Supporting women in agriculture
Neha Upadhyaya, Founder, Guna Organics
The economic dynamism initiated by New Delhi-based social entrepreneur Neha Upadhyaya has turned the fortunes of Takmachik village in Ladakh.
Her organisation, Guna Organics, trains rural women to develop ecovillages by focusing on organic farming and using solar energy and solar dryers in post-harvest management.
“Working at an inclusive school in the UK, I analysed that many students suffered from lifestyle diseases,” says Upadhyaya. “The reason was the chemical- and preservative-induced food they ate.”
She acquired training in macrobiotics, a Japanese philosophy relating to a diet of organic wholefoods and gradually developed an interest in organic agriculture.
Back in India, Upadhyaya did a course in Earth Democracy, spending time with agriculturists, tribals and farm activists. With a strong commitment to environmental sustainability, she decided to introduce ethically sourced organic food products grown by rural farmers.
Upadhyaya founded Guna in 2014 and held workshops in Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra. “But, perhaps I was not targeting the right audience because I found myself getting nowhere,” she says. “A researcher suggested I visit Takmachik, where after the catastrophic floods, people desired a switch to organic farming.
I observed the drudgery of women farmers and found they worked for 3,485 hours on one hectare of farmland during the pre-harvest season compared to men (1,212 hours) and a pair of bullock (864 hours). It meant women toiled more than the combined ratio of men and animals.
“There, I observed the drudgery of women farmers and found they worked for 3,485 hours on one hectare of farmland during the pre-harvest season compared to men (1,212 hours) and a pair of bullock (864 hours). It meant women toiled more than the combined ratio of men and animals,” she explains.
Additionally, women were often involved in accidents while carrying loads of food products on their backs, resulting in major food losses. Upadhyaya resolved to change the dynamics and introduced them to organic farming. Unfortunately, finding no buyers, she had to market the produce herself. Two years later, despite investing much of their time, women farmers were not benefiting much.
“As luck would have it, my first United Nations Development Programme grant came through,” she says. “I set up low-tech solutions and distributed solar cookers and dryers to women. While the cookers helped in the conservation of apricots, the dryers were easy to transport and reduced losses related to product preservation.”
With Guna’s help, Takmachik became an ecovillage. Amazed by the success of her actions, villages in the vicinity have inclined to associate with Guna.
Upadhyaya plans to carry out organic farming techniques in other states including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
— By Nilima Pathak
AI for breast cancer detection
Geetha Manjunath, Co-founder, Niramai Health Analytix
In India, breast cancer claims more than 87,000 lives each year. Worse still, breast cancer ranks as the number one cancer among Indian women with a rate as high as 25.8 per 100,000 women and mortality of 12.7 per 100,000 women, according to the Ministry of Health.
But when cancers are found early enough they can often be cured. To save vast amounts of time and give much more accurate results, Geetha Manjunath developed a diagnostic tool, which combines thermal imaging with artificial intelligence (AI) to detect early-stage breast cancer in women, after four years of research.
“The trigger to start working on this technology was when I lost two of my young cousins to breast cancer due to late detection,” says Manjunath, who has a PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, a management degree from Kellogg’s Chicago, and has led multiple research projects in AI.
“When I started to research, I found out about thermography, which had the ability to detect abnormalities, but had accuracy issues. So, I created a small team to explore the use of machine learning [ML] algorithm to address that gap, and when I started seeing early promising results, I decided to do this full time,” adds Manjunath, who co-founded health tech start-up Niramai Health Analytix, along with Nidhi Mathur, in 2016.
When I started to research, I found out about thermography, which had the ability to detect abnormalities, but had accuracy issues. So, I created a small team to explore the use of machine learning [ML] algorithm to address that gap, and when I started seeing early promising results, I decided to do this full time.
“Our screening tool looks for tissue abnormality and identifies only lumps that may be cancerous.”
The radiation-free, painless, contact-free device, which was awarded six US patents for its AI and ML algorithms, addresses most of the problems that conventional mammograms grapple with by reducing over diagnosis and false positives, such as lesions that appear suspicious.
“It is also a portable, non-invasive and privacy-aware solution where no one touches or sees the person during the test,” she says. “It is more acceptable to women who shy away from clinical screening.”
In India, cost is just one of the many factors that discourages women from undergoing breast cancer screening. “A woman can get her breast scan done with our tool for only $22 (Dh81).” By comparison, a digital mammography costs around $54.
“Given that the test is affordable, safe and can be conducted by low-skilled workers, it is suitable for large-scale screening camps where our automated AI-based tool can give real-time results for a health worker to identify women who need to be brought into a hospital for further follow-up.”
— By Suparna Dutt D’Cunha
Time to talk
Richa Singh, Co-founder, YourDOST
Aishwarya B., 25, a Masters in Humanities student at one of India’s premier institutes, had been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts for a while. However, she had no clue that she was in need for professional help, not even when she planned her own suicide. "It was only when her college mandated her to connect with a therapist in 2017 that she agreed to seek help," Richa Singh tells GN Focus
Mental health issues are more common than you might think. Responding sensitively to someone who seems to be feeling down or depressed and expressing your willingness to help are critical in their journey towards recovery.
“Connecting with a therapist at YourDOST was one of the best things that happened to me,” says Aishwarya, who now feels energetic, driven and hopeful. “It took more than two years of therapy, constant support and much work for me to go from ‘I don’t deserve to live’ to ‘Life is pretty good’. I’m doing great. I actually look forward to life, Nothing is going to keep me from my goals.”
Richa Singh, an IIT Guwahati alumna, started the online technology platform YourDOST in 2014, along with co-founder Puneet Manuja, to help people, particularly those suffering from stress and anxiety, access counseling support 24/7.
“The idea for this venture came from personal experiences,” says Singh. “When I was at IIT Guwahati, my hostel-mate committed suicide fearing bad placement. I strongly felt that this could have been avoided had she sought some help.
“When I started working, I noticed people around me were stressed due to job pressures and relationship issues. However, most of them were not willing to talk about their problems, fearing social implications.”
The conventional Indian society tends to associate mental illness with madness and insanity. Hence, most people in most situations prefer to keep their problems to themselves because there is a fear of being misjudged and misunderstood.
With around 1,000 professionals — psychologists, counsellors, career coaches, relationship advisors and more, the platform offers its users 24x7 access to experts through various channels, including one-on-one sessions with experts on messages and live chats, and voice and video calls. In select cities, they can also have face-to-face interactions with professionals.
But, are people in India ready to come out with their mental health problems, discussing their issues with a stranger on an online platform such as YourDOST?
“The conventional Indian society tends to associate mental illness with madness and insanity. Hence, most people in most situations prefer to keep their problems to themselves because there is a fear of being misjudged and misunderstood,” Singh says.
For her, YourDOST’s USP is users can stay completely anonymous throughout the platform. “Anonymity and easy access to experts make it easier for many users to open up. Also, this platform gives them a chance to open up to people who don’t come with previous prejudices about them.” Having started with a small team of two to three people and about 300 users in 2014, the platform now boasts a team of 35 people and more than 1,000 experts. YourDOST has completed over two million counseling sessions till date.
The journey of an entrepreneur is often fraught with challenges and Singh’s was no different. “Puneet and I did not come from the field of psychology. It was a drawback in our venture and we took some time to understand psychology,” Singh says.
“Another thing we had to contend with was the pressure to make YourDOST an NGO or a not-for-profit venture. We believe doing good and doing business can go hand in hand. It was important for us to set this up as a private limited company to be able to build a sustainable business,” explains Singh, who was part of Forbes Asia 30 under 30 and Forbes India 30 under 30 in 2017.
Commenting on her experience as a women entrepreneur in India, Singh says, “The challenge I faced personally was fighting the societal pressure. The pressure from parents, relatives and friends to get married and settle down is quite heavy and it is a challenge to manage these expectations along with starting out.”
For now, YourDOST looks at consolidating its presence in India. “We have barely scratched the surface here. We want to become a one-stop solution for people’s wellness, be it personal, professional or academic. The next steps will be to scale our efforts and have a pan India presence with a great portfolio of experts on the platform.”
— By Chiranti Sengupta
Crunching data for compelling impact
Prerna Mukharya, Founder, Outline India
The quality, usefulness and availability of high-quality data, and churning it into actionable insights have the biggest impact, especially on people working in development.
But local data needs are often overlooked. “If you are making policies, spending money on a massive scale, but your policies are based on flawed data — the plan breaks down,” says Prerna Mukharya, Founder of Outline India, a start-up that solves the first-mile problem in the development sector by providing quality data to think tanks, not-for-profits, corporate social responsibility arms and local governments to implement evidence-based policies and measure effectiveness.
“We are the ears and eyes for basically anyone looking to create social value on the ground,” adds Mukharya, a postgraduate in Economics from Boston University, whose previous research engagement at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, Harvard University and MIT provided her the foundation of treating data as a form of capital.
Data is in the driver’s seat, as development community is spending more money on collecting data on results indicators — such as immunisations and maternal mortality rates. “It’s a useful, valuable and intelligent tool that can help combat poverty, child labour, gender gaps and financial literacy in India,” she explains.
We help people to understand the way to create behavioural change, how to spend funds to create maximum social impact, and how to reach the farthest of villages.
Founded in 2012, the start-up is also generating employment by hiring locals for data collection and surveys, and claims to have worked extensively in health, water and sanitation in over 8000 villages in India, covering about 4.5 million people. Starting with Mukharya’s $3,000 (Dh11,018) savings, Outline India has mined data on issues ranging from tracking parents and children about learning outcomes across public schools in Bihar and how additional teachers and resources will reduce school dropout rates among adolescent girls to impact, implementation and reach of the Clean India (Swacch Bharat) mission.
Gathering and wringing the value from data requires expertise in creating, extracting, refining and using it.
“We help people to understand the way to create behavioural change, how to spend funds to create maximum social impact, and how to reach the farthest of villages,” says Mukharya. “We conduct research studies, and come back with insights.”
Currently, there’s no database — a line of connect or conversation — of not-for-profit, corporate foundations and funders. Outline India, Mukharya says, is developing a tool, a marketplace called Track Your Metric, to help those with funds connect with those who need to be funded on the basis of proof of work — data sets. “Allowing corporate foundations and government agencies to build impact metrics by collecting data for low cost will change the way we fund, track and measure impact.”
— By Suparna Dutt D’Cunha
Sewing the seeds of emancipation
Chitvan Wazir, Founder, Wazir.C
Find purpose, entrepreneurs are often told, and the means will follow. For Chitvan Wazir, that has sometimes meant creating the means herself. The 28-year-old apparel retailer knew she’d have a harder time than most with her Kashmiri fashion start-up, but didn’t quite anticipate having to personally act as a courier.
Through her label, Wazir.C, she designs and retails Western-style womenswear embroidered using traditional Kashmiri fabrics and techniques. But the current security situation in the area over recent months has brought its own challenges.
Women were reluctant to break away from the shackles of the middlemen they were accustomed to working under for meagre remuneration, while officials thought I was too ‘young and modern’ and would be a bad influence on their girls with my talk of economic independence and rights.
“Communicating with my team is an uphill task from my base in Delhi,” she tells GN Focus. “It was difficult to reach my colleagues in Kashmir for almost three months because phone lines were down. There are days when we have to personally travel to Kashmir to receive the raw material or the finished product because there’s no other way to get it couriered or transported.
“Despite the issues, the journey is beautiful — and worth it — because at the end of the day we get a step closer to our goal,” she adds.
The idea of Wazir.C arose from her work in women’s development as a student of Lady Sriram College in the Indian capital. It aims to create jobs for the Kashmir valley’s destitute women — including victims of the constant terrorism, widows and half-widows, and those suffering from domestic abuse — enabling them to reconstruct their social status and thus their physical and mental well-being.
Having begun with a team of ten, she now employs close to 100 women, including 80 artisans in her handwork unit, as well as female construction workers and managers. She has insisted on an all-woman team in a field where male artisans constitute 95 per cent of the workforce, but has had to battle stigmas and stereotypes.
“Women were reluctant to break away from the shackles of the middlemen they were accustomed to working under for meagre remuneration, while officials thought I was too ‘young and modern’ and would be a bad influence on their girls with my talk of economic independence and rights,” she says. “We had to train our workers to work with western cuts and styles.”
But the end result is a beautiful and tangible product. With her work, Wazir has also been to repackage a centuries-old art form for new generations of women, thus taking the skill of Kashmiri women to the rest of the world. The label produces close to 1,000 garments annually, retailing through its website, as well as in multi-brand stores in Turkey, the US and in the Indian cities of Jammu and Chandigarh.
She has revived and reinterpreted every form of Kashmiri embroidery, from chain stitch to Aari and Tilla work, and has also begun creating garments from hand-spun pashmina fabric. “With the coming of power looms, hand embroidery faced a major setback, so we’re aiming to uphold and grow the handwork community, and continue taking Kashmir’s story to the rest of the world.”
— By Keith J. Fernandez
Helping each other grow
Sairee Chahal, Founder and CEO, SHEROES
Technology entrepreneur Sairee Chahal started SHEROES, a women-only social network and online ecosystem, in 2014 to bring more women into the workforce.
Women can simply download the SHEROES app or log on to Sheroes.com to access a network of more than 16 million women to further their careers, build connections, and subsequently grow their money.
Available in 17 Indian languages, SHEROES offers users the unique platform to join multiple communities — such as cooking, art and craft, writers, corporate, entrepreneurship, remote work, English learning, poetry, women in tech and women in data — helping them to grow their skills, promote their work, gain mentorship and have peer-to-peer conversations in a non-judgemental space. “We recently launched SHECO — our social commerce feature that helps women build their identity as a business woman,” Chahal tells GN Focus. “It is geography-agnostic and a great opportunity for women to chart their own career path.”
Understanding the benefits of the internet as a tool for social development, Chahal uses digital technology to advance gender equality in India, closing the opportunity gap at work.
“I became obsessed with the internet in the early 90s, and instinctively knew it could be a game-changer for women. This instinct has gone a long way in building SHEROES,” she says, adding, “We aim to put 100 million women on the growth path by 2022, and support more and more women in leveraging the internet to grow and thrive.”
We aim to put 100 million women on the growth path by 2022, and support more and more women in leveraging the internet to grow and thrive.
An Aspen Leadership Fellow and serial entrepreneur, Chahal says lack of internet access in many parts of India is a challenge for women to leverage this tool for growth, self-care and success.
“Access to smartphones is often controlled by male relatives, and women lose out because of this patriarchal dynamic,” she says. “In our experience, if you put data and smartphones in the hands of women, it can literally change the world, as women use the internet constructively — [such as] to invest in health, gather information useful for their families or education.”
The road to success for Chahal and SHEROES has not been easy. However, with determination and hard work, she managed to navigate around the roadblocks. “Since we were building a deep-tech product for women, which does not fall in the category of clothing, content or lifestyle, it took time for various stakeholders to understand our outcomes, business models and approach.”
For young women who want to succeed in the workplace, Chahal has valuable tips: “Be audacious, always dream big and leverage technology to stay ahead. But don’t forget to support each other.”
— By Chiranti Sengupta
Spread the joy of reading
Upasana Makati, Founder, White Print
Mumbai-based Upasana Makati runs White Print, India’s first lifestyle magazine for the visually impaired.
While reading the morning newspaper, a random thought crossed her mind. She wondered what the visually impaired read. On exploring, she found nothing and decided to launch a magazine.
“I approached and discussed the idea with the director of the National Association for the Blind,” says the 30-year old entrepreneur. “He asked me if I had any organisation backing me. Since I had none, he advised me I give the plan a shape for him to print the magazine.”
Three months of research led Makati to understand what the visually impaired required. “Talking to many of them, I was convinced that a magazine project would certainly work,” she says. “I quit my public relations job. Within eight months I had procured the legal licenses to run the venture.”
It was a huge challenge because corporate had not advertised in Braille earlier. I wrote more than 200 emails to companies, but received only one response.
Makati resolved to run the magazine on advertising revenue; not making it a charity venture. “It was a huge challenge because corporates had not advertised in Braille earlier. I wrote more than 200 emails to companies, but received only one response.”
The first edition of White Print, launched in May 2013, was sent to people for free. It received corporate support and the number of subscribers grew. The 64–page monthly magazine, priced at Rs30 (about Dh1.5) and published in English and Hindi, covers politics, movies, art, music, technology, food, travel and success stories.
In her journey, Makati was shocked to know that the Braille literacy figure was lower than 1 per cent in India. This meant a lot of products were needed for the vacuum to be filled. This had to be dealt with from the foundation.
Tactabet, a Braille Tactile alphabet book in English and Hindi was introduced. It enables integrated and fun learning for visually impaired and children with low vision by feeling the shape of the alphabets.
Another achievement is an illustrated storybook to promote inclusion in the minds of such children.
Makati knew she was serving the community right when a young girl told her how she felt empowered. “The girl began sharing new information with family members, who were surprised how she knew about things, which they hadn’t heard of,” she says.
Makati plans to focus on creating more tactile and storybooks, as she feels the education space for the blind requires more attention.
— By Nilima Pathak
Give wings to your dreams
Kanika Tekriwal, Co-founder and CEO, JetSetGo
When Kanika Tekriwal was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 21, a doctor told her that she had a few months to live. She, however, boldly told him, “Doctor, we’ll have coffee 40 years later. So chill! I still have to change the world.”
And she did. She tackled the disease head-on and launched JetSetGo, a plane and helicopter marketplace, in Delhi in 2014 after her recovery, redefining the industry practices in the private aviation space in India with her vision and leadership.
JetSetGo’s business model has been profitable since its early days, getting Cricketer Yuvraj Singh on board as an investor during the first round of funding in 2015.
“We adopted the shared economy model by which JetSetGo manages aircraft for owners, reducing ownership and operating costs over 30 per cent while reducing customer charter costs by 35 per cent,” Tekriwal tells GN Focus. “We demonstrated profitability from the first year. From doing no flights to averaging one JetSetGo plane in the sky every minute of the day, we have increased the market size systematically over the past five years.
“JetSetGo had captured 20 per cent (by volume) of the market and is currently the single largest player in India with a combined turnover of more than $31 million (Dh113 million).
“We are targeting $45 million in top-line in the current year,” she says. Tekriwal, a graduate of Coventry University in the UK, came up with the idea for JetSetGo when a private jet user asked her why private jet utilisation in India was so opaque and he always felt cheated.
“The first flight we booked on JetSetGo never happened because the owner backed out two hours prior to flight,” she says. “Being disappointed, I almost gave up. But, I soon realised booking was only 10 per cent of the problem and we needed to change service, delivery and commitment.”
Talking about the challenges of business aviation in India, Tekriwal says, “In India, it’s very difficult to operate flights 24 hours to airports that are not in tier-1 cities because of restrictions in their operational hours due to lack of infrastructure. For airports in tier-3 and tier-4 cities, operating challenges become more acute as they require permissions from various local authorities for non-scheduled flights. Hence to overcome such difficulties JetSetGo works as a team in an organised manner to avail all permissions well before time and has been able to overcome such difficulties till date.”
JetSetGo had captured 20 per cent (by volume) of the market and is currently the single largest player in India with a combined turnover of more than $31 million (Dh113 million). We are targeting $45 million in top-line in the current year.
And apart from her business acumen, what’s the success mantra of this powerhouse entrepreneur? Kanika lives on five fundamentals that she does not hesitate to share with other entrepreneurs who aim to make it big in life.
“Successful businesses are not built on money, but on great people and great ideas,” she says. “Never hesitate to apologise to an unsatisfied customer. Turn every no into a yes through your journey and use every no as a stepping stone to success. Watch every expense and focus on getting more than what you spend, and always be transparent with your team, customers and suppliers.”
– By Chiranti Sengupta