A Business School for the Indian Poor

In an age when business schools have become synonymous with stratospheric tuition fees and blue-chip faculties, the Mann Deshi Udyogini, or Udyogini Business School, which opened in January 2007 in a drought-prone village in Maharashtra State, is India’s, and perhaps the world’s, first and only B-school for unlettered rural women.

A kind of parallel universe to micro-credit loans for the desperately poor, the institution, funded largely by HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks, coaches poor women in entrepreneurship, accountancy, bank finance, marketing skills and confidence-building for a piffling Rs150 (US$3.70) for a three-month basic course and Rs600 for a six-month advanced one.

Mann Vikas Samajik Sanstha, a non-governmental organization, designed the Udyogini Business School as a hands-on training program for women with little or no formal education. For starters, students are given a broad overview of entrepreneurship skills after which they are slotted into one of a variety of vocational streams like tailoring, manufacturing baked goods or milk or dairy products, or producing handicrafts. Upon completion, students are issued a diploma.

“Mann Deshi Udyogini has become a lifeline for poor rural women who now have a great chance to stand up for themselves and take charge of their lives,” said Chetna Gala Sinha, the founder and a Yale University graduate, in a telephone interview. “We recognize that women in the community need systemic channels to explore their entrepreneurial skills and capitalize on income-generating opportunities in the district.”

The school is designed to assist young Indian girls who are usually married off early without their consent, Sinha said. “Most of them want to work and we want to give them the right platform to face the world.”

Sinha is also trying for a student exchange program with Yale and the University of Michigan. Students from these American schools would hold classes for Udyogini’s students and in turn learn about rural India

More pilot project than full-blown school, Udyogini operates out of just three rooms in a building in the rural village of Vaduj, holding classes on a shared basis. The curriculum also includes entrepreneurial courses in purse and bag-making, photography, screen-printing, operating mobile telephone kiosks and managing books of accounts and finance. But since technical inputs alone don’t turn women into entrepreneurs, students are also taught financial literacy, marketing techniques and communication skills.

Although just 150 candidates enrolled for the first courses, the number is expected to ultimately ratchet up to about 350. With four branches in Maharashtra, the school expects to spread operations further south to Karnataka. Plans are also brewing for a “Business School on Wheels” to target women in remote areas who can’t travel to Vaduj. The graduation diplomas will be certified by both Mann Deshi Sahakari Bank and the Maharashtra government. “The certification would act as a qualification for a bank loan and provide eligibility for advanced training at the business school and at other institutions,” Sinha said, describing the school as a complementary institution to micro-finance programs.

“The school’s training model recognizes that women require appropriate training to become good entrepreneurs and managers of their businesses and financial affairs," said Malathi Kakker, a Mumbai-based development expert. To further help women tap appropriate study areas for themselves, the school offers free counseling. It also runs a fully-equipped gym which the women can use for free.

The school is also designed to help Satara achieve another crucial aim – education for girls. Each year, hundreds of thousands of rural Indian girls drop out of school as education is not viewed as a prerequisite for employability. In Satara district alone, more than 60 percent of girls drop out of school, sentencing them to being unemployed or underemployed. With no vocational skills, they find it tough to even access microcredit.

Intriguingly, Satara is also in the throes of a socio-economic transformation. Erratic rains and unstable agricultural income have propelled its men towards cities for employment, skewing the gender equation in the district and forcing women to contribute to family income.

Thus the hope for the Udyogini Business School is that it may help to alter the socio-economic picture for the better. It is already starting to happen. Sujatich Ai, for instance, could never have aspired to enter school, let alone acquire a business management diploma. But today the 30-year-old not only has a business degree from Udyogini but the confidence that comes from running a successful bag-making business with markets in Mumbai and Pune.

“My life has taken a 360 degree turn,” she exults. “The money I earn from my business not only supports my family but has also helped me earn respect from my village folk.”