If there is ever a contest to identify a poster child for the Swachh Bharat campaign, Chetna Sinha, 59, founder of the Mann Deshi Foundation, Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank and a business school, would surely qualify. An economist, microfinancier, farmer and social activist who started her work from Maharashtra’s Satara district, Sinha has dedicated her life to the economic empowerment of rural women. She moved to Mhaswad, a town in Satara district, three decades ago when she married into a rural farming family. Coming from metropolitan Mumbai, Sinha’s first shock was learning that she had to defecate in the open since the house had no toilet. The household eventually did get one, but this was the start of Sinha’s journey of listening to what the community wanted, and eventually finding a way to get it organized and delivered.

Sinha, along with six other women, will co-chair the 48th World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting to be held at Davos between 23 and 26 January. This is the first time that the WEF panel will have all women co-chairs. The six women with Sinha on the panel include IMF’s Christine Lagarde, Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg, IBM chief Ginni Rometty, International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow, CERN director general Fabiola Gianotti and ENGIE chief executive Isabelle Kocher. The focus at Davos is on “creating a shared future in a fractured world" and Sinha believes that as someone who has worked with marginalized communities, her voice will represent people belonging to a “fractured world". Ahead of leaving for Davos, she tells us why the panel with all women co-chairs is a historic move at WEF, what she hopes the Indian Prime Minister will hear at Davos and why development of small towns is key for India’s growth. Edited excerpts: 

When the WEF talks about “creating a shared future in a fractured world", what does the statement, especially in today’s time and age, mean to you?

“A fractured world" according to me refers to marginalized communities, people who have been left behind in the development process, people like tribals who have been left untouched. I do not think fractured world refers to First World controversial issues. When WEF picks up this theme, it is about bringing issues of such people into the mainstream. I see “shared future" as a reference to these voices which must have a space. It is about creating a dignified future for those who have been left behind. When people talk about (a) fractured world, it is not just about access but inclusion into the mainstream. 

From previously shared figures, about 75% of attendees at WEF are men. Will an all-women panel help to make a point about making workplaces more gender inclusive?

I see seven women being co-chairs as an opportunity and a responsibility. Davos is a place where heads of state come, where CEOs come, and whatever is discussed and debated in here is about investment, technology, business and science, compared to gender, social economic growth, etc. When at this platform, where corporates, investors, venture capitalists, head of states are present, and issues of gender are highlighted, you bring the discussion to the mainstream, it becomes a statement.

Being at this forum, in this capacity, for me is a responsibility, because I will be bringing the voices of people from the fractured part of the world. Everyone knows the statistics about these issues, but how are we going to fix these? What are the solutions? My role here will be to get people to look into those. The sector where I work, microfinance and women empowerment, is ready for a change, but it needs investment and I hope this will be a point of discussion too.

In terms of diversity, you are the only Asian in the all women co-chair panel, especially at a time when this era is being termed as the century of Asia. What do you think about this?

At least a starting has been made on the gender issue. I look at the positive side: an all women’s panel helps get the discussions about gender into the most mainstream of settings and this is always a good thing. I believe this will remove gender from being perceived as a soft issue and mainstream it. 

What are the lessons that you have learnt while running Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, when it comes to why women find it hard to secure loans or to be a robust part of financial inclusion plans?

Our mainstream banking sector is poor in envisioning the needs and finding solutions for the rural poor and women. Over the years we have learnt many things. For example, while we worked in many weekly haats (markets), we found that the women who were saving with Mann Deshi still took out loans with the local moneylenders. When we asked them why they were willing to do this in spite of high interest rates, they explained that they did not want to be flooded with paperwork and also they wanted the money now, at their doorstep, with the ability to repay in a very short time at their convenience. The ease with which the moneylender provided was not something we were giving them. That’s when we realized that ease of banking is very important for women entrepreneurs as is customized banking. They wanted daily cash flows, daily repayment because their business models are such. These are the reasons why financial inclusion that we are talking about is not happening as fast as it should. Women need doorstep banking, it has to be easy for them and products should be customized. Banks need to do more research if they need to reach out to women. Bankers must also understand that lack of education does not mean people are stupid. Systems should not be more important than humans.

Another thing that banks and people who are dealing with financial inclusion for women must understand is that women do not want one common smartphone where the information of the banking accounts can be shared with everyone in the family. They want to control their finance and want their own smartphones.

The British Council’s 2016 The State of Social Enterprise in India report said that 24% of social enterprises are led by women in comparison to only about 8.9% private sector businesses. What are social enterprises in India doing right to empower women?

What are perceived as hardcore businesses are often led by men but what are seen as soft positions such as heading corporate social responsibility or foundations is given to women. That is a stereotype you see everywhere. 

Besides, most of India’s home-grown corporate world is about family business and this inequality of women representation is an inherited problem too. However, lack of women leadership is a problem in the First World too.

I do respect women for leading in the social sector and that’s why you see more innovation in these sectors. However, this lack of diversity will end up leading to losses to businesses eventually. If you included more women, with their styles of leadership, there would be more diversity, more innovations.

The Indian Prime Minister is attending WEF at Davos this year. What message as an entrepreneur, an activist and a banker would you like him to take back?

The most important thing I would say at Davos, which I hope everyone takes note of, is that India is a nation of entrepreneurs. I would urge the PM to create a more robust system for entrepreneurs of all types. India has hosted a global summit on entrepreneurship, it has announced a dedicated fund for women entrepreneurs. It is a great time to invest in women entrepreneurs. We know manufacturing units can create jobs but how many jobs will these be? Ultimately, it will be entrepreneurs who will create jobs in India.

Mann Deshi, along with IFMR Investments, is launching the first Sebi (Securities and Exchange Board of India)-registered fund for women micro- entrepreneurs and I would like to see the Prime Minister create a supportive ecosystem for many such funds to flourish and eventually for mainstream financial institutions to make microenterprise loans as mainstream as microfinance is today.

To solve SIN (spillovers, important and neglected) problems, what support does an entrepreneur need? 

We used to say India lives in its villages. Now it lives in the small towns. These spaces are vibrant since the young populace lives there. They are graduates, but don’t have jobs. Create an ecosystem that helps them to thrive in these towns. Have a chamber of commerce in a small town, think about business schools in these towns, run investment related workshops or clinics, and mentorship programmes. But all of this must go hand in hand. Otherwise what is the point of having a business school and MBA graduates in a place where there are no jobs or an ecosystem for creating employment. Learn to customize programmes based on what these small towns need and what resources are available. We can’t go around building malls, which First World cities have, just because that is what we have seen.

Also, create the agri-infrastructure in terms of cold storage chains. Farmers are producing but there is a paucity of warehouses and storage spaces. Create small warehouses that can store farm produce for five-seven villages. We will see immediate impact if a few things like this are done.

With Mann Deshi you have scaled deep (bank, education, microfinancing, cattle fairs), but what about scaling up (getting this model to other districts, or even at a global level)? 

When I started out I never thought what Mann Deshi is doing today will be its area of work. But whatever I have done has all come from listening to what the community needs and wants at a particular time. 

I think of Mann Deshi  as more of a community  organization and not just a bank, and that’s why we have scaled deep. We get ideas and the “wiseness" from the community as a result because they have their own way of dealing with things. Mann Deshi itself may not be able to go out to different geographies or scale up, but we can partner with others. Scaling for itself is not my goal; focusing on policymaking and setting precedents is important like we did with Mann Deshi.

How much of innovation in the social space is about “new ideas" versus building on or improving an existing idea to solve a problem?

People continuously talk about innovation. In technology, there have been so many innovations, so many of which survived and others did not. The ones that really customized to a problem were the ones which solved them. I am not into applauding technology innovations just because they are a new idea. Unless an innovation can solve a problem, cater to a particular need of a person or community and has the capacity to scale at the market level, there is no point in it according to me.

With the release of Pad Man, a movie on a social entrepreneur, do you think it will encourage more people in rural India to look to solve SIN problems?

Such movies bring topics that are usually not discussed into the mainstream—and get people talking. Movies and celebrities in this country matter a lot. A movie like Dangal motivated a lot of people in our area (Satara district, Maharashtra) to let young girls become athletes. 

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