India has roughly 1.3 billion inhabitants, of which the majority — some 850 million — live in rural areas. For the past ten years, Gaurav Mehta and his organization Dharma Life have been working to support impoverished villages. He has learned that by empowering women one can achieve the greatest change in these communities.
What does the name Dharma Life mean?
There are many interpretations of dharma. It’s a spiritual concept. We took the meaning of dharma as duty or responsibility. When we started this, we said it is our duty or responsibility to do something for this section of society.
What are your aims?
Gaurav Mehta: We want to create entrepreneurs in villages to alleviate poverty. We recruit women entrepreneurs and get them to become change-makers in society. The idea is to uplift their villages as well.
You previously worked in the private equity sector in Germany. What made you leave Germany to start Dharma Life?
I went through a personal experience, a health issue, that caused me to rethink my life. I was lucky to survive, and I promised myself that if I did, I would try to make a difference. I decided that doing something for the underprivileged villages in India would be most exciting for me. It’s what led me to India.
What does your work on the ground look like?
We go into relatively small villages looking for women who do not have a consistent income and are underprivileged. We train them in entrepreneurship, communication, and sales skills. After that, they work in the community as change agents. The causes they work on could be energy access, clean cooking, nutrition, hygiene, and digital empowerment, among other things.
Who do you collaborate with to implement this model?
We first speak to the village head and different opinion leaders and we ask them: Who are the people that are interested? Who would be a good candidate? Who would support us in this endeavor to work on all these programs? We select the candidates and then, after the recruitment and training, we together launch a program in the village. The biggest collaboration we have is with local communities. Other partnerships are with different companies, such as Unilever or Procter & Gamble, or foundations who have programs in this area. With their help, we bring the programs to the villages. There are two sides to the partnerships: one side is the community, and then there is the kind of best practices around these causes by corporates or foundations.
What defines a good candidate for your program?
In the beginning, almost only men came forward. We did an impact assessment after a while to see how the program was going. We realized that a lot of men had made money, but they were not really spending that money on the family. They were largely spending the money on themselves. That was frustrating for us, because we wanted them to uplift their families. At the same time, the results for the 10% of women were much more positive.
How did you tap into the power of female entrepreneurship?
We focused more on women, starting sessions around confidence building. The issue was that many women were not allowed to go out. We started the training by getting them to speak in public, going out with them into the community, speaking to their family why this journey is important. We also gave them flexibility when to work. With these changes we were able to get more women on the program and now we have more than 75% women entrepreneurs who are supported by a male member of their family. Women build confidence within their families. They are the real change makers.
In one of the projects that female entrepreneurs have started, they are teaching girls at a school about the importance of hand hygiene. Marc Beckmann
How many people have you reached with your model?
We have more than 16,000 entrepreneurs now. One entrepreneur covers between two to three villages, so that means we have reached around more than 40,000 villages, and we’ve impacted more than 10 million people through the programs.
What were the biggest challenges for you personally and for your organization?
Gaurav Mehta: For me personally, it was a challenge to move to India from Germany. It was a big shift to adapt and also to work in villages. On top of this, I did not speak Marathi, I speak Hindi. It was not easy to start in a place where you don’t understand the language. For the organization, it’s been a continuous evolution. You have to keep challenging yourself. Growing the organization requires a lot of investment in people, in systems, and in the business model.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned on your journey so far?
The biggest lesson is to always stay open, to always question yourself and continue to evolve and iterate the model. Don’t be stuck on one approach but be flexible and be able to let go if something is not working.
Dharma Life was founded by BMW Foundation Responsible Leader Gaurav Mehta in 2009 and focuses on improving the quality of life in rural India through a unique entrepreneurship model. Rural entrepreneurs are trained to become social change makers in their villages. They, in turn, help build an ecosystem for community engagement, behavior change and collective participation.
This article was originally published on TwentyThirty.
Photos: Marc Beckmann