Sometimes all that you need in life is a gentle push to be able to find your flight. The story of founders of Jai Mahalaxmi Mahila Utpadak Gat (JMMUG) – an all-women catering group from Mumbai is something similar. Vaishnavi Samant, Rekha Jagtap, Priyanka Babhal, Suhasini Kavankar and Namita Jathar, they all live in the same chawl. But back in 2006, when JMMUG had not been formed, none of them knew each other. They got introduced to one another thanks to a social worker who would visit their locality – Chunabatti, a part of suburban Mumbai -- to educate and urge the women living in the chawls to think big and become independent.
The social worker divided women in the locality into small groups of 15 each and told them to start saving Rs 50 per month in a joint bank account created in a nationalized bank. The 5 founders also came together as part of one such group, whom they named ‘Jai Mahalaxmi Mahila Utpadak Gat’. However over the course of six months, most women left the group and only these five were left. For the first six months, these women just met each other once every month and discussed problems and issues they had. They were also depositing the Rs 50 per month into the saving account that the social worker had helped them open. JMMUG got formerly established and registered only after six months.
Once JMMUG was formed, the group started organizing small events in their locality, ranging from sessions on – how to apply for a ration card, legal rights of women, issues faced by girls during adolescence, etc. Along the way, JMMUG met Shubha Benurwar, who was then the Chief Development Officer with Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation(BMC) who encouraged them to start something on their own and be independent. “She suggested we sell breakfast items at the “naka”(junction) where workers assembled early morning before they left for their respective assignments,” says Rekha Jagtap, a co-founder of JMMUG. The ‘naka’ is a place in Mumbai where casual labourers assemble early morning each day in search of daily employment. Contractors, who need these men for larger contracts they have undertaken, visit these assigned nakas across Mumbai city and pick a group of 5-7 or more workers as per the requirement that they have at their site of work. These workers are paid daily wages and at times work with a contractor for just a single day.
That suggestion by Shubha Benurwar was the gentle push that we referred to at the beginning of this story.
Living a dream
Once the group decided they will start selling breakfast items at naka, they chipped in some money and brought the vessels and raw materials needed to do the business. The hired a hand cart from a pani puri vendor at Rs 100 per month and began their business. “We reached the naka early morning at 4 am with all the food(sheera and poha in this case), but didn’t sell much on the first day. We sold only Rs 135 worth of food and rest we brought back and distributed it among our family and neighbours,” recollects Vaishnavi. A well-wisher told them, that because all five women were standing together at the cart, men at the naka were getting intimidated to approach them. “You will never find any women hanging around in the naka without any work, and that too so early in the morning was unheard of,” laughs Rekha.
Taking this feedback, the group of five decided to breakup and work in two shifts – from 4 am to 12 noon and from 3 pm to 9 pm. Things started picking up within four days of launch and since then there has been no looking back. From selling food items, customer demand also made them introduce tea at their food stall. Since then the menu has largely remained unchanged – sheera, poha and tea from 4 am to 12 noon and only tea from 3 pm to 9 pm. Today JMMUG makes Rs 2,000 – 3,000 daily by selling these three products.
While today they are dreaming of starting their own restaurant, their journey was anything but smooth. Things were tough in the beginning and trouble came from all sides. If family members demanded their full attention at home, then a local tea vendor – who used to sell tea at the naka much before JMMUG started their food stall created physical problems for the women. “He was a Rajasthani who had a tea shop right opposite our food stall. Once workers starting eating breakfast and having tea at our stall, his business was getting affected. He started harassing us in every way possible. Sometimes he would leave broken glass around our stall – so that we may get hurt by the glass, at other time he left lemon sprinkled with turmeric and sindoor – to give us an impression of a bad omen. But we were never affected. Everyday we would come, clear all the mess he has created and go on with the business as usual,” says Rekha.
However in true filmy style, these women vowed to get rid of this Rajasthani tea vendor and take over his tea shop. “We decided we would drive him out of the shop and shift our business there,” recollects Vaishnavi. However this was easier thought, than done. The owner of the shop asked them to give Rs 5,000 as rent for the shop and a deposit of Rs 30,000. While the rent amount was not a problem, suddenly raising Rs 30,000 as the deposit amount was an uphill task.
They approached the bank(with whom they had their saving account) for a loan, but procedural requirements and paper work meant the time taken to get the money in hand would be atleast six months – and JMMUG didn’t have that much patience. With no one to turn to, these five women decided to pawn their mangalsutras. For a traditional Indian woman, the mangalsutra is no ordinary ornament, and once she adorns it during her marriage, she can only take it off incase of the death of husband or separation from him. Women who are very modern in their outlook may not attach much significance to the mangalsutra, but for women like the five from JMMUG , it is a big deal. And taking it off their bodies and pawning it for business, was almost blasphemy. But such was their resolve, that they not only pawned the ornament, but didn’t tell anyone in the family about it until they repayed the loan and got it back.With the required Rs 30,000 in hand, JMMUG were successful in driving out the troublesome tea vendor and subsequently taking over the shop. “It was a great feeling to operate from the shop, because not only was it more comfortable than standing whole day at the food stall, the success in driving away the troublemaker was more satisfying,” says Rekha.
Secret of success
Rekha says the reason JMMUG is successful and still together after 7 years is because of the professionalism with which they approach their work. Every member gets paid per hour for working in the shop and there are strict rules of signing in and signing out. “Even if we are 15 mins late for the shift, we lose our pay for one hour,” says Vaishnavi. Similarly if anyone from the group travels for work, they are given conveyance expenses, as well as overtime for their time invested outside. “Many people said we women would not last as a group, and would fight between each other and fall out, but we have proven them wrong,” says Vaishnavi. But that doesn’t mean they never had disagreements between them. However instead of picking fights during working hours, in front of customers, they choose to sit down separately and resolve the issues peacefully.
Along the way members of JMMUG got themselves trained in candle making, incense making, jewellery making, bag making as well as baking cakes and chocolates. This training was through various workshops conducted by BMC. JMMUG is part of Central and State Government Sponsored, ‘Swarna Jyanti Shahri Rojgar Yojana’ – a scheme of Indian government to improve self-reliance opportunities among people at the bottom of the pyramid. Today this group takes many catering orders, participates in various exhibitions and also supports their families in many ways.
“We are able to give our children good education, we have made investments and managed to create wealth for ourselves and our family – and all this has been possible because we became independent. Earlier it used to be very difficult to get even that Rs 50 from our husbands for monthly saving, but now they are also happy with our success and help us during busy seasons,” says Rekha. JMMUG also takes bulk orders for making Diwali sweets and their family members chip in during the festival months to meet deadlines.
Members of JMMUG have also been called to many entrepreneurial conferences to share their motivational story with startups and entrepreneurs. While they continue to grow in their food business, JMMUG has now set its eyes on setting up their own restaurant. And Rekha says, they are confident of being able to fulfill this dream soon.