Neelam Chhiber on Creating an Ownership Based Ecosystem for Women in India

1 March 2022 | The Business of Giving Podcast

Denver Frederick interview with Neelam Chhiber

Denver Frederick is the host of The Business of Giving, a podcast that focuses on solutions to today’s complex social problems, and the people who are bringing about systems change through their work. He regularly has deep and insightful conversations with Catalyst 2030 members.

The following is a conversation between Denver and Catalyst 2030 member Neelam Chhiber, Co-Founder and Managing Trustee of Industree Foundation and Managing Director of Mother Earth.

Neelam Chhibber Industree Foundation
Neelam Chhiber, Co-Founder and Managing Trustee of Industree Foundation and Managing Director of Mother Earth

Denver: Neelam Chhiber is a co-founder and managing trustee of Industree Foundation and managing director of Mother Earth. She has worked for over two decades with rural artisans to help them with the skills and tools that can cater to India and global demand. She’s a winner of the Charles Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award and is a founding member of Catalyst 2030, a collaborative movement to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Neelam.

Neelam: Great to be here, Denver.

Denver: Industree Foundation, now that was founded back in 2000. Tell us about the organization. And what was the impetus for its creation?

Neelam: Yeah. So I’m essentially an industrial designer by profession, and I desired in my final years, sort of encouraged by some existential angst about the meaning of life and things like that… I chose to work with our traditional production practices. Industrial designers work with modern industrial production practices, but I wanted to really explore what other populations were doing pre-Industrial Revolution.

 And I was pleasantly surprised to see that we have the world’s largest artisanal population, more than 60 million, and they’re all around still. And there’s a great global need for sustainable consumption. So I just found it a very, very fascinating sphere, and I’ve stayed on with it. I’ve worked in villages, with the women and the men, and I was just so, I could say, caught up with the whole concept that I never let it go.

“But my approach to problem solving is a lot of systems thinking because I realized that wicked problems, complex problems need systems solutions. So that’s how I approach a problem and then I solve it.”

Denver: Yeah. That’s really interesting because you know, it’s very rarely you can take a nexus of all your different interests and have them come together in one place the way you have and apply so many different skills. And you just mentioned that you were an industrial designer by nature. I know you went to the National Institute of Design, and one of the reasons you did that is that they promised you a pathway to problem solving.

So how do you identify a problem, I mean, a real problem, Neelam? And then what is your approach to going about solving it?

Neelam: Yeah. So frankly, when I worked with these artisans, I lived with them, and a senior of mine from NID really told me: Choose a craft that you can work with your hands. And the problem I saw, it’s such a fulfilling activity, working with your hands, making things which people need. But the problem, I mean, that’s how I identified this particular problem, and I’ve had to use a lot of systems thinking and design thinking to solve it over the years. It’s not a problem you can solve overnight or make a product to solve just the whole problem, though we make products for customers globally to give these communities livelihoods.

So we connected a bunch of dots, and that’s my approach to problem solving, that it’s not just about making a product to solve a problem. Like you make a safety pin, it solves the problem of connecting two things together immediately. And that’s the example they actually gave us on our design school brochure. You can design anything from a safety pin to a highway, and a highway solves the problem of people commuting from one place to another. It’s a systems infrastructure being created. 

But my approach to problem solving is a lot of systems thinking because I realized that wicked problems, complex problems need systems solutions. So that’s how I approach a problem, and then I solve it. 

Denver: Well, if you can remember a safety pin from school on the brochure, you remember more from school than I remember from school, so my hat’s off to you on that. Now these artisans are predominantly women, and I think you say that they’re in the informal sector. Tell us a little bit about the informal sector, what that is, and how large that is in India.

Neelam: Yeah. So India has 260 million women looking for work, of which 190 million are in the informal sector. We have a  falling labor force participation. Based on  The World Economic Forum report on the gender gap of employment opportunity, we are ranked 151 on a scale of 156. We have women’s labor force participation dropping from 39% to 19% over 15 years. That is a big surprise to everyone because India– we are a progressive economy. We’re doing pretty well on many measures. This is actually the background under which we work with the women artisans.

And coming back to your point on informal economy, informal economy essentially means the women could be forced to have children help them with their work. So there would be no  one to watch over child labor. They would work maybe a lot of hours, maybe 20 hours, 18 hours, 14 hours. Maybe there would be something in UK, which is called slave labor, and things like that. And there could be a lot of sexual exploitation, not necessarily in violence terms, but in terms of harassment they face while working, and things like that. All that, when you are not protected, you don’t have access to health insurance; you don’t have access to social security, and you don’t have access to regular work. All that clubs you in the informal sector.

Denver: Yeah. You almost don’t have an identity in so many different ways that society requires you to have, to access yourself of some of the benefits that could be coming to you. Well I do think, and you go into this a little bit, that most livelihood models assume that rural populations are going to migrate to the cities for work, but you say that has not happened in India  the way it has happened, let’s say in China. Why is that the case?

Neelam: You see, India has the world’s largest number of smallholder farmers. So because China, et cetera, went through stages of collectivization, we have the world’s largest smallholder farmers still, more than China. Indian smallholder farmers do not want to leave their lands unprotected. The males migrate for work. Maybe that’s another reason for the fall in gender share.

Denver: Disparity, yeah.

Neelam: Yeah. So the women are left behind in the villages to look after the small tracts of land because someone has to stay back in the village. Otherwise, their land would get taken over. And more than that, the women, they work on the land to ensure that even if it’s a smallhold that it gives one or two harvests a year. It augments family income. So women are definitely not able to migrate for work. A lot of men are also not migrating for work because they say they could stay back and protect their land.

And the second and third most important points are, India doesn’t have a transferable social security system or food subsidy system. So India provides a lot of food subsidy. There’s a ration. So people under the poverty line, they get rations, but their ration card is only eligible in their hometown. They can’t avail of this ration in the city. That’s another big reason why Indians are not going to migrate into cities because a lot of the… now, for example, they get free housing. A lot of state governments are helping them build formal houses and not the hutments that they were living in earlier. But they’ll only get access to that if they are living in the village.

So there is this kind of tone, policy agenda. So I really believe that I don’t think Indian policy makers really believe that India could have 50% of its population living in its cities by 2050 because India being a democracy, we do not have the ability to tear down houses and build these superhighways, 16-lane superhighways because China could do all of this, build this massive infrastructure and build these gigantic cities. But India cannot do it because for us to expand infrastructure, you’ve got to tear down existing homes, et cetera. And to get communities to do that, we can’t just possibly dictate. And there’s a lot of negotiation, and people have to be reimbursed, and so it’s a much slower development process for India.

Denver: Yeah, you know I got it. And it gets back to your original point, Neelam, it’s the system, the system pretty much keeps them on that particular parcel of land because they lose that, and they’ll lose all the benefits they’re getting in terms of food because as you say, it’s not transferable. Let’s talk about women at the village level. How do you get work to them? It’s really difficult for corporations to do that and still make a profit. So what do you suggest would be the most effective way of getting work to these women in these villages?

Neelam: Yeah, so frankly there’s a very age-old methodology. It was called collectives. Sixteen to eighteen percent of the most advanced economies in the world– Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand,  16 to 18% of their economies are co-op economies. Less than 1% of India is a co-op economy. You’ll be surprised to know how much of the US economy is also a co-op economy. It’s a pretty large amount. I don’t know the exact number on that, I’m sorry. But it’s definitely around 10%, if not more. 

So we build women’s collectives. So we help women at rural level itself to aggregate and therefore provide the larger corporations competitive pricing, competitive sourcing, the right quality, productivity, which is what they want, timely supply, et cetera.

And we enable that to happen at village level by not just collectivizing the women, but giving them access to improved infrastructure and better professional management because large corporations are not going to deal with village women, however efficient they are. So they need a layer of intermediary professionals, which we help the women have access to.

“So we are not building traditional cooperatives, but we are ensuring that women producers get a maximum share of the kind of value they bring into the ecosystem. But at the same time, even the professionals who handle them also get an upside. That’s why we call it ‘distributed ownership.’”

Denver: And that is what the Industree Foundation does among other things. And as a corollary to that, Neelam, you’re also a big advocate of distributed ownership. Tell us about what that is and maybe give us an example or two of it.

Neelam: So collectives are distributed ownership. The ownership is spread across all the women producers, but we are finally in the 21st century, and we should not be building models that are anachronistic. We are talking about blended models, futuristic models, and therefore we call it distributed ownership. We don’t want to sound socialist. We also give the professionals who work with these women, handhold them, some amount of upside. So we are not building traditional cooperatives, but we are ensuring that women producers get maximum share of the kind of value they bring into the ecosystem. But at the same time, even the professionals who handle them also get an upside. That’s why we call it distributed ownership. 

Denver: You’re also a big advocate of supply chain transparency, which is one of the keys to solving these issues of substandard working conditions. And you got a couple of initiatives that are around that. Tell us about those.

Neelam: So frankly, we are using technology because women are being collectivized, and all the payments are going through banks. Everything is done digitally. Therefore, we should have the ability that if a customer in Europe, a global customer or an online B2C customer, now they have their own platform called Flourish. It’s www.flourish.shop. I can make a pitch for it because it’s producer-owned. It’s 90% producer-owned, 10% owned by the professionals.

So if you buy a product, or if you’re a wholesaler who’s buying their product, you will have the ability to know which artisan made it. So that’s the traceability. And the ideal situation is, if you buy a product, if you’ve paid a hundred dollars for it, and the wage element on that is $20, $25, that money should hit the woman’s account ASAP. The minute you buy the product, the money should hit her account. So these are the kinds of traceability things we’re trying to bring in through technology.

Denver: What has been the impact of COVID on both the rate of poverty in India and on the artisan sector?

Neelam: Yeah. We have had around 300 million people fall back into poverty after COVID 1.2. And out of that, we believe that 46% of women have not gotten back to work after COVID. And it’s very critical that if women get back to work, you see improved indicators on health, nutrition, education, et cetera.

Denver: Everything.

Neelam: Everything. And though the economy has picked up, we are definitely seeing that the rural economy, in terms of joblessness and getting back to jobs, is not going back with that uptick. So there is a huge push on all of us to really work on economic recovery going forward.

 Denver: What did the Industree Foundation do to help support these women during this pandemic because I know you had a number of initiatives going on?

Neelam: Yeah. So in COVID 1.0, we really kicked in, majorly. We had all our donors because we build these value chains initially on donor funding, and then they become self-sustaining and they can earn from their own balance sheets. But at that stage, we reached out to all our global donors, whether it was USA, whether it was HSBC, and a bunch of Indian donors. And we ensured that through the pandemic, no one lost any economic incentives that they had. And moreover, we helped with rations and health camps and all of it.

We built calling circles. Every woman would call 10 other women, and it was just, “How are you? Are you okay?” Even if that was that. So yeah, we kicked into shape with the emotional well-being as well as physical well-being. In COVID 2.0, we were really feeling bad that we couldn’t. And of course, in COVID 1.2, we launched Creative Dignity, which has more than about a thousand designers, young professionals, and artisans across India. It’s a volunteer movement. In COVID 2.2, we were able to enable the kickstarting of the COVID Livelihoods Coalition which has more than 84 very large NGOs, which will work on economic recovery. And we have, I think jointly through all of these networks, an access to about 20 million households in India.

Denver: You guys are really known for deep handholding, aren’t you? In terms of tough times and all the time, but especially during tough times, you really stick with these women and help them work through. It’s just not checking a box. It really is personal, isn’t that right?

Neelam: Yeah. I don’t know if we are the inventors of the term, “deep handholding,”  but often in our sector, handholding is looked upon weirdly. There’s so much  belief that women will just automatically transform themselves into entrepreneurs. It’s not easy. I’m a woman, and I always go back to my experience.  Frankly. I’m a woman. I run an enterprise. I’m educated, I’ve done six years of design school. I have a supportive husband, family, everything. I have huge risk-taking ability, but I could not run my enterprise single-handedly. I had access to a bunch of professionals helping me all the time.

We love the term “deep handholding”  because women need handholding, and a lot of them have just not even graduated high school. I was speaking to a woman in the collective, I was there yesterday. She’s 27 years old. She was married at the age of 16, who has three children, and the oldest is 13…

Denver: Oh my goodness, yeah.

Neelam: …already. And she’s 27, 28 years old. And look, her whole life is ahead of her. She graduated. She’s done her 11th standard, I don’t know what that means; that’s high school. But she says I was married off at 16 because my father died, and we had no other source of income. So, I mean, there is so much potential, but they need the handholding, and then they take on the roles in the collectives. They are doing inspections, quality inspections for the largest global brands– Ikea, Carrefour. And they are managing quality, but they cannot do it all together. So a deep handholding is: you make them do it piece by piece by piece. And at some point, we believe they could do it all together maybe, a lot of them are graduates in our system.

Denver: You know, I love the term too because there’s a lot of empathy there  just the way you described it earlier about the land and not being able to move, and not being able to transfer, the food vouchers and things of that sort. You’re not going to have a population there that’s going to be wanting to take a lot of risks. They’re going to be very cautious. So therefore, having somebody to come in and have that deep handholding and maybe give them that confidence to say, “Hey, get out a little bit outside your comfort zone here, and give this a whirl,” I’m sure is absolutely indispensable.

Neelam: Yeah. You got that, Denver, and you’re absolutely on the spot on that one. 

Denver: How do you measure impact, and what are some of the core areas you look at to do so, Neelam?

Neelam: Yeah. So we measure impact right now through social audits. So we do a social audit once every two years. And the impact we’ve seen is that we’ve tripled incomes. About more than 50% of our women walk to work. So our key parameter is increasing income. 

It is increasing resilience. So we ensure that they are saving money for a rainy day. And then of course, we’re looking at some climate change parameters because we work only in circular economy products. Because we really believe these communities are the ones that are going to get maximum impacted by things like climate change as they have been in COVID, so that we have to take action on that from the beginning. So we work only in circular economy products.

Denver: The first mile, as you call it. That’s where the big change happens.

Neelam: Yeah. So these are a bunch of indicators, and I think a couple more that we use to measure our impact.

Denver: What’s the role of philanthropic capital in your work?

Neelam: So all our work is seeded now to philanthropic capital because we want to build ownership and majority ownership, if not a hundred percent. We don’t want to get capital because investors want return on their money, and therefore they take ownership. So we seeded on philanthropic capital, and then once the value chains reach close to self-sustainability, they can start diluting and raising  private capital.

“And we need to be around just to see that our entrepreneurial strengths can just add that little bit to the collective leadership because I think a lot of us leaders also just want to relinquish fast and leave. I’ve learned that that may not also be very appropriate. That’s all. We should leave, we should let go, but we should always be available.”

Denver: This has been a tough couple of years for all of us, and I think it’s never been tougher for a leader in terms of how they go about really directing their enterprise to this new world.  What have you found in terms of the nature of leadership, how it’s changing?  And have you adapted in any way over the last couple of years in terms of how you try to lead?

Neelam: I have adapted, I hope phenomenally, because I am also now in the older category, and I need to look at how our organization is not just about being a founder-driven organization. So I’ve started the process of transition. And let me tell you, the two years of COVID were very helpful because I did not have to travel relentlessly and attend conferences and network. So…

Denver: It gave you time to think, too, right?

Neelam: Yes, it was helpful, very helpful. And therefore, we are really working on the distributed leadership model within Industree that I think would be a key activity that I’m working on.

Denver: But you’re not going to have a single leader, in other words, going forward? You’re going to have a group of people who are going to share that responsibility?

Neelam: Yeah.

Denver: Oh, that’s really interesting. Yeah.

Neelam:  Yeah, I believe that most social entrepreneurs, we’ve grown up doing multiple things. We’ve evolved that way. And expecting the same from one leader is I think cruel, frankly. And all of us get burnt out and all of us are saying, “Okay, we…” No, but you cannot do that to your leadership teams. And I think everyone is comfortable with the idea of collective leadership because also when you scale, you need people with very specific, not specific, but most specialized skillsets for scale, but they all need to work together. They cannot work in silos. So that’s my big learning on building a collective leadership.

And also, I would say we’ve learned in COVID that resilience is key. And I, as a leader, did not talk only about relinquishing leadership, but I should also just play to my strengths for the sake of the organization because there will be continuing shocks. We can’t live in a world where we say, “Okay, now we’ve handed over, now we’ll ride away into the sunset.” And we need to be around just to see that our entrepreneurial strengths can just add that little bit to the collective leadership because I think a lot of us leaders also just want to relinquish fast and leave.

Denver: Yeah.

Neelam:  I’ve learned that that may not also be very appropriate. That’s all. We should leave, we should let go, but we should always be available.

Denver: Always be a resource. Yeah, and I also think that in terms of your advice you’re giving leaders a chance to play to their strengths; first of all, you play to your strengths. You’re going to be doing something that you like to do because it’s your strength and you’re very, very good at it. I always have believed in philanthropy that you should look at communities and play to their strengths. We do too much  going into communities and saying, “What’s wrong?” and “Let me fix you,” and I think that takes a toll on communities. 

When if you begin to say, “Boy, you guys are really good at this. How about we put our resources in to make you even better at it?” And that can absolutely have an entire community blossom. So I’ve always said: Fund the strengths and don’t try to fix all the weaknesses in the community because that’s, I think, as you just said, that’s what we do as people. Not that we don’t address some of our weaknesses or try to get a little bit better, but no, we try to say, “This is what I’m good at, I’m going to become great at it.” And it is a much more successful road.

Neelam: It’s a great philosophy, Denver, and I’m happy I’ve learned that from you, at least in terms of articulation. But I think that’s a great way to put it. Absolutely.

Denver: So if you were to do this all over again, in hindsight, what would you have done differently? What advice, as they say, would you give to your younger self as a social entrepreneur? What do you think you would have done a little bit differently from the outset back in 2000?

Neelam: I would have moved to blended finance sooner. I was actually a social entrepreneur, depending a lot on sort of impact investment, meaning investment with returns. I was at another extreme. I was just too bullish about impact investment. It’s just ahead of my time. 

Now I realized that it’s not gonna happen that way. We need a good blend of philanthropic means and an impact investment that is returnable capital. It could even be social return capital, but you need a lot of philanthropy. You do. I’ve learned that lesson later in life. And I would have done that sooner, pushed a blended finance model out much sooner.

Denver:  Yeah. That’s good advice. So impact investing was gonna change everything, and it might eventually. But I’ve always compared it a little bit to internet shopping. People said when the internet came along and you can buy online, the department stores would go out of business, and they never went out of business. Everybody still went to the store. Now, maybe 25 years later, they’re starting to go out of business. But what happens is when something comes along, we think it’s going to change everything instantly, and it never does. It takes a lot longer than anybody ever anticipated.

In closing, Neelam, tell us a little bit about this breakthrough collaborative, Catalyst 2030, its mission, and maybe an update on the progress that it’s been making. I know you’ve been really central to that effort.

Neelam: So frankly, over the last two years, my biggest learning I could say came from Catalyst 2030, the fact that we could kick off Creative Dignity, the fact that we could kick off CoLive, the fact that we’re talking about collaborative leadership. A lot of social entrepreneurs, not just me, we succeed because we are very single-pointed and single-minded and quite territorial, and we go for the task. But in the process, we kind of weakened a collaborative site. 

So I really took part and was seriously involved with Catalyst 2030 because I really knew that I had to think beyond the way I was working. And I had already started thinking about it four or five years ago, but I needed to see it and experience it firsthand. 

And that’s what I could do at Catalyst 2030 because a lot of learning is experiential. It cannot be about concepts. So we have transitioned to a co-creative, collaborative mode in our organization, and all that we do with governments, with private sector, with other NGOs. But in terms of my personality adapting, I have learned a lot from Catalyst 2030.

Denver: Yeah. I thought it’s a great observation because to be a successful social entrepreneur, you suggest you have to be laser-focused. But if you lose your peripheral vision in the process, you’re only going to go so far. And it sounds to me that Catalyst 2030 has brought that peripheral vision to say, “Oh, look at all that other stuff that’s going on,” that can really enhance that laser focus on what you’re doing.

For listeners who want to learn more about Industree Foundation or financially support this work, tell us a little bit about your website and what they can expect to find there.

Neelam: Yeah. So our website is www.industree.org.in, and on our website, you will see all the three tracks under which we are working on exponential scale, deep handholding, broad handholding, light handholding. In broad handholding, we run incubator accelerator programs for other social enterprises called regionals. 

In deep handholding, where we are trying to teach other organizations to do what we have done successfully… In deep handholding, we handhold collectives  which are supplying to large global retailers, national retailers, and onto their own e-commerce site called Flourish. 

And light handholding is when we would do just one or two pieces of our entire ecosystem approach, our 6C ecosystem approach. And we don’t have to do all the 6Cs, we just do a couple of them where the communities participating could manage the other C’s on their own. So it’s a palette of services and structures we are offering, and you will see and learn more about that on the website.

Denver: Well, thank you for handholding us today through all of this. It was a really fascinating conversation, and thanks so much for being here, Neelam.

Neelam: Thank you, Denver. And I must say, it was quite an interesting chat.

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