International Women’s Day Bonus Episode with Entrepreneur and Activist Roopa Mehta
Show intro: Today is a really special episode because we are celebrating International Women’s Day. International Women’s Day, for those of you that may not know, was first celebrated in 1911 as a way to honor women all over the world for their contributions and achievements, and I have to say my dad always told me that some of his earliest memories are of driving around with my grandma in the late 1930s. She was the head of the chapter for the Women’s League of Voters.
With no iPhones back then, they would get into their old Ford with a megaphone, and my dad would yell up and down the streets reminding women to go and vote because even though women received the right to vote in 1920, it takes a long time to change behavior. That’s why I think it’s really important that we recognize these days and honor these days because it is a time for us to stop and remember how far our rights have come as women.
For me, it’s a huge reminder, too, to think about all of the women that we get to partner with at Noonday Collection. We get to partner with so many inspiring women from around the world, and one of those women is Roopa Mehta. Roopa Mehta, I wish you could see her now. She has this beautiful silvery thick hair and a beautiful accent that you will hear, and she has over 30 years of experience working in the fair trade business in India.
She is now the CEO of Sasha, which is an organization that creates meaningful opportunities for artisan groups in rural areas throughout all of India. She’s also on the board of the World Fair Trade Organization, and you’re going to just hear the passion that she has, especially for creating work for women in India. Her business creates some of Noonday Collection’s most intricate pieces.
I love this conversation with Roopa because she fires me up, and I appreciate a woman who gives me a kick in the pants. You’re going to hear her personal story of how she turned a love for India’s craft traditions into a world-changing business, and now that business is changing conditions for women in India, and it’s really empowering women to rise up, and you’re going to hear some of those stories.
I love getting to hear her experience of going through uncertainty and insecurity, and this is someone who is kicking her insecurities to the curb, which you will hear in her voice. She was able to go scared through her experiences of a lot of fear and insecurity to continue to make an impact for women in India. So we’re all going to learn something from her today, and I can think of no better way to celebrate International Women’s Day than by sharing that conversation that I had with her with you.
Empowering Women to Run Their Own Businesses
Jessica: Well, welcome to Austin, Roopa. I have to apologize for the cedar fever. It’s like, crazy cedar allergies in Texas right now. My voice is a little crazy. How’s your holding up?
Roopa: I’m doing well. Thank you, Jessica, for inviting me, and for the podcast, so I can share some of my thoughts and my journey with you.
Jessica: Absolutely. You are visiting us today all the way from Calcutta, India, and you have a business in India called Sasha.
Jessica: Tell us a little bit more about Sasha and what it does to create opportunities for vulnerable people in your country.
Roopa: Well, this year we celebrate 40 years, Jessica.
Roopa: So that’s been a long journey. What really prompted us, was… it was a group of us — a mixed group of social activists, business people, designers, and others — who were interested in this area of work. We came together primarily because of a deep love for our craft and textile traditions and an understanding of how totally vulnerable these communities are and were and required intervention: to draw out the essential strength and get them out there, getting market success, getting development opportunities, being able to be competent to run their own businesses, for themselves, their families, their communities, and for the future of their children.
We did not want to lose this. Get the people to stay in their villages, run their businesses, engage people in the community, and have the required assets and control over their businesses and their finances. That was what drove all of us, really.
Jessica: Just a really small vision, since India’s so small and tiny.
Jessica: Tell us, how many states are there in India and how many languages and how many people are you working with?
Roopa: If I’m not mistaken, there are 29 states and six union territories and growing. It is so diverse from one state to another. Whether it’s your craft and textile traditions, the languages, the cuisine… everything changes.
Jessica: Right, it’s not necessarily like America where you’re about to go to New York after Austin, and there’s huge differences, but we speak the same language
Jessica: You are still gonna drink a Coca-Cola up there like you would down here, but in India, literally, you can fly from one state to another and there’s a difference in language, culture, etc.
Jessica: So, we use this word, vulnerable. And I know at the business I own, Noonday Collection, we also are working together with you to impact these vulnerable communities. Describe to us, a little bit, the day in the life of a vulnerable Indian woman and what we mean by that. Tell us about the kind of women that you are impacting.
Freeing Women of Dependency
Roopa: You know, when this started off, when we first started working with women in various communities, they were so limited in the sense that their environment wasn’t open enough to give them the opportunity to need to step out of the home. They were so dependent — financially and socially — on first their fathers, then their husbands, and so bogged down with family duties and meeting the expectations. This is also true for a much larger community of women, even when situations change. The burden on the woman is just a little more.
Jessica: In India, specifically?
Roopa: In India, specifically, though I’ve seen it in other countries as well, but in India, specifically.
At the same time, having said so, there are a lot of opportunities for women to come out of their comfort zones in education, in work. Even within the families, there may be resistance. Depending on the strength of the woman, her persistence, her commitment, her courage, her ability to balance the various needs of her family and her own needs… the potential to grow is enormous as we’ve seen in our work.
Giving Women More Options
Jessica: Give me an example of that. Do you have one woman in mind in particular, when you look back at her and imagine, maybe her shyness, or her inability to maybe step up and own her worth, and then what she is now, as a businesswoman? Does someone come to mind?
Roopa: Absolutely, there are so many examples, but I’ll share one of a young girl. I think she just barely finished school, and she started with her college education but that was interrupted because she got married. After she got married, a year into her marriage — and it was a Muslim family, which could be true of a lot of families — she had a girl child.
Then, the family, they just said, okay, there’s going to be another marriage. The husband will get another wife with the hope that…
Jessica: They’ll have a boy.
Roopa: They’ll have a boy, and they’d live together. She just couldn’t imagine that life for herself. So she took her baby, and she stepped out.
Jessica: Wow. That takes a lot of courage.
Roopa: That took a lot of courage. Then, she contacted a legal cell, which does work of this nature. It was a women-led cell, and they help women in need, whether they are battered or they have difficult family situations and try to link them. From court cases… to also link them to organizations like Sasha.
Roopa: So, she came to Sasha. Then, people in our team… we have very sensitive women who work with these communitie and who have the required expertise to provide the kind of input for product development, empowerment, organizing the group, etc. They got to support her, but initially the step was taken by her.
She stepped out. She came to Sasha. Today, Shabannah, she’s running a unit with 20 women, and she’s trained the women.
Roopa: She continues to train them because she feels: “I’ve grown out of this situation, and I have to give the opportunity to others to also learn and to be financially independent.” She has, in fact — obviously, with a lot of support from Sasha and from organizations like Noonday–she gets the orders, and she’s learned to deliver them on time, sampling, no matter how complicated it is, and the various aspects of her business.
She took a bank loan. She got a grant from Sasha to build her infrastructure and to make a new work shed. Her life has changed. She traveled with me to Brussels last year in October, and she was interacting with so many people with so much confidence, ease, and I’m so proud of her. I’m so, so proud of her. Yet, I must say, I’m sharing one story, but there are so many.
Jessica: So many others.
Roopa: So many others.
Jessica: This is what I love about courage. I feel like courage is contagious.
Jessica: Once she found her courage, she is going out and making brave new paths for other women to find their courage. You are the one that is leading all of that, and you’ve been doing this a long time, which means you’ve really had to build up your courage muscles over the years. Can you think of a time where you first really built your courage muscles? Where you really had to go scared? You had a choice, where you could decide to play it safe, but you said, “No, I’m not gonna play it safe. I’m simply gonna go scared.” Does anything come to mind for you?
“Once she found her courage, she is going out and making brave new paths for other women to find their courage.” – Jessica Honegger
The Courage To Handle Change
Roopa: I just have built an inner tenacity. So, whenever there is a situation, I typically cope with it. But there was a time, which is big, when I went through six months of so much pain, so much uncertainty. This was a time, and Subashi, she was the person who founded and was a driver of Sasha. I mean, she had the drive, she had the energy, enthusiasm, commitment, courage… every quality you need to lead the pack. She was very sick with cancer. She fought bravely, and she extended her time for about three years. We lost her in December, 2004.
We were a team. I was much younger, and I was very dependent on her. I would do a lot of things, okay. I had abilities, training, everything, but, at the core, there is a dependency. There is someone who is taking the full responsibility, and that, when she passed, it fell on me. There was so much uncertainty from her family and from people in the office. What would be the future hold?
Jessica: People thought if she’s gone, what’s the future now?
Roopa: What is the future now? I just was nearly paralyzed, but here I’ll say that yes, in those dark times, if you look outward, then you will find people who are there, but you need to recognize it. First of all, within yourself, that there is no Plan B. I had no Plan B.
“…in those dark times, if you look outward, then you will find people who are there, but you need to recognize it.” – Roopa Mehta
Jessica: You had to become the Plan A.
Roopa: Exactly, because there’s so many people who are dependent on me, and also for yourself. What is your worth? What is your worth if you are incapable, or you are paralyzed by uncertainty, by your anxieties, by everything that’s dark and that pulls you down? You owe it even to yourself to step out of it, to make it better, for yourself and for others. At that point, I think there’s grace. I believe there’s grace. There’s always a guardian angel. There’s always someone, who, if you recognize that person, or that time, you get out of it. And there’s a need for honesty.
I spoke to people. Many left; new ones came in. Some were there for me, and we said, “Okay, fine.” Even with the buyer organizations, I sensed the uncertainty, but I was able to identify people who I could turn to, who I could speak with in all honesty because I had built it up over time. It took about a year and half to get it all together because when Subashi was unwell, that time, there were things happening which I wasn’t controlling. So there was a mess in the business as well. It was a dark time. I look back at it, and the fact that I got out of it gives me the courage to handle whatever else would happen.
Jessica: Yeah, it’s amazing to me because you are a dynamic woman. You appear to be fully walking in the fullness of who you are: confident… courageous. And it’s hard for me to imagine you being sort of the second in command, but it’s like her death prepared a place for you to rise up into your own journey as a leader.
Jessica: And now you’re soaring. You’re soaring.
Roopa: I am, but the challenges don’t go, Jessica.
Roopa: But yes, the challenges don’t go. But you learn lessons. And every time you go through these times, you see the positive, and you pull yourself out of it. You get the encouragement to do that.
Jessica: In India, do they say that gray hair represents wisdom? They say that here in America.
Roopa: Yes, it does. There are many people who will get into this trap. One of the reasons I let my hair gray out was because my mother-in-law, til the time she passed when she was 86, she would be dying her hair every second week, and I thought –
Jessica: I don’t have time for that! I have people to help!
Roopa: And also, it’s just too much work.
Jessica: Well, your hair is beautiful.
Roopa: Thank you so much, Jessica.
The Will to Sustain Change
Jessica: And I think, you are forty years into this journey. I’m seven years in. When you look at me, and where I’m at as a leader, what’s some of the advice that you would give to those of us that are just beginning this journey of going scared and owning our courage and leading others in that?
Roopa: You just need to sustain it.
Jessica: That’s good because I think a lot of us… There’s this African proverb, and it says, “If you want to go fast, go alone, and if you want to go far, go together.”
Jessica: I think some of us, when we start off, there’s even a word called solo-preneurs, so instead of entrepreneur, it’s solo-preneur, where it’s like: you’re just gonna do your hustle; you’re gonna believe; you’re gonna go, go, go. And I think there comes a time when you realized other people have got to be on this path with me. I gotta learn how to ask for help and not break out in hives. I need to learn how to be vulnerable and how to think long-term so that your vision is actually sustainable. I know, for me, a habit — I think our first few years of me starting the company — I was like, fast, fast, fast. Now, over time, or the last couple of years, I’ve come to value more what it’s gonna mean to go far.
Go Far and Be Tenacious
Jessica: Which is a little scary, honestly, cause, that means I’m in this. I’m in it to win it for the long haul. You’ve gone far, forty years, and you’re still going. You’re still as dynamic and pouring courage into me and into so many others. What advice do you have me to go far? What’s gonna help me to go far and to be tenacious?
Roopa: I think you said it yourself: working together and building honest relationships. That this is a journey we are going to do together. There are going to be challenges, but we’re going to work at it, and we’re going to see it through. That is it. I think that… expect it.
“…working together and building honest relationships.” – Roopa Mehta quoting Jessica Honegger
Jessica: Expect it to be hard.
Roopa: Of course, that’s what life is about. A friend of mine, she was going through — actually, we are her client. She came to us, and she was talking, and she says, “Oh, this is going wrong. That’s going wrong, and I’m not in such a good place right now.” I just looked at her, and I said, “This is life, Malinhi, live it.
Jessica: Yes, that’s so good.
Roopa: Yeah, live it, and don’t give up.
Jessica: Don’t give up. I think that’s so important for us to hear from a seasoned woman like you because you haven’t given up, and there have been so many challenges along the way.
Jessica: Especially in the fair trade market, I know your clients have gone up and down… and looking for a new market.
Jessica: I can only think of the challenges in working with… I mean, how many different artists and groups do you work with in India?
Roopa: Well, we are working with hundred. A little over hundred.
Jessica: And communities.
Roopa: And they’re diverse.
Jessica: Diverse. They’re in different areas around India. They have struggles, and yet, you are taking the long view.
Roopa: Yes, absolutely.
Creating a Legacy
Jessica: What is your long view when you think of your dream? Now, forty years in, what is your dream that keeps fueling you?
Roopa: I think one of it is to strengthen Sasha even more and it’s communities, but also, in the past few years, we’ve looked at an entire sector: the development sector in craft and textiles, and we have looked at how we can add value as resource people. We have helped other organizations with business workshops, business building workshops…
Jessica: Just developing…
Roopa: Developing, business development, capacity building, etc. Being a part of it, connecting them with experts, seeing them through a planned program, of say, 16 or 18 months, and so on. We’ve opened up for that kind of interaction as well because I think with Sasha, there is so much experience.
Roopa: And capability, to be able to also pass this on to others. Because, Sasha… there will be a limit to how many people we can work with, how much we can do, but our contribution can go beyond Sasha. That’s what I hope to strengthen within the coming years as well.
Jessica: Yes, that’s exciting. It really is creating a legacy just like the original founder created a legacy. If she hadn’t been thinking long term, then Sasha wouldn’t be here. I think the true measure of a leader is what’s going to be left when we’re gone. Is what we’re building able to continue in spite of us being gone? That only happens by developing other people.
“..the true measure of a leader is what’s going to be left when we’re gone.” -Jessica Honegger
Jessica: There’s this quote,. It says, "When a woman shows up, she goes up, and when she goes up, she brings others along with her."
Jessica: Well, I am so thankful that you are one of those women who is going along with me and that I’m going along with you and that we are on this journey together. It is so much better together!
Roopa: Exactly! Working together… yes.
Jessica: Thank you for being with us today, Roopa.
Roopa: It’s been a pleasure, Jessica.
Another Story for Women’s International Day
Jessica: I hope you caught that in Roopa’s story that her friend and mentor who had believed in her, who had brought her along on this journey ended up passing away, and Roopa felt unworthy to step into her friend’s footsteps, but it was her time to rise. Again, I think sometimes courage can corner us and when women come together and we raise each other up, truly beautiful things can happen.
“I think sometimes courage can corner us and when women come together and we raise each other up, truly beautiful things can happen.” – Jessica Honegger
I think of how proud her friend would be to know that Roopa did in fact rise up and carry on the legacy that her friend started.
Okay. Since it’s International Women’s Day, I’ve been thinking about what story I could share with you because I feel like I’m able to see so many stories on the ground of women really sistering one another and women really coming alongside each other and empowering one another to be all that they’re meant to be.
One story really came to mind, and it’s of my friend Wideleine and Ginny. Wideleine works for one of our artisan partners in Haiti, and around 10 years ago, Wideleine was in a situation where she didn’t yet have a job, but she found herself pregnant. In that situation, she ended up placing her daughter up for adoption. Since then, Wideleine received a job and now receives a dignified wage by working and making products for Noonday Collection and other fair trade companies.
Through that connection, Wideleine asked the owner of this Haiti design group if the head person could help her get in touch with the mother who adopted the daughter that she had relinquished 10 years before. Through that friendship, Wideleine was able to reconnect with the woman who adopted her daughter. I just love how when Wideleine got in touch with the mom, Ginny, Ginny said, "100,000 times yes. I want to be in touch with you. 100,000 times yes. I want you to be able to have a relationship with my daughter."
I can only imagine the sort of courage that really took, and now I can’t think of a way that explains collaboration more and sistering more than parenting a daughter together. I asked Ginny if she would share a letter to Wideleine that I could share with you guys, especially to commemorate this day, and here’s what she wrote…
"Dearest Wideleine, I am so proud of you. Is that okay? For me to be proud of you? I’m also in awe of you.
"There’s so much about our lives that we don’t get to choose: where we’re born and into what circumstances. We like to believe that we control our own lives, and we do, but only within a larger framework of possibilities and limitations. It’s our struggle to reach for the possibilities and overcome the limitations that comes to define who we are. Who you are is a strong and beautiful young woman, and it’s your courage and perseverance that I am in awe of.
"It’s the joy that I see in your smile and in your eyes that makes me look at my world with a new awareness. I know a little of your life and what you’ve had to overcome. I know a little of what you face each day. You continue to find the resources within yourself to keep pushing forward and reaching for the goals that you have for yourself and your family. We don’t set out to be example for others usually, but you are an amazing example for your daughter and your now sons and for your friends and other women.
“I’m so thankful for the friends that are there to help you because you’re a part of my family too. I see you in the beautiful daughter that I get to parent and her smile and the joy that lights her eyes and her determination to excel in all that she does and in her kindness to everyone. You gave her so many of your own qualities. I’m glad that we’re learning how to support families in raising their children so that adoption can be a choice rather than a necessity.
"Change takes time and education. There are many children that need families, but there are many families who just need a little help… an opportunity so that they can stay together. I hope that together we can help others to understand that. I hope that more opportunities can be created. Wideleine, I feel that I have your trust to raise this daughter that we share. I hope that’s true. I so look forward to the day when I can bring her back and see you and you all can get to know each other again.
"I look forward to the hugs, stories, sadness, and joy that we all share. With much love, Ginny."
Of course, I am an adoptive mom myself, and I can’t think of another woman in this entire world who means more to me than the biological mother of my son, Jack. Sorry, guys. I did not know I was going to cry today. And it’s such a powerful way of women coming together and knowing that it does take a village, and we can choose collaboration over competition, and there’s no more important place to do that than in our mothering and in our parenting.
So I hope today you can think about a woman in your life. Maybe there’s someone who has gone before you. Maybe there’s a mentor in your life today like Roopa had, and you need to thank her, and you need to see that you also can rise up and become what that woman is. Maybe you are an adopted child or you are a mom who has adopted, and there’s a conversation that you can have with your mom today.
So today, on International Women’s Day, here is to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them. Thank you so much for tuning into today’s podcast.
“…here is to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” – Jessica Honegger
I’m super excited for next week. We are going to hear from Bob Goff, who’s all things social impact and social entrepreneurship. If you like what you’re hearing, I would love for you to go on over to iTunes and leave a review. Tell me what you’re learning. Tell me what’s inspiring you. Thanks so much for tuning in, and I will see you next week.