Vrinda Varnekar encapsulates her conversation with Asha Scaria - a social entrepreneur who runs a sustainable fashion business in Dungarpur, Rajasthan. Read further, we promise you that Asha’s story will leave you with a glimmer of hope even during this dreadful pandemic!
Picture a beautiful day in a little town. The birds are chirping, the trees are singing, and there is so much optimism in the air. Why? Because a feisty 20-something year old is changing the future of this sleepy town, one day at a time.
It sounds like the perfect premise for an inspirational film, doesn’t it? This is the story of Asha Scaria, social entrepreneur and founder of Swara, who has made this optimism, determination, and hope, a way of life.
Reachout India had the honor of having a candid conversation with Asha about her initiative Swara, her life in Dungarpur - a small town in Rajasthan, and much more. For the uninitiated, Swara is a platform selling handmade, sustainable, Indo-Western attire to urban customers. It offers a livelihood for Dungarpur’s women, empowering them by encouraging them to use their skills.
Asha answers the phone in a sunny voice, telling us how work keeps her busy - there’s so much to do and so little time to do it in! “I don’t think there was always a specific plan in my head about how my life was going to pan out. It was just a matter of noticing certain things, and then acting upon them.” she begins . Asha strongly believes that everyone has a voice in their head that nudges them to be a better human being, “A lot of people ignore that voice because it’s not practical. Or it’s too overwhelming. Or we often also tend to think that we’ll do good once we’ve made it in life.”
In her case, however, she listened to the voice and never looked back. “This reminds me of something I wrote when I was applying for the Gandhi fellowship!” she laughs. At that time, everyone around her was applying for corporate jobs, while she chose a more unconventional path. “I am from a small town in Kerala myself, so studying in Mumbai naturally made me more sensitive towards society’s disparities. I wasn’t able to normalize it internally, even after spending a fair bit of time in Mumbai. It just made me feel more certain of not wanting to be a part of any race, but doing something that could really help others.” she says.
During her Gandhi fellowship, Asha was keen on working in a smaller, slower town, and so Dungarpur happened. “When I came to Dungarpur, I came across people, traits, and innocent incidents that changed my approach towards things,” she states.
Asha has a lot to say about her first year of setting up Swara. “I didn’t expect things to be easy from the very beginning. We always encouraged the women to work according to their convenience, but there was some resistance from them and their families when we set up a tailoring unit. The women didn’t want to step out for work but preferred working from their homes. They wanted to take care of their domestic responsibilities, and then do this other work if they got the time. We often assume that it is other people stopping women from working. Still, so many times, this pressure to stay at home is so intrinsic, and women believe their primary role is of a wife, daughter, mother. So, we realized it is not about changing others’ mindsets - it’s about meeting the women where they are and empowering them, nevertheless.” she explains.
Swara makes tailoring a more suitable job for women, based on their convenience and comfort. “Right now, we have flexible working hours and days. While considering the different festivals and the employee’s other responsibilities, the working model has to be very flexible to function smoothly! However, this deters the bigger units from investing in small towns like Dungarpur. Most houses here have a tailoring machine, and there is a need for employment, so we’re approaching brands and tailoring units to set something up here according to this working model, let’s see...” she smiles.
Dungarpur itself holds a special place in her heart. “I feel so positive, happy, and at home here. So being here is a very emotional decision, as much as it is about making a difference for others!” she says. When she first went to Dungarpur, she saw what Atithi Devo Bhava truly means - even when people had nothing, they shared everything with her. “We had this thing called a village immersion during the Gandhi fellowship, where you stay with a family in a village for a month. During my first village immersion, I stayed in a poor village, and the people there didn’t have much. One evening, when I came back from work, the family that I was staying with had already eaten dinner. I was hungry, so I went to another house and asked if I could eat with them - they had just two rotis amongst them, and they welcomed me to share whatever food they had! It made me realize how insensitive we privileged people are - we have so much to give, but we hesitate before doing it. But these people, I realized that they'd give with joy no matter what they have.”
Incidents like these keep reigniting her passion for social entrepreneurship. She adds, “So many people think social entrepreneurship doesn’t come with monetary rewards, but that’s not true! Yes, there is a bigger purpose to your work, but business and social impact can certainly go hand in hand. While regular fashion brands might make more money, many outsource their work to factories at low costs and may not always use sustainable materials. So, at Swara, we don’t mind a temporary dip in financial returns, because we believe we are creating for the future consumer, someone who will only buy ethically-produced things.”
She reveals how the idea of a clothing brand was also an attempt to put Dungarpur on the map. “Each time someone makes a purchase on our site, we send them a postcard about Dungarpur, and tell them about the talented women who made their clothes.” It’s a lovely way to bridge the gap between urban consumers and the rural workforce of Dungarpur. People worldwide learn more about sustainable fashion, how to empower rural women, and make a conscious decision to buy sustainable clothes.
Asha has some advice for young people who might want to listen to the voice in their heads that encourages them to be a better person. “You don’t have to devote your life to social work, to do good. Each of us only has to be a little bit of a social activist and see what consequences our actions have. Even when it comes to buying our clothes, we can think about the entire trail of people involved in getting them to us - think about where the cloth comes from, who stitched it, who got it to you? Just being aware of these things also helps open your mind up to new perspectives and ways of doing good.” she says and continues, “People often think social impact is something that only NGOs, or CSR programs, or government initiatives can bring about. That is changing, and I’m excited to be a part of the change. Social entrepreneurs will eventually become simply entrepreneurs - in a world where all businesses have their own social impact goals. Not as CSR - but as part of core values and business strategy.”
There’s a reason why people like Asha Scaria are so few, and we can’t help but admire her for all her choices and actions that help make the world a better place for other people.
Watch Asha’s TEDx Talk here.
Image by Simran Ubee