Few people look at gender equality the way 28-year-old Sombodhi Ghosh, from India, does. When Sombodhi realised the female helpers around him were being shunned during their monthly menstrual cycle, he questioned it, which ultimately led him on an unexpected career path. In 2011, Sombodhi co-founded Aakar Innovations (Aakar), a company which creates low-cost sanitary napkins. Now, he plans to teach rural women to make and sell them, offering livelihood opportunities, and destigmatising periods in the process. Last month, Sombodhi, – along with Jaydeep Mandal, 28, and Dr. Meera Singh,63, both from India, and 24-year-old Andrew Yin, from Malaysia – was named as finalist in this year’s Project Inspire, the social impact competition run by Singapore Committee for UN Women and MasterCard. Here, Sombodhi discusses the notion of empowerment, and his commendable work.
Why is women’s empowerment important to you?
“I feel that question shouldn’t be asked in a way which frames women as a distinct entity from the rest of us. I treat this question as: why is empowerment important to me? [And the answer is] because it’s about giving respect and opportunities to everyone.”
Have you always known you wanted to work to improve the lives of women?
“No. Growing up in a male-centric society can do that to people; make them immune to differences perpetuated to women. It only truly struck me as odd during my fellowship days, when I witnessed how women [domestic] helpers were shunned during their period. They were not to touch anything or make food, because they were taught to think they’re unclean. I asked, ‘Why?’ That’s when something truly changed in me, and made me think about the privileges I had, which were not extended to my female peers. Their dignity had been taken away; they were told to be ashamed of something as natural as menstruation. I knew then that I needed to do something.”
What was the impetus to start Aakar Innovations?
“While working in rural development, [my Aakar co-founder] Jaydeep saw the potential of creating quality sanitary napkins, which are made and sold by women to their communities. We decided to start Aakar to equip rural women with effective menstrual protection, while also creating an organisation which offers real and meaningful employment, using innovations in technology and business.”
How did your Project Inspire idea come about?
“Since inception, we have been busy creating a cost- and energy-efficient production unit for rural villages, where electricity is scarce and inaccessible to most. It’s also able to manufacture 100% biodegradable sanitary pads. Now, with operations in 10 locations, we’re ready to move to our next phase; training women entrepreneurs to run sustainable micro-enterprises, selling sanitary pads to their communities. Aakar Social Ventures is a project devoted to conducting outreach programs and training for women.”
What does your job entail on a day-to-day basis?
“As co-founder of a small start-up I do anything and everything, from cleaning the office floor to working with women in the field, to sales and fundraising. My primary role is ground operations and logistics, including sales and distribution.”
What is the best part of your job?
“Working in the field gives me an immense sense of satisfaction. The best part is having lunch with our village entrepreneurs at their houses; the trust and comfort we share with these women and their children is incredible.”
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned through Aakar?
“The realisation that when you don’t fear failure, you can achieve a lot more.”
Vote for Aakar Social Ventures in the 2014 People’s Choice Award.
Get to know all of our 2014 Project Inspire finalists.