Notes from the Field: Delhi, India

I’m on the outskirts of Delhi with Acumen Fellow Gayatri Jolly. She is a super-talented fashion designer with degrees from Babson College and Parsons and dreams of bringing high-end yet sustainable fashion from India to the world. She looks at sourcing and producing her fabrics ethically and transparently. For this, she hires women from low-income communities, many of whom have lived very difficult lives. She not only teaches them her trade, but also helps them become “master tailors,” which is rubric assigned typically only to men. Hence, her program is called MasterG.

Acumen Fellow Gayathri, right, with one of the women in her MasterG program.

Gayatri developed her curriculum based on her coursework at Parsons and deliberately determined to break the pattern that has existed for centuries in Indian tailoring. Traditional MasterGs go from shop to shop working for free or low wages for years in exchange for knowledge from their “gurus.” MasterG’s curriculum, on the other hand, is rooted in practicality, freedom and innovation, which is new to the women. They are taught to create, innovate and think freely with adequate discipline to be able to cope in the real world. The impact thus has been not only in the workshop but in the rest of their lives as well.

We visit one of her workshops in an area that’s home to the Gujjar tribe, known for its conservatism around women. I loved the notion behind Gayatri’s mission but, in all honesty, didn’t fully expect the level of professionalism, focus and well, power, I saw in the women with whom she works and now, in some cases, partners. The women start with a six-month training followed by an apprenticeship. Gayatri meets them all with her own high expectations.

I feel a deep sense of life, and of conviction and generosity the minute we walk into the studio. Women take courses in sewing, sitting behind machines, practicing their tailoring skills on crop tops, skirts and sleeves. Others busily work on custom ordered dresses for women in the area. MasterG also works with international designers from the UK and US, doing the work of creating patterns and, sometimes, stitching pieces. Knowing that their work will show up in the finest places inspires the women to do more than they thought possible while earning incomes that enable a sense of freedom and greater possibility.

We spoke to a woman who was married off before the age of 18 and then gave birth to two girls, much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law who wanted a male to carry on the family name. During her third pregnancy, her father-in-law sent her in for a sonogram with the intent of aborting the fetus if it were a girl. She was indeed carrying a girl, but her mother-in-law intervened. Now a mother to three beautiful daughters, she, herself, is treated as damaged goods by all but her mother-in-law who has given her blessing to train and work at MasterG. Though she was unable to complete her schooling, this young woman is now emerging as one of MasterG’s hardest workers.

Another woman, Riti, also married young but to a man who beat her. Unable to take any more, she ran home but was turned away by her brothers. She eventually left her husband with the help of her aunt. Today, she runs her own tailoring shop, Riti’s boutique. I asked her what her dream was. Her smile says it all. “To show my brothers what real success is,” she says. They still drive past her without acknowledging her when she walks the 30 to 40 minutes from MasterG’s to her shop, but she tells me she has found another family in the women in her program and in her brave aunt.

And then there is Rajni. Her father died young and her mother is now dying of a long-carried disease, leaving Rajni to drop out of school to care for her sisters. She is extraordinarily talented and now works closely with Gayatri as a master patternmaker, sewer and designer. Her dream? To become a designer like Gayatri is. “I want to become Somebody,” she says. And she is on her way.

I had two favorite moments in the day. The first was when Rajni took my measurements for a jacket that Gayatri and the women schemed to give me. She called out number after number — in English! — to a young woman, verifying each one, and suddenly I could see her face light up. I asked her what she was thinking. “I got your measurements perfectly!” she exclaimed. “I don’t have to change even one inch of the pattern we have made for you.”

I asked how she could have possibly guessed my measurements without ever meeting me. “I have watched your talks on YouTube!” Rajni said, as if I were living in another century. And when it came time to picking the fabric, she gave me two options: one, fuchsia, and the other a bit more muted. This time I didn’t need to ask. “I see you like bright colors from your talks too!” she exclaimed.

The second highlight was the fashion show featuring all of the designs and pieces the women had made. The young women walked as if on a catwalk in creations of their own. They were gorgeous, every one of them, and I found myself tearing up at their youthful beauty and hopefulness, but even more so, their capabilities. Had they been born even 10 years ago, these young women likely would have lived invisible lives. With Gayatri’s love — for the work she does is hard but what else is this but love — they are finding their best selves. In finding their selves, they can be free.

This is what it means to see dignity as the opposite of poverty and not just income. And why it is so important to define success not just as the amount of money or fame we earn but by the amount of human energy we unlock and set free. Gayatri will be a famous designer. I have no doubt. But her success will be shared with Rajni, Riti and all of the women she brings along on the journey. By doing so, I believe they will set Gayatri free as well.

And that is the story for all of us.

Imagine what treasures humanity could produce if all of us were able to learn continuously, to feel valued for our work, to have a greater sense of opportunity, of contributing, of purpose.

Founder and CEO of @Acumen. Dedicated to changing the way the world tackles poverty. Learn more: www.acumen.org