Hello Earthlings, I’m Spiffy, your favorite interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making a difference in work and economy. Today I’m going to learn about how one start-up is making a difference for rural women in India. Let’s head over there to meet Aishwarya Sunaad, founder of Ordinaire.
Spiffy: It’s great to meet you Aishwarya! Can you tell me a bit about the challenge you’re addressing through Ordinaire?
Aishwarya: Thank you so much for coming here, Spiffy. Ordinaire is a social business, built by women from Indian villages, who are scripting a new narrative for themselves and their communities, with every product they sew. Rural India is considered among the poorest demographics in the world, plagued by unemployment, malnutrition, lack of healthcare and education, and debilitating poverty. But there is immense talent and skill in India's villages, and the bulk of this talent lies with women. Ordinaire draws inspiration from and is built by ordinary women. Working in three villages, its stakeholders leverage their sewing skills to create utilitarian lifestyle products made from scrap textiles from export factories, generating income, financial independence, and savings.
Spiffy: That sounds like it would be quite difficult, especially as a woman. What motivated you to tackle this issue?
Aishwarya: In the village across from my university, women must cover their faces as a cultural norm when stepping out of the house. Asawarpur is characterized by landless agricultural labor families, poor sanitation, no health care, and dismal education levels. Very few women can read or write, let alone sign their names. Except for upper-caste houses, poverty and debt are every household's story. The Ordinaire project started when I realized that several of the women had learned to stitch through a vocational government program that they had participated in many years ago. Unfortunately, these women never got a chance to put their skills to use due to the entrenched patriarchy and lack of access to employment opportunities.
Spiffy: How is all of this helping to create a more equitable world?
Aishwarya: Ordinaire aims to be a sustainable and profitable lifestyle brand. With this as the goal, Ordinaire's members have an outlet to put their skills and talent to use through the business. A democratic set-up built on transparency is co-owned by all members. Through the sale of our products, we have been able to generate income and financial independence for our members, many of whom are earning for the first time. Ownership over their work has set the stage for wielding agency in their male-dominated community. We also generate savings by ensuring all members open a bank account and enroll in a recurring deposit scheme. Our members are no longer dependent on their male relatives. We also see this resulting in better outcomes for their children.
Spiffy: What about a recent milestone, do you have any that you are particularly excited about?
Aishwarya: We recently secured a large order to sew 500 fabric bookmarks for a corporate firm. It was a very important milestone and bolstered everyone's hopes that our work will reach larger audiences. For a business that was boot-strapped and selling its products in close circles, fulfilling a large-scale order brought in the revenue and recognition that we needed. We could invest in a new sewing machine for one of our members and generated significant savings. It helped us expand from the retail space into the corporate gifting segment of the market. We now aspire to be a reliable village to corporate, eco-friendly, gifting, solutions partner, with a strong social narrative to drive us in the market.
Spiffy: I always want to know about times that entrepreneurs have faced failure and didn't give up. What about you? What have you learned from failure?
Aishwarya: Well Spiffy, when we started off, I invested all my savings to purchase raw material and help refurbish some of our members' dusty sewing machines. We struggled to break-even since orders were small and infrequent. It seemed like it was an enterprise doomed to fail right from the start. I kept assuring the team that something would turn around, and we kept stitching bags with all the raw material we had, and carefully put them away. Eventually, we were able to sell all our products at small fairs and put money back into the business. This experience taught me the importance of perseverance in the face of apparent failure. Especially when there are people who look up to you for courage and support — don't lose hope.
Spiffy: I believe you can learn from anyone and I love lessons from kids, peers, or even pets! What is something interesting you’ve learned lately?
Aishwarya: Very young children have the sagacity to guide organizations and offer them innovative insights. The eight-year-old daughter of one of our members came up to us one day and said, "How many bags will you make? Can you not make a hair tie for me from all this cloth?" And that changed the game for us because our most popular product line was born. Our hair accessory product line now offers stylish hair-accessories from scrunchies to headscarves made from traditional Indian textiles.
Spiffy: That’s amazing, Aishwarya! Before we sign out, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Aishwarya: I'd like to tell all women reading this to please believe in your ideas and put them into action. As overwhelming or difficult as it may seem, do not give up on your ideas for the world. Explore them, speak to people, network, and you may find support and more ideas that can help you shape yours into a working model. We need more women-led businesses and organizations to change this world. We can do it. We must do it.
Spiffy: I would say you’re paving the way and being a stellar example of how to do just that! Aishwarya, it’s been an honor.
Aishwarya Sunaad, founder of Ordinaire, is an explorer of the back-alleys of cities, piecing together the narrative of a city through its working-class neighborhoods. A student of anthropology and economics, her research interests like in Subaltern Studies. She is passionate about chronicling the lived experiences of subaltern communities and peoples in contemporary India as it becomes more socially and politically volatile. Aishwarya believes in the power of business solutions to solve the world's social problems. (Nominated by Millenium Campus Network)