A Gritty Educationist

ONE NEEDS nerves of steel to run an enterprise in militancy-ridden Kashmir, and 59-year-old Dilafroze Qazi, Founder and Vice Chairperson of SSM College of Engineering & Technology and Management, Srinagar, has time and again proved her determination to keep the show running despite odds.

She had just completed her masters in law in the late '80s when militancy struck the state and educational institutions became inaccessible, especially for women. Qazi used the ₹25,000 that her father had saved for her wedding to start hobby classes for Kashmiri women in Srinagar. She rented space in a busy residential locality so that women did not have to travel much and offered six-month courses in ikebana, cooking, embroidery and typing.

Her audacity caught the attention of militants, who kidnapped her family members (they were eventually released). This didn’t deter Qazi. She eventually got permission from AICTE to start a polytechnic college. Her one-room hobby class centre soon became a sprawling polytechnic, which offered a host of vocational courses on outskirts of Srinagar. In 1991, Qazi started full-fledged engineering degree courses and an MBA programme. At present, her college has 4,000 students, of which 2,000 are girls. “The alumni of our institution are holding senior positions in corporate India as well as in the government,” she proudly says.

Qazi’s journey has not been a bed of roses. While it was militants who tried to ruin her venture earlier on, later, a local politician made life difficult for her. He accused her of corrupting young Kashmiri minds and made several attempts on her life. “I have worked under the shadow of guns,” she says. “Despite the challenges, I have succeeded in building an institution which is 30 years old. Last year, our students bagged 30 medals at the Kashmir University convocation. This gives me immense satisfaction,” she says.

Apart from being a successful entrepreneur, Qazi has also done her bit to support families of people who have lost their lives to militancy. She donated cows to women and helped them set up a dairy cooperative in Kupwara, the hotbed of militancy. “Many of these women are rape victims. They are now financially independent,” she says. She also arranges stitching and embroidery classes for women in border districts.

Qazi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize a couple of years ago. She wishes to continue her mission of touching the lives of more underprivileged women.

­— Ajita Shashidhar

AJAITA SHAH, Founder & CEO, Frontier Markets, Age: 37

Rural India’s ‘Saheli’

APRIL 2020 was a frightening month for most businesses. The country was locked down to contain the spread of coronavirus. For Ajaita Shah, Founder & CEO, Frontier Markets — a rural women-led social commerce platform, that was a problem.

The disruption of supply chains meant empty shelves in kirana stores of a village where she serves. Large e-commerce companies were allowed to deliver only essential commodities such as groceries, food and medicines. “But the luxury was primarily available to city people. A lot of customers came to us seeking a solution,” says Shah.

She and her team made a swift decision. The Jaipur-headquartered rural distribution company collaborated with multiple brands and, within days, put a list of essential items live on its platform. One of the items was cattle feed as, due to the lockdown, women were being forced to travel 3-5 kms to buy 50-kg feed bags. “We collaborated with multiple brands and started monthly door-step delivery of cattle feed with annual subscription. By the end of May 2021, Frontier Markets had provided over 6.3 lakh bags of cattle feed to a lakh women,” says Shah, who started Frontier Markets in 2011.

So, how does she do it? The digital platform provides last-mile e-commerce and distribution service backed by its network of tech-enabled women agents (‘sahelis’) who use the company’s e-commerce mobile app in vernacular language to market, sell and service products, apart from offering product demos and customer support.

The company is associated with several corporate partners such as Samsung, Philips, Crompton, Bajaj Finserv, Marico, Xiaomi, Jio, Procter & Gamble, Prestige and others.

“I have been working in rural India for close to 16 years, and I have seen the kind of crisis and challenges people living in rural India face every day. National and multinational companies have not been able to tap the rural market despite it having the largest customer base,” says Shah.

Frontier Markets reaches five lakh rural households with a network of 10,000 women agents in 2500 villages.

Shah is aiming to deepen the company’s presence in low-income states by investing in data and tech capabilities. Shah is clearly bullish about what’s coming next. Reason: Rural India’s over 100 million households in seven lakh villages that can be a huge customer base. The opportunities are self-evident.

— Debojyoti Ghosh

JAYSHREE VYAS, Managing Director, SEWA Bank, Age: 68

A Helping Hand for Small Entrepreneurs

JAYSHREE VYAS, Managing Director of SEWA Bank, is delighted to see one of her women customers running a successful business. “She has opened an Amul outlet. Her business has grown a lot in recent times,” she says. Vyas is particularly happy that she is also helping other women outside the banking system.

“She has been guiding women to get into the habit of banking and open an account so that they can save some money every month. She is devoting time to ensure that women who don’t have access to financial institutions can also benefit from them,” says the 68-year-old chartered accountant, who joined the bank in 1986. Prior to that, she was a financial analyst at Central Bank of India.

Vyas is a veteran of the financial inclusion space. Her understanding has helped her develop products and literacy programmes with focus on financial management that can lead to poverty alleviation and women empowerment.

The Ahmedabad-headquartered cooperative bank focuses only on women who are daily-wage earners, vegetable vendors, migrant labourers or running small businesses such as provision stores. It lends to women who are marginalised but willing to try their hand in small-scale entrepreneurship.

“Our aim is to rescue these women from clutches of money lenders. Many women who have taken loans from us are able to grow the business and employ others,” she says.

Today, the bank’s working capital is about ₹500 crore. SEWA or Shri Mahila Sewa Sahakari Bank’s average loan ticket size is about ₹50,000, going up to ₹5 lakh. For a housing loan, the maximum amount is ₹10 lakh. It has about six lakh customers (all women) across Gujarat.

In 1974, SEWA Bank was built on the mission that bound its founder Ela Bhatt to women’s empowerment. Vyas wants to strengthen that commitment. “I have learnt from my experience that you grow by helping others,” she signs off.

—Debojyoti Ghosh

RASHIMA MISRA, Co-founder and Executive Director, Milk Mantra, AGE: 43

Conscious Capitalism

DAIRY COMPANY Milk Mantra is driven by only one vision — becoming profitable with a purpose. “The aim was to create a venture that would have a wide and deep impact,” says Rashima Misra, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Bhubaneswar-headquartered company, which produces and distributes milk and milk products under its flagship brand Milky Moo.

The company was founded in August 2009 by Srikumar Misra, 44, and his wife Rashima, 43. The aim was to gain consumer trust by tackling issues of quality, hygiene, freshness and payment of fair prices to farmers by eliminating middlemen.

The husband-wife duo has so far impacted the lives of over 75,000 farmers through ethical sourcing. It claims to have increased productivity of farmers it works with by 31% and income by 70%.

“When we started, we took an engaging.... approach to launch and build the brand. And we’re able to connect consumers with not only the prod- uct’s functional proposition but also the values of the company’s ethical sourcing, which was impacting farmers’ lives,” says Rashima, who was based in London prior to launching Milk Mantra. She was people policy advisor with one of UK’s leading education trusts, while her husband headed Tata Tea-Tetley’s global M&M division. Giving up high-profile jobs to take the start-up plunge seems like a bold bet, but their efforts have been recognised. Milk Mantra has raised $35 million from US International Development Finance Corporation, Aavishkaar Venture Trustees, Eight Roads Ventures, Neev Fund and others.

The company has managed to scale up revenue to $35 million over the last 10 years. It is on track to touch $42 million for FY22, she says, adding that it is aiming to reach $150 million in the next five years.

— Debojyoti Ghosh

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