Their stories need to be told: Shobha Warrier on her new book on women entrepreneurs

The book features 14 women entrepreneurs from south India, including Deborah Thiagarajan, Dr Shanthi Ranganathan and Kalki Subramaniam.
Their stories need to be told: Shobha Warrier on her new book on women entrepreneurs
Their stories need to be told: Shobha Warrier on her new book on women entrepreneurs

Writer-journalist Shobha Warrier has come out with another book on entrepreneurs from the south of the Vindhyas, except this time she focuses on women who have battled all odds to run successful establishments. The author of four English books, Shobha has over 30 years of experience in journalism.

The book, titled Dreamchasers: Women Entrepreneurs from the South of the Vindhyas, traces the journeys of 14 women entrepreneurs who operate within south India. They include 74-year-old Deborah Thiagarajan, the ‘American woman’ who created DakshinaChitra, Padmashri Dr Shanthi Ranganathan, the woman who pioneered innovative treatments for drug addiction, Poonam Natarajan, the founder of Vidya Sagar, Svati Bhogle, a scientist turned social entrepreneur, Radhika Menon who started Tulika Publishers, Ranjini Manian who started Global Adjustments, Nalini Shekar, co-founder of Hasiru Dala, Sreeja Arangottukar, a social and environmental activist, Sabriye Tenberken, founder of Kanthari, Vandana Gopikumar who co-founded The Banyan, Kalki Subramaniam – India’s first transgender entrepreneur, Saloni Malhotra of DesiCrew and Likitha Bhanu of Terra Greens organic.

In a chat with TNM, Shobha details why she chose these women and what we can learn from her book.

What led you to document the lives of these women?

In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed several of them over the years. I met Shanthi Ranganathan in 2001 and at that time I came back in awe of her. She lost her husband when she was 31. She told me that she is from a conservative family. Her grandmother and aunt were widows and they were not even allowed into the drawing room. But she came out of her grief and instead of remaining at home she did something for society. Her husband had passed away due to alcoholism and she decided to start a de-addiction centre to help others suffering from alcoholism.

When I decided to write a book on women entrepreneurs and started thinking about whom to feature, hers and several other faces came back to me. That is how I actually decided. They are all real dreamchasers. Their stories need to be told.

Two of them were not born in India, so how did they end up in the book?

Sabriye is a visually challenged German whose organisation Kanthari helps marginalised societies. She and her partner Paul were in Tibet when she was interviewed by Washington Post. She pointed to the tip of India and said that she wanted to operate from there because it made all parts of the world accessible. A Malayali man who read this called her to say that the tip was Thiruvananthapuram and that he would find a place for her to stay there.

As for Deborah, she is an American who got married into a Chettiar family here. Once she landed here, she realised the beauty of her heritage because she was seeing them through fresh eyes. She was an anthropologist who wanted to preserve the culture she saw and that is how DakshinaChitra came to be.

Given the challenges that women face in a patriarchal society, how did these entrepreneurs rise above hurdles?

These women do take additional responsibilities at home, like all women in India do. But they appreciate the support of their families and their husbands. Even at the book launch, Deborah stated that support from her husband is important and that is why she could go out and do what she wanted. At the launch of my earlier Dreamchasers book that featured more men, none of them actually thanked their families for the support. But Minister for Culture Mafoi Pandiarajan, who was the chief guest at this launch, found that all women acknowledged the support of their parents, husbands and in-laws. It is harder for women, definitely.

Can social entrepreneurship exist within the realms of a business trying to churn out profits?

I have a soft corner for social entrepreneurs. I don’t know how far it can co-exist with profits. Social entrepreneurs are always struggling for money. Poonam of Vidya Sagar says that sometimes they don’t even have money to pay salaries but the whole world conspires to help her. It is almost like magic. Somebody or the other helps solve the problem. The first time they wanted to do a fundraising – this was when they were operating from a garage and she wanted a building – someone told her actor Shashi Kapoor is doing a new film. She wrote him a letter saying that she was trying to raise money and he actually responded. The movie’s premiere was held in Chennai to help her raise the money. It was a large amount for that time. Social entrepreneurship largely depends on the goodness of people.

Which was your favourite story/which one really moved you?

Several of their stories moved me deeply. I really loved Deborah’s story though. The way she narrated the story about how Laurie Baker, the architect who designed DakshinaChitra, came from Trivandrum was beautiful. She told me that he came and sat on a sand dune in ECR. He had a 360-degree vision. I thought of this and visualised him sitting on this sand dune. He was very old then but Deborah convinced him to take up the project because it was to do with Indian heritage.

What are the challenges faced by these entrepreneurs?

The challenges are the same for every entrepreneur. They did not face anything different because they are women. They made it clear that a good team, perseverance, patience and a lot of hard work is the key.

How did the idea for this book come to you?

I interviewed Professor Jhunjhunwala of IIT Madras in 1997. Nobody was talking about startups or entrepreneurs at that time. He told me that his department’s incubation cell was seeing entrepreneurs and that it was really interesting. I see them as very creative people. The idea comes to them and they bring it to life – it’s like a flower blooming. That is how the previous book came into being. I feel that in our society, there are a lot of dreamchasers whose stories need to be told.

Will this book inspire more women to take up entrepreneurship?

Definitely. I am in awe of them. They have been doing such excellent work for society. I feel small before them. When my first book came out, everyone accused me of having very few women entrepreneurs in it, which was unintentional. So, hereafter it won’t be gender-based.

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