Entrechat with Romira Roy

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MS Romira Roy, is one of India’s leading social entrepreneurs and Founder & Chairperson of SEED CSR. She has worked on multiple initiatives of women empowerment and rural development through her organization and her efforts have made her the proud recipient of the prestigious global CSR Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Today, she gives us an understanding of the relevance and importance of CSR to ensure sustainability of life and business in the future, teaching methods of inculcating the spirit of ‘willingly wanting to give’!

What was your motivation to set up SEED and what did you hope to achieve through it?

15 years back, entrepreneurship was not a very acceptable concept as it is today -it was a road which no one wanted to take, especially if you had completed your MBA and were lucky enough to work with an organization like Tata. I remember the day I informed my family about my decision to delve into entrepreneurship. It came as a shock to them. Yet they continued to be my pillars of strength and support. The motivation to start SEED came from two factors – During my growing up years I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in backward areas owing to the fact that my father was in the government services. I studied in rural schools and experienced the transition of moving from there into a metropolitan city like Delhi. Thereafter I went on to complete my education and began working for Tata. It was there that I was exposed to this wonderful concept of wanting to giving back to the society.  Having seen both ends of the rope/both sides of the coin, I could see that there was a huge gap which needed to be bridged in order to create a robust and holistic ecosystem. There were some corporates wanting to reach to the beneficiaries in rural areas or deprived sections but very few organizations were looking to take this up as a project-oriented approach where one would have a set number of deliverables which would be given to a set number of beneficiaries, which could be measured. By measured I mean measuring both, the impact to their lives and also in terms of the returns the organization achieved in every rupee they spent. That is how we started SEED and the journey has been very fruitful so far. CSR has been always been there, earlier it was always associated with philanthropy or donations. The only difference is that now, it has been formally notified and recognized and a conscious effort by organizations is being made to fulfil the same. Last week, Azeem Premji gave out his view point in this regard stating clearly why CSR should be regulated and mandated; and it should come from within! To add to that, CSR will bring in more people into the circle of those who ‘have to’ give and gradually somewhere through this journey they would develop into people who ‘want to’ give. That is the transition which SEED as an organization and we as a nation can bring about and achieve.

We have been told time and again that being a woman entrepreneur in India is like an uphill battle. Tell us about the challenges you faced in the early years of your entrepreneurial journey. What do you think has changed over the years in this respect?

Life is an uphill battle, and for any entrepreneur, whether male or female, it is indeed a tough task they have at hand. Every employee, every client has to be taken care of. However, over the years the few things I have learnt as a woman are that firstly, you need to shatter the glass ceilings which are there in your mind! Many a times you are good or even better than other people around you and have been given equal opportunities to study and grow; yet you hesitate to come out and assert yourself strongly. This has changed over the years, as now, as a woman entrepreneur and simply as a woman too, you have so many more support groups and people around you, who you can reach out to and ask for help. This is phenomenal for the present generation of women entrepreneurs. Speaking about being a woman, I would like to bring forth a Howard University study report, which says that women speak more than 30000 words in a day while a man speaks only 15000! This proves that we need to keep repeating our point just to be heard, to be taken seriously and recognized. This has been a lesson I have also learnt over the years.

What percentage of organizations according to you, take CSR seriously and what is the road ahead for India in this respect?

There are certain organizations which have a ‘culture’ of giving; Tata being one of them. Then there are other organizations which over a period of time have started their own philanthropical bits. All of this has now become regulated by the CSR laws which have come into being in the last couple of years and further tightened with recent CSR amendments. Organizations which were taking it seriously, continue to do so, and organizations which were pushing CSR to a back-seat, are now working towards complying with the CSR laws. So many organizations are still in the ‘have to’ category and many are in the ‘want to’ category. Many organization leaders have realized that the impact of the social good will is as important for their company as are their other financial parameters. So, I see CSR growing and the huge impetus which is now come into India post the experiments which have happened in Singapore, UK; the creation of the Social Stock Exchange will map the company’s performance and will further result in the growth of CSR.

How can we introduce this concept of giving back to the society beginning from our homes, right up to the mega-employers? Also, which areas are receiving maximum attention from organizations?

COVID19 made us all stop and think about all the resources that we have at our disposal and made us value them. We also learnt to value the help we get from each and every member of the community, whether at home or elsewhere. This realization, coupled with the need for giving especially under the present circumstances rekindled the inherent passion of giving back to the society within us. The pandemic made us think how we could help people around us, be it our house-help, support staff, employees or others, sustain through the unnatural and difficult times created by the pandemic. I was happy to see that my daughter too wished to help other children who are not as privileged as her. The pandemic has really inculcated in us the need to reach out to people even through small acts of kindness. Having said that, through SEED, I was implementing many large projects and our partner organizations were kind enough to give us more time as we battled out the situation. As an organization head it was a tough decision to think about keeping half the staff at half their pay-scale. So, it was an effort from everyone, whether it be a family member or other partner organizations to ‘give’ as much as we could to tide over the crisis.

Talking about the areas receiving maximum attention from companies are two which grab the limelight; the healthcare situation in our country and steps which can be taken to improve the healthcare system by integrating technology while catering to each and every citizen. The BUDGET 2021, also reflects the attention the healthcare sector is receiving – more than a 137% outlay has been given by the Government! Secondly, the up-skilling and re-skilling of people has also come to the forefront. Making skilling accessible to migrant people who have had to quit jobs during the pandemic is imperative.  Our aim should be to mark out how can we utilize their master craftsmanship and link them to industries. So, skilling has been a huge focus area for both, the private and government sectors.

Women have borne the brunt of COVID19 effects. What can be done to help women and fulfil their needs as we are trying to come out of this pandemic?

COVID has been the toughest on women.  It has brought out the glaring gender inequalities which have existed. Again, women have been compelled to neglect their health as everyone and everything suddenly seem to have become more important. From giving up their laptop to children so that they can do their online classes to doing household chores and juggling responsibilities, women have borne it all. Also, according to a report by Mckinsey, female job losses in almost all spheres of work have been 1.8% higher than those of their male counter-parts. This has taken a toll on their confidence level and they have lost the need to assert their presence in the face of this unprecedented situation. For me, true empowerment of women will be when gender ceases to matter. This is a milestone yet to be reached; but women can make the first move, take the reigns of their lives in their hands and make their presence felt.

At SEED, is there anything which has been done specifically for women, before, during or even after the pandemic?

Before the pandemic there were numerous initiatives which continue to run primarily for women empowerment. Creating self-help groups, getting rural women bank linked are some efforts made by SEED. During the pandemic, one of the biggest concerns addressed was delivering ration packets to households, to several of our women beneficiaries. Knowing that at some point they would eventually get back to their jobs, we decided to deal with the basic and most crucial problem they were facing – availability of food! We organized campaigns to disturb food, basic medicines, sanitary pads and other essentials for women. We tried to reach out and deliver to as many beneficiaries as we could. We also realized that because of the reverse migration, apart from labor, many young women who had moved out of rural areas and had been up-skilled in various fields had gone back to where they had come from. We ran several test cases to decipher how these women could be brought back, up-skilled and linked with companies to leverage their skills appropriately. These are some initiatives we are working on and we get new ideas everyday as life itself is a continuous journey of learning.

What kind of projects are you undertaking and what is SEED hoping to achieve in the next decade?

When we started, we thought we were doing a socially based venture and thus it would never get the limelight like an IT based venture for example. However, I was pleasantly surprised; we attracted investors, we roped in funding easily, banks showed interest and the working capital requirement was smoothly met. The biggest boost has been the creation of the Social Stock Exchange which had been in the pipeline for a long time and is a very forward-looking initiative. It has now been given a concrete shape by the Government with the launch of the Exchange. I hope to see SEED listed there one day so that it can draw capital and help and impact more lives positively. I hope to triple the number of beneficiaries and this is my tireless mission for the next ten years.

What is your advice for women entrepreneurs?

I would say, you should think out of the box, solutions are right there waiting to be discovered. Never give up and remember that glass ceilings are everywhere, and to begin you have to shatter the one which exists in your mind. Family compulsions have to be simultaneously dealt with and you may have to repeatedly prove yourself at work. All this has to be done patiently, in constant remembrance of the fact that we women need to repeat each idea 30000 times just to be heard! You can and you will achieve what you wish to.  

What was your motivation to set up SEED and what did you hope to achieve through it?

15 years back, entrepreneurship was not a very acceptable concept as it is today -it was a road which no one wanted to take, especially if you had completed your MBA and were lucky enough to work with an organization like Tata. I remember the day I informed my family about my decision to delve into entrepreneurship. It came as a shock to them. Yet they continued to be my pillars of strength and support. The motivation to start SEED came from two factors – During my growing up years I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in backward areas owing to the fact that my father was in the government services. I studied in rural schools and experienced the transition of moving from there into a metropolitan city like Delhi. Thereafter I went on to complete my education and began working for Tata. It was there that I was exposed to this wonderful concept of wanting to giving back to the society.  Having seen both ends of the rope/both sides of the coin, I could see that there was a huge gap which needed to be bridged in order to create a robust and holistic ecosystem. There were some corporates wanting to reach to the beneficiaries in rural areas or deprived sections but very few organizations were looking to take this up as a project-oriented approach where one would have a set number of deliverables which would be given to a set number of beneficiaries, which could be measured. By measured I mean measuring both, the impact to their lives and also in terms of the returns the organization achieved in every rupee they spent. That is how we started SEED and the journey has been very fruitful so far. CSR has been always been there, earlier it was always associated with philanthropy or donations. The only difference is that now, it has been formally notified and recognized and a conscious effort by organizations is being made to fulfil the same. Last week, Azeem Premji gave out his view point in this regard stating clearly why CSR should be regulated and mandated; and it should come from within! To add to that, CSR will bring in more people into the circle of those who ‘have to’ give and gradually somewhere through this journey they would develop into people who ‘want to’ give. That is the transition which SEED as an organization and we as a nation can bring about and achieve.

We have been told time and again that being a woman entrepreneur in India is like an uphill battle. Tell us about the challenges you faced in the early years of your entrepreneurial journey. What do you think has changed over the years in this respect?

Life is an uphill battle, and for any entrepreneur, whether male or female, it is indeed a tough task they have at hand. Every employee, every client has to be taken care of. However, over the years the few things I have learnt as a woman are that firstly, you need to shatter the glass ceilings which are there in your mind! Many a times you are good or even better than other people around you and have been given equal opportunities to study and grow; yet you hesitate to come out and assert yourself strongly. This has changed over the years, as now, as a woman entrepreneur and simply as a woman too, you have so many more support groups and people around you, who you can reach out to and ask for help. This is phenomenal for the present generation of women entrepreneurs. Speaking about being a woman, I would like to bring forth a Howard University study report, which says that women speak more than 30000 words in a day while a man speaks only 15000! This proves that we need to keep repeating our point just to be heard, to be taken seriously and recognized. This has been a lesson I have also learnt over the years.

What percentage of organizations according to you, take CSR seriously and what is the road ahead for India in this respect?

There are certain organizations which have a ‘culture’ of giving; Tata being one of them. Then there are other organizations which over a period of time have started their own philanthropical bits. All of this has now become regulated by the CSR laws which have come into being in the last couple of years and further tightened with recent CSR amendments. Organizations which were taking it seriously, continue to do so, and organizations which were pushing CSR to a back-seat, are now working towards complying with the CSR laws. So many organizations are still in the ‘have to’ category and many are in the ‘want to’ category. Many organization leaders have realized that the impact of the social good will is as important for their company as are their other financial parameters. So, I see CSR growing and the huge impetus which is now come into India post the experiments which have happened in Singapore, UK; the creation of the Social Stock Exchange will map the company’s performance and will further result in the growth of CSR.

How can we introduce this concept of giving back to the society beginning from our homes, right up to the mega-employers? Also, which areas are receiving maximum attention from organizations?

COVID19 made us all stop and think about all the resources that we have at our disposal and made us value them. We also learnt to value the help we get from each and every member of the community, whether at home or elsewhere. This realization, coupled with the need for giving especially under the present circumstances rekindled the inherent passion of giving back to the society within us. The pandemic made us think how we could help people around us, be it our house-help, support staff, employees or others, sustain through the unnatural and difficult times created by the pandemic. I was happy to see that my daughter too wished to help other children who are not as privileged as her. The pandemic has really inculcated in us the need to reach out to people even through small acts of kindness. Having said that, through SEED, I was implementing many large projects and our partner organizations were kind enough to give us more time as we battled out the situation. As an organization head it was a tough decision to think about keeping half the staff at half their pay-scale. So, it was an effort from everyone, whether it be a family member or other partner organizations to ‘give’ as much as we could to tide over the crisis.

Talking about the areas receiving maximum attention from companies are two which grab the limelight; the healthcare situation in our country and steps which can be taken to improve the healthcare system by integrating technology while catering to each and every citizen. The BUDGET 2021, also reflects the attention the healthcare sector is receiving – more than a 137% outlay has been given by the Government! Secondly, the up-skilling and re-skilling of people has also come to the forefront. Making skilling accessible to migrant people who have had to quit jobs during the pandemic is imperative.  Our aim should be to mark out how can we utilize their master craftsmanship and link them to industries. So, skilling has been a huge focus area for both, the private and government sectors.

Women have borne the brunt of COVID19 effects. What can be done to help women and fulfil their needs as we are trying to come out of this pandemic?

COVID has been the toughest on women.  It has brought out the glaring gender inequalities which have existed. Again, women have been compelled to neglect their health as everyone and everything suddenly seem to have become more important. From giving up their laptop to children so that they can do their online classes to doing household chores and juggling responsibilities, women have borne it all. Also, according to a report by Mckinsey, female job losses in almost all spheres of work have been 1.8% higher than those of their male counter-parts. This has taken a toll on their confidence level and they have lost the need to assert their presence in the face of this unprecedented situation. For me, true empowerment of women will be when gender ceases to matter. This is a milestone yet to be reached; but women can make the first move, take the reigns of their lives in their hands and make their presence felt.

At SEED, is there anything which has been done specifically for women, before, during or even after the pandemic?

Before the pandemic there were numerous initiatives which continue to run primarily for women empowerment. Creating self-help groups, getting rural women bank linked are some efforts made by SEED. During the pandemic, one of the biggest concerns addressed was delivering ration packets to households, to several of our women beneficiaries. Knowing that at some point they would eventually get back to their jobs, we decided to deal with the basic and most crucial problem they were facing – availability of food! We organized campaigns to disturb food, basic medicines, sanitary pads and other essentials for women. We tried to reach out and deliver to as many beneficiaries as we could. We also realized that because of the reverse migration, apart from labor, many young women who had moved out of rural areas and had been up-skilled in various fields had gone back to where they had come from. We ran several test cases to decipher how these women could be brought back, up-skilled and linked with companies to leverage their skills appropriately. These are some initiatives we are working on and we get new ideas everyday as life itself is a continuous journey of learning.

What kind of projects are you undertaking and what is SEED hoping to achieve in the next decade?

When we started, we thought we were doing a socially based venture and thus it would never get the limelight like an IT based venture for example. However, I was pleasantly surprised; we attracted investors, we roped in funding easily, banks showed interest and the working capital requirement was smoothly met. The biggest boost has been the creation of the Social Stock Exchange which had been in the pipeline for a long time and is a very forward-looking initiative. It has now been given a concrete shape by the Government with the launch of the Exchange. I hope to see SEED listed there one day so that it can draw capital and help and impact more lives positively. I hope to triple the number of beneficiaries and this is my tireless mission for the next ten years.

What is your advice for women entrepreneurs?

I would say, you should think out of the box, solutions are right there waiting to be discovered. Never give up and remember that glass ceilings are everywhere, and to begin you have to shatter the one which exists in your mind. Family compulsions have to be simultaneously dealt with and you may have to repeatedly prove yourself at work. All this has to be done patiently, in constant remembrance of the fact that we women need to repeat each idea 30000 times just to be heard! You can and you will achieve what you wish to.  

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