How Sirohi is changing the lives of women in Muzaffarnagar

D. Krishna Prasad
·10 min read

Today, many entrepreneurs believe that waste can be reused to make new products, which can be both utilitarian and home-friendly.

One of them is Gauri Gopal Agarwal, founder of Sirohi.

How did the Skilled Samaritan Foundation start?

Hailing from Muzaffarnagar city, Gauri went to boarding school when she was 6, followed by graduation at Saint Xaviers College, Mumbai, and finally completed her Masters from Warwick Business School, England. Throughout her career, she lived an independent life. Her mom is a homemaker and her dad is a businessman, who always pushed her to reach the extra mile.

Gauri Gopal Agrawal, Founder & Director of Sirohi
Gauri Gopal Agrawal, Founder & Director of Sirohi

In 2012, Gauri quit her job at Deutsche Bank and founded Skilled Samaritan Foundation (Sirohi a trademark brand of Skill Samaritan). And Sirohi is the name of the first village she started working at. One day during an eco walk in the evening and discovered that there was no electricity in the village. Due to this, they had to use their phone lights to come down from the mountains.

This gave Skilled Samaritan Foundation their first project, where they installed 10W Solar panels in 366 homes and lighted the villages of Sirohi, Faridabad, which is nestled amid beautiful mountains. The project was done in association with National Power and Training Institute in Delhi and Bechtel corporation, Engineers without borders. The project was successful, and the Skilled Samaritan Foundation has impacted 25000 lives back then.


Idea Of Using Existing Craft Skills

Whilst working at Skilled Samaritan Foundation, Gauri found out that all the women who are very strong and confident did not have opportunities coming their way due to lack of formal education. Also, they were married when they were 13-14 years of age.

As she was so young herself when she started the project, all these really frustrated her as to what she could do about it. Later, she took a step back on her goal at Skill Samaritan and worked with a bunch of tech startups, UN-funded organizations, public health, etc.

In Oct 2019, Gauri again revived Skill Samaritan with the idea of using existing craft skills of women from communities in Muzaffarnagar district to make products that are well-designed functional, and utilitarian in nature. So that people would love the products they buy and have a strong narrative behind women empowerment and sustainability.

“I say sustainability because each product is only made from natural fibers, textile waste, or plastic waste. Over time I realized when I used the Skill Samaritan foundation to explain the products made by these women, people were feeling that “ye products NGO ne banaya hai”, said Gauri.

Gauri also shared why she chose sustainability - when people were making their own charpais, they were using materials that were made from waste, textile waste in their own home, industrial plastic waste, a lot of local fibers.

Sirohi’s Meditation Chair hand woven with upcycled plastic waste
Sirohi’s Meditation Chair hand woven with upcycled plastic waste

So the thought of sustainability came into her mind saying, “why not create a dual impact by making products using natural or recycled materials and while doing that, make sure that the designs also look amazing with this waste.” And this idea stood out from the other sustainable brands.

Speaking of the Indian market on how products are represented by its brand name, Gauri has changed the name to Sirohi to portray it as a luxury sustainable brand for home and decor products. “Sirohi is just a trademark brand of Skilled Samaritan, a not-for-profit organization. The idea is to create a brand that is powered by artisans sensing the luxuries of any home decor brand that exists”, she added.

Sirohi’s focus is only on home and lifestyle products such as stools, chairs, tables, storage items like baskets & trays. Mostly, the products are very utilitarian and functional in nature that fits within the design sensibilities from a home perspective for an urbane modern buyer.

Training & Financial Independence

Living an independent lifestyle since childhood, Gauri feels that just because women don't have the right opportunities or formal education, she believes that they can still be financially independent by using their existing skills set, which is mostly in craft to earn a livelihood for themselves.

“By doing so, the other barriers like social-economic aspects don't matter anymore. And they can continue working in their home space comfortably. My mom now heads cluster management for almost 200 women who work with us. She’s also financially independent now” she asserted proudly.

While Gauri is on a hunt to find someone who makes charpai style of weaving, she found one woman named Gauhar Fatma in Muzaffarnagar who makes really good charpais, but she only makes stools for weddings and she sells them at INR 50 per stool.

“She was the only one who’s confident enough to say - I will work behind the closed doors of my home. Because she says that people in our community are not allowed to work. They always believe that women are not allowed to work. We started with one, but others said no, as they were too scared to work”, Gauri narrates one instance.

Eventually, when Gauhar started becoming financially independent, the second woman joined, and now they have 200 women working with them. “Hopefully, ahead, we try to create income opportunities for more women”, Gauri stated.

Gauhar Fatma- the first woman artisan who agreed to work with us
Gauhar Fatma- the first woman artisan who agreed to work with us

The most significant part is all the women are trained in groups by the in-house team using tech-based design support (designers from Royal College of Art in England, to NIT to NIFT) of Sirohi. From designing new products to financial literacy, making sure that they know their product, and getting a transparent idea of how much is paid.

Sometimes, if they get a new design, they train a master craftswoman, and she teaches the rest. Most of the teachings are through technology mode via WhatsApp video calls and YouTube videos.

Tough Road Travelled

For a young brand like Sirohi, every day there is a challenge in hand to deal with. But the best part is overcoming those stumbling blocks. So Gauri has shared with us how she combated her challenges.

“From a brand’s perspective, at the end of the day, we are selling products. It would really be tough to run at a place like Muzaffarnagar, where everyone who has a decent skill set either runs to Delhi or the nearest cosmopolitan to get a job. We have very limited support here from some people who have a basic level of English proficiency with a decent professional background or good work experience. Even most of these people have gone to the city. Because of that, we have to change even our own staff to make sure that they're able to comply with market-level quality controls and compliances. However, this has been a major challenge so far”, expressed Gauri.

Also, from social media marketing to sales, all are based in different cities. Now with COVID-19, it’s arduous to coordinate it like a clean slate. “If there was some sort of a system like an ERP, or a CRM system, where you're actually able to solve the hassles of recording raw material inventory and dispersed worksite, that would be great. Because we have to hire multiple people of the low-level skillset in Muzaffarnagar. And that's a big challenge” she states.

Other than that, during the initial stages of being a not-for-profit, Gauri faced issues with funding. She started her first initiative with INR 30,000 in her bank, where she used it to train women, mobilization capacity building, and then started generating revenue from the sales.

Heart-Warming Moments & Feedback

Started with 1 woman and 37 products, today Sirhoi is listed with 200 women and 300 products on their website - All that turned possible in just about a year, which is impressive. They also exhibited at Lakme fashion week earlier last year and partnered with Uniqlo for their store in Gurgaon, where we gave the first 1000 customers boxes of Sirohi.

Sirohi at the UNIQLO store in Gurgaon
Sirohi at the UNIQLO store in Gurgaon

Sirohi works with women who are from very low-income backgrounds, who have never even imagined working in their lives. So when they say, I bought myself a phone, I was able to send my kid to school - for an entrepreneur, it’s the difference they are able to make in people's lives. Despite stumbling blocks, Sirohi stood firmly as a living brand and had its happy moments in between, and Gauri has shared a few of them with us.

A woman named Sanam came to us and said “My entire life has changed”. She was a single mother whose husband had passed away. She had three kids and literally was dependent on different people for earning money by taking loans, or buying small products in the market and selling them in her village.

So she barely had any source of livelihood. For someone like Sanam, who had a rough life back then has taken a U-turn. “Because now I can sit at home, I can take care of my kids”, Sanam, a single mother smiles. To make somebody financially independent, it's something really powerful for a brand like Sirohi.

Sanam, one of the toughest women weavers at SSF
Sanam, one of the toughest women weavers at SSF

Adding to the happy moments list, Gauri has also won the prestigious Generation and Quality Award by the UN as a part of recognition for the work she’s doing in the sustainability sector. “Within a year of us working, this was a really big deal for us” she claimed.

Moving further, Sirohi has made 12 lakh sales in December 2020. “This is pretty good as we are able to create this kind of scale based on the number of women who are working with us. They are able to earn starting from 800 rupees a month, based on the hours of time and effort they spend to like almost 5500 rupees a month”, said Gauri in a happy tone.

Even the feedback from the customers was amazing, as most of them always rate 10 out of 10, which is called the net promoter score, making it to almost 9.2 as their overall score. “Even a lot of people wrote to us expressing their accolades and adoration to the products and the work we have been doing with waste materials, converting them into colorful products, and serving a long purpose”, stated Gauri.

She also added, “the fact that as just a one-year-old brand, we were able to get to this point and could create a movement saying that sustainable products can be beautiful, they don't have to be dull and boring.”

Plans Ahead & Message To Share

However, amid challenges and good things in between, Sirohi has a long road to travel, as the founder shares that they want to create more income opportunities for women who never ever imagine a life beyond household chores and make people’s dreams come true.

Lighting up lives with Sirohi’s hand woven light boxes
Lighting up lives with Sirohi’s hand woven light boxes

“Sirohi is a very strong brand of sustainable values that make beautiful products, and that each product from us has a very strong story to tell. If we could make a small iota or a figment of their imagination come alive, it would be amazing for us. And plus, making products that are extremely like amazing, beautiful, and have a strong story to tell”, concludes Gauri with a small message about the brand.

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All the images are sourced with permission from the Sirohi.