Married at 16, Sarla Ahuja did not like spending her days managing household chores from cooking to cleaning home. She wanted to supplement her family’s income.

Utilising the stitching work taught by her mother, she started working as a sewing machine operator in the neighbourhood. In 1974, she established Shahi Exports with Rs 5,000.

Sarla, now 87, says, “I was quite young when I started the business. I saw how other women are earning with this work, and I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’.”

Today, the venture is among India’s largest apparel manufacturers that sells denim, twill bottoms, soft wovens, knitwear, and more.

Her company works with large retailers across the world — from Nike to Walmart, H&M and Zara — in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Over the years, Sarla has set up 51 factories across eight Indian states including Haryana and Karnataka. The company clocks an annual revenue of Rs 8,000 crore.

Initially, she would encourage women in the neighbourhood to work and earn a livelihood. This would not only help them meet household expenses but also earn them dignity.

Back then, a majority of men were not pleased to send their wives or daughters to work. She felt that empowering women was important because there was joy in fending for themselves through financial independence.

In 2007, she started a programme — Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (PACE) — to teach soft skills such as effective communication, time management, problem-solving, and decision-making.

Started with 10 women workers, today her company employs more than one lakh workers, of which 70 percent workforce comprises women.

Although Sarla retired from work a few years back due to ill health, she keeps herself updated with the company’s growth and ensures payments are released on time.

Her advice to emerging women entrepreneurs: “Be good to your workers. Help them fix their issues whenever they are in need.”