#inspiredbystories

The Power of Women Coming Together (Part 1)

by Natascha Zeljko

Kerstin Prothmann was HR Director of a large company at the peak of her career when she decided to throw the towel in. She went to Nepal for three months and there, together with Prakriti Mainali, built Shakti Milan , a social enterprise for women.

It was a creeping process – everything I used to like to do, the things that got me out of bed in the morning, seemed duller and duller from day to day. At the same time, a few questions became more prominent: why am I doing this? What does it count for? Is it really worth striving to make a company even more successful? My fatigue also had to do with the day-to-day on the job. Restructuring was always the order of the day and as a new wave was on the horizon, I finally noticed that the job was no longer fulfilling me. I started asking myself, “What’s the next step? What do I want to do in the second half of my professional life?” 

I left the company. And I was in the comfortable position of being able to afford it – I had no existential angst, no children, and I also had a husband who supported me. And yet, it took courage to leave the familiar environment. Looking back, you can see many things more clearly. This breathlessness with which I was racing from one career step to the next, driven by the desire for security. I asked myself why it was so hard to let go? Where did this need for security suddenly come from? I used to have little money, there weren’t even mobile phones, but still I traveled the world for months.

It was in this emotional state between a sense of optimism and deep unease that the idea arose to look for something that makes sense. I did some research. There are endless possibilities, even weird things like counting turtles in the South Seas. Somehow, I got stuck on Nepal without really being able to justify it. I quickly came into contact with an organization that was looking for volunteers and, since I was an atypical volunteer in my mid 40s, they didn’t place me in a hostel, as usual, but with a host family. That’s how it all began.

I was hosted by Prakriti’s family, where her husband also lived. I remember arriving in Kathmandu with mountains of luggage. I took a taxi, we drove out of the city, the streets became more and more narrow and, at some point, the taxi driver stopped and said, “From here we must walk.” I had to drag my bags through a rice field to the family house. By Nepalese standards it is a wealthy family. At least they had a house, even if this house had no street access. Suddenly I was no longer sure what I wanted here and was met by a touch of panic. What had I opened myself up to? Who was I trying to prove something to? 

I got a bed in the living room behind the sofa. I didn’t even have my own room, there was no space to put anything anywhere, zero privacy. And I was supposed to stay here for three months? In the evening the son took me on his motorcycle and we rode through Kathmandu. And then it started: I had a grin on my face the whole time. This life out there, this wonderful chaos. It was a fantastic feeling. 

I let go. I already knew this feeling, it had always been in my life. It’s when I’m open that the interesting things happen. I had no plan, especially not to start a company. I wanted to do something meaningful. I was ready to ask questions, to learn, to subordinate myself, to adapt and get involved. Prakriti’s husband had contact with a network of HIV-infected women who wanted to start a social enterprise. They no longer just wanted to tell their stories and get donations for it, but to start their own business. The idea was to help them. 

Shakti Milan

We thought about what they could do and wanted, and the idea of producing bags from rice sacks was born. The “what” of it was of secondary importance. It wasn’t about making bags, it was about training women to be entrepreneurs. I bought a sewing machine, my aunt having donated the money for it. It was to be the first step towards machinery. I started highly motivated, and yet things fell apart relatively quickly because I didn’t know the culture.

After 15 years in HR, I failed on the subject of human resources. I misjudged how little the women were able to organize themselves. And what it means when they ask a westerner, “Can you help us build a business?” Translated this means, “Can you give us money and we do the rest ourselves?” How few role models they have to mentally shape their own destiny. How few role models there are who set the example of how great it is to have freedom of choice over one’s life. 

Nonetheless, we managed to produce a prototype in that time. It was clear to me that if this were to continue, I couldn’t guide it from Germany, I would need a local manager. As an HR professional, I’d created a profile of what he or she would need to bring along, what skills he or she would need. And it quickly became clear that this person already existed: Prakriti. She had an MBA in finance and actually had a banking career in mind. I experienced the next surprise: Prakriti said she would like to do the management job. However, it was not possible as she wasn’t HIV positive. I had learned that this network is very exclusionary. It’s a closed system, it’s about the community, competence being secondary. In the end they accepted it, but at some point nobody came to sew anymore. And our time ran out. 

My husband came as arranged for the last four weeks and we traveled out of Kathmandu to remote mountain villages. We had no mobile phone reception and no electricity. I had no idea what happened to our little company, if any of it would still exist when I came back. I knew we were at a point where everything would tip over. I just sort of got myself out of the way.

At first, Prakriti tried to keep in touch with me. But at some point she flipped the switch. She’s a smart young woman and she has a lot of potential. When the staff didn’t show up anymore, she got on her scooter with the prototype of a rice bag and drove through the city. She approached women from the untouchable caste who sew on the street. She asked, “Can you sew that? Do you want to work for me?” 

When my husband and I came back, we walked into a room with 50 bags of the highest  quality. It was such an emotional moment for all of us: for Prakriti, for her husband, for my husband, for me. Four of us sat on a mattress with our laptops on our laps and said, “We really mean it, we’re incorporating now.”

That was four years ago. I’m back in Germany, Prakriti runs the business. We phone and Skype regularly. The earthquake four years ago set us back enormously. To help we sewed tarpaulins out of the rice sacks and went on a relief mission. It was chaotic, it was a time of improvisation, but this exceptional situation brought Prakriti’s and my family even closer together. 

Today, Shakti Milan produces bags, laptop bags, and we have another team who weaves cotton scarves according to a traditional pattern called dhaka. Meanwhile, Prakriti has opened a bed and breakfast where foreigners who are committed to the social project come and contribute their ideas. She has founded a “Women in Social Entrepreneurs” network and trains women. She holds regular community meetings where women report how they have paved their way and thus inspire others. 

Through a friendly company of my husband, who is in e-commerce and has his own company, we handle Shakti Milan’s business. It’s purely honorary, we don’t make money with it. My job was jump starting it. It will always be my baby, but I’m letting go slowly. I have to, too, because I’m now working in a consultancy. The job is very demanding but also very meaningful.

Last summer, Prakriti visited us with her husband and daughter in Berlin. They were in Europe for the first time, Prakriti’s husband had never been abroad before. It was exciting to accompany them. How amazed they were to see the city with their own eyes.

 

Shakti Milan’s story is truly remarkable. Stay tuned for the second part of the story where you will get to read more about Prakriti Mainali!

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