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Social Entrepreneurship

Going from problems to solutions.

There is no substitute for hard work and faith.

If you meet only a few people who will really matter to the end, one of them has to be this woman, who

found herself surrounded by loud wailing and cacophony. “My husband takes all that is left for his drink

akka” said one of the women in a sad tone, volunteering the information with embarrassment, as if it

was her fault. Another woman wailed loudly, “ A grown-up daughter and a son who is blind in one eye.

Look at my fate sister. After my husband beat me and ran away with another woman, on my wages as a

domestic helper, even if I work in 10 houses every morning, I will never be able to meet the cost of his

surgery or her wedding.” As the evening went on, she listened patiently to all seven of the women who

had assembled that day and she was overwhelmed by their difficulties. She was overcome by a sense of

defeat and it almost broke her resolve. Almost.

But not quite, because Sankari, at 55 years of age in 2008, had become an expert at overcoming failure

to create the happiness that comes with success and financial independence. Dropping out of school

after SSLC, she took up a job as a typist at J N Marshall in Chennai in the 1970s, to contribute to the

rising expenses at home. One of nine children, she was used to going hungry to bed on many nights.

Hungry-for a better, brighter future where poverty and lack has no place. After marriage and three

children, she proceeded to start a home- based business in sarees. Over the years, her customers grew

from other house wives and the occasional ‘working woman’, to include a vast network of women

leaders in leadings banks and corporates. She now feeds profits from wholesaling to major retail outlets,

back to the weavers themselves, in small rural villages where they need it most.

While all this may have been gratifying to some, not to her. Listening to her own domestic helper,

Sankari was perturbed that there was a marginalised section of the society who would continue to suffer

since they didn’t know how to help themselves. She thought of her own humble beginnings, her own

limited knowledge of English and the world of business when she started, all those years ago and began

to wonder how she could help these women come out of their traps. She now wanted to recreate the

magic of the ‘better life’ that she has somehow managed to create for herself, in the lives of these

women.

She turned to her spiritual guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and having trained as a yoga teacher, at first she

thought it was the answer. Breathing exercises reduced stress levels and made you feel better. But

when she organized a class for the women, they stopped short of laughing in her face. “Amma, how will

breathing exercises help me pay my son’s school fees? What about my debts? Will it stop my husband

from his drinking habit?”, they chorused. It became clear that money was their god and that theirs was a

fight for survival, leave alone a better life.

With great dejection, she went back to the drawing board, hoping for a way out. Determined that the

change had to come from the grass roots level, she thought about how they could earn more income.

With this idea in mind, she started getting the women together in her own home after their domestic

chores, with a couple of tailoring machines to work on making bags, jute products, agarbathi rolling and

as many such activities as she could think of, while taking orders on the other hand. In 2012, the

breakthrough came when her efforts met with support from Mrs Padmini, ex-principal of Twinklers and

with the blessings of Bhanu Akka and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, they inaugurated the ‘Visalakshi Women’s

Multi-purpose Cooperative Society.’

In the 8 year journey to present day, the Society has turned into a full-fledged bank, offering start-up

loans to women who wish to start their own business. It has over 450 members and ties with major

nationalized banks, its own manufacturing unit and has supplied its made-to- order products to multi-

national companies both in India and the US. Its members have also operate their own successful

businesses in catering, health and beauty as well as in education.

At a recent event held in one of Bangalore’s premier Business Management institutes where she was

invited as a Speaker, she was asked what her advise would be to young people who want to be social

entrepreneurs. Her response was received with a standing ovation-“I only know very little English, but

what I know has helped the women because it is practical. How do I fill a form in a bank? How do I

organize my basic business idea- this is where a lot of India still is. So if you can work hard to create true

equality, if your business helps the poorest people in some way, then you will always be blessed with

success.”

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