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WOMEN ENTREPRENEURSHIP IN NORTH EAST INDIA

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies.

~ Emily Dickinson ~

Shahnaz Hussain, Indra Nooyi, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Naina Lal Kidwai ,Ekta Kapoor, ….There are only a few names that epitomize the fact that inheritors doesn’t impress the way starters do . They have created institutions out of virtually nothing and are playing an impressive and inspirational role model for any woman who wants to carve a niche for herself in the so called male bastion of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship has always intrigued researchers over the years as it is hard to define. It has generally been assumed, however, that the entrepreneur is male. Historically and traditionally, women have been confined to the private sphere of the household, doing the daily chores and tending to her family’s needs. Therefore, they have been denied access to the requisite resources for entrepreneurial entry--access to capital, business and technical education, and prior management experience.

It is a truth that there are gender prejudices almost everywhere. She is seen as a woman first and then as an entrepreneur. There is also constant competition and antagonistic approach from their male counterparts that make things more difficult for them. It is not an easy path to tread upon but there are several women entrepreneurs in India who have made their mark against all heavy odds, social pressures and cultural shackles.

Great people like Mahatma Gandhi also actively encouraged women’s participation in public life as he said, “Woman is the companion of man gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate in the activities of man….” But, at the same time, he also said, “I do not believe in women working for a living or undertaking commercial enterprise.”

A Woman Entrepreneur, in general terms, can be defined as any individual woman or a group of women, who initiate, organize and operate a business enterprise. Government of India has defined women entrepreneurship as an enterprise owned and controlled by a women having a minimum financial interest of 51% of the capital and giving at least 51% of employment generated in the enterprise to women.

In the North Eastern region of India, designed and methodical efforts in entrepreneurship development began in the 70’s and Assam is the pioneer in this field. In 1973, Assam started a novel experiment on entrepreneurship development by setting up district level agencies known as entrepreneurial motivational training centres (EMTC) to identify, select, and train prospective entrepreneurs and provide them all support services to start and run their enterprises.

Entrepreneurship is a difficult undertaking as it calls for innovative ideas, risk –taking, strong business acumen and effective leadership in all aspects of business. It’s a challenging role for a woman but growing sensitivity towards the role of a thinking individual and increasing economic independence has made it possible today for several women to don the entrepreneur’s hat.

The modern concept of women entrepreneurship took shape in this region of the country on from the eighties. Contrary to the popular notion that women from the north east are still backward, they have come a long way now and have established themselves as successful and thriving entrepreneurs not only in the region but also beyond the boundaries of the nation.

Like most women entrepreneurs in India, these women from the NE region have also embarked on their entrepreneurial journey in a relatively smaller scale, mostly based out of their homes. They began with traditionally women-oriented business like beauty and well-being, garments, fashion, handloom and handicrafts etc, mostly without any formal training or a rigid business framework.

Women from the region have realized the potential resources of the region and have initiated various entrepreneurial activities in order to tap the natural wealth of the region.
Handloom and Handicrafts have been playing an important role in the economies of the NE states. According to a study sponsored by NEDFi (2002), NE contributes 19.18% of total number of handicrafts units in India, 21.71% in terms of artisans and 79.58% in terms of value of production. Every state in the region has some unique items of production that have been highly appreciated within the country and also abroad. Handloom and handicrafts products from the NE have excellent brand value.

The name Lalita Devi Jain, fondly known as Madhu by the people of Guwahati, Assam has shaped her own destiny in the entrepreneurial arena. She created her own brand ‘Madhushree’ and has marched her way forward to carve a niche in the global market. She started with five looms and over the period of last more than 25 years, she has built up 50 looms. Almost 200 women are employed and they all have become the part of the family to create the brand of Madhushree.

In this regard, Kos Zhasa of Nagaland, a woman in her early thirties is worth mentioning. She is keen to redefine and redesign handloom and handicraft products so that they are in tune with today's world. Zhasa made a significant mark in the recently concluded India International Trade Fair (IITF) in New Delhi. A product of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) Delhi, she started out on her own as a fashion designer. The clothes that she designs reflect her thinking. Her idea is to create an all-India niche for products of the North East.

Women of the North East are now playing a proactive role in all walks of life but in the field of business, it has not been a very easy journey for them to enter the threshold of a man’s arena. Nevertheless, Assamese women like Jahnabi Phookan, owner of Jungle Travels India are successfully combating long-standing prejudices and are mounting the steps of triumph and accomplishment in the tourism industry. Along with her husband Ashish Phookan, Jahnabi has successfully established her position in the tourism industry not only in Assam but also in the whole North Eastern region.

An enterprise need not be overwhelming so as to awe everyone else with a grand brand image. But sometimes the best enterprises are those done quietly on a small scale like entrepreneur and innovator Ningombam ningol Khumujam Ongbi Jina.

She designs bags out of discarded cement bags, make soaps and incense sticks, doormats, do crochet as well as both hand and machine embroidery work on blouses, scarves,bed sheets, pillow covers, fan covers, lots of marigold garlands out of wool during the puja and Diwali season. She also makes a variety of soaps – milk, aloe vera, turmeric, lemon and cucumber, besides indigenous herbs like nongleisang and sangbrei – under her soap brand known as "Eikhoigee Pothapham" loose translated as "Our Rest House."

Today, North Eastern women have also move beyond the known and have ventured into the less traversed sectors in entrepreneurship. Saroj Khemka from Assam is an entrepreneur who dons several hats in the world of business. She is the Proprietor of M/s Meghalaya Hume Pipe Industries, Byrnihat which is a Manufacturer of RCC Spun Hume Pipes and also of M/s S. K. Machineries, Guwahati, Manufacturer of Silk Machineries and simultaneously the Director of M/s North Eastern Concrete Industries, Byrnihat which is a Manufacturer of Gems Designer Tiles. She had also started another Business venture in 1988, by the name GEMS Ice Cream Parlour and had turned it into a highly popular Happening Joint in Guwahati.

One of the most eco-friendly sites in the map of India, North East is perhaps the most untapped minefield of potential resources. This isolated and mysterious land of natural abundance, have a host wonders to offer for entrepreneurs.

In Assam, industries like tea, cane and bamboo, teracotta, pottery, metal works of brass and bell, wood carvings, weaving and toys have immense prospects. The work of making Japi is also popular in Assam. Furniture pieces of cane and bamboo are exclusive to Assam and are exported. The skill of Terracotta makes everything including idols of Gods and mythological creatures and the pottery tradition in Assam results in wonderful items like earthen pot and pitchers, plates, incense stick holders and earthen lamps. Assam also fashions many types of toys like clay toys, pith, wooden and bamboo toys, cloth toys, cloth-and-mud toys. Besides, Cotton, ‘Eri’, ‘Pat’ and ‘Muga’ Silk are the weaving heritages of the region.

Likewise, Arunachal is the land of Orchids and medicinal plant. There is little entrepreneurial activity here but there is potential to develop it, based on the natural resources available locally. For instance, medicinal plants that grow here can be made into products.

Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland are known for bamboo work, wood carving, pottery, handicrafts, traditional jewellery, artificial flowers from various natural things, blacsmithy etc and also for traditional weaving, dying and spinning. Sikkim offers opportunities of entrepreneurship in Woven Woolen Carpets and Blankets, Thangkas – traditional paintings on cotton canvas with silk frames , Choksee or small wooden tables, Sweaters and Jackets, Wall Hanging and Antiques with Buddhist motifs, Wooden and Bamboo Artifacts, Jewellery, Sikkim Tea ('Solja' and Khangchendzonga') Cardamom or Elachi, Yak's cheese (chhurpi), Lepcha Weave bags and many more..

Agro and food processing industry is another area for entrepreneurship in the NE region, specially mushroom cultivation which is flourishing in the area. Moreover, entrepreneurs can venture into areas like agriculture, horticulture, fisheries, poultry, animal husbandry and forest which would improve value addition in the agricultural produce, employment generation in the region.

Entrepreneurship is all about innovation and risk - taking and with abundant opportunities offered by the land, North East India can be a haven for entrepreneurs.

No doubt, women entrepreneurs are taking great advantage of the plethora of resources and opportunities available and glass ceilings are being shattered by women entrepreneurs today. But it is not a uniform process in the NE Region. It is confined to only a particular section of women who either had some kind of financial resources in hand or the fortitude to pave their own way to success.

For women from the grassroots level, it is still a herculean task to make her way through the labyrinth of impediments in her entrepreneurial journey. It is difficult for a woman to make a fine balance between her business and home. Besides, the patriarchal social order makes it difficult for women to move out of her home and start and enterprise of her own, primarily because she is considered an outsider and her entrepreneurial abilities are doubted at every step by the society.

Even the financial institutions are skeptical to fund women in new ventures. It has also been observed that most have to face tremendous difficulty in getting timely and adequate finance at a reasonable rate.

Positively speaking, the current scenario is improving and the prospects seems to be gradually increasing with governmental and non-governmental institutes are extending helping hands to the women entrepreneurs of the region .

For instance, as a special step in this direction, NEDFi , one of the premier financial organizations in the region has launched this scheme called the SNEHH (Scheme for NE Handloom and Handicrafts). All Assam Jana Jagaran Society is another NGO that is working towards helping small Entrepreneurs of N.E. region who are working on handloom , handicraft, sericulture etc.

There are also several other organisations that are supporting initiative for promotion of new entrepreneurs and creation of awareness of entrepreneurial opportunities in the North East. Among them are the offices of the Development Commissioner (SSI) under the Union Ministry of SSI and Agro and Rural Industries, Department of Science and Technology with focus on promoting science and technology entrepreneurs, Union Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources for promoting entrepreneurship in non-conventional energy sector, NABARD for promoting rural and women entrepreneurship, Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technologies (CAPART) under the Union Ministry of Rural Development, for involving voluntary organisations in entrepreneurship development effort.

Consortium of Women Entrepreneurs of India (CWEI), a registered civil society and a voluntary organization that works for the economic empowerment of women in the country, has also focused on developmental activities in the NE region. CWEI organized North East Women Entrepreneurs Meet in 2003 at
Guwahati, Assam, initiated by Govt. of India. Initiative of this kind was held for the first time in the region for better trade among the North Eastern region. In continuation of their intervention programme, SHASHWAT the rural wing of CWEI is executing the action plan for the above meet & five districts were identified in Assam – Guwahati, Sualkuchi, Sivsagar, Rangia & Titabar wherein clusters are being developed with a view to design specific modules for entrepreneurship development to enhance the latent potential and talent of artisans in Metal craft (Brass & Bell), Jewellery, Handloom – Weaving, dyeing & printing.

In a significant effort to promote women entrepreneurs from North Eastern Region, CWEI supported Maloti Narzary, President of Bodoland Association of Handloom Unit (BAHU) in participating in an exclusive International Trade Fair organized in Italy in September 2009.

“Woman is the full circle, Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.” Therefore, empowering women entrepreneurs of the NE region is truly essential for achieving the goals of sustainable development of the nation in totality. Right efforts from all areas are required in the development of women entrepreneurs and their greater participation in the entrepreneurial activities. Government should extend better educational facilities, suitable financial schemes, training on technical and management skills and professional competence to women folk and on the part of the society, incessant support and recognition is equally essential. Though the current situation in NE region is not extraordinarily brilliant, the paradigm shift is visible and we can definitely expect the best in the near future.

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