By Shweta Bhandral
Born in Muzaffarnagar, the Uttar Pradesh town infamous for its 2013 riots, and educated in an elite residential school in Dehradun, Gauri Malik acquired a keen understanding of both worlds. Today, the 34-year-old cofounder of lifestyle brand Sirohi is using her experiences and resources to build a luxury label that empowers women from small-town India.
While pursuing her Master’s in finance and economics from the University of Warwick, Gauri had a chance to work in a small village in Peru. The project provided microcredits to single mothers helping them to start businesses, making them self-reliant. The experience marked the beginning of Gauri’s journey to do impactful work.
At the age of 23, Gauri launched her first project, Skilled Samaritan Foundation, which aimed to light up villages in India using solar power. The project provided electricity to three villages, 10 schools and impacted over 25,000 lives. But Gauri had to pull the plug.
She shares, “I never believed in charity as a model for impact, and so we charged the locals a small amount. Six months down, people started defaulting. I began questioning my business model, and took a step back.”
In 2019, Gauri re-launched Skilled Samaritans to work with the same community and skill them to build a brand of home and lifestyle products. “Sirohi is the first village we had lit in Haryana, so the name of the brand comes from there. We utilise the existing skills of women. In these communities, women do not have access to formal education and are married young. Sirohi is trying to provide them with income opportunities by creating well-designed products that people will love, backed by a strong narrative of empowerment and sustainability,” Gauri explains.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning as women are not encouraged to work outside of the home in these communities. Gauri began her work in Muzaffarnagar with only one woman. Soon, more women realised that this was a legitimate source of income, and came forward to work with Sirohi.
Using culturally significant Indian patterns and weaves, women make home décor products with ropes of textile waste, plastic waste, and natural fibres. On average, a Sirohi product consumes 6.5 kg of waste or natural rope, thus saving the earth from more than 20 kg of CO2 emission. This calculation is arrived using a WHO Global Challenges Report that found that for every kg of plastic recycled, 1.5 kg of CO2 emission is avoided.
Sirohi devised a mechanism to create ropes from discarded cloth and plastic waste. Gauri explains, “We have invented a simple indigenous machinery operated by women to twine shreds of cloth strips into usable bright ropes.”
The investment banker-turned-social entrepreneur shares how her diverse experiences as a child shaped her. “On one hand, I learnt to sew, and on the other how to shoot a gun!” she smiles sharing how her father made sure that she became a fiercely independent woman.
She goes on: “This upbringing has made me flexible and balanced. I love that, one day, I could be sitting with 50 men from a gram panchayat talking to them about why women need to work, and the next day I am standing at an investor meeting, pitching my startup to men in suits.”
The brand employs designers from NID, RCA and other prestigious design schools across India, who provide the artisans with 3D drawings and train them to develop products.
Gauri also initiated a change in consumer perception, “The moment you say, ‘this is made by an NGO,’ no matter how amazing the product is, the brand value comes down, so we decided to build it as a brand. We want to make people perceive artisan-made products as well-designed luxury products. We are empowering people with skills as we are growing.”
First published in eShe’s March 2021 issue