Meet The SHEROES: A QnA With Suhani Mohan Of Saral Designs
Suhani Mohan is an individual who truly “follows her heart”, a bright student , a star performer and a giver: she believes technology could be used to help needy people. She talks about her entrepreneurial journey and Saral Designs – a venture that is proving to be a boom in providing low cost sanitary pads!
Tell us a little about your life
I was born and brought up in Mumbai in an academically oriented family. My father is foreign trade consultant for steel products; mother is a nuclear scientist and brother is a doctor (DM, Neurology). I love Physics and Mathematics; hence, it was a natural choice to pursue an education at IIT.
You started your career as an Intern in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and then moved to the world of Finance with your employer Deutsche Bank and you are now an entrepreneur in the Health sector. What a variation, was it all planned?
While I was pursuing my Engineering in Metallurgy and Materials Science, I wanted to explore as many things as possible and learn different things till I figure out what was the one thing that I would like to dedicate most of my working life to. While I was in college, I wanted to learn more about Materials Science and hence I worked on two research internships. Finance was something very new for me, but post -financial crisis in 2008, I knew it was important that I understand how it works. Deutsche Bank gave me great exposure to investment banking, during which I also cleared my CFA Level 1. In the hindsight, working in a bank, made understanding of fund-raising, accounting, etc. for my start-up way easier.
Starting-up in the heath/ hygiene sector was probably the most conscious career choice I made. On self-introspection, I realized that whatever work that I do should have a direct positive impact on someone’s life. At the same time, the work that I do should be really high quality and innovative, so that it kept me going. Through Saral Designs, we have been able to do both.
You have also been part of the Acumen India Fellow Program in 2015, what were the key learnings from that?
Acumen Fellowship is a Leadership development program. One of the biggest learning’s was everyone’s style of leadership can be very different, it is important to know what your strengths are and be the best in it, rather than trying to be like someone else.
How was the idea of Saral Designs born?
In 2012, I learned about the deplorable situation of menstrual hygiene in India when I met Mr. Anshu Gupta from Goonj. He described how women in rural India use newspapers, rags and other unhygienic methods during their menstruation. I felt deeply ashamed. It had never crossed my mind that when I spend Rs100/month to manage my menstruation, how would a woman, whose entire families earning is lesser than Rs1000/month, manage hers.
It inspired me to take a 15-day tour around rural India (Jagriti Yatra). On further exploring the low-cost sanitary napkin industry, I realized that most of these units were running into cash flow issues due to insufficient scale and lack of demand for the poor product quality.
While technology is making our lives easier, we believe that technology also needs to be used to address critical challenges that affect a huge segment of the population. This motivated us to build machines that automate processes to lower costs (of production and distribution) while maintaining the product quality and service.
Talking about 'Menstrual Hygiene' in public is still a taboo in India, was it difficult for you to convince your family and friends about the idea?
Both my family and friends have been very encouraging that I am working on an issue which is really important. In fact, many of my friends voluntarily help us out in different ways as they feel good about making a difference in the lives of women.
Tell us a little about your founding members and team and overall objective...
The Company is founded by Suhani Mohan and Kartik Mehta. Kartik is an Engineering Design graduate from IIT Madras (2012) and has worked on machine design and development for three years with General Motors and Neubauplan Design Studio.
The team consists of 9 young engineers from IITs, NITs, and BITS Pilani, who have worked with Companies like McKinsey, PayPal, Piramal Foundation, have hands-on experience in making machines and driving growth.
We have developed an automatic sanitary napkin making a machine, SWACHH, which enables manufacturing sanitary napkins in a decentralized manner for set-up costs <20L INR and enabling 30% reduction in distribution costs. These machines will be run by local manufacturers to boost local production and distribution disrupting the largely untapped menstrual hygiene market, collectively.
I am lucky to have such talented and dedicated teammates to work with, who are constantly out-doing themselves. Many of them had several other more financially lucrative opportunities, but they chose to do what they were passionate about and work collectively to solve this problem. Thank you is not enough to express my gratitude. The best way to express my gratitude would be constantly out-do myself so as to make our collective journey more exciting.
What is a typical day at work like for you?
We strictly start our day at 9.30am sharp. Most days, we have a team meeting to track the tasks of the week. Since my work involves, business development, marketing partnerships, and fund-raising, most of my days go into meeting various stakeholders for the same.
How have retailers, rural population or schools/colleges where vending machines could be installed responded to menstrual hygiene? Were they able to accept the fact that it’s a natural process, and hygiene is of utmost importance?
There is a good mix of people. Most male retailers still find it difficult to talk about sanitary napkins with their female customers; also many women themselves prefer that the retailers wrap their sanitary napkins in newspaper. There are all sorts of myths many women have which prevent women from using sanitary napkins.
School staff and school girls have been very progressive regarding accepting menstruation as natural and understanding the need of increasing access to hygiene products. We usually have an awareness session in the schools where we install our vending machines. We have installed ten vending machines till date. It is a delight to see how confidence level of girls changes after these sessions and how relieved they feel that they have reliable access to pads in their schools.
Would you like to share some success stories or “contrasting” stories with our readers?
A story which is very close to us is when Sangeeta Shelar, a resident of Vikhroli slums, who was a non-user of pads signed up to be a door to door distribution partner for us. Primarily she wanted to add a source of income. But once she started advocating about the usage of pads, she thought of trying the pads herself. She loved the product and now is a regular user and a very strong evangelist.
There are contrasting stories too. Girls in tribal residential schools have started using sanitary napkins, but they wash them before disposing of them, not for any hygiene reasons, but they fear that if someone sees their menstrual blood, they will lose their virginity. We try to break these taboos and myths in our school sessions, but they are still very deeply rooted.
Is unaffordability the primary reason for women neglecting menstrual hygiene?
Rather than affordability, I would like to term it as the absence of the quality/ price fit.
There are a few low-cost sanitary napkins in the market that have significantly cut down on quality and raw materials to bring the cost down. But, even to a low-income purchaser because if the product is not functional, women don't find the necessary advantage of shifting from cloth to a pad.
Apart from the above, most products are not accessible in remote areas. It is coupled with low hygiene awareness and taboos, has kept 80% of women in India from using sanitary napkins.
?What are your future plans for Saral Designs?
In the short term, we want to make further developments in the manufacturing machine SWACHH, to make it robust and compact for micro-entrepreneurs. We also optimize distribution channels to reach different geographies in a cost effective manner.
In the long term we want to replicate this model of distributed manufacturing for other essential consumer products to reduce inefficiencies in distribution and increase the reach of such products to those who need them.
Where can one find your products?
Our sanitary pads “Aisha Ultra XL” are available on E-bay and ShopClues. To purchase our vending machines or to set-up you own manufacturing unit, you can write to us at [email protected]