We at SoCHE Foundation recently returned from the first formal skill-development training in two far off villages of Rajasthan, bordering Pakistan. 15 village women were explained how to use their embroidery as a means of livelihood, preserve their ethnic heritage, yet make innovative products, understanding the market pricing and demand.
As soon as the training was over, the women demonstrated what we trained them on. Next day, we got a call from the elected woman leader in one of the villages, asking us to train more women and leave behind more resource material for them to use. They were all already dreaming of becoming entrepreneurs.
My earlier post Meet Nemat Bano, dated January 14th (see here) gave a background on how we are working tirelessly under Project Maati Milaap to identify handicrafts in the interiors of the country that are either forgotten, dying or unidentified; connecting it to not just livelihood options with market linked trainings, but also ensuring environment conservation in the process. These two villages also formed part of the same journey.
We have returned now – immensely satisfied – as the work there is gaining momentum. The women are combining their local culture, heritage and skills into beautiful handmade products for further sale. It’s the birth of a new economy at village level.
SoCHE is a young organisation, in sixth month of its operations, that I founded. When I quit my comfortable corporate job in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in August 2015 (where I was leading the environment vertical of a global tyre manufacturing company), I knew it would be extremely challenging. Though in CSR I did work at grass root level – from the unkind transport hubs to humble villages around manufacturing plants – from swachhta to biodiversity enhancement; the comfort of corporate extravaganza in the form of pre paid hotels, taxis and intermittent dialogue with accompanying team members was always a luxury that all of us take for granted.
Today as a social entrepreneur, when I chart unknown territories, reach out to unfamiliar communities deep inside this country, it is both risky and tiring. There is no corporate strategy that I have to follow, no risk mitigation, no stakeholder management or conscious attempt at inclusion. I am just following my heart and passion to connect the unconnected artisans. This is a journey I have embarked on using my CSR skills as the bedrock. I am trying to cover the geographical length and breath of the country and going into deep corners to see for myself the handicrafts that are not in the market – maybe have never reached or have already died the natural death.
Mainstreaming and preserving the cultural heritage that our country– through its 29 states, a history of more than 3000 years, and the existence of thousands of different ethnic groups – is so blessed with, is sure worth all the risks and effort. There are moments when I do not even know if the taxi I am taking in such interiors is safe – and there is never an administration person who I can fire in case anything goes wrong. With a call of judgement and leap of faith, I carry on, however. My family, back home, only wishes for my well-being at all times and seeks constant updates on my whereabouts, naturally so.
Coming from CSR background myself, both academically and professionally, I thought convincing people in my own fraternity to join hands in such an initiative will not be difficult. Every company works with communities that have their own unique cultural heritage. It should be a natural choice, therefore, to want to preserve it as one’s responsibility. Handicrafts, after all, are a manifestation of such richness.
The CSR law too highlights cultural heritage preservation, women empowerment, poverty alleviation, livelihood generation and environment conservation as clear areas of impact generation. Project Maati Milaap weaves all of these beautifully together, with CSR and sustainable development principles, philosophy and experience at the very foundation.
In the last few weeks, I have on different occasions interacted with my fellow CSR colleagues, seniors, juniors – but this time as a social entrepreneur. I have witnessed their apathy towards the word ‘NGO’. From the suave IT sector to the more rustic PSU, I have witnessed the arrogance of capitalistic mindset, often being treated as the ‘other’ and seldom as the founder of a young, daring, risk-taking, passion-driven, action-oriented organisation.
I have been asked on several occasions to either call back later, or not call at all, for I intruded into the very busy corporate life – the one that I left few months back. Ironically, there are many corporations who still struggle to spend the complete 2% of their profits in a financial year and cut a cheque to the PM relief fund at the end out of compulsion. Yet, not many have the heart to listen to a new idea, a fresh perspective, an inclusive opportunity to make a difference tangibly. Being less than three years old is further considered to be a deterrent, as it is a pre-requisite in many organisation for further engagement.
Being a ‘social entrepreneur on a mission’ is not necessarily well-received or understood by many, as yet. Founding an organisation by getting out of ones comfort zone completely, propelled by the thirst of what lays outside of the realm of the known needs a heart to comprehend. Yes a heart! Capitalistic structures somewhere have taken that away, and left only the mind. Perhaps this is what CSR in this country needs – a heart that beats. The ultimate value creation lies in not just the number of smiles you create but also how many you sustain.
Even then, SoCHE Foundation is a journey that continues to fulfill my intellectual endeavor, each day. I unlearn and learn with every new community. Each time we enter into the interior of the country, I know that there will be a new experience which is waiting to enrich me, awaken a part of my spiritual self that I am unaware of. I know then my heart is in the right place, beating well. I only hope that coming back it doesn’t get arrested.
SoCHE stands for Solutions for Clean and Healthy Environment.