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Karnataka Women Entrepreneurs Make It Their Business To Be Successful

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Vijaya Biradar has a thriving business of selling saris, Vasumathi Bhaskar has built-up a multi-food industry from scratch and Anitha Jain's passion for bikes and cycles has led her to run a successful cycle mart.

What's the reason behind their super success? It's the Bangalore-based not-for-profit NGO, Association of Women Entrepreneurs of Karnataka (AWAKE), whose stimulus, start-up, sustain and support programmes have been the key to making these women entrepreneurs. Since its inception in 1983, AWAKE has touched the lives of thousands of women in Karnataka and has provided innumerable first-generation women entrepreneurs the inspiration and technical support to start their own work - from small-scale papad-making to high-tech biotechnology.

According to AWAKE secretary, Dr Rajeshwari Shankar, who is a veterinary doctor by profession, "The AWAKE outreach has touched the lives of close to 2.5 million people since its inception 26 years ago."

Take K. Jayalakshmi, 54, whose forte has been making masala powders. Her relationship with AWAKE began when she signed a memorandum of understanding to use the drier, pulveriser and sealing machines they had in their Bangalore headquarters, for creating her signature masala powders.

Now, not only does Jayalakshmi produce the masalas, she is also an instructor with AWAKE and helps in the entrepreneurship development program. "I had zero qualifications, but I have 29 years of experience in billing, accounting, making masalas, and juice making," she says. And she puts all this knowledge to good use by sharing it with others looking to start their own businesses. She has been a member of the AWAKE fraternity for a little over 12 years now.

Anitha Jain is another AWAKE success story - today she owns a cycle mart in Mandya, a bustling town midway between Bangalore and Mysore. She attended an AWAKE programme, which helped her identify the products, start her cycle shop, monitor its growth, and take care of the finance, marketing, sales and overall management. She believes that the organisation "gives women a chance to prove themselves".

Living near Bijapur is Vijaya Biradar, who got married at the age of 13 and became a grandmother at 33. She has reared goats and chickens in her backyard, but today she runs her own profitable sari business. She subscribes to the theory that a woman "needs only common sense and determination and training" to set up a small-scale business.

What AWAKE is credited with is making women from urban, and rural India realise their aspiration to be socially and economically self reliant, irrespective of their academic, or economic background.

Going by a modest estimate, AWAKE has supported more than 20,000 start-ups over the last 26 years. And it all began when the Rotary Club of Bangalore awarded seven women with the outstanding women entrepreneur award in 1983. One of the awardees, Madhura Chatrapathy, who went on to become the founder/president of AWAKE, felt the need to support women who were keen on starting an enterprise but were discouraged by the hurdles of bureaucracy and lack of awareness.

The association's clientele is entirely made up of women. Of these 80 per cent are from rural areas and half of these belong to the low income group.

The reason behind AWAKE's success has been what Dr Shankar calls their 'four S module' - stimulus, start-up, sustenance and support. In fact, all activities take these four aspects into consideration.

Stimulus is given to potential women clients, by motivating them to transform themselves from housewives into entrepreneurs. Start up comes in the form of entrepreneurship development programmes. This could mean anything from guiding budding business women to register their company to helping them apply for bank loans and even making them understand the workings of a small business. Providing know-how on marketing, management and technical up-gradation makes up the sustenance programmes. And the support is provided through networking with national and international agencies.

Technical training classes provided by AWAKE are varied. They teach almost everything, from the Japanese art of bonsai making and quilt-making to the manufacturing of herbal cosmetics and house-keeping. They train potential event managers, chocolate makers, fabric painters, candle makers and computer operators. They hold classes on computing software and on setting up a catering business.

Dhanvanti Jain, the dynamic 36-year-old vice president of AWAKE, has been an entrepreneur since her teenage years, but even for her it has been a learning curve. Jain says, "I thought I knew a lot, but now I know there is much more to learn." She explains that for an annual membership of Rs 250 (US$1=Rs 45.7), members get a monthly newsletter and are informed about meetings and given exhibition opportunities.

Revathi Venkatraman, the current president, believes that AWAKE's main strength has been in the area of training, so setting up "a training academy of international standards to be benchmarked against the best in the world" is next on their agenda.

Women like Vijaya, Vasumathi, Anitha and Jayalakshmi are an inspiration to innumerable Indian women, who aspire to be socially and economically self-reliant, irrespective of their academic, social and economic background. And AWAKE - much like its name - is helping them realise their vast potential.

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