Gauri Malik Of Sirohi On Building a Purpose-Driven Brand That Consumers Love
How Sirohi got started
We started our work in 2012 as Skilled Samaritan Foundation – with the goal of lighting villages through solar power. Only in early 2020 did we start mobilizing women from communities in UP – primarily from my hometown of Muzzafarnagar. We provided them with raw materials to make beautiful functional products as well as with market access through our brand Sirohi. We realized that there are millions of women from low-income communities who have limited access to opportunity because of a lack of education, early marriage, and restrictions when it comes to stepping outside their homes or communities. However, they are very skilled in various crafts. Our goal was to channel these skills towards making world class products by providing them with design support.
When Covid hit in 2020, we transitioned to a model that would allow the women to work from their homes. Given the penetration of smartphones, we felt we could leverage platforms such as Whatsapp, youtube, Instagram to connect the women with designers across the world. We used various video calling tools to deliver design guidance and training to them. The result has been products that have value beyond the social equity generated. They are beautifully designed products that most of us would love to have in our homes. There just happens to be a special story associated with how they are made.
About creating mindset change
The communities we work with are very conservative – where both men and women have fixed views on gender roles and norms. While the women had skills and aspired to do more with them, they felt they were crossing the line by seeking paid work – it was something they didn’t feel entitled to. We started the Sirohi journey with just one woman — Gauhar Fatma. She was a strong and determined woman who was able to articulate for herself why she wanted to work. But she did have some ground rules still and wanted to do the work from her home. The first set of Sirohi products were 35 items that Gauhar made over two months.
When I first met Gauhar – she was a shy woman who wouldn’t look up and didn’t want to pose for a photo, which was an important piece of visual communication for us. Six months later, when I talked to her, I noticed she didn’t have her burkha on – her body language and tone pointed to a huge increase in confidence in her.
Gauhar’s initiative essentially created a domino effect around her. The second woman signed on with us soon after and now we have over 750 women associated with the brand across three villages in Muzzafarnagar. Our aim is to replicate what we’ve done here in other clusters across the country.
The partnership changed not just Gauhar but the mindset of women around her, the men in their lives, and their families, who now encourage them to work in order to add to the family income.
Our biggest challenge
I have found that mobilizing the women and keeping them on track with production targets is not as challenging as I had expected. The women are skilled, hands on, professional and dependable. On the other hand, it is challenging to work in a community which has not traditionally been associated with craft activities. Muzaffarnagar District is known for sugar mills and related industry but we are essentially trying to create a thriving ecosystem for craft here. One of our biggest challenges is finding the right people to support us with supervising production and quality. And while the women are great at weaving, we do need other skilled workers – metal workers, carpenters, etc. – to build frames for our products and more. We also struggle with finding talent because migration in such small cities tends to be very high.
On sustainable consumption and production
I think we can’t place the onus on consumers entirely to think about responsible buying. At the end of the day, convenience, cost and speed are important considerations that impact purchase decisions. But if, as producers, we can be more conscious about the way we procure and utilize raw materials, and the nature of those materials themselves – whether virgin or upcycled – then I think the consumption of the product becomes more sustainable by default. Ultimately, if our goal is to support hundreds of thousands of women, we need to be able to create demand for these products that is not driven by the impact narrative alone but also by the fact that these are high quality and desirable products.
On collaboration between socially-driven brands and nonprofits
I believe that collaboration between brands like ours and nonprofits with a grassroots presence such as Head Held High Foundation makes a lot of sense. It’s about finding more ways to fit the right pegs in the right holes by leveraging complementary strengths. For example, our focus is really on providing opportunities to women through technology-enabled design support. In the case of Head Held High, you are already working with large groups of women and those are also the groups we aim to work with. A Sirohi-Head Held High collaboration for livelihoods can help both parties use their strengths and resources towards creating greater impact.
Plans for the upcoming year
We have two main things we are working towards this year. One, we are building a facility where more than 500 women can come and work — a place where they will have access to raw materials as well as design training. And two, we are aiming to introduce a design fellowship that we are calling the Skill Lab. Under this, we want to collaborate with design schools and designers in order to plug ten designers in craft clusters across the country. We think this will be a great way for women artisans to get exposure to design ideas and techniques, as well as become familiar with existing apps that they can leverage for this purpose. Eventually, we aim to provide market linkages for them through Sirohi or our partners.
This interview is part of a series featuring social innovators and thinkers under our “Power of Possibilities” campaign.