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Women entrepreneurs give back to society

Business Standard:  April, 2014

Chandigarh: A number of small-scale women entrepreneurs in India are playing a quiet but key a role in empowering their less privileged counterparts, creating earning opportunities for them and enabling them to acquire identities of their own.

Bhagyashri Dixit, a young entrepreneur based in Pune, started SheepStop, an eco-friendly, 'designer T-Shirt' brand that crowd-sources its designs from a large community of artists across the world. The company is based out of Pune, employs an all-woman workforce and sells its products online as well as through select retail outlets across India.

A graduate in information technology and an art enthusiast at heart, Dixit started her career as an ERP consultant and, having done an MBA from the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, in 2006, she worked for another three years.

"When I started my own venture in 2009, I wanted to hire employees who were multi-talented, as the scale of operation was low and resources were limited. My experience of working in the corporate sector also taught me that women employees can give back to the organisation more than others if given flexibility of working hours. This has indeed helped."

Dixit set up the company's online portal (www.sheepstop.com) and retail operations all by herself. SheepStop came about as an effort to change the perception of online shopping in India and provide a platform for designers to display their talent. It follows a fair trade policy and its designers are rewarded for their artwork, as well as paid royalties on the sales of T-shirts they design.

Geeti Bakshi, director of Astra Agro Food, based out of Chandigarh, is another such woman entrepreneur. She made a modest start 22 years ago and has grown in scale and market coverage with the help of her 80-strong all-woman team.

"Our brand 'Spicy Treat', which is mainly a pickle brand, is present pan-India. We train women who do not have a skill-set and qualification to earn their living," Bakshi said.

The marketing of products by SMEs remains a challenge, says Bakshi, since they cannot spend much on branding. She tried to join hands with an organised retail chain, which has expanded aggressively in urban pockets in different parts of India, but says she did not like the experience.

Small players get overshadowed in the big box retail model, she said, adding: "We expanded pan-India on our own strength and are able to consolidate our market share on merit. We value customer feedback and this helps us earn brand loyalty without ad-spend and marketing tie-ups."

Dipti Mahajan, the young CEO of Dr IT Group of institutions based at Banur in Punjab, who took charge of her family business of software development and diversified into higher education, runs a multi-disciplinary educational institute in the hinterland of Punjab. The institute employs more than 100 skilled and unskilled persons.

Mahajan said that female students are now opting for courses that were earlier preferred by boys only, and there have even been instances when female students were selected for better positions during campus hiring.

Rekha Mann - a designer of phulkari (a form of hand embroidery in Punjab) - is yet another woman entrepreneur who has empowered thousands of women by enabling them to learn the craft and market their products, and by organising women into self-help groups and credit-linking them with banks.

She registered the Patiala Handicraft Workshop Cooperative Society in 1997 and created synergies with Sidbi (Small Industries Development bank of India) and Nabard (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development). She has also been conducting workshops for the women inmates of Punjab's jails, to enable them to earn a decent living when they are released.

Mann's hard work over the past 20 years resulted in the Phulkari cluster winning first position under the Scheme of Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries by the Khadi and Village Industries Board last month.