Savitha Sridharan is a 2021 Scale-Ups Accelerator Fellow. The Scale-Ups Accelerator is an initiative created by Upaya Social Ventures and MIT D-Lab to increase capital flows to women entrepreneurs in India.
Savitha Sridharan was an electrical engineer working for a semiconductor company in the US before leaving her career behind to start her own business. Today, she leads an all-women clean-energy company, Orora Global, that has created 250 jobs for women in rural India.
Throughout her education and engineering career, Savitha was always one of the only women in the room. She recognized that there is very little opportunity for women, especially for those in the rural Indian villages which Savitha saw while volunteering with a non-governmental organization.
A few years into her engineering career, Savitha’s mother-in-law was battling cancer, and she was forced to choose between her job in the US, and spending more time with family in India. “That’s when I realized that, while the corporate life is great, I don’t want to give up all my passion and my family to keep a job,” she said. Savitha decided to take the leap into entrepreneurship and dedicate her career to women’s empowerment and clean energy.
In 2014, Savitha founded Orora Global, a social enterprise that provides affordable, reliable, clean energy solutions to rural households in India. By training women to produce solar products, she is creating livelihood opportunities and forming communities of women to work with, support, and lean on one another.
Orora Global is one of nine women-led companies in the 2021 Scale-Ups Accelerator, a program offered by Upaya and MIT D-Lab to equip women entrepreneurs with the knowledge and connections to grow their businesses. We were honored to speak with Savitha about her entrepreneurial journey, and the women that motivate her to keep going. Read the highlights from our interview with Savitha below!
What inspired you to start Orora?
I’m passionate about long-term sustainable development of rural communities. I used to volunteer for Bharathi Trust for more than 10 years to help Irula communities in India. I saw that, overall, the change in the community was very slow. I had a passion to find out how these climate change-impacted communities can be sustainable in the long term, rather than just being dependent on foreign funds for disaster relief every year, for example. That’s more like a band-aid of sorts, not a complete solution. So I wanted to find a long-term sustainable solution for a community to thrive on its own. That’s how the Irula community was one of my inspirations.
What is the main problem you are trying to solve?
There are two key issues that Orora addresses. About 1.1 billion people globally still do not have access to reliable electricity. There’s a lack of reliable access to energy in many places. Finding technology solutions to do that can go a long way. Reliable access to electricity itself plays a very strong role in women empowerment.
But there’s also a need for sustainable solutions to provide employment for women. So there’s a huge untapped entrepreneurial opportunity there that needs the right kind of skill training. So the second issue that we address is the need for sustainable livelihood opportunities for women.
How did you come up with a business model that incorporates both your passion for sustainability and women’s empowerment?
“After the big flood happened in 2015, our team adopted a Londor community in Tamil Nadu where people had lost their homes. With the financial support from T. Krishna Kumar, CEO of Coca Cola in India and Southwest Asia, we were able to rebuild the whole village with low cost, off-grid, sustainable homes with local sustainable materials and solar-power. It was a sustainable solution, but it was not a long-term scalable impact. So that’s when I realized that giving people livelihood opportunities is a lot more impactful for the people. Livelihood opportunities is a very scalable model. We started a renewable energy training center in the Trichy community and we were able to train the women to make solar products. We started seeing immediate impact in three months. “
What impact have you seen in the lives of the women you work with?
When I first reached out to the NGO called SEVAI in Trichy, I spoke to about 30 local women who told me that they come from agricultural backgrounds. They all lived on the bank of the Kaveri River, and the river had dried up for three to four years in that region. This was a real problem of climate change that was impacting them. They were looking for alternate sources of income because they could not be completely dependent on agriculture.
Most of the people, when they reached out to us, they had zero income whatsoever. There were women who were pregnant and did not have the money to go to the hospital to deliver their babies. A lot of the men in the community were migrating to the nearby cities, but the women had to stay back and take care of their families, and at the same time try to earn a living.
So with the local communities, we co-designed and set up a center locally where they could get trained to produce solar products and come work in the production center regularly. We started paying them regularly every month. It was not a lot of money, but even with that, they were so happy. They were able to take care of their financial expenses in the house and to take care of themselves independently.
What were the initial challenges you faced?
In a village setting, where the women come from completely different backgrounds, there was a lot of doubt about whether 30 women could get into electronics and could learn such things. There was a lot of doubt among the women themselves, and their husbands too. So the initial challenge was trying to prove the model and trying to change the mindset of the people.
The women had a lot of doubts. They didn’t know their human rights at that point — that if they work, they should ask for salaries — they should not be asked to work for free. So we gave a lot of training for the women in terms of what your human right is, and how you work as an employee. We taught them about the sustainable development goals and gender equality and the things they’re allowed to ask for, like sending girls to school.
So we had to break all those barriers and believe that we could change it. It was about consistently showing up for the community.
What changes have you seen in the larger community?
Our team of women technicians initially were completely afraid of working with electricity. They thought that electricity was not for women. Now after 3 years, if there’s a problem with the electrical pump in the community center, these very women can fix it all on their own. They’ve been able to stand on their own, even through Covid pandemic. When there was financial trouble, they went and found the local financial support group and found support for themselves. So the community has come a long way in standing up for itself and taking care of itself.
What is your long-term vision for Orora?
Our long-term vision is to be able to provide employment opportunities to at least 10,000 women in various sectors globally using clean energy solutions. And ultimately to bring women together in these areas to form a support system among each other where they can stand together and solve problems as a community.
What motivates you to continue to do this every single day?
It’s the sincerity of the women that work with us. They believe in the change. The impact that we have made in their life really motivates me to continue doing what I’m doing. Initially I started with my passion, but now it’s the women that are keeping me going.
Do you think being a woman yourself has played a role in your success?
Ours is a story of a woman entrepreneur supporting other women in the clean energy space, which is very new because it’s a male-dominated industry. Having a company that is producing solar street lights, and it’s all women? It is a new thing!
Even my own women mentors were dissuading me from doing this. They believed that investors won’t invest in an all-women clean energy business. So I needed to prove that this is possible, and that it’s also much needed to provide more employment opportunities for women and break all these barriers.
But rather than a challenge, I actually think it has been a motivating factor.
What has been your biggest takeaway from your entrepreneurial journey?
I was a runner, and I used to run half marathons, full marathons and ultra-marathons to fundraise money for developmental projects in India. As an ultra-runner, the key thing I learnt is to never give up on what you want to do. Sometimes you may walk, sometimes you may crawl. But the key thing is never give up on what you started off with.
“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.” - Dean Karnazes
First I was doing this for one woman, then it was for a center in Trichy, then we tried it for a community. Now we’re trying it globally. So it’s about never giving up on the things you believe in.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?
The key is that it’s okay to pivot multiple times to reach your end goal. The full business model is not formed in one iteration. It’s something you can change a million times to reach your goal.
Jona Repishti, MIT D-Lab Social Entrepreneurship Manager