For Kanchan Parulekar (70), leaving her cushiony banking job at the peak of her career was a matter of principle. While she grew up amid poverty and strived hard to build a staggering career graph — from being a teacher to becoming a bank manager — she never parted ways with her childhood dream of wanting to make a difference.
Her goal had always been to uplift women from marginal backgrounds, by making them micro-entrepreneurs. For a child to dream this big is quite unheard of, but for Kanchan, who is from Kolhapur, this was nothing new — both her parents were actively engaged in social reforms during the 1950s and 60s.
Her mother was a tailor, and her father a social activist who fought for basic rights like education, water and health across Maharashtra. No members of the family held any degrees, and yet, were way ahead of their times. Kanchan took after her parents, and delivered her first ever public speech on health at only 11 years old.
Surprised and impressed by the young child’s moving appeal, Dr V T Patil, an eminent social worker and educationist, adopted her and decided to take care of her education. After Patil passed away, Kanchan decided to carry his legacy forward. She helped his organisation, Swayamsiddha, which works to create women entrepreneurs, grow further.
In the last 28 years, she has helped 6,500 women start their own businesses.
Kanchan’s drive to better the lives of those around her came from her own experiences. She says that one day, her younger sister was sent home from the clinic with a plaster after she complained of pain in her legs. A few days later, she was diagnosed with polio. This was Kanchan’s first brush with medical negligence. But it wasn’t the only issue prevalent in her area. She grew up seeing pressing problems like water scarcity and illiteracy all around her. It didn’t take her too long to connect them to one issue — poverty.
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“Marginalised communities often find it difficult to access basic facilities due to poverty. I saw my parents work hard to bring the government’s attention to this, and bring in policy changes for years. I, too, wanted to help bring concrete transformation. I have used second-hand books and clothes all my life, so I knew the importance of money,” she tells The Better India.
Alongside attending meetings and rallies with her parents, Kanchan completed her Masters in Arts, and earned a Diploma in Education. She worked for a teacher for ten years, but later switched to banking, wanting better opportunities for herself. She spent the next 14 years working her way up, and became the bank manager.
Kanchan actively participated in sustainable livelihood and development projects organised by the bank across rural areas of Maharashtra. But still striving to extend her reach to the marginalised community, she left her illustrious career in 1992 to fulfil her goal of serving people with low incomes and no jobs. The same year, she came back to Swayamsiddha.
Delving into the work that the organisation does, she says it has two divisions, rural and urban. While women in the city area have to pay a fee for skill development training, the ones in rural areas are taught for free.
Kanchan started by posting an advertisement in the newspaper, inviting women, especially homemakers, for a meeting titled ‘Economic Empowerment’. More than 130 women turned up. Kanchan asked them about their interests, which lay in various fields.
“The businesses range from bakeries to food processing units, bag manufacturing units, beauty parlours and handicrafts. We provide the women with training, and once they establish their own firm, we market their products. The annual turnover of last year from all the businesses was a total of Rs 3.5 crore,” Kanchan adds.
Since a majority of the women had no prior experience of running a venture, Swayamsiddha set up Swaymprerika (self-motivated), a cooperative industrial society, to sell products in weekly bazaars, exhibitions and their offline store.
Swayamsiddha has helped many women turn their lives around.
In 2017, she learnt about Swayamsiddha and enrolled in the training programme. “I improved my culinary skills and opened Shaku’s Kitchen to sell home-made food. Today, I earn up to Rs 60,000 every month,” Shakuntala tells The Better India.
Like Shakuntala, Ranjana Lavate, too, started her entrepreneurial journey after hitting rock bottom. She failed her Class X examinations in 1999, and had to face ridicule from everyone around her. She says her spirits were crushed, and for the longest time, she refused to step outside her house. The 35-year-old says she regained her confidence through various courses like personality development, cooking and learning the English language at Swayamsiddha.