Empowered women are best change agents, says philanthropist Zarina Screwvala

You have been engaged in philanthropy for so many years now — what are some of the biggest issues you have observed trouble the rural population …
Written by Prerna Mittra | New Delhi | October 15, 2020 10:50:48 am

International Day of Rural Women, philanthropist Zarina Screwvala, Zarina Screwvala interview, Swades Foundation, rural India, women empowerment, indian express newsZarina says both men and women need to understand they have a valuable role to play in the world. (Source: PR handout)

For many years now, Zarina Screwvala — co-founder of Swades Foundation — has been working for the upliftment of rural life in the country, especially that of women and children. Through her foundation — that works to empower lives by covering four key areas, namely health and nutrition, education, water and sanitation, and economic development — she and her husband Ronnie Screwvala have been striving to make a difference at the grassroots, by teaming up with full-time staff members and community volunteers, to cover 2500-plus villages in the country.

On the occasion of International Day of Rural Women, Zarina interacted with indianexpress.com to highlight key problems plaguing our villages, its women and young girls, and how empowering them can bring about economic stability in the country, among other things.


You have been engaged in philanthropy for so many years now — what are some of the biggest issues you have observed trouble the rural population of the country, especially women?

We believe in and work for empowered village communities, allowing all members to live a life of dignity. All means all: women, men, children, youth and the elderly. We believe the work must be sustainable and scalable; but change happens one village at a time. At our foundation, we all work for one dream — to create a model of rural empowerment that can lift a million people out of poverty every five years. An almost impossible dream, but one we deeply believe in and work for every day.

We also observed poverty is not just material but also mental, manifesting as a lack of hope, aspiration for a better life for themselves and their families. This mental poverty is a critical blockage to any kind of change, resulting in forced migration to ill-equip cities where their conditions are perhaps worse than in the village.

Wealth in the hands of women ensures not just economic stability to the family, but it also ensures that children complete education. A woman’s role in uplifting her family is not appreciated. She may be doing the work in the fields, looking after the buffaloes and cows, walking miles for water, but she has no idea of her own worth and nor do the others in the family.

One of our planned Dream Villages ⁦@WeAreSwades⁩ -in Poladpur block Raighad -where our school was totally damaged post cyclone and entire village got together to re build it brick by brick – Their Dream Their Village – and thanks to the District Admin for sanctioning grants pic.twitter.com/jP3jw2Su7u

— Ronnie Screwvala (@RonnieScrewvala) October 1, 2020

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What are the pre-conditions for the betterment, development and empowerment of rural women?

At Swades, we believe every life is valuable and has something to contribute. And that barriers to overall development, especially that of girls and women, are not that obvious to most. You have to know your community, love and respect them before they open out to you. And this is what we have done for 20 years and more — especially in the last six years. And the learnings have been rich and varied:

Women can only earn a living if they have water in/near their house. When we first went to our villages, we wanted to work on girls’ schooling. The villagers laughed and said their daughters had to fetch water for almost two hours a day. We decided to work on water. It was life-changing; the girls started going to school. Women started growing a second crop, started poultry, goat rearing, dairy, stitching and a host of micro-businesses.

Every woman must have a toilet in her home. When we first started going to our villages 20 years ago, we met women who went to the loo in the open fields before sunrise and then after sunset! They got bitten by snakes, developed kidney issues and urinary tract infections. Girls did not attend secondary school, because there was no safe place for them to go to the loo. By building 23,813 toilets, we have been able to protect women from rural Raigad.

Women must attend village meetings. When we first entered our villages only men attended community meetings; within two years we had equal numbers of men and women. Their regular attendance has empowered the village committees. Tribal women from Dharechiwadi, Poladpur, banned the sale and purchase of illegal alcohol in their village. They recognised alcohol menace as the biggest problem in their village’s development.

Empowered women are the best change agents. “Because women can manage poverty, they can manage development best” — this is what Sir Fazle Hasan Abed told Ronnie and me when we visited him and his amazing organisation BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee). I was starstruck and asked for a picture with him!

Rural or urban, women in our country have to struggle with basic rights, safety and dignity in the society…

We are a patriarchal society. And thousands of years of societal thought is hard to change. It’s the mental attitude that needs to change. In the villages we serve in rural Maharashtra, we see a lot of hope, we see families struggle to enable their girls to go to school. As soon as water comes to their villages, the girls are in school.

What have been your personal struggles vis-a-vis your foundation and the humanitarian work you do?

I have been fortunate that my struggles are related to my own deficiencies, not because I’m a woman. I come from a supportive family and have a supportive husband. I think right from day one, my parents never made me feel less valued, my school principal (Shirin Darasha of J.B. Petit Girls High School) was an inspirational firebrand and made us all feel valued.

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Can you explain the structure of Swades Foundation?

Swades nurtures our dream of uplifting one million rural lives out of poverty every five years. We implement a 360 degree holistic model of rural development which addresses four key needs of rural communities: water and sanitation, health, education and livelihoods. These lay the foundations for strong and self-sustaining rural communities.

Community members are empowered to make their own village development plans and Swades facilitates the interventions. We ensure community participation by small contributions or through shramdaan (voluntary labour). This, along with strong village development committees, is our approach to ensure sustainability once we exit the villages.

We believe true impact is not just in numbers but also when we are able to remove the mental poverty and change it to a can-do attitude.

Our strength is 90 per cent of our full-time staff of 270 people, who work directly at the grassroots. Another 1,000 are community volunteers making us a strong execution foundation impacting over 5.5 lakh population today in 2500+ villages.

How big of a support is your husband in all your social and humanitarian endeavours?

He is not a mere support, he is working with me and our fabulous team of 1,300 people, to make our impossible dream come true!

As equal partners, what can men do to make life easier for women?

Both men and women could begin by understanding that we each have a valuable role, a place in the world. We need to create a space to blossom. We are equal but different. Respecting this, we can make everyone’s life better.

Any advice for the women in our country who are reading this?

Believe in yourself, in your own self-worth and dignity. We have much to bring to the world. Find out your role and be that. Don’t let anyone stop you. I also recommend being like water that is a force no one can stop. If we are hard and stone-like we can be stopped in our journey. But water always flows. A river always finds its way to the ocean.

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Hong Kong-based Steadview Capital plans to invest $500 million in India

In the secondary transaction, TPG Growth, Ronnie Screwvala-led Unilazer Ventures, and IDG Ventures India were the sellers. A total investment inflow …

Steadview Capital, a Hong Kong-based hedge fund, is, reportedly, planning to invest $500 million in growth-stage companies in India over the next two years.

According to a report, Steadview could invest up to $100 million in a single firm if the company’s financial metrics justify heavy capital.

The fund is also reportedly planning to increase focus on India by increasing its headcount here and is looking to hire one more person in India.

Steadview Capital was founded in 2009 and is currently led by Ravi Mehta. It has nearly $2.5 billion assets under management. The firm was on a silence period for the last few years in India after its entry in 2014. The firm’s first investment was furniture rental Urban Ladder.

Till November 2015, Steadview Capital invested millions across companies such as ecommerce player Flipkart, cab hailing player Ola, online insurance aggregator PolicyBazaar, music streaming platform Saavn and classified platform Quikr among others.

Since then a lull between November 2015 to August 2018, came to an end with a secondary investment in Lenskart along with TR Capital.

In the secondary transaction, TPG Growth, Ronnie Screwvala-led Unilazer Ventures, and IDG Ventures India were the sellers.

A total investment inflow of $1.4 Bn at growth stage recorded a historical high in its quarterly funding amount, based on data recorded since 2014.

In the case of the growth stage startups, the funding amount of $1.4 Bn recorded in the first quarter of 2019 is 68% higher than the $821 Mn recorded in Q4 2018.

From a Y-o-Y perspective, that figure is a massive 141% increase from the $574 Mn recorded in Q1 2018.

TR Capital and Steadview strike a secondary deal in Lenskart

Stakeholders that sold their stake in this secondary transaction include TPG Growth, Ronnie Screwvala-led Unilazer Ventures, and IDG Ventures India …

TR Capital and Hong Kong-based hedge fund Steadview Capital have participated in a large secondary deal in Faridabad-based India’s leading online marketplace for eyewear Lenskart Solutions. Mumbai-based late-stage tech investment firm Epiq Capital marks a late entry into the startup along with Steadview Capital.

Stakeholders that sold their stake in this secondary transaction include TPG Growth, Ronnie Screwvala-led Unilazer Ventures, and IDG Ventures India. The transaction is estimated to be around ₹480-514 crores ($70-75 million). This deal is believed to be valuing the startup at around ₹3,400 crores. The deal has been confirmed by Peyush Bansal, CEO at Lenskart, although the terms of the deal are yet to be disclosed.

“The company has turned profitable, and that certainly opens up the arena for a lot of growth-stage public market investors. It’s a promising investment for the likes of TR Capital and Steadview Capital because it shows that the investment can grow multi-fold from here on, and even at this valuation,” Bansal said.

TR Capital is believed to have invested around $40 million in this deal. While IDG Ventures has been scaling down its stake in Lenskart, TR Capital and Premji-Invest, the personal investment arm of Wipro Chairman Azim Premji, are raking in more stake having agreed to buy shares from IDG Ventures India and private equity firm TPG Growth in the startup’s last secondary deal.

Lenskart counts International Finance Corp (IFC), the private sector investment arm of the World Bank, and Zurich-based asset management company Adveq as investors.

Previously, Lenskart had received an investment of ₹24 crores in its last round by Ronnie Screwvala-led Unilazer Ventures, having valued the startup at ₹2,000 crores.

Lenskart.com announces Lenskart Gold, a Special Loyalty Program for its customers

Lenskart has been funded by venture capitalists like, IDG Ventures ($4 million in October 2011) and Ronnie Screwvala-led Unilazer Ventures ($10 million in February 2013), TPG Growth & TR Capital ($22 million in January 2015), IFC (USD 53 Million in May 2016) and Premji Invest (in September 2016) …

Launched in 2010, Lenskart is India’s leading eyewear company and has designed features and initiatives for the convenience of its customers. Known to provide well-priced high-styled eyewear, Lenskart.com announces Lenskart Gold, an exclusive membership program to entitle its loyal customers with a special ‘Buy One Get One’ offer all year round.Under this program, customers can enroll themselves in Lenskart’s exclusive membership program for INR 500 and avail a ‘Buy One Get One’ offer throughout the year. The membership benefits can also be availed by family members simply by using the mobile number enrolled for membership at Lenskart stores as well as the website. Customers enrolled under this program can pick from an extensive range of John Jacobs and Vincent Chase sunglasses as well as eyeglasses. The benefits of the loyalty program can be availed from their first purchase.Speaking on the initiative, Mr. Peyush Bansal, CEO, Lenskart.com, said, “We are introducing Lenskart Gold to incentivize our customers who repeatedly come back for more. It’s the era when you don’t just own multiple outfits for multiple occasions but also multiple eyewear for various occasions and purposes. Through this exclusive membership program, we offer our consumers ‘Buy One Get One’ on eyewear as well as sunglasses and would also be adding more benefits in the days to come.” He further added ’The introductory price of INR 500 is only limited to the first 10,000 memberships’.Lenskart Gold is the latest endeavor by Lenskart.com to provide its customers with benefits amalgamating both sight and style. The program has been designed to lay emphasis on Lenskart.com’s offerings to its most valued stakeholders – its customers.

About Lenskart.com:

Founded in 2010, Lenskart is India’s largest online retailer of premium quality and stylish eyewear, offering over 10,000 different styles to suit all pocket sizes and diverse consumer needs. With a unique click and mortar business model, Lenskart is revolutionizing the eyewear industry by offering disruptive services like Free Home Eye check-up, 3D Try On, Free Home Trial and First Frame Free among others. Through innovative technology and a deep focus on consumer satisfaction, Lenskart has grown more than 200% year on year, to be among the top 3 optical businesses in India. With a rapidly growing network strength of more than 900, Lenskart is present through 400+ stores across 90+ cities in India. Lenskart has been funded by venture capitalists like, IDG Ventures ($4 million in October 2011) and Ronnie Screwvala-led Unilazer Ventures ($10 million in February 2013), TPG Growth & TR Capital ($22 million in January 2015), IFC (USD 53 Million in May 2016) and Premji Invest (in September 2016).

Ronnie Screwvala’s UpGrad scores another, ties up with SP Jain Management institute

The programme has a mix of management learning, design thinking, and understanding of emerging technologies such as AI, IoT, blockchain and others. Started in July 2015 by Mayank Kumar and Ronnie Screwvala, UpGrad is an online higher education company that provides industry relevant …

Online higher education company UpGrad has tied up with Mumbai-based SP Jain Management and Research Institute to launch a post-graduate programme in Technology Business Management. The programme aims to assist working technology professionals’ transition to managerial positions.

Founded by Ronnie Screwvala and Mayank Kumar, UpGrad believes the IT industry is witnessing a significant shift to offering product-oriented solutions as against services-oriented solutions it once pioneered in. This change, coupled with the advent of new technologies such as Blockchain, IoT, cloud and Artificial Intelligence, calls for a new breed of Technology Business Leaders.

UpGrad has also entered into partnerships withleading institutes such as IIIT B, BITS Pilani, MICA and IMT Ghaziabad. The plan is to partner with four to five more institutions to offer flexible and skill-focused postgraduate education for working professionals in India and globally.

The programme with SP Jain Management and Research Institute will equip learners with requisite business skills, and help them understand how to leverage their technology skills. It is targeted towards anyone looking to boost their career trajectory in the IT and IT-enabled sectors over the next three to five years.

The programme has been designed to empower them to move from purely technical to techno-managerial roles while updating themselves on the emerging technologies (AI, IoT, blockchain etc) that will change the face of the IT and IT-enabled sectors in the years to come.

The programme has a mix of management learning, design thinking, and understanding of emerging technologies such as AI, IoT, blockchain and others. Started in July 2015 by Mayank Kumar and Ronnie Screwvala, UpGrad is an online higher education company that provides industry relevant programmes.

L-R: Mayank Kumar and Ronnie Screwvala. Co-Founders UpGrad

The opportunity cost of attending an offline programme is high. The working professional has to incur huge fees and let go of one to two years of salary to do a post-graduate programme and this can be a tough proposition for many and the reason they forgo opportunities to learn from the leading universities. Ronnie Screwvala says,

“We have seen a strong acceptability of our programmes in India where our platform operates at scale with over 170,000 users with most willing to pay over Rs 2 lakh for online programmes. Not only that, our programmes have seen a 90 percent completion rate and 50 percent NPS (Net Promoter Score) score – which demonstrates very high engagement and satisfaction level amongst our learners.”

In April last year, Ronnie had announced Asia’s first online scholarship fund with an initial corpus of Rs 100 crore. The scholarship fund would be aimed at skilling individuals in relevant areas, and equipping them with industry-relevant knowledge.

UpGrad Team

“We, at UpGrad, are on a mission to bring postgraduate education from universities where they are established leaders for professionals without the need to take a career break. We bring the subject matter expertise of the university combined with industry domain expertise to the student through UpGrad’s learning experience,” says Mayank.

He says the company partners with universities to co-create programmes. The university faculty and the UpGrad content team together identify the learning outcomes for the learner, and develop a cutting-edge curriculum and subject matter that is relevant.

“UpGrad does the heavy lifting in terms of bringing in contextual industry demonstrations, keeping the learner motivated through the programmes, giving them feedback on their assignments and projects, getting the learner career ready, and connecting them to suitable career opportunities,” says Mayank.

The future plan is to take UpGrad’sportfolio in the areas of Data, Marketing and Management, and Product and Technology to South East Asia. “We have established a small presence in Singapore to test out the local market requirement,” concludes Mayank.