A 2009 participant of Jagriti Yatra,a 15-day train journey that takes young leaders 8,000 kilometers across across India to learn about enterprise and infrastructure, Vaishali Gandhi was born and grew up in Mumbai.
Although her path and focus are unique, much of what Vaishali shared with me regarding her desire to create a life and profession founded on creating positive change mirrored what I’ve heard from every global Millennial I’ve interviewed over the last year:
“After graduation, I was overwhelmed with a desire to find meaning in my life.”
Instead of sitting around and waiting for a meaningful path to identify itself, Vaishali immediately took steps to find it.
“I signed up for volunteering with a not-for-profit in rural India, where I saw first-hand the difficulties faced by artisans.”
As a college student, she had studied textile design. Her next step was to pursue a MBA in Social Entrepreneurship and to also join Jagriti Yatra, which turned out to be a fortuitous decision, because, "It forced us to think like entrepreneurs."
It was during a research project with two other students that her aspirations and experience truly aligned, and Srujna (which means “to create new energy”) was born, with a mission to create communities of economically empowered women across India, through self-employment.
These kinds of opportunities are vitally important for the women of India, as Kalpana Sankar, a United Nations consultant for gender and microfinance issues explains:
"Women form the backbone of any society, but despite recent economic progress, they still face a lot of challenges in Indian society.
Six decades after independence, and after five decades of planned development, the position of women has worsened considerably in every sphere with a declining gender ratio, a declining economic participation rate and growing gaps in life expectancy and mortality rates between men and women."
Indian women are further impacted by a wage gap. A survey by India's National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) found that the average daily earnings for male workers are Rs 249 ($4.05 USD), compared to only Rs 156 ($2.54 USD) for women.
This lack of equality often leads to abuse. According to a report by Swayam, a women's rights organization committed to ending violence against women and children in India, one in every two Indian women faces violence of many types, including physical, sexual, psychological and/or economic.
Observing that women face these challenges despite playing a vital role in India’s economy, Vaishali started working with a group of 30 women, focusing her efforts on teaching jewelry production. Eventually, the members knew enough about jewelry making and marketing that they were able to launch a business. Today, their products are sold through exhibitions and orders.
With this success, Vaishali knew she had found her path:
“The challenge for most women, especially from low socio economic backgrounds, is to opt for 9-5 jobs, going out of their community for working or choosing a full time employment option."
Fortunately, Vaishali and her Srujna team-mates are helping to solve this by offering craft skills training, as well as instruction in how to run a viable business. They offer women an opportunity to opt for self-employment, i.e. working from their homes/communities at a time that is suitable to them. They also provide a market connect initiative where women are given opportunities to sell their products at exhibitions across India in venues such as corporate campuses and universities.
Enthusiasm and recognition for Srujna’s efforts has grown quickly and intensely. With a solid roster of corporate sponsors and a rapidly-accumulating series of international awards, the non-profit is on track to create widespread, scalable change for vulnerable women in India, which, in turn, could have a positive economic impact on the whole country.