How Sia beat the odds to cater to pooja needs online and empowered underprivileged girlsPoornima Makaram
This article is sponsored by eBay
Growing up in a family that is struggling to make ends meet can give a girl few chances to dream big, but that was not the case with Sia Umesh. Despite coming from an underprivileged background, this gritty go-getter always pushed against the odds to come up a winner. Today, she runs her own business, which is an online store that specialises in selling Hindu pooja (prayer) articles.
Sia’s story is well worth telling – she never let the lack of funds shackle her ambition and drive. As a young girl, she saw her sisters drop out of school due to lack of money and motivation. However, being the youngest of three sisters, her mother pushed her to continue her studies. She credits her mother’s one act of keeping her in school as the biggest reason for her success. “Today, from where I stand, I strongly believe that education is the best gift anyone can give to their child,” she says.
Sia started working soon after completing school to finance her college education. After class, she worked hard evenings and nights and began to save up. After graduating, Sia moved to Bangalore to join a biotechnology company, visiting her parents in Mangalore every weekend. The next turning point in Sia’s life came in 2010 when her father fell ill, and she was forced to return home for good.
She reminisces, “It was not a properly planned move at the time, as I did not have good financial back-up. Moreover, with a degree in Biotech Engineering, it was difficult to find a job in a city like Mangalore. A few months of being jobless almost exhausted all my savings. As a last resort, I thought of starting a business, and again, I perceived a niche that was virtually untapped,” she says.
Sia started her new company Karmashya with an initial investment of just Rs. 500. The idea was novel – selling articles needed for a pooja online. The market for this kind of venture was just opening up, and she predicted a growing demand for these items, especially from NRIs. Karmashya specialises in supplying high-quality pooja articles and authentic products like rudrakshas and gem stones. They also have rangoli stencils, various yantras, idols, and spiritual jewellery.
She did all the work herself, a one-woman army to source and procure products, list, pack and ship them. She rolled back what she made into the business to replenish her stocks. It took six months of toiling alone before she would recruit her first employee. “I would fall asleep listing products, wake up to check the sales, and so barely sleep three hours a day. Finally after six months, Karmashya could afford its first staff member Navya, the lynchpin who keeps Karmashya running today.
“Navya had completed her 10th standard and was working in the local beedi industry. What I saw in her was an 18-year-old girl who was just as capable as any other teenager, but devoid of motivation to grow, and brainwashed with the gender unequal norms of society. She would do her packing job during the day, and I would teach her computers for an hour each evening. Over time, Navya slowly took up more responsibilities like photography, photo editing, inventory management, etc. But, most importantly she started training Vilasini, the second staffer we hired, based on the skills she herself had learnt.”
“In a country like India where most people stop formal education due to financial constraints and lack of positive motivation, a formal university degree is not always the right measure of how much a person can learn or their overall ability,” Sia points out. This is one reason why Karmashya has kept the chain of teaching, training and imparting new skills to their new recruits through their older, more experienced employees. Today, they are a staff of 10 girls, all from underprivileged backgrounds. Karmashya continues to empower them by helping them learn and grow, and believes that their economic status should not dictate their level of learning. They are taught English, which is a huge step up for girls from rural backgrounds in our country.
Sia has had her share of trials and hardship. She was trying to run the business from her rented house and was forced to move often because of nosy neighbours and uncooperative landlords who did not like the idea of what she was doing. She hopes that small businesses in our country will soon be given the same status as IT companies that enjoy many exclusive privileges.
With a journey like that behind her at such a young age, it’s hardly surprising that Sia is one of the six winners of eBay’s SheMeansBusiness contest.
Her mother, who passed away when Sia was just 16, continues to be her major motivation and inspiration. Sia also gives due credit to E-bay, who helped by giving her a platform to sell her products. Today, she works from a 1,500 sq ft space and has her own retail website. She is also ably supported by a team of strong and empowered women whom she has enabled to believe in themselves, the way her mother did for her.