For 9 days every year we celebrate Durga Maa – the champion of the underdog and saviour of those in need. Her fierce spirit and compassion teach us to be dedicated to helping others. Today we cast the spotlight on a young entrepreneur who leads her life with these principles.
This article is a part of the campaign ‘9 mindful women entrepreneurs who are building a healthy future’. Each day, we’ll feature an inspiring entrepreneur and her journey towards a more sustainable future.
Suhani Jalota isn’t just your average 24 year old. She’s featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2018. The winner of Young Achiever’s Mother Teresa Memorial Award 2018, Queen’s Young Leader 2017-India and one of Glamour Magazine’s College Women Of The Year. Since 2015, she’s been running Myna Mahila Foundation – a non profit foundation in Mumbai slums that works towards awareness of menstrual health with a focus on women’s employment and empowerment and building their own community. Simultaneously, she’s pursuing her MBA and PhD in Health Economics from Stanford University, California.
Myna was an idea that came from the women I was working with in the slum community.
I grew up in a government house, so we moved across various small towns and eventually, Mumbai. I studied in Dhirubhai Ambani school which was close to Dharavi and I saw firsthand the stark inequality. Since I was about 14, I would spend my time after school working with a self-help group that would do savings at the doorstep in these communities. Over the next few years, I started working with these women and got to know them and their grievances. When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree from Duke University, NC, USA, I got support from Melissa and Doug Entrepreneurs Fellowship who provided me with funding for a venture of my own.
I had many ideas and areas of interest like sanitation, adult health, child stunting, housing failures etc. As part of my research, I spoke to many women, of all ages, from the slum communities about what empowerment meant to them. The core issue was how these women perceived themselves. If they didn’t think positively about themselves then they wouldn’t care enough about their health, education or even fighting for their daughters. Even in some positive deviances where women stood up for themselves, it wasn’t enough and there was a need of a support system within the community where women could stand for each other.
Around 2014 – ‘15, we discussed forming a company and registering ourselves and we liked the name Myna. Myna is a bird that speaks a lot and it’s the perfect mascot for an organization where we encourage women to start speaking for themselves and talk about their issues. Our core mission being empowering women through various tools. Myna is also about breaking the ice on issues that weigh them down like menstrual hygiene. We decided to start with sanitary napkins because it’s a conversation starter. At a door to door level, whether women were open to it or detested it, when we took our sanitary napkins to them, it would start a conversation.
EMPLOYMENT, EMPOWERMENT, COMMUNITY- the building blocks of Myna.
In 2015, Myna started with a three-pronged vision
1- Creating versatile employment opportunities for women, especially in the manufacture of sanitary napkins and promoting financial empowerment.
2- Educate women on menstrual health and encourage them to take control of their hygiene and body.
3- Build a women’s network. Often in these communities women grow up not having friends or someone to talk to. When you’re sheltered, your dependency on family and spouses increase. We wanted them to build their own social capital.
We wanted these women to learn collaborative skills by working as a team and go beyond their comfort zones.
There are many activities running under each of our mission/program. We employ these women in versatile programs. We hold pad-parade campaigns on the streets and talk about sanitary napkins and the taboos attached to it. Through our sponsorial drives, we survey and provide over 3000 girls with menstrual kits along with education and training regarding it.
We do a teach menses campaign in which we reach out to 10,000 women over 5 months. We have an Annual Myna event which is the only event where we invite outside stakeholders. We involve government, ministry of health, BMC, UNICEF, WASH-united etc where we discuss new avenues as well as challenges that are happening in the menstrual hygiene space. For example how do we involve sex workers in our conversation and what are the solutions we can provide them? About working with disabled girls, mentally challenged girls, or even finding ways of effective sanitary waste disposal management because incinerators or compostable pads are not the solution. There’s a whole range of activities and research that we are doing on ground level and most importantly data collection because it’s key to understand the population we’re dealing with and what’s the baseline look like and how much change we can see in a particular period of time.
For the future, we’d like to set up a workforce incubator where we can help women with their entrepreneurial ideas.
In Mumbai, the greatest challenge is space and we’re trying to provide that. We’re also trying to connect them to the right market and the right buyer. We’re trying to teach them relevant business skills so that they can effectively start and run their businesses. We also get them counselling and give them psychological support to help them get into the right headspace to grow their business.
This is not a Padman story, we are focusing on actual employment generation and awareness way more than the production facility.
People from different cities have shown a lot of interest in working with us and bringing MYNA to their cities. We’re trying to build a model where we don’t have to go to each city but can enable people to start their own Myna initiatives, locally. We have started in Delhi and Mysore and are hoping to reach Lucknow and Kolkata soon. We want committed people. This is not a Padman story, we are focusing on actual employment generation and awareness way more than the production facility, which actually doesn’t solve any problems.
We collaborate on services which we aren’t equipped to handle. For local collaborations in Mumbai we work with Majlis Legal Centre, who work on domestic violence cases and provides legal service to women. Now, when we have a case of a missing girl or another such situation we refer them to Majlis and continue to follow up and close the issue. Our aim is to provide holistic solutions to all women because at the end of the day, when she trusts us, we can’t turn her away.
Myna Mahila Foundation became one of the seven charities and the only Indian one chosen to benefit from donations marking the wedding of Prince Harry and Ms. Meghan Markle.
In 2016, I was studying in New York and was selected as one of the 10 of Glamour Magazine’s College Women Of The Year. Girls across U.S. colleges are chosen on the basis of academics and extracurricular activities and then brought together. Each of the 10 girls were then paired with a mentor at a luncheon in NY and one of these girls was paired with Meghan Markle, who was an actress back then.
Eventually, they gave me the grand prize and my work was discussed in detail at that luncheon and she was in the audience. A few months later I got an email from her saying she wanted to come down to India and would like to know more about my project. She came down and spent 2 days with us. She saw the work we do and our on-ground approach. We are a small scale foundation run at a very grassroot level and because of that we are able to go in-depth with issues of women and I guess that resonated with her and since then, she has been a great support.
The first Non-US citizen to be awarded Glamour College Woman Of The Year Award
Glamour Magazine US holds an annual award for exceptional women in US colleges. It’s an old reputed award with previous winners like Martha Stewart but it was only meant for US citizens. However, I was recommended by someone who was unaware of this because the website said they were looking for candidates’ representative of women, all over the country. Anyway, I applied and got through but once the magazine realized this, they cancelled my eligibility. At this point, I had nothing to lose so I wrote back saying 11% of the undergraduate student body, across US colleges, is international and they can’t be represented because of this exclusion. I fought my case and eventually they allowed me to be the first international student to participate in this competition. I guess perseverance helps!
Myna was the 6th idea that I pitched and the one which came into being.
Since childhood, I had always wanted to be an economist or a biologist not an entrepreneur. During my undergraduate degree, I’d pitch numerous start-up ideas along with my batchmates. Myna was the 6th idea that I pitched alone which came into being. Entrepreneurship happened naturally and honestly, I’m still learning how to run a business but I had support from some really great team members. I started working on Myna along with people from the slum communities and as it grew, we kept getting inspired by its potential. It wasn’t a dream but now it definitely is one.
In India we have this weird notion that charity and social work is supposed to be different from business.
There’s an illogical notion amongst people that it’s best when the youth focus on business and the older, retired community focus on social work. Aren’t poverty, education, unemployment, good health care and improving the standard of living some of the toughest challenges in the world? It wasn’t a choice to work in the development sector, I was meant to be here. Working with underprivileged communities is a responsibility which you don’t have to take up because it’s a social thing but it’s the right thing to do. In fact, no matter where we are, these are the areas where the youth need to apply their intellectual minds. Somehow, western culture understands this better and doesn’t dismiss charity as something to do when you are older or retired.
It is legally very challenging to start a new nonprofit in India
It is an exciting time, with the Indian youth sharpening their business acumen and engaging in politics actively. This is not reflective of the non-profit sector though especially at the founding level. It is still, legally, very challenging to start a new non profit in India.
The processes are extremely complex, tiresome and discouraging to people. Businesses meant for social goods need to come into the mainstream space and not just exist as CSR. As an entrepreneur, your sense of being needs to come from the point of view of doing social good and you need to run these businesses as efficiently. But change is surely coming.
Parents with daughters need to talk to them about being fearless
Parents with daughters need to talk to them about being fearless. Parents of so many girls who work with us are unwilling to send them to slums because they think it’s unsafe. People have these preconceived notions about what is good for a girl or what is safe for her. Let her take her own decisions. Let her loose and explore the world.
Parents with sons need to start educating them about sensitive topics including women’s issues. Gender bias starts at a very early age. Boys must not be afraid to give a girl a sanitary napkin if she is on her periods. Until they understand a woman’s problems, they’ll always consider gender issues to be social.
Never think anyone is too young to do anything.
We always wait for the perfect time to do something when everything will align and just work out. You’ll have a great idea, funding and the connections but that’s not how it happens. Just start whenever you feel like you should start. Don’t overthink and make ten excuses before you begin. Start anywhere and figure it out along the way. Once you start living your dreams, it becomes easier to learn and grow.
It’s not often that we encounter young girls who are so self-assured and driven. Suhani challenges the notion of charity as an older person’s burden and stands tall in the face of adversity. I hope more women are inspired by her story and her tribe grows. To support Myna Mahila Foundation, you can find more information at www.mynamahila.com and you can follow their work on Instagram @mynamahila