Empowering and Teaching Women to Overcome Cultural Oppression in India

Intuit employees help 60 women overcome cultural oppression by teaching them the skills needed to start and run their own small businesses. Guest blog post by and reposted with permission from Michael Runzler, Senior Manager, Editorial Services, Intuit.

Eleven Intuit volunteers came from five countries – the United States, Canada, Singapore, the United Kingdom and India – arriving at all hours of the day and night in the hardscrabble city of Ghaziabad in rural India. And they shared a common goal: To help 60 women overcome cultural oppression by teaching them the skills needed to start and run their own small businesses.

The effort was part of We Care and Give Back’s Project BOLD (WCGB) , a cross-border volunteer project designed to deepen global mindset, develop stronger global business leaders and give back in a completely new way. This was the second WCGB BOLD trip to India, and the first time focusing exclusively on women.

“The program gives employees the opportunity to give back in meaningful ways, grow as leaders, and better understand our emerging markets,” said Nicole McPhail, senior manager for WCGB. “And it’s become more than what we had hoped for. It’s a community of people who deeply care about the world around them. People who will inspire others through their stories, and who will forever think differently about the way they live their lives and how they serve our customers.”

WCGB plans to offer at least two more programs in FY15, McPhail said. Stay tuned for more information on upcoming projects and locations.

Follow me to the village

Intuit’s well-known follow-me-home visits often take employees to nearby businesses where they observe entrepreneurs performing day-to-day tasks. In this case, however, the businesses were in impoverished rural India, half way around the world from the company’s headquarters.

The entrepreneurs were, in some cases, poorly educated and their shops were often in the same brick-and-mortar hut they called home. Livestock and dogs roam the streets. Water comes from wells or trucks, and electricity is sometimes available only at night.

But perhaps most important, the women live in a male-dominated society, often forced to leave school after receiving their elementary education, sometimes into pre-arranged marriages and restricted to living a life limited to running a household and raising children. The average family of four lives on a monthly income of just $200.

It was in this environment that the Intuit volunteers sought to make a lasting difference.

Village visits

The program began with Intuit employees visiting three remote villages where the women lived and worked. In Naglagaju, visitors were greeted with the word “Welcome” spelled in Hindi and English, written in chalk on a dirt path. Villagers dotted their foreheads with a red tilaka and placed a floral wreath around their necks.

It was here that the volunteers met with women and their families, with curiosity abounding from visitors and villagers alike. Women wrapped in colorful saris sat on one side of a patio-like area, while their western visitors sat awkwardly on the other. The cultural barrier soon vanished, however, as the women broke into song and dance, and joined by their eager guests.

Everyone soon got down to business as the volunteers, aided by college students serving as translators, met with women, visited their shops and learned about their business.

“I was surprised by the passion these women have!” said Madhuri N, a software engineer based in Bangalore. “Despite so many constraints, not to forget the male dominant society that they live in, these women have the passion to follow their dreams and succeed in their ventures. They have so much thirst to learn and acquire skills so that they can make it big.”

Class is in session

The classrooms were far from traditional, consisting of three tents, where students sat on colorful tarps to learn the basics of entrepreneurism, product innovation, marketing, business strategy and financial literacy.

“On the first day of classes, I found myself sitting on the floor of our little tent, gazing into the eyes of these beautiful people” said Anne Riley, director of product experience in San Diego. “This will sound strange, but it was as if we could see into each other’s souls. And it didn’t seem to matter a bit that we couldn’t speak a word of either of our languages. That’s when the phrase, ‘Love … it’s the universal language,’ hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Student translators, helped overcome the language barrier, while creative communication filled in other gaps. The team used beach balls, skits, song and dance to overcome silence and promote engagement.

“I think we all felt a bit frustrated (and humbled) with our inability to speak Hindi,” said Brian Crofts, a group product manager based in Plano. “We felt incredibly limited – reliant on our translators to communicate with the students. Over the course of the week, it was impressive to see the teachers be innovative in their attempts – sharing pictures they’d taken of the women, exchanging jewelry, facial expressions.”

Following three days of classroom instruction, the women received certificates in a graduation ceremony that was both celebratory and sad.

“I would never see them again,” Riley recalled. “Americans don’t do well with that idea – the thought that you could have a taste of something, and never, ever have it again. It was then that I began to think about how I would find my way back some day.”

Looking forward

No one expects that four days of teaching will change the world. That’s where Intuit’s partners come in. Team4Tech, a nonprofit Bay Area organization committed to improving the quality of education in communities worldwide that face limited access to resources, coordinated the trip.

“Intuit volunteers completely embraced the idea of ‘bold’ in the way the approached the project, worked with the other organizations, and stretched to learn,” said program director Noel Durrant. “With each new challenge, they adjusted, refined, and took another step forward. In a situation where they had so little control and influence, they came together to be continually creative and resourceful.”

In India, the Connecting Dreams Foundation, committed to empowering youth and women in rural communities, teamed with Sundesh, a nonprofit organization, to identify the women and sustain the program long after Intuit volunteers leave. Their goal is to bring the lessons taught by Intuit to 10,000 women in the coming years.

“Intuit has helped us in connecting the dreams of many women who would like to set up their enterprises, that will enable them to live a life full of dignity and respect rather than helplessness, said Amit Tuteja, Connecting Dreams co-founder. “This is just the beginning of the movement that would go a long way in empowering many more women in rural India.”

The lessons weren’t confined to the students. Intuit’s volunteers all learned something about themselves in the process.

“I learned I was stronger than I thought I was, and that I’ll never be as strong as the women I met,” said Lauren Hagwood, a senior business analyst in San Diego. “It means everything to me that I’m setting an example for my daughter, showing her that women’s issues can be addressed in a bold way all across the world. I’m proud to be a part of it.”

You can read more stories about Project Bold on INTU India on Medium.com and on Brian Crofts’ blog.