Shruti Venkatesan On Empowering Women To Rise In Their Communities, One Skill At A Time

Shruti Venkatesan On Empowering Women To Rise In Their Communities, One Skill At A Time

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Welcome to our section, FSChangemakers, where we bring you stories and conversations with inspirational women. These women have changed lives and given back to the community in their own ways. Every day, they stand up and push through challenges to imagine and create a better future. Today we have Shruti Venkatesan, Co-Founder of Khwaab, sharing her experiences and reflections with us. 

Started in 2014 by Shruti Venkatesan and Pooja Chopra, Khwaab aims to empower women from low-income households by providing them access to contextual skills and sustainable livelihoods. Their journey began much earlier when they both were teaching their all-girls class in the same school as part of their Teach For India (TFI) Fellowship, in Mandawali, Delhi. It was during this time they realised that while their students had the drive to study and learn, the environment they faced at home was not supportive and conducive. And, if they wanted the girls to have a better future, they needed to push their mothers on to the path of financial independence.

Over the years, Khwaab has made great strides as it has grown from a skill-development organisation to now a hybrid entity—it not only trains women to hone artisanal skills but also enables them to earn livelihoods through a community based social business model that’s driven by the women of the community. Khwaab has trained 8 Mandawali women to become managers within the organisation.

We spoke to Shruti about her interest in the field of skill development and livelihoods, experiences at TFI and building Khwaab, the changes she has witnessed in the community, and a lot more.

  • Going back to the start, what made you interested to work in the literacy and education space and work as a teacher with Teach For India?

I come from a family of people who very strongly believe in ‘Sewa (service), as a quality. Being from a middle-class family, so it’s not like we had a lot of resources at our disposal, but I grew up seeing my parents and grandparents be very generous, with whatever little they had. So, at a subconscious level, this got ingrained in me at a very young age. 

After school, I joined Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies, which is known for its business courses and corporate placements. There, I had this opportunity to be a part of the student body, Enactus, where students would come together and run different social entrepreneurial projects, in low-income communities. Till then I just knew that doing good and serving society gave me a lot of happiness, but I never really looked at it as my full-time job. But, through my engagement with Enactus, where I led a couple of projects in 8-9 slum clusters in Delhi, I started realising that this is something I would love to convert into a full-time professional career. 

So, towards the end of my college life, when everyone else was sitting for placements with the likes of Google, McKinsey and AT Kerney, Teach For India (TFI) came to my college for a pre-placement talk. That was the only social organisation that had come to college, and back then I did not know anything about it. 

I was so touched and mesmerised by the mere communication that was going out. The statistics that they shared on how so many children never got a chance to go to college, or don’t finish their secondary education—just hearing those numbers really moved me and compelled me to join TFI. I had no second thoughts about it. I applied, and got through and even though I had no particular ideas of becoming a teacher or taking up education on a full-time basis at that point in time, I realised that this is what I was meant to do. I just saw the need out there, and having the ability to create a positive impact is what moved me. 

  • At TFI, your engagement was not limited to students in the classroom only but went beyond to include their parents and communities as well. What was that experience like?

TFI was definitely one of the best experiences that anyone could ever ask for. Those 2 years really did shape the kind of person that I am today and that I am going to be for at least the next couple of decades to come. 

I think the Fellowship itself is quite a rigorous programme. I had to teach Grade 2, and even being around 40-50 students was not an easy job, to begin with. It’s not just about being around them, taking care of them and teaching them, but also re-imagining the kind of education that they deserve as compared to what they are getting. 

Shruti and Pooja during their TFI days.

In the 2 years that we would be with them, we were expected to make sure that our students get the kind of learning that is at par with what happens in a good private school. This itself was very challenging, and we were dealing with even bigger challenges. One was lack of quality infrastructure—there were days during monsoon where we would stand knee-deep in the water while teaching our class, with a fear of getting electrocuted because there was open wiring everywhere! Another was also the school environment, like the staff not being very supportive of us young ‘kids’ coming and trying to deliver a different education than what they are used to seeing. In my school, especially Pooja and I received a lot of harassment from the school staff and some members of the community.

What these experiences did was that they pushed us—one, to become strong over the 2 years; and two, to create our own ecosystem of support. Both Pooja and I, invested in building relationships with the community. Because we were not getting a lot of support from the school, and the students were also really young, we also had no other option but to immerse ourselves in the community and build relationships with the parents of the children. Our school was in the middle of the community, so every day after school, we would visit one of our student’s homes for a cup of chai and that is where most of the important conversations started happening, which later on led to the beginning of Khwaab as well. 

  • What made you push through all these challenges? Are there any particular instances or moments that also reinforced to you what you were doing?

The first 6-8 months were very hard to push through. We would often wonder if anything is going to change and if it will ever make a difference. I was teaching very young kids, and in English, which they did not really understand as a subject and language. While a private school student of that same grade is in a position to read fluently, my kids were still getting a hang of the English alphabet. So every other day, there was a lot of questioning and self-introspection that was happening. 

But there is always a point in every Fellow’s journey, between the first and the second year, where there is a sudden transition that happens, when your students start looking up to you, start looking forward to attending the classes and being a part of every new activity, and just feel excited to come to school. And that transition happens only when they begin to love you and trust you for the kind of person you are, and the amount of effort you are putting in. For me also, when my kids went from Grade 2 to Grade 3, they suddenly became so matured and hardworking, they started pushing themselves to improve. They started speaking in English and started attempting things that they usually wouldn’t. 

And, that sudden shift in their attitude further pushed me to put in even more effort. Towards the end of the 2 years, we did an adaptation of The Jungle Book. And because our school didn’t have a stage, we booked the Akshara Theatre in Delhi, and our kids got to perform in front of their parents. It’s such a nice theatre and for them to do this in front of so many parents was a dream come true for us. It made us feel that all that we did for the 2 years was worth it. 

  • You were working with children at TFI and at Khwaab, you are working with their mothers. In the journey of working on children’s education, when did you realise that working with their mothers was required?

In the beginning, we started the home visits just to understand our kids better—where they came from, what kind of support they were receiving from home for their education, how invested their parents were in their education, etc. During those conversations, a few things really stood out. 

We were teaching an all-girls classroom. And, their mothers, even though they themselves were women, would say, ‘Ye kya padhegi? (what will she do after studying?) Maybe till 10th-12th, she won’t really go to college, as no other girls in my family have gone to college, and we’ll just get her married.’ We thought that a woman would never limit what another woman could achieve in life.

We thought that the mothers would have a mindset that if they couldn’t get certain opportunities in life, they’d at least want them for their daughters. But that wasn’t the case, and that was also very contradictory to what we were teaching our girls in the classroom—that she could dream to become anything she wanted to if she decide to put her heart and mind to it. And, at home, they were getting exposed to a very different reality.

We realised that just teaching children for just two years is not going to make a long-term impact until we don’t change how their parents, especially their mothers, think. In the communities we work in, the amount of time a father spends with his children is less. So, how a mother pushes and enables her child is very important. This is how we first got the idea for Khwaab. 

  • Tell us more about the experiences from the community that finally translate into setting up and launching Khwaab?

There was one particular instance where one of our kids was running around in a dress that her mother had made. When we saw this, we suggested to her mother that she can sell the dresses she makes. Her instant reaction was a ‘no’ because she had never thought of a reality where she can work or start a business even from her own home. This was our first trigger point.

The third realisation was when we went to the Barefoot, Tilonia, Rajasthan for TFI’s video retreat. Theirs was a self-sustaining community where women and men were running their own localised businesses. Many of them hadn’t gone to school or had access to formal education but were doing incredible work, which further made us realise that we should not expect anything less from the women of Mandawali. 

Women artisans of Khwaab with their handmade diaries.

All of these experiences combined is what led to us launching Khwaab, the idea for which was to create a safe space for the women in our community where they can be trained and motivated to achieve their dreams. 

  • When you started working with these women, what was their literacy and education level like and how did that change since they got connected with Khwaab? 

We started Khwaab as a skill development organisation. Once they had the skill, we started studying how they could convert their skill into a livelihood. Based on the conversations we had with the women, we learnt that the majority of the women were primary school dropouts, about 30-40% had gone to secondary but dropped out before 10th. So, basic speaking and numerical literacy, both in English and Hindi were missing. 

As they would hear their kids conversing in English, they were very interested in learning the language. So, after the skill development programme, we started a literacy program and then we started the livelihood program where the women started earning money using their handcrafted products. Once the money started coming into their hands, their initial reaction was that of excitement! This was the first time they were earning anything on their own. 

Over time, we realised that they were not planning for the future. They were not providing a safety cushion for themselves or their families, nor were they investing in government policies. So, three years into our operations is when we launched our financial literacy program which helped them learn how to set up their bank accounts, digital payments and even their PAN cards & other KYC documents. We are very proud to say that all of the women under us have their PAN cards, know how to use digital payment portals. Some of them have even gone on to create their Amazon seller accounts on their own. 

We have built Khwaab as a completely women-led organisation where our managers are also from the community. They take care of everything end-to-end, be it customer relations, website inventory and everything in between. So, watching them come from a point where they couldn’t read and write to now managing such responsibilities without any help is brilliant. 

  • Over time, what type of shift did you observe in their relationships with their children? Has the mindset of the mothers changed after starting their own business and are they more supportive of their daughters to move forward?

Absolutely, there has been a massive shift. As soon as the mother’s started earning, they were putting it into their child’s education and family’s health. This led to giving all these children better access to learning as they no longer depended on their fathers to buy them books. We saw mothers also funding their kids’ tuitions to help them get some extra support. 

Women at Khwaab learning the art of stitching.

One of my students teaches in a school and gets paid 1500 bucks which she has been saving up for her college education for two years now. If not all, we know that at least most of our students will get a college education due to the money earned by them and their mothers. This has only been possible due to the shift in the mother’s mind. 

  • During the pandemic, how did you enable digital literacy for the women associated with Khwaab?

So before the pandemic, we ran a program where we mentored 10 Khwaab women to become mentors to the other 150 women. This was a self-designed program that was very successful and had elements of digital banking. There was no major need to learn digital finance earlier, but when demonetisation happened and then when Covid-19 happened, this changed. 

When it comes to sustainable grassroots initiatives for any beneficiary group, the end goal needs to be reaching a place where the initiative is led by the people like it as for them. We truly hope that we have been able to do that for the women of Mandawali. We hope that with or without Khwaab, they never stop walking on the path of financial independence and creating livelihoods for the other women of the community.

  • Any closing thoughts for anyone who is starting a journey towards creating sustainable social change?

When it comes to sustainable grassroots initiatives for any beneficiary group, the end goal needs to be reaching a place where the initiative is led by the people as it is for them. We truly hope that we have been able to do that for the women of Mandawali. We hope that with or without Khwaab, they never stop walking on the path of financial independence and creating livelihoods for the other women of the community.