Mentoring rural entrepreneurs has taught me how to hustle

by Aditi Seshadri

Last evening, I was talking to Sudesh Sharma from Hisar village in Haryana. Sudeshji had a question that many have been asking for the past year all over the world – Mujhe online classes karne hain, aap bata sakte hain main kaise karoon? (I want to run online classes, can you tell me how to do them?)

For six months now, I’ve been a pro bono mentor with Internet Saathi Accelerator, an online accelerator for rural women entrepreneurs, run by women’s platform SHEROES, in partnership with Google’s Internet Saathi initiative. We are trying to help micro business owners all over India learn business skills using the power and reach of the mighty Internet – by improving digital literacy and business skills, while leveraging all the tools and tricks SHEROES and Google have to offer.

Sudeshji is one of the entrepreneurs in the group I mentor (made up of women from villages in Haryana and Punjab) and one of the most enterprising people I have ever interacted with. She runs several training centres, regularly training batches of hundreds of women and kids in vocational skills like tailoring, beauty and makeup, bridal wear and more. Others in the group – Mandeep, Suman, Minakshi, Sarbjit and more – are at varying stages of early entrepreneurship, trying to figure out this beast that gives them valuable financial and creative independence but is also a very tough nut to crack.

In most of the households, the smart phone is a shared device, used for kids’ online schooling and YouTube entertainment, as well as our learning sessions. Many of the women had never done video calls before but the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digital adaptation in India, and the SHEROES team and volunteers have helped to plug any gaps. And so, every couple of weeks, the women and I, and my tireless ‘buddy’ Vinita Virdi meet on a call and tackle a business-related topic – from goal setting to the 4Ps of marketing, from how to use WhatsApp business to finding verified information online. I even got them to record video pitches that we then watched and critiqued as a group.

Things are not always smooth: Internet connectivity can be a challenge; when the farmer protests spilled over into rioting, Haryana and Punjab lost data connectivity for several days and even the enthusiastic Sudeshji was unable to attend sessions. Finding time (for me) to plan and run the sessions while having a full workload and personal responsibilities, and finding time (for the women) to attend the sessions while they manage homes, kids, and their fledgling enterprises gets overwhelming sometimes. Yet, all of us show up for the sessions, time and again.

Oddly enough, all my training as a Stanford Seed Business Advisor, especially in the 1.5 years of taking our flagship Seed Transformation Programme (STP) online, has prepared me well for this experience – whether it’s designing sessions, tackling the tricky world of online learning, or responding to hardcore business queries. And on the surface, these may seem like two polar opposite worlds, but whether you’re building the next unicorn in Mumbai or running a tailoring shop from your home in Hisar, you need to hustle and make the most of whatever opportunities you have in the midst of a pandemic raging around us. The internet and Covid-19 have levelled the playing field.

The ladies and I had a call last weekend when we simply chatted and caught up – me in my mangled Hinglish (the butt of all my friends’ jokes) and them in Hindi-Haryanvi-Punjabi. With India deep in lockdown due to the devastating effects of this virus, talking business seemed a bit pointless. The virus is truly everywhere now – nearly all of us on the call (in Goa, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab) had had covid or were still recovering from it; some of the women were worried about their kids getting it; a few of our parents have had their vaccine shots, while others are scared about its effects; everyone agreed that our health was the most important thing and that business could wait but at the same time we were discussing what could be done while waiting for things to get better and open up again.

Which brings me back to Sudeshji’s call yesterday. Recently recovered from Covid herself and still struggling to get her energy back, she has a new batch of students ready to start a beauty and makeup course but her training centre is shut and people are staying home. So she now plans to trial her first online class starting later this month. I told her everything I know about running online sessions – which tools to use, how to structure them, how to optimise her visuals. She has already planned out her marketing collaterals (using Canva) and payment structure (using Gpay). Two professionals discussing regular business, shutting out the noise; a brilliant, simple moment of normalcy.

I have no doubt she will ace it. And I can’t wait to be a part of what happens next.

(Published on LinkedIn; May 13, 2021)

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