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Disrupting With Dignity: The Immeasurable Impact Of The Desai Foundation

Culture

If you have skipped a rock on a placid pond, you’ll know the ripple effect is longer lasting than the initial splash. From one singular spot of disturbance, the ripples reverberate across the surrounding water, with each ripple adding to the original disruption.


The basic concept of the ripple effect is what drives The Desai Foundation; a nonprofit organization which empowers women and children through community programs to elevate health and livelihood in the U.S. and India. “Consistency is what has the most impact,” says Megha Desai, President of The Desai Foundation. “A lot of organizations go out and do programming once, then leave, but we are consistent so that we inject these ideas into everyday life.”

Megha Desai. Photo Courtesy of Ross Asdourian

For the past 20 years, The Desai Foundation has focused on improving livelihood through children’s health camps, sanitary napkin programs, and health seminars, as well as vocational training programs, like sewing and computer classes. In their most recent partnership, The Desai Foundation teamed up with Indian designer, Payal Singhal to amplify this consistency and extend beyond the stigma of a public organization’s one-off donation.

"I was looking for a platform that allowed me to get involved beyond mere monetary support,” says fashion designer Payal Singhal, who launched her namesake brand Payal Singhal in 1999, and whose partnership brings the Foundation’s efforts full circle by engaging women who have completed vocational programs in India to provide them with a next step.

After a fateful meeting in Bombay, Singhal asked Desai how she could get involved with the Foundation. Although Desai came back with a modest suggestion of donating 10 percent of proceeds from designated pop-up stores, Singhal insisted she come back with a more extensive offer.

"I went back to the drawing board and came up with all these insane ideas and she said yes to everything,” said Desai. This included donating two of her iconic patterns to The Desai Foundation, so that the foundation receives a portion of anything sold from these patterns, as well as the second-tier partnership, which both Desai and Singhal value as the highlight of their collaboration.

Singhal and Desai

“We’re working with the women we’ve taught to sew on a line of handbags,” says Desai, explaining that through Singhal, they were able to launch a collection of signature tote bags and vanity kits, which will be sold on the international market.

“Two signature Payal Singhal prints--the Anaar Aur Mor print, and the Chidiya print have been dedicated to this collaboration,” explains Singhal about the designs, which also happen to feature a lotus; The Desai Foundation’s logo. “The highlight for me was to visit the foundation’s sewing vocational program in Valsad, Gujarat. It’s one thing to be associated with a cause, and another to interact with the people who are going to be impacted by your work.”

It is this first-degree impact which ties back to The Desai Foundation’s macro-motivation to improve women’s quality of life while simultaneously improving self-worth. “When women have dignity it really elevates the entire community,” shares Desai, who was able to make this connection within the first year as President.

It was on one of her placement visits to Gujarat, India where Desai initially recognized the unquantifiable effects of the foundation. In villages such as Talangpur, Kharel, and Untdi, the Foundation had encouraged women to take factory jobs after completing three months of vocational training, even prior to the partnership with Singhal.

Yet, after one training session in Untdi, none of the women took the jobs lined up for them—ones with pre-negotiated salaries and commissions, as well as comfortable atmospheres—“We were a little concerned that we had done something wrong,” confesses Desai.

So, Desai sat down to understand what happened, only to learn that the majority of these women had used the vocational sewing program as a reprise to get out of the house, to meet friends beyond their extended family, to learn a new skill, or, to instill a sense of dignity. “One of the women said she sews for all the women on her block—it wasn’t about the money— she now feels like she has an expertise and she carries that with so much pride.”

Upon leaving the village, Desai checked in with the local school, only to find out one of the little girls, who had previously skipped classes for days at a time, had reached her 90-day attendance mark. “Her teacher pointed out that her mom now walks her to and from school everyday,” says Desai, further explaining that her mother was the woman now sewing for the women on her block. “Just the act of her mother walking her to school shows that her mom invested in herself, and, now, she’s trying to instill that dignity in her daughter."

Although The Desai Foundation quotes 331,000 lives impacted by these practical programs in both India and the U.S., Desai acknowledges the thousands of lives, similar to the Untdi family in India, that cannot be statistically recorded.

It is this immeasurable impact which emphasizes the Foundation’s mission to make a long-term investment in the lives of one woman, knowing it will impact not just her family, but her whole community.

3 Min Read
Business

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.