This remarkable entrepreneurial journey began when one feisty woman in a small town in Telangana set out to support other underprivileged women with training and jobs, even if she had to battle personal, societal and professional challenges in her quest.
As a woman belonging to the Dalit community, one of the most marginalised in the Subcontinent, and to a family with very modest means, Saka Shailaja had the odds stacked against her to reach where she is now – as the founder and managing director of Roja’s Group of Industries, which is entirely made up of women employees, and an honorary member at Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Shailaja was also recently part of Project Her&Now by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in partnership with India’s Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship.
She hasn’t done it alone. Along the way, Shailaja has empowered tens of thousands of other women from the scheduled and backward castes of India by giving them free training and job placements in the beauty industry.
Born and raised in Hyderabad, Shailaja was the second of three children. Her father had risen in his career from a blue-collar worker to being chief draughtsman in the Indian Railways and her mother worked as a tailor to supplement the family income. “I have only ever seen women struggle in our communities,” says the 47-year-old over a Zoom call. “From morning to night, they labour away.”
Shailaja was just 19 when she had an arranged marriage to a teacher who lived in a remote and largely rural district of Adilabad about four hours drive away from Karimnagar, the district headquarters of Telangana.
The region was affected by drought and Shailaja’s memories of the early few years of marriage are those of hardship. She had a daughter when she was 20 and a son followed three years later.
At first, Shailaja worked as a tutor, teaching English to children in the area. But at the age of 25, she did a beautician’s course and decided to set up a salon in the nearest town, Sircilla.
“The women beedi workers in the area had no source of income due to the drought, and besides, their work was hazardous. So, I decided to give them training as beauticians,” she narrates.
Over the next few years, one thing led to another in a snowball effect driven by Shailaja’s own tenacity, passion, and strokes of good luck.
Shailaja began training the beedi workers for free, as they were mostly from the lower socio-economic backgrounds and could not even afford to pay for a decent meal themselves. Realising that she could not possibly hire them all herself, she helped them find placement with bigger companies.
The first stroke of luck she had was meeting J Sriram, who was then recruiting beauticians for his chain of beauty centres that operated from 12 locations in Telangana. Shocked to learn that she was not charging a commission and was helping these workers for free, he became her business mentor and eventually partner, guiding her on the nitty-gritties of building a company and a brand.
Supported by Sriram, Shailaja launched a beauty clinic and training school in Karimnagar. Her goal was to financially empower women from backward castes – who, besides economic hardship, also have the added burden of gender discrimination and caste-based abuse. Using government schemes designed for women entrepreneurs like herself, she sourced the latest equipment and salon comforts for her customers and trainees.
Not content with waiting for job offers for her students, Shailaja and Sriram set up a placement wing and tied up with corporate houses in the region who needed beauty technicians. Her company gave the women specific training that the job profiles required. “Till date, we have successfully placed 5,600 beauticians and technicians across the country,” says Shailaja.
These women, once belonging to the most disadvantaged communities from the poorest and remotest villages of Telangana, now earn between Rs 2,40,000 to 7,20,000 per annum, spread across metropolises like Bengaluru, Chennai and even Mumbai. (To put that in perspective, India’s per capita income is less than Rs 1,60,000.)
“These girls were working as farm labour and earning Rs 300 as daily wages, getting up at 3 or 4 am to go to the fields, facing harassment at every turn. Now they live decent, disciplined lifestyles in the cities,” says Sriram, adding, “It has a cascading effect in their communities. It teaches society to respect women.”
Driven to better her training systems, Shailaja expanded her company portfolio. When she realised the women could not afford to buy products required for the beautician training courses, she decided to manufacture them herself. With Sriram now on board as business development head, and with a start-up loan from SBI, they launched a Rs 2 crore project that would provide direct and indirect employment to the women they had trained.
After commercial production for their beauty brand Synnove started in 2019, they realised the machines available in the market were too expensive and did not solve their needs, and so they decided to design and make their own machines.
After 18 months of research and development, they launched high-quality herbal personal-care products at a much lower rate than competitive brands, and even earned an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and other certifications.
Then Shailaja encountered another stroke of good luck. Her very first customer was the Indian Air Force, which gave her an order for 5 lakh soaps. “I have to thank the Government of India for its e-commerce marketplace that allows MSME vendors like us to register,” she says. “We utilised it to the fullest extent.”
Over the next two years, she went on to clinch 75 contracts from the government’s portal, earning Rs 3 crores of orders. During the pandemic, she also began supplying sanitisers and has now diversified to manufacturing household cleaning supplies.
From packing to production, Roja’s is staffed 100 percent by women. “Initially, the women hesitated to take on heavy work like loading trucks, but soon we convinced them to be self-reliant in that as well,” says Shailaja, whose children also now support her in the business. “Economic empowerment is the answer to caste discrimination.”
Of late, Roja’s has tied up with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) to train and upskill 150 girls in rural areas, and also provide their self-help groups with a source of income as a buyer for their products. “The NABARD team was surprised to see the modern environment at our centre,” narrates Shailaja, smiling. “They could see the photos and certificates on the walls, and the work we had done, having trained over 30,000 women in 20 years and now making our own products as well.”
Teaching is still her first love, Shailaja admits. “I am targeting 3,000 more women next year, and then they can start their own brands,” she says. “Running a business is not an ordinary thing for women in India. Sometimes it feels like it is your last day. But surely enough, just as the sun rises the next morning, your life too will rise and shine. Just don’t give up.”
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