Top 20 stories that will make us believe that we are greater than the sum of our challenges

Your New Year resolutions may not last but heart-warming stories do. Here is heading towards 2021 with inspirational stories of women who fought the odds and emerged winners.
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Everybody is a storyteller and we ceaselessly tell and seek stories – over conversations, in our chats and expressions through emojis, long video calls while catching up with friends, or brief exchanges with neighbours after a long and hard day at work. 

As author John Green wrote in Turtles All the Way Down, “The world is billions of years old, and life is a product of nucleotide mutation and everything. But the world is also the stories we tell about it.” 

As a platform dedicated to telling stories, we have drawn immense strength and positivity – and hoped to relay the same energy to you – through the stories we have chronicled and continue to. 

As we look back at 2020, here are some extraordinary stories that will inspire you to believe that we are always greater than the challenges and difficult times that come our way.

Surviving the holocaust

Every once in a while, there comes a story that grips you and sends a chill down your spine. Holocaust survivor Eva Erben’s is more than that as she opens up 40 years after living what is the most inhumane account of history with YourStory Media Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma. What we read of gas chambers, Auschwitz, death march in books of history, Eva shares as a lived reality and how her own death was imminent, if not for a local farmer who found and took care of her.

Sushmita Sen being her bold, beautiful, unapologetic self

The 1994 Miss Universe speaks on breaking the norms as a 40-plus actor, valuing conscience over fitting in, probable book titles of her life, and earning rather than having things come the easy way around. The actor-entrepreneur also knows a thing or two about navigating social media to drive conversations and change. 

A conversation filled with wise lessons for life, this is what she had to say about her comeback with a one-woman show, Aarya: “I want the audience to be able to say that she ate that hunger of having waited so long. I don’t want to just bore you with stuff.”

Looking out for migrant workers

Shipra Sharma Bhutani is known for uplifting people in need such as upskilling prisoners, army widows, and war-affected women in Afghanistan to lead a normal life. When the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on lives of migrant workers, the former economics professor was quick in gathering a database of 55 lakh people returning home and focussed on upskilling them. 

Shipra who founded skill development platform Capacita Connect helped 20,000 migrants find work healthcare, retail and logistics sectors during the pandemic. 

India’s first female superhero Priya fights COVID-19

Documentary filmmaker and technologist Ram Devineni’s superhero Priya Shakti can be found fighting yet another real-world problem, this time, COVID-19 with a mask. Across a series of short-animated films and comic books, this first female superhero from India never gives up against any supernatural power or shys away from fighting any unworldly problems. 

Introduced first in 2012, Priya is an abuse survivor who tackles issues like sex trafficking and rape and challenges patriarchal norms.

Driving towards independence

Over five years since Mahalakshmi worked as a full-time driver-partner with ride-hailing startup Ola, she is Ola’s only woman outstation driver in Bengaluru – a position, which only drivers with excellent ratings from customers are nominated for.  

This is a big feat for Mahalakshmi who started working as a domestic help to support her family, learnt how to drive, and eventually came across an advertisement for hiring women drivers. Not only does her service makes fellow women customers feel safer during late-night pickups but it has brought out the wanderlust in her as it has taken her to destinations like Goa, Mysuru, and Chennai.

Vidya Balan champions body positivity

Vidya Balan is one to keep things real by not conforming to superficial views and stereotypes – a quality that makes her a true superstar. The Padma Shri and national award-winning actor shared her struggles with body image issues, of how society told her otherwise when she felt beautiful in her skin, fame, and self-acceptance.  

An HIV activist leads by example

Jahnabi Goswami’s is a story of kindness and finding strength in the face of adversity. Diagnosed with HIV 27 years ago and losing both her husband and daughter to the disease, Jahnabi had to battle bouts of stigma as a person living with the disease. 

She found motivation in her mother and friends and went on to become the change she wished to see. The first person to make her HIV status public in Assam, Jahnabi is fighting for introduction of sex education in early levels in schools and is championing for accessible HIV treatment in remote areas of India. 

As the first woman president of Indian Network of People Living with HIV and founder of Assam Network of Positive People, the activist is infectiously inspiring. 

Talking women in labour

As comedian Aditi Mittal and filmmaker Christina MacGillivray ruminate on what keeps Indian women from carving their professional identity in their podcast Women in Labour, HerStory caught up with the duo to learn what set them off on this exploration and insights they have gained from it. 

They have featured trailblazing women from across fields including sports presenter Mayanti Langer, policy analyst Mahima Kaul, economist Anuradha Bhagwati, among others. In collaboration with partners at American Center New Delhi and Wild City, they host live theatre events – which has gone digital during the pandemic – based on themes like women and business, women and the spoken word, women and sports.

Kid of the Year on kindness

Indian-American Gitanjali Rao made headlines recently as the first ever TIME’s Kid of the Year. What stands out is her persona as scientist and innovator is fuelled by kindness and the drive to ‘put smiles on people’s faces’. 

This has led the 15-year-old to approach numerous problems like cyberbullying, safe drinking water, and opioid addiction with creative tech solutions.

Standing tall

Life took a sharp turn when Shalini Saraswathi contracted a rare bacterial disease contracted rickettsia with morts when she was celebrating her fourth wedding anniversary in Cambodia. Waking up from a near death situation, she had to eventually get her limbs amputated while being bed-ridden for a year-and-a-half.

But the quest for exercise options to stay healthy set her on a different path as a runner and she won national competitions in the 100 metre category. The para-athlete is now being trained to qualify for next year’s Paralympics in Japan.

Empowering India’s organic farmers

A business and international relations graduate from the University of Southern California, Shriya Naheta explored local farms in Maharashtra, Shimla, and Bengaluru with her sister who runs a farm-to-table restaurant. 

She came out at the other end, recognising the need to make such fresh produce available to all and support organic farmers working through healthy rotation of crops.

In 2017, she founded Zama Organics with an initial investment of Rs 10 lakh, operating on dual models of B2B and B2C. The young entrepreneur works with over 50,000 farmers across India as well as artisans and self-help groups producing pickles, jams, and other home-made products.

Bhumi Pednekar, Alankrita Shrivastava and Konkona Sen-Sharma

Alankrita Shrivastava on mirroring strong real women

One can count on women in Alankrita Shrivastava’s films to confront patriarchy in different forms. Her latest work, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare follows the life of two sisters , sexuality, internalised patriarchy, and being ambitious, among other things. 

Alankrita, who also directed the famed Lipstick Under my Burkha, discussed queer and women representation in movies, staying true to her instincts as a filmmaker and what goes behind crafting these real strong women.

Upping the referral game for small businesses

Entrepreneur Suravi Patnaik counts on selling ethnic Indian jewellery at a festival in her high school years as one of the most thrilling childhood experiences. 

It is not surprising then that she went on to build an enterprising social commerce platform based in New Zealand and Bhubaneshwar. A BTech graduate from University of Otago, New Zealand, Sponsa helps small businesses to collaborate with their consumers by facilitating cash incentives for referrals and enabling the top referrers to become their brand endorsers.

The teen changemaker is also a committee member and partner of One Million 2030 where the UN aims to enhance youth-led social ventures.

Being a doctor-warrior during the pandemic

The pandemic has undoubtedly brought out many heroes from the medical fraternity.

From Patna, Dr Nimrat Kaur, Regional Deputy Project Coordinator in Asia for Doctors Without Borders shares her account of working 12-hour long shifts (which means 12 hours of staying in a PPE), keeping herself mentally steady, fervently hoping for vaccines and cure, and the new normal as understood by frontline workers.

Ruchira Gupta

Kindness in times of coronavirus

The pandemic highlighted some painful inequalities this year and stories of kindness like that of Ruchira Gupta helping families of sex workers are heartwarming. 

Her organisation Apne Aap Women Worldwide that helps victims of sex trafficking and children in many parts of India launched 1MillionMeals to provide for families who were confined to their rooms. Starting with cooked meals, her team of volunteers also started distributing dry rations like dal, onions, spices, and cooking oil, among other things.

The changemaker spoke on how COVID-19 has put their occupation as sex workers on the lifeline and lack of aid from the government.

The gift of education

It is said that an investment in education pays the best interest and it stands true for Shibulal Family Philanthropic Initiative that has taken care of education and skilling of the underprivileged for over 20 years. 

Helmed by Kumari Shibulal, its flagship programme Vidyadhan has helped over 17,000 meritorious children pursue higher education and has churned 230 doctors and 940 engineers. Nearly all the beneficiary students successfully uplifted their families from below the poverty line.   

Painting magic with coffee waste

Hima Bindu makes elaborate paintings of Tanjore and Warli using decoction from waste coffee. The brilliance of her work aside, the 50-year-old creative coffee artist’s journey is one that will inspire everyone. 

With unconditional love and support of her mother, Hima beat all odds, from escaping domestic violence, pursuing higher studies in computer science, to climbing the corporate ladder with grit and integrity. After quitting a high-paying job, she is discovering and living her passion as a unique painter.

A community for self-love

If there is a problem, 15-year-old Siya Tayal knows no other way than finding a solution for change. Seeing the shared struggle of body image issues led her to start a body positivity campaign called Project I am Enough,during the pandemic. 

After learning about global warming in the third grade, Siya sourced waste clothes from DX Textiles, hired three tailors and got a social venture, My Own Bag running – at Rs 100 apiece. The products were presented at the UN office in Geneva last year.

Revolutionising farm storage

Growing up in Lasalgaon in Maharashtra, Asia’s largest onion trading market, Kalyani Shinde is all too aware of problems that farmers face due to dramatic market fluctuation rates of the crop. The 23-year-old then put her education in computer engineering to use by innovating a tech-enabled storage solution to avoid wastage in the warehouses. 

After a brief cultivation period of 120 days, farmers start incurring losses during the storage period of six to eight months where nearly half the produce gets spoilt. Kalyani’s startup Godaam Innovations leverages IoT to detect gases emitted when onions starts getting spoilt, collect real-time data, and alert the farmers.

Founded in 2018, the tech entrepreneur is hopeful of community warehousing becoming the future of storage.

Embracing entrepreneurship

Necessity may have pushed Bhavna Juneja to roll up her sleeves and sell home décor items from door to door to support her family at the age of 16 but her entrepreneurial streak has only gotten stronger.

In her three decades’ tryst as an entrepreneur, she has exported home-furnishings and handicrafts in bulk to international clients, moved to the US,bought an IT firm, founded an pharmaceutical and life sciences company called Infinity, and started an asset management company, MPowered.

The journey was not without challenges and Bhavna is grateful for the learning curve that came with entrepreneurship.

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan

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