The call of the valley

The call of the valley

Amala Menon had not given more than a fleeting thought to either becoming a businesswoman or a social entrepreneur.

She didn't need to. A flourishing career with the likes of telecom giants AT&T, Equant, the Tata group, IDC and Frost & Sullivan had brought the Singapore-based executive challenging assignments and a steady, high income.

However, her close associates kept cajoling her to do something outside of the corporate world. Their encouragement started Ms Menon on a journey that would take her from Africa to the foothills of the Himalayas. The 52-year-old mother of two is far from done.

Her first foray into business, three years ago, was Samastha Solutions - a corporate training solutions and process improvement consulting company. But finding work wasn't easy for a fledgling start-up.

"Often being a woman does get one discounted a little," says Ms Menon with a wry smile. She approached everyone she knew. "I realised over time that I was not very persevering and didn't have it in me to go twice to the same person.

This was not really good for an entrepreneur," she says of her initial struggle.

But repeat business from satisfied customers helped steady the ship. "Luckily for me, once I did something for them they asked me to come back again and again. One such anchor customer is a large retail business in Africa called Choppies."

A publicly-traded supermarket operator in Botswana, Choppies has expanded into Zimbabwe and South Africa. "There aren't very many corporates in Africa, especially Botswana," says Ms Menon.

"The ones that are there are always looking for ways to enhance their services and raise their professionalism." This is where she came in, conducting training programmes in areas such as leadership, team-building, change management, process improvement and re-engineering.

Once the business had grown, Ms Menon invited Mr Biju Chandrasekharan and Mr Phanindranath Kakarla to join her. Each partner came with diverse skills and areas of expertise, but together they have stayed focused on working on specific projects in a few industries.

The company changed its name to Finnovate Partners, which stands for financial innovation.

With her professional life stabilising, she felt a strong urge to give back to society. But her key input was to be innovation, not a money grant.

She explains: "I was very certain that I wanted to be a social entrepreneur and not just contribute to a charitable cause. I am almost against charity, when it starts making the receiver expect it almost as a right it discourages them from working.

"My personal opinion is that it makes us lose our self-respect without the receiver ever realising it! I loved the beauty and authencity of villages around the world and, therefore, I wanted to do something in the villages of India to begin with and, in the process, make the villagers feel a sense of pride in what they have and encourage them to preserve it."

Her idea was SaveAGram: A social enterprise that would create an additional source of income for villagers from authentic eco-tourism, an immersive experience for city-slickers looking to shed urban dust from their bodies and souls.

After paying off costs and salaries, profits would go back to supporting the village environment, children and women.

Gram in Sanskrit or Hindi means village. In April 1936, Mahatma Gandhi took up residence in Segaon on the outskirts of Wardha in Maharashtra. He renamed the hamlet Sevagram, which means "village of service". It remained the Mahatma's home from 1936 until his death in 1948.

Ms Menon's SaveAGram embodies Gandhi's vision of self-sufficient villages in a modern context.

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