Diana Jue-Rajasingh

When Stuff You Do Makes a Difference …

Posted in Essmart, India by Diana on June 16, 2016

… even when you didn’t really expect it to. I’ve been learning that empowerment — “the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes” (according to the World Bank definition) — is a powerful thing.

Lunch with these businesswomen in Pollachi.

Lunch with these businesswomen in Pollachi.

I’m writing this from Pollachi, a town of about 100,000 people that is located about 1.5 hours south of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, India. The surroundings are beautiful; they’re green and lush, with coconut trees sprouting out of every barren piece of land. Pollachi is the home of Essmart’s first Distribution Center.

I’m here this week because I had to follow up with some women whom we trained three months ago. The training was based on the United Nation Foundation’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstove’s Women’s Empowerment Fund’s Empowered Entrepreneur Training Handbook (that’s quite the mouthful), and it was funded by the same organization. Our goal was to encourage higher levels of women’s participation in business — namely, the women who worked in Essmart’s stores. We encouraged women’s participation in retail stores by first training the men on business skills while emphasizing the contributions that women can make. Then, we trained the women on business skills while emphasizing their own capabilities.

At least, that’s what we had planned to do. We managed to run two training sessions, one for men and one for women, but our attendance numbers were low. The multiple-day workshop setup wasn’t conducive to the busy lives of shopkeepers, so participants floated in and out of the sessions. All but one of the women worked on businesses outside of Essmart’s stores; technically, they weren’t our target audience. But we worked with what we had.

I didn’t expect that a three-day training session would make much of an impact on either the men or the women. I was more or less correct about the lack of concrete impact on the men — I think that their biggest takeaway was that it is critical to, well, speak to customers nicely (which I thought was obvious?). But the women — they surprised me. There was the young Muslim woman who broke out of her shell through this single training workshop. The sales of her door-to-door nightgown selling business increased by 50 percent, after she became more comfortable talking to potential new customers. Her utilization of technology — namely, WhatsApp groups — made a huge difference in reducing her gasoline prices, since she no longer had to show her designs door-to-door via scooter. The WhatsApp group also helped her gauge customer demand so that she wouldn’t waste money on inventory that no one buys. She now takes pre-orders based on responses from her WhatsApp group. Additionally, her WhatsApp group has eased tensions with her family, who were previously discouraging her business because it required her to drive around town alone. Her family members are now quite supportive of her. Way to go, sister!

Another woman works at her family’s motorbike financing business. After the training session that Essmart held, she went back to analyze her costs. She realized that the business was spending far too much money outsourcing repairs to a third-party workshop. They were paying Rs 700 per day for just the labor to fix broken motorbikes. This woman realized that she could spend Rs 7,000 per month on a mechanic who could fix many motorbikes. She ended up starting up a new motorbike servicing center that falls under the umbrella of the family’s motorbike financing business. She has three male employees who service 10 to 20 motorbikes per day. This new servicing business is earning more profits than the company’s core financing business.

A businesswoman with great ideas strikes a pose with her employees.

A businesswoman with great ideas strikes a pose with her employees.

Empowerment is powerful. Being told that you have something to offer — and then truly believing it — unleashes so much potential. Limiting beliefs are destructive, and our training workshops helped participants unearth the limiting beliefs they have of each other (mostly in the sense that men believe that women are limited in, for example, their ability to learn new technology) and limiting beliefs they have of themselves, which both women and men suffer from. Of course, there are much larger, societal issues at play here, and training workshops that emphasize gender equality are small steps. However, something good is happening through them, even if it’s in the lives of two people and their families.

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