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Conquering Frontier Markets

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Ajaita Shah, 

Founder and CEO, Frontier Markets, Frontier Markets
age: 37
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When Ajaita Shah, founder, Frontier Markets, told her parents that she had decided to forego a seat in a top law school in U.S. to intern with a microfinance bank in rural India, they were shocked. Shah, raised in U.S., used to visit India mostly for family get-togethers. “I told them I was taking a gap year and would be back in a year.” Shah, 22 then, didn’t expect the trip to last
that long.
By the time Shah completed her year-long internship with Ujjivan Small Finance Bank, she was convinced that empowering rural women would be her calling. She also worked with Bandhan and S.K.S. Finance in 13 states. “I launched the first women micro-finance health insurance product in the country. We worked in animal husbandry to offer market linkages.”
She started Frontier Markets, a social commerce rural supply-chain platform manned by 12,500 rural women (called Sahelis) in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, in 2012. “I saw a woman losing everything to a kerosene fire in a village in Andhra Pradesh. Instead of showing sympathy, people called her an idiot. That was a (turning) point
for me.”
Shah realised there were enough products for women and rural consumers but distribution was a challenge. “Since electricity was a concern, I wondered how I could take solar lantern to their homes, or offer them a water purifier. That’s when I decided to study rural distribution models such as Hindustan Unilever’s Shakti Amma and ITC’s e-Choupal.”
Shah had $10,000. Raising money was not easy. “My first investor was Paula Mariwala (founding partner, Aureolis Venture), who rejected me six times before agreeing to invest.”
The rest is history. Frontier Markets has raised $8 million till date. It was last valued at $20 million. “We are the largest women-led social commerce platform. There are 12,500 women entrepreneurs who are using our tech platform to help half-a-million rural customers access every service.”
Shah says the venture earns a commission on product sales and is profitable. It also charges for facilitating digital payments and financial services. In addition to this, it charges marketing fee for product pilots and customer insights from brands. “Our sahelis share 50% of revenue earned,” says Shah. She hopes her venture will be the first women-led unicorn catering to rural markets.