated 13.5-15.7 million women-owned and -controlled enterprises are creating direct employment for 22-27 million people in India
It is ever so inspiring that despite all the odds, women entrepreneurs have some of the most powerful and compelling stories. Not only do their enterprises showcase tremendous growth potential but are also excellent examples of innovative social welfare solutions.
In this article, we bring you stories of two such inspiring women-led enterprises making a difference!
1. Madhurita–Revolutionising Menstrual Waste Disposal
Dr Madhurita Gupta is the creator of Solarlajja, a solar-powered Soiled Sanitary Napkin and Diaper Incinerator.
In 2017, Madhurita was working on a project to address the growing human-wildlife conflict in Rajasthan. She was disturbed to see that most of the victims were women.
“My team and I undertook a pattern analysis which showed that the victims were women in over 90 per cent of the cases, A majority of these incidents occurred when the women went to the jungle to dispose of their soiled sanitary napkins/cotton pads, and the smell of human blood attracted the animals, making them easy prey,” she recalls.
To address the issue, especially in remote areas deprived of easy access to electricity, the team developed ‘SolarLajja’. It is a solar-backed sustainable solution for the safe disposal of soiled sanitary napkins, which consumes about 25 times less energy as compared to conventional electrical incinerators.
Solar Lajja was developed with two design options:
i) Standalone as a Community Facility Unit, for use in slum areas, government schools and colleges, and
ii) Modular as Individual Unit, for the requirements of basic sanitation and hygiene in homes.
The design is compact and the product is modern, and most importantly, affordable. Each unit of the community facility unit is priced around Rs 57, 000 with a payback capacity within seven months (owing to its energy saving attribute).
So far, 54 Solarlajja units have been installed across Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh.
While Madhurita is now a seasoned entrepreneur, winning many prestigious accolades for her product, it wasn’t as easy when she started.
“As a woman entrepreneur, I have faced many barriers which men normally do not face. As a mother of a six-year-old, it was quite challenging for me to strike a balance, and my entrepreneurial decision was often frowned upon. Further, it was a task to make my mark, especially in the technology space which is largely dominated by men,” she says.
Madhurita is a passionate changemaker and is directly helping menstruating women and young girls with safe, dignified, environmentally-friendly sanitation facilities. In the process, she has also been creating awareness and employment for rural women who work with her in her project.
Given that Solarlajja is solar-powered, it also helps in electricity and fuel conservation, with each unit critically saving up to 48,000 Watts of electricity, thereby reducing carbon footprints.
She has also represented India in INSPRENEUER 3.0 at Singapore and was recognised as among 100 Top Social Innovations by Maharashtra State Innovation Society 2019.
As she continues to create impact, she hopes for a more conducive environment for women entrepreneurs with better access to critical resources like mentors and finance to help them reach their full potential.
2. Shailaja–Creating Value from Waste
Growing up in the 90s, Shailaja Rangarajan took the well-traversed path of an engineering degree, followed by an MBA that led her to the corporate industry.
“While I had a comfortable corporate life, I realised it wasn’t my calling. I wanted to engage in something meaningful that would create a positive difference in people’s lives,” she recalls.
That is how ‘Rimagined’ was born.
Rimagined was launched as an online store for upcycled products in April 2016. It works with fabric and denim waste, woollen and cotton yarn waste, wood scrap, and glass, transforming these into unique and usable upcycled products like bags, belts, apparels, bedsheets, and home décor items. They now have a retail outlet in Bengaluru.
“From a team of six, we are a team of 34 members, 65 per cent of whom are women. Our production units are located across the country which has helped us create more employment opportunities for the urban poor and rural populations,” says Shailaja.
The first production unit was set up in Kolkata, which employed the mothers of special kids. These women were mainly working as household helps and struggling to make ends meet. With training and hand holding, Rimagined provided them with a dignified working opportunity.
Starting with a group of five, the team in Kolkata has grown to 15 members. These women now contribute to their families, send their children to school, and avail home loans, with the vision for a better life.
Similarly, in Odisha, the 15-member team comprises traditional weavers and artisans in dire need of work. By generating employment, Shailaja also hopes to reduce migration in the area by leveraging the skills already available.
Like most entrepreneurs, she had an interesting journey.
As a first-generation entrepreneur in a family of academicians, her struggles were like those of any budding entrepreneurs.
“Given that we do not have an established industry for upcycling, with no benchmarks to follow, the learning curve has been pretty steep, and the only way to learn has been on the job. But I see Rimagined poised to become a benchmark organisation in the upcycling space; the key requirements in our endeavor are going to be network support and access to easy funding to scale,” she shares.
Recognising the immense potential of women entrepreneurs, we, at the United Nations (UN), have been addressing the most pertinent needs of women entrepreneurs and identifying solutions.
One such initiative is the United Nations-NITI Aayog Investor Consortium for Women Entrepreneurs. The UN (led by UNDP and UN-Women) and the Women Entrepreneurial Platform of NITI Aayog (WEP) have partnered to establish the investor’s consortium–a platform which advocates a reduction in gender disparities in start-up investments.
To date, more than 50 women entrepreneurs have showcased their work and pitched their ideas for funding and mentorship to several leading investors in the ecosystem. Going ahead, we plan to reach out to more women entrepreneurs to help them with a critical support system in terms of access to finance and mentorship, and the capacity to build and market
We believe positive affirmations around the work of women like Shailaja and Madhurita can help us keep the community of women entrepreneurs growing!
(Written by Sayantani Mukherjee and Edited by Shruti Singhal)
Sayantani Mukherjee is Women’s Entrepreneurship & Financial Inclusion Associate at UNDP India. A development professional, Sayantani is passionate about capturing and narrating compelling stories of social change.