It is a sizzling 43oC in Baska village near Vadodara. Not that Rahina is complaining. She recently started selling ice creams. She had begun with a hesitant 5000 worth of stock and was soon overwhelmed by the demand. Now, the supplier is finding it difficult to keep up.
The heat did not matter to Arifa, either. She was just back after her trip to Surat, where she had gone to pick up material. She is now so sure of her clothing business that she is planning to give the shop to her son to set up his mobile business. “After all, my suppliers know me, my customers know me, does it really matter if I keep the material at home or in the shop?” a confident Arifa wondered.

Two years ago, Arifa was a recluse, following the death of her husband. She had heard of this programme where they were to teach women tailoring and she had taken her 15-year old daughter to the programme. The organisers felt her daughter was too young. Would Arifa be interested? “Me? Learn business? I have barely moved out of my house. I can hardly read and write.” Her protests notwithstanding, Arifa was persuaded to start. And she has not looked back after that.
Rahina had also heard about this programme to learn tailoring. She was 18 when she joined the programme. A few days after she started, tailoring went out of the window. “What I was learning could help me do any business. Instead of tailoring, which everyone appeared to be doing, why not grow my little biscuits-and-sweets into a proper general store?” so went Rahina’s thinking.
The programme they both attended along with 178 others was the Women Entrepreneurship Development Programme (WEDP) conducted by the International Center for Entrepreneurship and Career Development (ICECD) and sponsored by IL&FS Investment Managers Ltd. Implemented by The Nalanda Foundation; WEDP covered villages like Baska in the vicinity of the Vadodara-Halol road and the Ahmedabad-Mehsana road, both projects promoted by IL&FS Transport Networks Ltd. The training was in three batches for a month, followed by six months of handholding. 20 high-achieving entrepreneurs received additional mentoring in entrepreneurial practice, financial literacy and life skills.

Rahina: the rani of the market

When you have a girl in the family, you take care of her and then marry her off at the earliest. That remains the norm in many places, particularly in rural India. So, the girl remains a dependent of one family or the other.

Not Rahina. The WEDP gave her ample confidence to speak her mind and follow her entrepreneurial instincts. Far from being dependent, she now employs her father and her two brothers in her business. Not surprisingly, Rahina considers herself a “rani” (queen) and that’s the name she has chosen for her shop too.

Won’t a super market be an entirely different ball game? Can she handle that? “I have to turn away many customers because I can’t supply all that they want. I think the market is ready. I had taken a loan of ₹ 1 lakh to build my shop. Then I ploughed in all my earnings to stock it well. I think I will be able to get another loan of about ₹ 5 lakhs to build the super market. Yes, I can do it. My super market will be the first of its kind here.”

Isn’t she worried about setbacks? “We did face a setback when a nearby company closed down. We lost about 50 to 60 regular customers.” So, how did she cope with that? “We approached another company. Now, they are our regular customers. We give them credit for a month.”

Rahina is not into bar charts yet, but if one were to plot the growth of her business, it would look a bit like this. Starting with the wooden-planks-on-stone to her first pucca structure to the current get-it-all-here provision store (ice cream too!). Her next goal may not fit in this graph though—a multi-storeyed super market.

The visits to the big markets as part of the course, was an eye opener for Rahina. Keeping in touch with the market is now a part of life for Rahina. It was during a recent visit to Ahmedabad that she got the idea to venture into cutlery. “I am thinking about it; discussing it with my family.”
She has bought an auto rickshaw, mainly to ferry goods from the market. “We just paid the last instalment on that vehicle loan.” Yes, the super market might need a larger van.

She was never shy even when she used to occasionally run the little sweets and biscuits venture when she was in school. She does not believe there is room to be shy when it comes to business.

But she did blush when the topic of her marriage came up. Yes, she is planning to get married in 2018. Does that mean the end of the entrepreneur? “No way! One of the first conditions she put to the boy’s family was that she would continue to run a shop even after she got married,” her father said. “They agreed. They will set up a shop for her.”

Arifa: once invisible, now independent
A separate shop was not in the agenda for Arifa when she approached the bank for a loan. She just wanted to add a floor to her house so that she could keep her merchandise there.
“Some people who were not very happy with my progress, built a structure overnight and blocked the frontage.” She explained the situation to the manager of the bank, which was processing her loan application to add the extra floor. She was hoping for a loan of some ₹ 80,000. After studying her business potential and watching her in action, the bank approved a loan of ₹ 1.5 lakhs to set up a new shop. That was enough for Arifa, the entrepreneur, to take off.

“I am grateful for all the support I received during the training. People were very patient with me. After I started my business, there were times when I wanted to give up. They would cajole me, scold me and I would continue,” Arifa said.

She was taught to always look for a better opportunity even if it meant taking a little risk. “I used to sell readymade clothes. But I observed that readymade clothes sold well only during festivals. There was better margin in buying good material and getting it stitched.” Lesson implemented!
“Initially, I would make mistakes and ended up making losses,” Arifa revealed. “Now I know better. The suppliers happily give me what I want and are willing to wait for their payment. My loyal customers are always after me for new material and designs.”

The social norms of the community expected Arifa to spend her life in the shadows, after the unfortunate demise of her husband. What WEDP did was pull her out, train her a little and inject sufficient confidence in her so that she could spread her wings and soar.

“Not so long ago, I was dependent on my mother and my elder sister for the survival of my family—myself, my daughter and my son. Now, my children are ready to take up their own ventures. All I have to look after is my business and myself,” Arifa added with a smile. Going by the award she has bagged for her meticulous book-keeping and astute marketing, Arifa is looking after her business very well.

The Vadodara-Halol road, long done, now runs smooth, save the occasional herd of cows preferring a leisurely shortcut, right across all the lanes. But IL&FS is not done yet.
The motorists zooming past do not see the many Rahinas and Arifas around, who have gained the courage and the confidence to stand on their own feet. They have forced society to look at women with new respect. They have proved they can be successful entrepreneurs, given a little support and encouragement.

We have already trained 200 women and have had two rounds of mentoring sessions. We are hoping to help many more.

A Rahina or an Arifa may not make it to the cover of any business magazine. But they are rewriting history in their own way. And all of us in the IL&FS family are happy
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