This Mother Daughter Duo Help Women Earn Dignity With BEAD, A Social Enterprise
Manjul Menon runs BEAD, a social enterprise, along with her daughter. Here, in her own words, are the positive lessons running it against all odds has taught the two of them, including a new perspective towards life and work as Menon grows older.
I think this is my third career change, and my second entrepreneurial effort! I have degrees in Pharmacy but have hardly worked in the sector. I went on to do a doctorate from IIM Bangalore and a stint as a management consultant. I left my marriage because of domestic violence when my daughter was thirteen months old. It became increasingly difficult to manage a high-pressure job with life as a single parent, who might lose custody because of the job. I quit, turned to freelance work and also started a social enterprise, called BEAD. Our aim from the beginning has been to empower women from economically weaker backgrounds achieve some level of financial standing. This is our story.
I started with hand-knitted woollens for babies, training girls from poor households, moving on to kids’ clothes, women’s apparel and kurtas for men. On the point of incorporating it, my mother fell ill. I couldn’t keep up the work and took up a part-time job after her death, so that I had more time with my then seven year old.
When she was 13, my daughter discovered that she found it easier to concentrate when her hands were busy. After crumbling countless erasers, she asked if she could make jewelry while she studied and wanted me to buy findings (components for making jewelry). I got the idea of taking forward my earlier inspiration of a social enterprise, to give the child interaction with people from other socio-economic sections and broaden her thinking, since she went to a school with a narrow upper income group student profile. Manini started training a small number of women to make earrings. Her high standards ensured that only two stayed and others had to do other tasks that required less skill! We paid a small stipend each day during training.
The Turning Point
The day after we paid the very first woman’s daily wage, she told our household help that she’d used that money to buy rice, potatoes and cooking oil for her family’s first proper meal in three days. This made a deep impact on Manini and her approach to sales – she completely understood that we needed to sell what we produced, in order to have a sustainable enterprise.
We cast about for a name then decided on an acronym to best convey what we endeavour to do. We came up with BEAD: Believing in Empowerment, Achievement & Dignity.
We soon realised that earrings alone wouldn’t generate enough money to help us fulfill our mission of supplementing family incomes and enhancing women’s standing in their families as earning members. Serendipitously, we heard of a woman who needed work and had a tailoring machine, so we started home linen. It is a slow moving product line; we needed something else, so we launched skirts. This product took time to pick up but is now the mainstay of BEAD. Every time we’ve launched a new product line, it’s been to create work for a new person who’s been desperate for work. We started quilts to create a monthly job for our tailor when our skirts weren’t selling in sufficient numbers. We started patch-worked blouse pieces when someone else needed work. Now we can provide steady work in all product lines.
I’d say we’re inspired by Loren Eiseley’s ‘The Starfish Story’ – we’ve made a difference to the lives of several people, watched their circumstances change for the better. We chose Swarovski crystal starfish earrings as our fundraiser and symbol.
Along the way we’ve created a market for our kind of skirts and refined our understanding of fabric and the larger impacts of our life choices. Manini started learning about textiles in school and brought back her insights to change what we bought and how we bought it. For instance, I love handloom but learnt more: how to tell it apart from powerloom, about the environmental impact of chemical vs. natural dyes, how little crafts persons were paid and the injustice of the creators of beautiful things having to scrounge for a living wage, among other things.
After a 2000 km road trip through South India visiting weavers and craftspersons, our desire to make a difference to the lives of everyone in our supply chain was reinforced. We decided to focus on handloom material, plain or printed by hand with natural dyes. We sought to buy at near-retail prices from the producers, as far as possible. We’ve struggled to financially sustain our value-based work. I’ve dug into depleting savings because we’ve committed, even if in a small way, to do something bigger than ourselves. We can’t let down our people, though we say to each that what we provide is only an additional income.
Our first foray into retail sales was with ‘Asmara,’ a store in Bangalore run by the amazing Ayesha Chandy. Sales picked up and even when she closed down, most of our customers stayed with us. Sangeetha Shankar was one, a friend now, and she was our first model on our Facebook page. Most people find us through our regular, repeat customers. In 2016, we started retailing on a terrific Bangalore-based website, Peacock Colours.com, which has already given us our first orders.
In the past few months, we’ve stepped up the pace. Our sales are growing, and one option is to become an incorporated company later this year, and continue to run as a revenue-sharing not-for-profit. Like the inspiring Kala Charlu of MITU (Multi-initiatives Towards Upliftment), my belief is that we give back to society – engage those less advantaged than us, in productive work which taps into their innate creativity. Most of my tailors input into the colour combinations of our products, particularly for quilts and patch-worked fabric and I think it contributes as much to their satisfaction as what we pay.
Her work with BEAD has helped Manini in many ways. Initially it helped her overcome her shyness. She’s also had exposure to the growing pains of a not-for-profit enterprise, been able to contribute to strategy and given insights into marketing. This helped her grow not only on a personal level but positively impacted her concentration levels and academic performance, besides improving her interpersonal and leadership skills.
Now Manini is off to college and in an ideal world, I’d focus on growing BEAD in accordance with my belief that only large volumes will help us help more people. The main constraint is financial – I need to work to fund BEAD and meet our living expenses. Also, at 55, with some health concerns and high stress levels, it is a growing challenge to run it by myself.
But I enjoy what we do and if I were financially comfortable, maybe this is all I’d focus on! But I think I’ll work too, if I can find work that means more than a paycheque. That I can no longer look forward to another 50 years adds a certain urgency to do something meaningful – and crowd in as much as I can – in the time I have left.
At 55, I feel enthused and ready to open a new chapter in my life. I feel content that my duty as a parent has been enjoyable and, I think, well done. I’m sending a bright, enquiring mind to find her place in the world. I’m still idealistic and raring to go. But I know that my work experience and life experience will inform and enrich whatever I do – that’s an advantage my younger self lacked!
BEAD stocks skirts, stoles, quilts and jewelry for women. To buy from BEAD, you can contact Manjul Madampath Menon on 09243114425 or visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/bead.socialenterprise/
You can also buy BEAD from Peacock Colours: http://www.peacockcolours.com/fashion-1/skirts-and-legwear-for-women/wrap-around-skirt
All photographs by Manini Menon, for BEAD