This women entrepreneur’s garment business is upskilling and hiring women inmates, helping them earn a livelihood
Mayuri Doshi joined her father's Kolkata-headquartered garment export business Dolly Exports in 1986. She wanted to support her father Anant Mody in running the business.
She recalls how she would visit her father’s office every day after college to offer her help, but he was not convinced. So, Mayuri spent a year learning the business and the ecosystem to prove that she was serious.
Dolly Exports sourced woven fabrics from Bhagalpur and exported them to countries like the US, Japan, New Zealand, among others. However, the business had to be shut down in 1992 due to a union issue. But it was not the end of the road.
Next year, the duo launched a similar business but this time as. The business supplied fabrics such as tasar and silk from Bhagalpur to markets like Spain, Japan, the US, Germany, and more.
In 2015, Pooja Exports hit a roadblock with several factors contributing to a reduction in business. For instance, buyers wanted garments azo-free dyed, a facility that was not easily available. In addition, Mayuri says buyers did not understand the irregularities that came with handwoven garments.
“Even a millimeter of difference in the stitching was not acceptable to them,” she says.
All these factors led to the business coming down. So, how did Pooja Exports get its mojo back?
Entrepreneurship with a cause
Just when the business was coming to a standstill, in 2017, a chance encounter between Mayuri’s husband Samirr Doshi and the head of a correctional home in West Bengal, Arun Gupta, shifted gears for Pooja Exports.
Arun, who was heading the Alipore Correctional Home, was looking for livelihood avenues for the women inmates. He urged Samirr and Mayuri to do their bit.
She took the necessary permissions and began teaching shibori work to the women inmates. Soon, she hired a teacher to teach them needlework.
“A small message was floated about a training programme for women. In the first class, only five women turned up. This number expanded to 10 and 20 soon after,” she notes.
The women, along with artisans stationed in the company’s own workshops, started making garments, dupattas, stoles, potlis, etc., under the brand name T-SUTI to offline retailers and boutiques.
Moreover, these women now had a stable monthly income of Rs 3,000- Rs 5,000.
The company was selling 150 pieces per month. “We priced the products moderately and reasonably. We didn’t want to belong to the luxury category nor did we want to belong to the super-affordable bucket wherein clothes are sold in bulk,” says Mayuri.
“But we were happy because more than anything else, it felt good to do something for these women. We felt like we were giving back to society.”
The cross-stitch dupattas, stoles, and suits became a favourite, and were most sold pan-India.
The inmates were earning a stable monthly income of Rs 3,000- Rs 5,000 before the pandemic.
COVID-19 and the road ahead
The COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a grinding halt. Pooja Exports’ business had been operating smoothly for three years and working with around 25 inmates.
But, the pandemic-led lockdown posed great hardships as it also meant closing down the activities in the prison. The second further added to their woes.
To keep the business going, Mayuri is relying on the artisans working in the company’s workshop.
Though the business has reduced drastically, it did not stop completely. Pooja Exports claims to be selling around 20 pieces a month, down from 150 pre-pandemic. Revenues have also been reduced to Rs 50 lakh today from Rs 1 crore annually.
However, Mayuri says the situation is getting better as “things are slowly getting back on track”. She hopes to revive the business completely, including the livelihood of the women from the correctional home, in the coming times.
In the 80s and 90s, it wasn’t common for a woman to be the face of a particular business at the time. While her father supported her, Mayuri had to face a lot of judgement.
“Whenever I would go to Bhagalpur, the weavers would stare at me because having a woman representative was unseen,” Mayuri recalls.
She adds that her relatives would question her father’s decision as many felt that the business would hinder her marriage prospects.
Nevertheless, she went on to learn the tips and tricks of the trade from her father, who stood by her in the good and bad times.
”He was never strict,” she says, adding that he would urge her to learn from him when it came to handling customers. At the same time, he encouraged her to develop her own mind.
Having lost him a couple of years ago, Mayuri says she often asks herself what he would have said had he been alive whenever she encounters an obstacle.
A thriving market
The pandemic led Mayuri, like many others, to realise the power of the internet and digital routes for business. Going forward, Pooja Exports will focus on launching its own digital store and a website to sell products.
Moreover, India’s textile and apparel industry — worth $100 billion, according to IBEF — holds immense potential, according to her.
In Kolkata, brands like Good Companions are involved in a similar business of making outfits made by catholic women.
Furthermore, brands like Eco Tasar, Okhai, GoCoop, and iTokri have carved a niche in the sphere of social entrepreneurship.
“Things are looking very hopeful now. As far as garments and fabrics are concerned, people will start buying again at the same pace as pre-pandemic and we are expecting to completely revive by January,” she says.
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