From philanthropy to changing the face of entrepreneurship for women in rural India, Chetna Gala Sinha’s journey is one of true grit, humility and the power of empathy
Some people look at injustice and feel overwhelmed, unable to do anything about it. Chetna Gala Sinha is not one of them. She was born and raised in the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, where a spark of activism and social change was ignited early in life. Before setting up Mann Deshi Bank, India’s first women’s cooperative bank in 1997, she rallied for the drought-ridden farmers of rural Maharashtra during India’s ‘emergency’ years of the mid-1970s.
Fast forward a few decades, and the Mann Deshi Foundation is now the umbrella for the country’s first business school for women, a female-driven community radio broadcast and a series of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of local communities.
As we catch up with her, Sinha shares her stories and how she has managed to keep a winning attitude through thick and thin.
1. There is Always a Solution to Problems, No Matter How Big
Today, the Mann Deshi Foundation is synonymous with gender empowerment and entrepreneurship. And it all began back in the 1990s when some women approached Sinha for help. All they wanted was to open a savings account, Sinha recalls, but they were refused because of their “low-savings format”.
“I decided to help them set up a cooperative bank,” she recalls. Then, another hurdle: the central bank rejected their proposal, as the women were illiterate. “These inspiring women took it upon themselves to become literate,” says Sinha. Six months later, the cooperative was sanctioned and Mann Deshi Bank was born.
From there, each initiative launched was an answer to a problem: “We started a business school because many of them didn’t know how to market their products. Our community radio is used as a platform to share stories of triumph and encourage families to support these women.”
2. Find Inspiration in Everyone
Staying motivated in tough conditions is no mean feat. Sinha does it by looking outwards. “To tell you the truth,” she says, “the young girls and women around me are my biggest inspirations. The way they overcome each hurdle that comes their way makes me push forward and find solutions.”
She shares a story: “We had a young girl of 10 or 11 years approach us asking to work over the summer. All she wanted in exchange was a bicycle that she could ride to school many miles away.”
She had finished her primary education close to home, Sinha explains, “but her secondary education school was too far away for her to travel without transport. She wasn’t cribbing or blaming — she was looking for a solution through work.”
3. Find Your Power Words — and Use Them to Help Others
Sinha’s five ingredients to a winning attitude boil down to five words:
passion, patience, persistence, listening and humility.
As we chat to her it’s clear that she radiates positivity as well. The word is never far from her mind. “The women who start businesses here are surrounded by a negative atmosphere,” she says. “So, creating a supportive structure that they can depend on and standing behind them is very important. Instilling courage and confidence in them is key to their success.”
4. Never Stop Fighting
Asked what changes she would like to see in India around the empowerment of women and women’s rights, Sinha’s answer is immediate. “Ownership of property, knowledge and financial capital by women. If women have ownership of all these, their potential is unlimited.”
She notes, “The youth of this country have so much opportunity today.” These opportunities need to be provided to young girls and boys alike, she says.
Having found her drive, Sinha knows that she is far from done, because she’s fighting for something bigger than herself. “For me, the potential of women is not just in doing something for themselves or their families: we inspire the women to change society. We’ve achieved so much, but this is just the beginning.”