Many have asked me what the inspiration behind Womentum. I don’t think there was an “a-hah” moment, rather I believe the idea behind it built up over time. Having lived in India, I’ve seen again and again the marginalization of women, especially those who are underprivileged and living in horrendous conditions in slums and villages across the country. The aching question I had was “how can we help them?”
For me, that question was answered last summer. Having started college at Babson College, I became fascinated with “entrepreneurial thought and action” as a vehicle for social change. During my summer break, I set out to create a documentary of women in India who have changed their lives through entrepreneurship. While the documentary failed (maybe a story for another time), I had the opportunity to spend time with some amazing women entrepreneurs, whose audacity inspired me to venture out and create Womentum.
I’d love to tell the story of one of these amazing women, Nirmala.
When Nirmala was a teenager, she was married off by her family to a military officer. She spent her days indoors — cooking, cleaning, and taking care of kids. The cult of domesticity that we fought so hard to abolish in America was very much alive in various villages of Sohna Block in Gurgaon. Nirmala dreaded these boring domestic roles and yearned for a chance to venture out into the real world.
Tragedy befell Nirmala’s family when her husband and father-in-law both passed away unexpectedly. Nirmala was left behind with the mother-in-law and her two young kids. The family had no income, as the only males permitted to work had passed on. Nirmala couldn’t even return to her parents’ home because once a daughter is married off, she becomes part of the husband’s family.
With the entire family’s livelihood at stake, Nirmala did something that even she herself never expected — breaking out of the gender roles that, ironically, placed her family in this dire situation in the first place.
With support from the Navjyoti Foundation, a local women empowerment organization, Nirmala learned to sew. She began sewing for other villagers, in need of alterations or new clothing. Business, at first, was slow, but, stitch by stitch, she began to make end’s meets. Her newfound entrepreneurial passion began to fan her ambitions and, after a few months of sewing, she decided to start her own micro-business by opening a small storefront.
There was one problem: she needed land and money. Her late husband owned land that was across the street from their house, but the rest of the family refused to give the land to a working widow. Neither were they interested in loaning her the capital she needed to purchase the storefront. Instead, they tried discouraging her. What are you doing outside the household? You should spend more time looking after your children. It’s not in your place to be starting a business.
But they didn’t discourage Nirmala — it became her motivation to prove them wrong. Every morning, Nirmala ventured from one marketplace to another, purchasing fabrics and cloth and tailoring them into salwar kameez, blouses, petticoats. She traveled throughout the city, setting up her stalls on different streets to sell. Rupee by rupee, year after year, her dream slowly became a reality.
Nirmala’s tenacity ultimately paid off; as you’re reading her story, Nirmala’s working out of a small storefront she purchased with her sweat and tears
Business is booming for Nirmala. She recently expanded her business to include premade clothing as well. To keep up with demand, she has hired other women from the neighborhood to help her out, providing for their livelihood as a result. She also tore down her old house, and built a newer one in the village for her family.
She now dares her kids to dream too, especially her daughter. Her daughter dreams of becoming a doctor. With the business, Nirmala is able to send her daughter to school, and make sure that dream becomes a reality.
Nirmala’s story has a happy ending, but what about the other billion of women like her? UN Women discovered that more than 1.3 billion women lack access to financial institutions, in large part due to the absurdly high legal barriers imposed on them. Nirmala managed to save enough money to purchase a storefront, but what about those who weren’t in the financial position to do so? Nirmala received aid and training from the Navjyoti Foundation, but what if Navjyoti lacked the resources and reach to do so?
Those are the uncertainties Womentum seek to address. We wholeheartedly promote e-ship as the vehicle for women to empower themselves, and want to make sure 1) that access to capital is never the barrier holding any woman back from lifting themselves out of poverty and 2) that they have a community around the world that will support their fight to break free from the shackles of gender oppression.
We wish to be the driving catalyst behind more success stories like Nirmala’s. If you’re a women like Nirmala who dreams of starting a business but lacks the resources to make your dream come true, please apply today!
You can also check out this video about us: https://vimeo.com/179252429
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