Virtual Learning for Improved Livelihoods: Lessons from Female Micro-Entrepreneurs

“Voice of the Village” a collaboration with Dharma Life, Siriti and the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development.

The Voice of the Village is a series of conversations on issues that affect those living in rural communities in India – inviting a wide breadth of stakeholders to collaborate and build solutions together. The fourth event was focussed on virtual learning involving:

  • Rajesh Chandy, Professor of Marketing and Academic Co-Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development at London Business School
  • Gaurav Mehta, Founder & CEO of Dharma Life
  • Vainateya Gavai, Co-Founder of Siriti
  • Shalini Puchalapalli, Director of Amazon India
  • Marco Huwiler, Country MD at Accenture Switzerland
  • Aarti Devi, Dharma Life Entrepreneur
  • Gayatri Verma, Dharma Life Entrepreneur
  • Anjali Sahu, Jaya Beneficiary & Entrepreneur

“In India, smartphones have become not just a tool, but a weapon, a plough, an implement, and a remarkable force that is being used in many ways.” – Professor Rajesh Chandy

In the last few years, India has gone through remarkable transformation. The shifts in the telecoms landscape, including increasing penetration of smartphones, internet users, mobile commerce, and reduction in the price of mobile data – called the “Geo Effect” – has enabled dramatic and miraculous change in people’s lives in rural India.

The fourth Voice of the Village roundtable looked at how learnings through digital means can improve the livelihoods of individuals at scale, with a current focus on rural India. As Professor Chandy pointed out, we are transitioning from digital for access to digital for enablement. This process of transformation has been accelerated by the pandemic and the associated lockdown.

Jaya – Victory Arises from Within

“India generates almost 14% to 15% of the talent pool of the world, yet women workforce participation numbers are very, very small, compared to where they should be.” – Vainateya Gavai

To address the challenge of low workforce participation among women, particularly in rural India, Dharma Life launched the Jaya program. Utilising digital means, the program aims to inspire women in rural India to realise their potential and then provide the tools for them to reach that potential. Through advice via the digital platform, women can learn essential skills, such as mushroom farming, and access job opportunities, to enable them to set up  their own businesses.

“Through Dharma Life, now I am digitally confident.” – Aarti Devi

Anjali Sahu, a village woman from the Lucknow District in Uttar Pradesh, is an entrepreneur fostered by the Jaya program. As a member of a five-person family, she had to take responsibility for earning an income when her father passed away 11 years ago. Her family suffered financially, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many people lost their jobs. Anjali was introduced to the Jaya program and started beauty training, like threading, hair-cutting and makeup, eventually opening her own beauty parlor. “I would like to tell other young girls to come and join the Jaya program. There are many more courses…. they can learn  online from their home, and… become financially independent.” For Anjali, joining Jaya and starting her digital learning journey marks the turning point in her life.

Aarti Devi, from Bokaro in Jharkhand, was another Dharma Life entrepreneur. She benefitted from two journeys through Dharma Life and the Jaya program. Prior to the pandemic, she worked offline as an entrepreneur . By learning how to use YouTube and WhatsApp, she started her own business with her smartphone. During the pandemic, she received further training on Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Despite the lockdown which had a great impact on her livelihood, she was able to adapt and use various online tools to start her teaching business. During the lockdown she was able to teach courses to more than 260 women and generate an income. Upon the popular request of mushroom farming classes from students, she developed videos to help women in the village to grow mushrooms in their own backyards and to set up their own businesses for financial independence

Gayatri Verma, also from the Lucknow District in Uttar Pradesh, took her journey to the next level. Despite holding a masters degree,  she became a housewife after her marriage, and had little knowledge about using a smartphone. She started her journey with Dharma Life through the Powered Program and Internet Saathi Program, and later joined the Jaya program as well. Upon completion of her trainings, she became the ambassador of the Internet Saathi Program, spreading awareness of digital learning to around 2,000 women in her village. She also worked in a menstrual hygiene program, where she educated her community about menstrual hygiene and women’s health. When the pandemic hit, she was introduced to the Jaya program and started her training using online meeting applications. She was proud to bring 13 women to the program, five of which later started their own parlor businesses. “My personal life has also seen a drastic change after I joined Dharma Life. They helped me get a smartphone, which was like a dream to me.” Said Gayatri, who is determined to continue raising awareness about digital learning and passing her knowledge along to future generations.

Digital Enablement is a Relay Race and corporations can play a role

“It is absolutely amazing that [these women] are able to buck the trend… In India right now, we are seeing only one in five women in the workforce. 15 years back, it was one in three,” Shalini Puchalapalli. Puchalapalli highlights the importance of skills and work in enabling Indian women to become financially independent and create livelihoods. She believes that there is a lack of female representation to set an example for young women striving to enter the workforce. Reflecting on her own experience at Amazon, Puchalapalli considers that corporations can play a major role in providing training and enabling women to start and grow their own businesses. “Amazon has enabled 80,000 women to come onto the marketplace, through training…I am looking forward to more and more [women], not just coming on and reaching for financial independence, but reaching for wealth,” Shalini Puchalapalli.

Marco Huwiler, Country MD at Accenture Switzerland, echoed Puchalapalli’s point that female workforce participation is a key challenge across the globe and highlighted that providing access to digital education, like Accenture, the Jaya programme and Amazon are doing, has the potential to change people’s lives. The uptake of technology, accelerated by the pandemic, has exposed many of the possibilities available to us through digital tools. Huwiler expanded on the important role technology plays in disrupting the traditionally linear path of learning. Drawing parallels to his personal experience in Switzerland, Huwiler emphasised that access to lifelong learning through digital means is key to addressing the skills gap created by an ageing population. “We have an ageing population [in Switzerland]… and combined with very rapid technological change, which is actually disrupting industries, it means that you have to reskill people… and that is something we are approaching with a very open education system, which is not a linear path of learning, but an opportunity to switch across different models, over your life time.” Marco Huwiler, Country MD at Accenture Switzerland


Virtual Learning for Improved Livelihoods: Lessons from Female Micro-Entrepreneurs” was the fourth in a series of round table events hosted as part of the Voice of the Village Events series. Further roundtables are planned for later this year.

Dharma Life Labs welcomes the support and ideas of individuals and organisations, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with others. Sharing insights and solutions and learning from one another can bring about real change at scale. The Voice of the Village roundtables are open to anyone interested and more information can be found at www.dharmalifelabs.com or by emailing dharmalifelabs@dharmalifefoundation.org.

Yan Hou (MBA2021) is the Co-Chair of the China Business Forum 2020 at London Business School. She co-led the movement of the forum to an online format in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, expanding the forum’s international influence and setting example for the online conference at LBS. Prior to LBS, Yan was a Senior Associate at PwC Boston. Yan completed her MBA summer internship with a leading VC firm in China. She is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives.

The Wheeler Institute, individual faculty and PhD students at London Business School, have been working with Dharma Life for nearly 10 years, almost since the inception of the organisation. The Wheeler Institute collaboration with Dharma Life, thanks to Gaurav Mehta (MBA2010) the founder and many others at Dharma Life, covers all three pillars of the Wheeler Institute: conducting rigorous research, forging communities of practice and shaping business education.

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