The alarm jangles and breaks the quiet of an apartment in Mumbai. A young woman stretches to the beats of Bollywood, waters her five green plants, gets ready and heads out the door. She inhales deeply knowing that only her mornings and evenings have a certain predictability to them. Meet Suhani Mohan, the petite 28-year-old CEO and co-founder of Saral Designs, a social enterprise that makes sanitary pads for low-income woman groups through manufacturing technology developed in-house. As an entrepreneur, she is used to getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Suhani has won plentiful accolades, including the 2018 Forbes Trailblazer (top 25 business women in India), Young Visionary award by Ministry of External affairs, National Entrepreneurship Award by Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship etc. In a freewheeling chat, she reveals how she does not need an identity separate from Saral Designs, what it means to be an entrepreneur and how her mother a senior nuclear scientist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai is her rock.
Forming Saral Designs
The seeds of empathy were sown in Suhani’s mind in ninth grade when she read an essay titled “Ek janamdin aisa bhi” ( a birthday like this) about the need to share birthday goodies with the underprivileged of society rather than one’s own well to do friends. The seed within grew into a tentative sapling when she volunteered in various teaching and social welfare schemes while studying engineering in IIT Mumbai, then while working as an investment banker with Deustche bank. The disparity between haves and the have-nots began to rankle her. However, the unsure sapling needed a shake from the elements. In 2012 a meeting with Magsaysay winner Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj an NGO working extensively for the deprived masses in India served as the catalyst. From him Suhani learnt that only 12 percent of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins due to lack of awareness, affordability and accessibility. Many die contracting reproductive tract infections. A shaken Suhani (who like us) associated poverty with hunger and homelessness, but never menstruation, undertook a fifteen-day train trip (Jagriti Yatra.com) across India to familiarize herself with rural needs and social entrepreneurship. Jagriti Yatra a charitable organization selects 500 people below the age of 25 years and takes them across the length and breadth of India to understand and build the India of smaller towns and villages through enterprise. Above all the journey took Suhani into the interior most regions of her heart that needed the wheels of conviction to chug on to the tracks of social welfare. On returning, she presented a convincing business model to her parents, quit Deutsche bank and set up Saral Designs in 2015.
However, the journey has been anything but saral (easy). The immediate need was to develop a good product but keep costs low as target user were low-income women. She teamed up with an ex-IITian and they used their engineering skills to develop an automatic machine that would keep production costs low. The sanitary pads manufactured by Saral can be compared to any multinational brand in the market but are half the price. Distribution channels that build costs into the product (Active Ultra) were avoided by using a door -to-door channel known as Sangini (friend). A sangini is an important lady of a village who is trained by Saral Designs in menstruation hygiene. She then sells the product to rural women, at a small profit and trains other women for further selling.
I ask Suhani what a dire day at work is like and in a serious tone she relates that with a startup it’s not just one bad day, and rough patches span eight or nine grueling months. Generating solutions that are in alignment with their core philosophy of reducing social disparity is what makes them tide over choppy waters. Possessing no funds to create an online brand Suhani decided to share stories with the media. Social campaigns like hichak kaisi (why be shy) with Radio Mirchi where ten thousand sanitary pads were distributed to school girls from low income groups for one year created the right kind of buzz . Conducting menstrual hygiene workshops and installation of vending machines that provide easy access to napkins inside schools widened their area of efficacy.
Soon offers from small town entrepreneurs and NGO’s began filtering in wanting to buy Saral Design’s machine and sell pads under their label. This was a much better universe to inhabit than importing pads from China and doing aggressive online marketing as suggested by some of the venture capitalists. So now the young tree is pushing against the barricades that earlier supported, but are now restraining its growth. In Suhani’s words “And three years later we are from 1 machine and 20,000 happy women, to 15 machines and 300,000 happy women without raising any external venture funding.”
Suhani’s thought process stems from a place free of gender, social and can’t do bias that push past the restraints of time, funds and people. Inspired from her mother the only woman in the class of chemical engineering at IIT Roorkee, Suhani believes in herself and what she does. In the next five years, she aims to see the work Of Saral Designs permeate every district in India and developing countries.
The day ends and she is back home observing the world beneath her balcony. On the table are the books Factfulness and Fortune At The Bottom Of Pyramid : Eradicating Poverty through Profits that are currently shaping her thoughts. She removes the cover off her Brooklyn bridge painting and begins to give depth to the web like cables. I bid goodbye to Suhani as she treads the path of discovering a wonderful world at her doorstep by building bridges that connect different worlds through the tenets of opportunities, health and fulfilling existential needs.
28th May is Menstrual Hygiene Day