To work in the field of development, you need to cultivate the fine art of empathy.



Early Life

I grew up on the Osmania University campus in Hyderabad. My father was a professor of French language, while my mom was a professor of Psychology. We lived on the campus, with huge open spaces and lots of trees. Life was simple and we had a routine of walking to school (co-education till 7th standard), back home, then homework, followed by playing outdoors. We spoke Marathi at home and grew up with a grandmother, a grandaunt, uncles and aunts. We are three siblings - Harsha, Srinivas and me (Srinivas and I are twins). Growing up with brothers, I preferred games that boys play such as marbles and gilli danda, more than the games that girls play such as hopscotch and skipping. When Srinivas and I passed our 12th standard exams with high marks and secured a national state merit scholarship, I remember my father telling us, “The nation is investing a lot in you and your education and this comes with a responsibility. It would be good if the country gets a very high return on the investment it is making on my children”. I must confess I did not quite understand this as a teenager! But somewhere that advice stuck with me. And my journey has shaped up in a way that has lived up to those words.

Life at IIT Bombay

Majorly, the influences have all been my hostel mates, who were all doing such daring things. And I thought, well, if they can do it, I can try to do it too. We fought to have the same rules for girls and boys (such as hostel timings for girls, allowing male friends inside our hostel) and made it happen. The late night cack sessions at IIT taught me that you must listen to other points of view, that you’re not always right. You have to respect diversity of opinion and diversity of cultures and also build relationships with people who are from different social classes and backgrounds. I was the mess secretary in the hostel, which was quite challenging. One day, at about five in the morning, the mess workers came to me and said, “We are going on strike today”. Thinking on my feet I said, “Okay, no problem, I’ll make chai for you”. And I actually did that. After sending them off, I remember there were 4-5 girls who’d woken up early to study. And I said, “Chalo, let’s make breakfast!” (boiled eggs and bread) and lunch (rice and dal). The next day at 5 a.m. the mess workers woke me up and said, “We are on strike again today but food has been cooked”. We found many creative ways of having really low-cost fun. We used to go to the chemistry lab at midnight and bake cakes with 170 grams maida, 170 grams of sugar, some butter and eggs. The next morning the ovens for drying glassware would be smelling of cinnamon!

Professional Journey

I am a development practitioner. This means that I identify problems faced by rural communities, largely around energy, environment and livelihoods through a participatory process. And then, we develop technology solutions that meet their needs.My first project was on the domestic cookstove or chulha for household cooking. I worked at the centre for Application of Science and Technology for Rural Areas conceived by Prof. Amulya Reddy at the Indian Institute of Science. Prof. Lokras and Prof. Kumar in the department of Chemical Engineering guided us in the design of the wood burning stoves. After that, for about a decade, I took a partial break because I had two small children. In the meantime, some of my former colleagues had started TIDE. My dilemma then was, should I move from a prestigious institution to a fledgling non-profit? I took the plunge and was elevated to CEO within a few months of joining. That’s when my professional journey actually began. Over two years, we developed and demonstrated energy-efficient solutions for ten rural industry clusters. This included jaggery- making, herbal medicine preparation, textile bleaching, dyeing, rubber vulcanisation, pottery firing, etc. All of them used firewood as fuel and we redesigned the stoves, to reduce firewood consumption and emissions. We modified energy consumption patterns in the informal rural business sector, saving 30-40% fuel. Our model was to transfer technology to grassroots enterprises, training them and helping them with marketing and raising small funds. Later, we launched a project for energy efficiency in the tea industry. In three years about 65% of tea factories accepted our recommendations. 100,000 tons of CO2 was saved per year, through these interventions.

Challenge Accepted

I remember a long conversation with Prof. Mukunda of Indian Institute of Science at Chennai Airport in 2008. He urged me to start a social enterprise with a for-profit objective, as most ideas which scaled up had a profit motive. He said, “You’ve played your first innings, now go into the second.” Around the same time, I noticed a Michael Jordan poster in my son’s room which said, “I can accept failure but I cannot accept not trying”. I think these two messages helped resolve my dilemma. We started a for-profit company, Sustaintech, to scale the work of our NGO. Our goal is rapid replication in the commercial cookstove sector. If a dhaba buys our chulha for Rs 10-15k or even 50k, the fuel saving alone pays back the investment. Since I understood heat transfer, we were able to design stoves for specific uses like roasting, frying, tea-making, etc. We engage with grassroots communities, not only because their wisdom is very important to us, but because it reduces the time it takes for our products to go-to-market. The process is called participatory technology development. It requires engaging with potential users of our products, meeting women, youth and others to understand their needs and usage patterns. One of our illiterate grassroots women entrepreneurs - Lalita Bai - used to go from village to village, constructing stoves in people’s houses. She was selected for the ‘Women Transforming India Award’ by Niti Aayog. That was truly very satisfying for me.

Work-Life Balance

To be productive in the peak reproductive period is a challenge for most women. I still think I took the right decision by spending those ten years working part time. Luckily, I was associated with the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology in the IISc campus, which allowed me to work any four hours in a day. Due to this, I came back with a bang and bounced back as if there had not been a career break. I continued to lead Sustaintech until we had addressed about 2000 street food vendors’ needs. I was leading TIDE for about 20 years too. When it was time to pass on the baton, I transferred responsibility to the CEOs whom I was grooming in both the organizations. Now I am a mentor who helps out in times of crisis. Earlier it was very hectic, raising funds for the NGO TIDE, investments for Sustaintech, business planning, meeting targets and keeping timelines. There was not enough time for reflection. Now I work 8-10 hours a day but I find time to read and to introspect. I share my insights with the organizations I have nurtured and with other development practitioners. The women at the grassroots lead difficult lives but have great hopes for the future. Whenever I go to a village and meet these women, I come back inspired.

Advice to Young Women

To work in the field of development, I think you need to cultivate the fine art of empathy. It’s a hard life. A lot of travel is required. If you are the major bread winner in your family, it is certainly possible but not easy, especially in the startup phase. But it’s very rewarding and you grow as a human being. I would strongly advise you to take your own time to make a decision. Take a sabbatical or do weekends in rural areas. Understand the challenges. Because once you get into development, going back into the corporate sector may be difficult.