AGENTS OF CHANGE
Leap of faith
Gun Mala Kapur, Meenakshi Anand and Meenu Vadhera handled their mid-life crisis by becoming entrepreneurs with a difference.
We always fear failure but the worst that can happen is that you get a reject, so what? GUN MALA KAPUR
Photos: Madhu Gurung
New Life: Meenakshi with her trainees;
In 2005, when her husband Lieutenant General B.M. Kapur retired as Deputy Chief of the Army, Gun Mala was 54. Like most army families, the Kapurs had lived all over India in places people only read about in coffee table books. Gun Mala loved the R
20;roller coaster life of packing our home every two or three years. It was like we had wings under our feet, life just flew past. By the time my husband retired, our two children had grown and chosen their own livesI often felt that the woman sweeping the street was doing more than me.”
One day, Gun Mala and her friend were cribbing about being too old for the job market. Their basic education counted for nothing in a world of well trained young people. A common friend suggested that they use their skills at designing interiors. After all, she said, they had endless work experience in doing up the many homes they had lived in. Charged, the two friends trooped up to the MGF Mall in Gurgaon and asked the management for a chance to design their interiors.
Off to work
Sitting in the beautifully done up living room of her Mathura Road residence in Delhi, Gun Mala grins as she recalls that meeting. “We were two women who had never worked in our lives, but when we got the contract to do up the common space of MGF Mall for the Independence Day in 2005, we lucked out. We had no money to actually start, so we had to ask for an advance.”
Scouting around, they got a carpenter, artist and handy-man all rolled into one and then went to the National Museum to look at the Ashoka Pillar. They duplicated it, complete with the script in Brahmi. When they were finished, the pillar with the four lions rose from the ground, festooned with the tricolour, towering all the way to the top floor of the Mall.
Meenu Vadhera with her first recruit.
It proved to be a turning point. “We realised that the Army had taught us a hell of a lot. We used our skills of decorating officers’ messes, organising events, using our ingenuity with small budgets. Our friend was right; we had lots of strengths to be grateful for.”
Gun Mala and her friend Preeti went on to start “Creative Arts”, revelling in the opportunity after their maiden venture. “Doing the first Mall was fun. We were so excited and my family was so encouraging, my husband put in money wherever needed, my children egged me on. In Preeti I have a fabulous partner, whom I can trust blindly.”
The duo went on to weave magic on the Mega City Mall in Gurgaon and the Select City Mall in Saket in Delhi. Gun Mala laughs as she recalls last Valentine’s Day. They had painted a tree silver and put it in the central space. People could take a tasselled card, write a wish or message to their loved one and stick it on the tree. “Two months after Valentine’s Day, people were still writing messages and the tree was so heavily laden it had become a wish tree.”
Gun Mala dreams up ideas when alone. Her theory, she says, with a wide grin, is, “One must take a leap in the dark. We always fear failure but the worst that can happen is that you get a reject, so what? Try again.”
As doing up the Malls is seasonal, she and another friend started a small block-printing venture called ‘Annandi’ in Ghitorni village on the Delhi–Gurgaon border. This venture is her regular work. Annandi, now three years old, has yet to become commercially viable but is “deeply satisfying”. The two friends pore over dyes, letting their imaginations run riot. They have a small unit to create yardage, home linen and kurtis. “Our marketing skills aren’t very good. We make 200-odd pieces at a time and hold exhibitions at which friends and relatives buy up everything. We break even.”
Gun Mala believes that the 50s are a perfect launching pad to test one’s wings. Her dark eyes light up with enthusiasm, “When I die and go up to my creator at least I can say I tried. I thank God I stayed a little hungry to have a new birth and a new life.”
“Life is beautiful,” says Meenakshi Anand, seated in her office at Airhostess Training Center, off Delhi’s busy South Extension market. The room is filled with photographs of her many students who now fly on national and international carriers. The academy draws young girls from small towns with dreams of flying to distant lands but no means of making it possible.
Ten years ago when Meenakshi’s army officer husband was posted in Delhi, she decided to take up a job. She had only a graduate degree. The first place she went to was the Women’s Polytechnic at South Extension. Unmindful of status, she took up a front office job for just Rs 2,500 per month. “After the first month the director asked me if I wanted my PF cut before they paid me. I had no idea what PF was, I didn’t even have my own bank account.”
Four years into her job, Meenakshi observed that many tourism students wanted airhostess training. She studied the market and saw its potential. Together with Abha Singh, a friend from the same institute, she started the Airhostess Training Center (ATC) in 2000. “We put in Rs. 1,00,000 initially. We started with just one telephone, a computer and 25 students. We had to pay royalty to the Polytechnic. Today we rent this space for over Rs. 1,00,000 a month. We also have a branch in Jabalpur.”
As head of operations Meenakshi travels to small towns, holding seminars and talking about the ATC. She has an easy charm and her enthusiasm brings results. “We started with 25 girls; now more than 200 fly with various airlines, and there are the those in the hospitality industry,” she exults.
The six-month course, priced at Rs. 75,000, teaches everything from grooming to social skills and how to face interviews. “When the kids go for their interviews, I call my hairdresser and tell her the hair and make up style for each one. Many girls, once they get jobs and start flying, come back to the centre with clothes meant for others who may not have the means to buy outfits appropriate for interviews. I am just very grateful that I have been able to create a family.”
Meenakshi is proud that ATC has made a name in the industry. “I mentor them like a mother; we do not take more than 20 in one batch. I still conduct classes and am with them for all in-flight trainings. It is a pleasure to watch them blossom.”
She points at a smiling, fresh-faced girl on the ATC brochure, “Narender Kaur is our brand ambassador. She is with Etihad Airlines. When she came from Modinagar, her father was jobless as he was laid off from Modi Mills. Today this child has bought a Rs. 25,00,000-flat for her parents in her home town. She epitomises the possibility of small town girls reaching for their dreams.”
Unlike Gun Mala and Meenakshi, Meenu Vadhera always knew she wanted to work with people at the grassroots. Her first job after college was with ‘Urmul’ in Rajasthan. She then moved to Betul. For 13 years she worked for Action Aid, even going to Uganda to manage a project for five years. However, when Meenu left her job, she decided not to take up another one, although she needs a steady income to support her daughter and mother.
At the crossroads
At 43, Meenu found herself at the crossroads. “I wanted to really do something on the ground for women in Delhi.” She had long felt that there is a “visible gap and a crying need for women drivers to cater to the requirement of families with girls, and the elderly, besides helping the latter as companions.” The more she thought of this idea the more plausible it appeared.
Tall, passionate, with easy charm, Meenu draws people with her charisma. “My mother was apprehensive, as I’m the sole breadwinner in my family. There are times I feel I’m risking everything by my leap of faith. But if I don’t do it now, I never will.”
Meenu registered the ‘Azad Foundation’, naming it after her late father, a freedom fighter who fought in the Indian National Army. “Our aim is to invite applications from girls who have passed class 10, from slums and poor families, who would be interested in working as drivers and unafraid to move out of their environment and try something new. After the training they can be assured a starting salary of Rs. 4000 every month.”
Meenu’s living room in Delhi’s Nehru Apartments is milling with people. One friend is busy taking photos of a young girl who worked as a maid in Meenu’s home and who is the first volunteer driver. She is dressed in white trousers and jacket with a blue scarf and peaked cap. “Didi kaisi lagti hun?” (How do I look?), she cocks her cap jauntily. The room erupts with laughter.
“Our challenge is to get girls to apply, as drivers are traditionally males. I believe it takes one person to make the leap and others will follow. It will not be easy. All driving jokes are aimed at women. But we hope that our endeavour will break the stereotype.”
Meenu hopes to cajole Maruti Udyog to teach her pool of drivers. She is determined to ensure that her trainees will be drivers with a difference. “We intend to teach them basic communication skills in English, how to read maps, basic mechanics, grooming and, above all, give them a feeling of empowerment. In mid-July the Foundation will invite applications. I never realised I had such a vast network of friends who are pitching in. Together we have prepared brochures and posters. My nephew has set up a blog for me to share what I am doing with the world. This breaks the myth that nothing can happen without money. If you are committed, even the universe conspires to give it to you.”
Meenu is creating a database of people who could use their services. “Besides senior citizens and couples with girl children, we hope to have a tie up with hotels and tourist offices to cater to female travellers as well as corporates where young women have erratic working hours. Once the training is over we intend to place them. We also intend starting a dial-a-cab service for women passengers. Cars will be designed to look after the security of our drivers. They will have a GPS, cell phone, pepper spray. Those on the night shift will have a link-up with Delhi Police. Our first batch will have 40 women drivers.”
Meenu calls herself a social entrepreneur. “I believe that when women move into spaces not considered their own, it frees them mentally. The women are not just drivers, they are entrepreneurs because as the business grows so will their share in it. Together, they will be the change agents.”
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