“They have a brilliant spirit, and that’s what drives me,” says Aishwarya Sunaad, a 21-year old student at Ashoka University, while talking about the employees at the Assawarpur unit of her venture Ordinaire, which sells affordable products ranging from tote bags to unique ear-phone pouches.
The team, which consists of nine women who are also employed as janitors at the university, are currently working on a line of hair accessories manufactured from indigenous Indian textiles.
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From a very young age, Sunaad’s goal was to try and do her bit to empower women in rural India. With Ordinaire, which she established in December 2019, she says, she finally took a step in that direction.
After dropping out from Lady Shri Ram College, Sunaad tried her hand at business and started two ventures. But they didn’t pan out as planned. Subsequently, she took admission in Ashoka University, willing to give academics another try.
At the university, she noticed that most of the janitors knew how to sew. “The women didn’t see their creations as something special, but I did,” she says.
A student interested in subaltern studies, Sunaad realised she needed the women, who came from nearby villages, to trust her as a friend before she could set up the business. “I call them my friends, but their reality is far removed from mine, and the campus across the road,” she says.
In order to build trust, she started discussing business over chores and chai with the women. “As soon as we started talking, I could feel a sense of camaraderie and trust,” she said.
As Sunaad was fluent in six languages, she would easily switch to a Haryanvi accent during the conversation, thereby breaking the ice between her and the women. One day, she proposed her business idea as a hobby that they could do alongside their jobs, and asked if they could sew bags to sell at the university.
According to Sunaad, the goal is to provide dignity of labour, and although her employees work at their own pace, she keeps reminding them that they are professionals. For her, she says, employment at Oridinaire is solely based on skill and not charity.
The bags and other products that they make roughly range from Rs 50 to Rs 550.
“I tell them this money is theirs,” she says, while prompting the women to take ownership of their work. However, she has gotten a mixed response so far. While some of them, she says, embrace having agency over their money, patriarchy guilt trips others.
“Is it okay if I keep it?” is the common question. Nevertheless, she keeps the conversation going, in a language familiar to them both literally and culturally. “I give them examples of women who keep their money, and have the discretion to spend it the way they want to,” she says. The salary, therefore, lends the women the dignity and authority over their work.
“This is where the idea of agency comes in,” she adds, highlighting the need to instil a sense of independence in women living in rural areas. “Even if it’s the women who are the earning members of the family, the men always ensure they have no agency,” she says, adding that most of the women she works with don’t even know how to sign their name. Ordinaire attempts to fill this gap by conducting various literacy workshops.
“The patriarchal system will be shaken,” she adds. With her undeterred efforts even in the wake of a pandemic, it just might – Sunaad has been raising funds to produce and distribute reusable cotton masks for frontline workers in Mysore – where two other units of Ordinaire are located – who can’t afford to buy a surgical mask every day, such as street vendors, migrant workers, municipal sanitation staff, and traffic police personnel.
For Sunaad, accessibility is essential in matters of business and everyday life. To that end, one mask recently designed by Ordinaire is for individuals with a hearing impairment. As such, Sunaad says she’s content with Ordinaire’s first few “very shaky steps”.
Diya Isha is a student at Ashoka University, Sonepat who finds herself fiddling with words, and never abiding to a word limit. You can find her in places where they write long, over-punctuated sentences.