In our mad daily hectic rush, as we are running around to improve our lives, very few of us stop and think about deeper issues. Such as what you might ask? Well, the environment for one. Even as the forest covers on the earth deplete, global warming becomes a fact of life, pollution levels rise and our cities become more inhospitable for living, a few individuals do stand up to try and make a difference and stem the tide of environmental degradation. One such crusader is Manisha Gutman. An environmentalist with an education in architecture, Gutman caught the nature bug at an early age and wants to educate the world about this very natural bond through green design and businesses. Her work from grass root rural to the international forum is what makes her company eCoexist tick.
Choosing a career of co awareness.
“I was educated to be an architect at the Center for Environment Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad. This training was very well-rounded and we gained a wide range of skills including design, project planning and landscape. However it was because of the time that I spent with my spiritual guide S W Chidvilasananda in her ashram that my love for nature blossomed. In the six years that I lived and learnt under her in the gorgeous natural environment of the ashram, I realised how important it was for us to respect and conserve natural resources and more importantly I realised that it is in connection with nature that human beings can truly find lasting happiness. When my sejour at the ashram was over I moved to Pune and studied under Prof Gole , a well known ornithologist and the founder of the Ecological Society. After this one year of study, I started to work with the Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group and in the next six years was exposed to a range of environmental work from rural level to international forums. In 2006 I realised that I had a deep need to be creative and that I would like to create solutions to the environmental problems and this is how I set up eCoexist. “
“eCoexist is a social enterprise – this means that it stands between the world of NGOs and the world of business. It has a triple bottomline of environment conservation, social justice and financial viability. In the past ten years we have run environment campaigns that start with education and raising awareness and resulting in the making and marketing of eco friendly products. The sale of the products sustains the environmental and social work we do.”
The startup challenges
“I started in 2006 with a very minimal investment from my family and my own savings. I had no idea about what it takes to run an enterprise and yet I didnt have very high expectations either. My approach was to cross bridges when I reach them. I would see what was needed and would agree to take the next step without always knowing where the road was leading. We faced the same challenges that most start ups do – finding the right team, understanding laws and regulations and creating enough income to sustain ourselves in the initial years.”
The rural population of India.
“Our work with the rural and the urban poor has taught us a lot about the differences in culture and priority, and we often have had to question our own assumptions about them. One of the most important lessons we learnt is that people who dont have a lot of cash available rely greatly on each other and have very strong networks with family and neighbourhoods. This is the most important thing to them and even if they were to lose a few days wages they will treat their social obligations as first priority.
When we run a business we often place a lot of emphasis on income generation not realising that to the poor, while income is important it is their social relations that are even more important. This is what keeps their society together.
Women make great business women because they are able to integrate the needs of the environment and the community in their business negotiations. In the long run, this is a much more wholesome way of doing business.”
We realised it was not necessary for our values and view of money to replace theirs and we are learning to change our functioning so that they can have the freedom to choose how much importance to give to money.”
Are woman entrepreneurs any different than men?
“Not at all. I have never felt that being a woman was a challenge in my work with the under privileged. Rather it has been easier to win their trust since most of the target groups we work with consist of women themselves. In their communities, even if women may be suppressed in many ways, they do wield power and are decision makers in certain aspects. Earning an income empowers them further and we have watched them grow in self confidence because of our livelihoods projects. Women make great business women because they are able to integrate the needs of the environment and the community in their business negotiations. In the long run, this is a much more wholesome way of doing business.”
Some eco friendly tips for our daily lives.
“There are many many ways in which we can change our daily habits to be more respectful of and sensitive to nature. However one has to first be entirely convinced about the need to do this as it requires a change of habit that may be uncomfortable or inconvenient to start with. When one has maintained the change for a few months it will become second nature to us and not feel like a burden.
For eg. Making sure that you dont throw away aluminium foil or plastic bags with food in it because stray animals eat these materials along with the food and die.
Or making sure you always carry your own bag with you.
Ensuring that none of your kitchen waste is thrown away and is converted to compost at home itself.
Car pooling with friends when going to work
As we start with these smaller efforts and realise that the quality of our life and inner satisfaction increases we will ourselves find deeper ways of making a difference. We will realise that our happiness does not come from owning more clothes or shoes but from a simpler lifestyle that gives us more free time as we dont have so many objects to look after. As Gandhijji says – we will live simply so that others can simply live!”
Start-up advice for women.
“Its fantastic to be a woman – it is a gift really and the chance of a lifetime. Women have strong intuitions, larger hearts and greater ability to risk. Their ability to empathise and read between the lines gives them a flair for business that men may not have. Their innate desire to share and integrate helps them create communities that work together in harmony.
As we start with these smaller efforts and realise that the quality of our life and inner satisfaction increases we will ourselves find deeper ways of making a difference.
Start with a deep sense of belief in your own gifts and know that if you dont have a akill or an ability right now – you do have the capacity to learn and that you can acquire this skill as you go along. Make lots of mistakes and observe how you grow because of the mistakes you make. Let your heart run your business not your bank balance because it is your heart and its connections to Nature and to others that will leave a better world behind!”