My Fulbright Illuminated Women’s Empowerment through Entrepreneurship in India

Annual Report 2020, Blog, Guest Blog

It all began in the lush green hills of Rwanda with All Across Africa. As a Miller Center Global Social Benefit Fellow, I spent two months with female artisans in East Africa, who shared stories of their journey to economic empowerment. The women talked of making money to support their households, they shared their involvement in village government, and they spoke of their ability to invest and to have hope for their future. I was enthralled by the power and agency with which these women expressed themselves. They were so resilient — women who chose to lead and inspire others despite the roles prescribed for them by society. I wanted to more deeply understand the sense of agency facilitated through a woman’s involvement in entrepreneurship. I longed to listen to more stories, with eyes full of wonder and reverence. And I saw a need to share more of those stories with the world.

Through a Fulbright-Nehru research scholarship, I conducted research in South India for eight months with Miller Center alum Pollinate Group. I spent the majority of my time doing ethnographic fieldwork with women entrepreneurs living in informal settlements scattered across large metropolitan cities like Bangalore and Kolkata. These communities often lack energy services and clean cooking facilities and women grapple with deeply ingrained gender dynamics. I hoped to understand a woman’s sense of agency through her involvement in entrepreneurial activity, selling household products, but most often small-scale solar such as solar lanterns and fans. The products these women sell have many life-saving and time-saving benefits: families no longer have to deal with toxic and dangerous kerosene lamps, children can study with a solar lamp to light up the darkness, and with clean cookstoves, women can cook without inhaling smoke from firewood they had to take the time to collect. In the process of selling these products, a woman begins to develop business skills and enhances her bargaining power in the household. She also creates a stronger sense of community and challenges gendered norms that a woman’s place is in the home. She earns a sense of status and power not obtained before. I was fascinated by this process of empowerment and what it means for a woman.

My field visits took me from the tropics of South India to the humid Northeast region of West Bengal to the arid desert of rural Rajasthan. The visits transformed into enjoyable and enlightening experiences. At the start, my intentions revolved around trying to get to the core of what facilitates a woman’s sense of agency and resilience. But as I spent more time in these communities, I began to feel a part of their living, breathing ecosystem of colorful life. I was welcomed so warmly each time I sat with these women and was awed by the stories they shared. At a certain point, I stopped prying for answers and started listening more. Once I began to fully open myself to their wisdom, the women always had a lesson to teach me. I was inspired by them. I wanted to spend all the time I could with them, sitting with them, listening to them, and learning from them.

My time in India was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, in which all US Foreign Exchange programs were shut down with scholars encouraged to return to their country of citizenship. I was ripped out of a place I loved and sent back home, leaving behind the community I had created and the things I’d planned to do. I didn’t get to finish what I had started there. I didn’t get to help implement strategies for creating a more female-focused narrative of entrepreneurship. I didn’t get a chance to share my gratitude. But, now as images and memories from India swirl around in my mind as I walk the palm-lined streets of Phoenix, Arizona, I recognize what I do have. I DO have incredible stories of women’s lives that were so beautifully shared with me — stories of hardship, tragedy, abuse, gender roles, education, empowerment, citizenship, and kindness. The stories are disparate but the theme that connects every single story is resilience. That each woman overcame. And will continue to overcome with grace. And I DO have the capability to share those stories with you. I have changed the names of these women in order to protect their identity, but their narratives remain unchanged.

So, as you read some of these stories, I hope you can experience what life is like amongst a sea of blue tarp homes. I hope you can smell the richness of sambar, a rich Indian lentil stew, bubbling in big metal vats as these women cook every day. I hope you can see the sparkle in their eyes, as they share their stories of power and agency. I hope you can feel empathy for their way of life, however different it may be from your own. I hope you can feel the warmth of their light, that permeates beyond their communities, creating a brighter world.

Here’s my first story. I’m excited to share a few more of these narratives of hope and resilience with you in future newsletters over the coming months. Dhan’yavādaga.

Yamini: The Golden Woman 

Gleaming brilliantly in the morning sun in her golden yellow sari, Yamini greeted me at the front of the slum, within the depths of the sprawling green city of Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley. Gargantuan tech parks rose above the settlement like creepy giants peering down, leaving shadows all around. I shook my head in disbelief at the incredible wealth contrast before me. But before I could think about it more, Yamini pulled me into her tidy home just a few steps ahead, excited to share a story with me.

She began, with her eyes glistening and her hands motioning all over the room, filled with bright energy.“ I was walking down the street the other day when I came across a young woman. She recognized me because I sell the solar lights here. She began to ask me about the lights. She admitted to me that she doesn’t have any light in her home. I was shocked! So I told her why light is so important, like for her children’s ability to do school work,” she reported, almost out of breath. “And the next day,” she exclaimed, “she came back to find me and bought a light for her family! She then began sharing the importance of light with her community. That was a very proud moment for me,” she beamed, an aura of yellow magnified by her golden sari.

She had explained earlier that before she began this work she used to be so shy she wouldn’t consider leaving her home or speaking to strangers. She had never been taught to interact with other people, she told me. Growing up, her role was always prescribed to the home, she reminded me. So this encounter was a BIG deal for her. I was taken aback by Yamini’s newfound sense of power. Her agency was abounding, I thought, dumbstruck by the woman before me.

I adored her story because it clearly illustrated Yamini’s transformation through her involvement in entrepreneurship. She felt like she had something important to share with the world. And that she did share, gracefully. She approached a stranger on the street and had the power to share her knowledge about the life saving and time-saving benefits of solar. I wondered how often Yamini did things like this.

“Yamini, how do you usually sell products?” I probed. “Sometimes I sell through word of mouth, by talking to my friends,” she managed with a brilliant smile. “But my husband likes to do all the communication for me. He thinks I can’t trust people here, so he likes to communicate and sometimes he sells the products,” she blabbed, without any inkling of concern. I deflated like a balloon. This defeats the whole purpose of a woman experiencing agency through economic and entrepreneurial involvement, I reasoned. I couldn’t believe that her husband was trying to take over her position! I could feel a sense of animosity building up, my heartbeat rising quickly. But then I glanced at Yamini, who perched peacefully before me, illuminated by the rays of a solar lantern that hung up in the corner of her hut. I took a deep breath and chose to not dwell on what Yamini had just shared. I made a mental note to discuss this issue with the organization I’d been working with, to understand the spectrum of a husband’s involvement, from supportive, to domineering. But, I told myself, right now, the best I could do was to listen to Yamini’s story.

And I did listen, as Yamini described her life and longings. She may be defined by her husband’s rules at some points in her life, but she had a story to prove that she did indeed feel empowered. And it only takes a few seconds to exercise one’s agency, about which she shared many stories. And that’s what felt important in that bright room that day. Acknowledging her light, listening to her words that flowed like sun rays and basking in the warmth that she exuded while talking about her self-transformation. We’d deal with the husband’s domineering mission later, I assured her. I got up to leave, hugging goodbye to the golden woman before me as she walked us out of her home. I plopped down on the hard seat of an autorickshaw, waving furiously to the beaming woman who stood tall in the sunshine. She jolted her head back in laughter as I rounded the corner, losing sight of the gleaming yellow sari.