“When a woman realises her potential, she lifts everyone around her”

“Voice of the Village” by Dharma Life, Siriti and the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development – event two.

Voice of the Village Roundtable #2: The Jaya Alliance, a movement to empower rural women in India, build skills and create livelihoods.  Due to the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on women, Dharma Life Labs launched the JAYA Alliance to leverage Dharma Life’s expansive network of female entrepreneurs, academic capabilities, and digital technology to create a pathway for women to upskill and create a livelihood.

Dharma Life Labs, a collaboration between Dharma Life, the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development, and Siriti, hosted a virtual roundtable “When a woman realises her potential, she lifts everyone around her.”  The second roundtable of the Voice of the Village Series brought together Professor Rajesh Chandy, Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute; Gaurav Mehta, CEO of Dharma Life; Sohan Shah, co-founder of Siriti; Pradeep Nair of the Ford Foundation; Diva Dhar of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Katja Freiwald of UN Women; Jessie Coates of EY; and three female Dharma Life Entrepreneurs (DLEs), Bindu Devi, Neerja Kukshal and Anita Devi, with the discussion focussing on the inspiring work of the female entrepreneurs.  The roundtable ended with a Q&A, bringing light to new obstacles the DLEs were facing in their everyday lives and potential solutions.

  • Despite massive disruptions to their existing work, the DLE’s have continued to serve their communities. With the support of JAYA, they have transitioned into new roles that facilitate the distribution of important COVID-19-related information, restored vital supply chains, and organized the delivery of essential goods, such as PPE for local doctors.
  • Changing gender norms within a society is pivotal in creating and sustaining opportunities for women to enter the workforce
  • Digital tools, such as smartphones, are proving to be valuable assets in spreading important information and sensitizing women to existing opportunities to train, find employment, and become financially independent.

The Dharma Life Entrepreneurs’ response to COVID-19

“[The changes we are making] need to happen now… that is why an alliance has been created” – Sohan Shah, co-founder of Sirti

Professor Rajesh Chandy kicked off the round table by highlighting that although India has made progress in educating its population – women in particular – only 25% of women actively participate in the workforce.  This puts India as one of the worst ranking countries in terms of women employment. This was an issue before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only served to make matters worse, particularly in rural areas.

Empowering women through training and employment

There is a lot of societal and family pressure… young, newly married women have no option but to stay home and do housework” Bindu Devi, Dharma Life Entrepreneur

Bindu Devi was able to learn new skills and enter the workforce as she had originally planned. Because of her journey with Dharma Life, she was very willing to help other women who were in a similar situation as result of the pandemic and spread the message about JAYA and the opportunities that existed for women. As a result, she has successfully trained five women in her village to start a pickling business to earn an income.

Spreading information through digital tools

“I reached out to women affected by lockdown and added them into a WhatsApp to tell them about the Jaya project. I showed how they could learn things digitally – they wouldn’t have to leave home and could still learn.” – Neerja Kushal, Dharma Life Entrepreneur

Neerja Kushal had worked with Dharma Life for one and a half years, teaching digital literacy and menstrual hygiene, before the pandemic hit and the lockdown stopped her from doing her work. To help her community, Neerja worked with the Jaya initiative to spread the message about using smartphones and digital connectedness to work and train without leaving home. Through this training, Neerja short-listed eight candidates with a strong interest in learning new skills and helped them set up a mushroom farming business.

Building self-sufficiency

Jaya is helping me help others to follow my path into the workforce” Anita Devi, Dharma Life Entrepreneur

Anita Devi spoke of the ups and downs she had experienced through her life but also of the opportunities she found through Dharma Life to become empowered and financially independent. She was inspired to join Dharma Life to help women, like herself, to become more self-sufficient. Despite the lockdown, Devi was able to contact over 100 women and teach them about opportunities to build a livelihood. Currently, ten of these women are enrolled in upskilling programs.

The JAYA initiative and its global partners

Digital tools to reach women

Pradeep Nair, Ford Foundation, joined the roundtable to discuss gender equality around the world. He emphasised Dharma Life’s use of digital tools to reach women in rural areas and to educate them about new opportunities available to them. He noted that Dharma Life’s mission is conducive to the Ford Foundation’s overall strategy and the organisation is strongly invested in supporting Dharma Life Labs and the JAYA Alliance

Challenges of domestic obligations

Katja Freiwald, UN Women, touched on the societal expectations and domestic obligations of women in rural India, preventing them from more active participation in the workforce. According to Katja supporting women in entrepreneurship and micro-entrepreneurship is one of the most effective ways of getting more women into the workforce.

Three pillars of women’s empowerments

Jessie Coates, EY, discussed the Transform initiative at her organisation and its support of JAYA, along with partners like the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office . Jessie outlined three important pillars to women’s empowerment: partnerships, technology, and an understanding of the economic imperative of getting women involved in the workforce. Jessie noted, it is not just women who need to understand their economic value, but the communities, in which they belong, must also understand the significant economic and financial benefits associated with gender equality and higher levels of female employment.

Family pressures

The last member of the JAYA Alliance, Diva Dhar, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, explained that societal pressures are a key obstacle for women seeking employment. She cited that half of India disapproves of women working if their husband can provide for the family. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to closing the skills gap between men and women in India by offering training and job placement.


“’When a woman realises her potential, she lifts everyone around her’ – Introducing the Jaya Alliance for women’s livelihoods” was the second 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   

Oliver Sloman and Geric Dunford are both Project Officers at the Wheeler Institute and MBA 2020 alumni at London Business School. They have been working with Dharma Life for the last 6 months.

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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