Starting a small business is hard enough. For Dalits — who are traditionally regarded as “untouchables,” as they were outside of the caste system and relegated to occupations that left them ritually unclean — it is even harder. In general, they continue to face overt discrimination, including a lack of trust in their companies or a refusal to do business with them, though the extent of the discrimination varies considerably from region to region. Notably, however, the historical discrimination against the Dalits means that on a whole they are disadvantaged because they lack the same education, connections, opportunities, etc. (It is a situation similar (though of course not equivalent) to African Americans in the States, and the government of India has been attempting to support Dalits with its own form of affirmative action policies.) The majority of DICCI’s members are first-time businessman and need to overcome both the traditional difficulties of running a business and the discrimination they face.
DICCI is focused on growing entrepreneurship among the Dalits through a wide variety of means, including promoting Dalits’ interests to State and National officials, providing connections and partnerships between Dalits and large corporations, and establishing a venture capital fund for Dalit businesses. One of the services that Reya and I are exploring for DICCI is providing direct consulting and mentorship for DICCI’s member firms. In the past week and a half we have met with two companies, both manufacturers. We spent about half a day with each, surveying their plants, asking about 2-3 hours worth of questions (which they graciously answered), and getting to know them and their company over car rides and lunch. We plan on meeting with about three other companies, and our aim is two-fold (a) to provide an analysis of their company and recommendations, and (b) provide recommendations to DICCI on how they can better serve its members.
The first visit, at Shreevani Engineering, a machining + fabrication company.
One of the workers operating a drilling machine. It was a small factory, with scrap metal littered all over (see the machine and floor to the right).
Trying paan — an interesting after-meal snack that is chewed and, in my case, definitely spit out. It’s a mixture of lots of things (rose water, nuts, honestly-I-don’t-know-there-was-a-lot-of-flavors) wrapped in Betel leaves.
With the owner’s son and daughter. They were to shy to ask the first time we stopped by his house, but they really wanted a photo with me, haha, so we drove back after.
The second visit was to Efficient Engineering, a larger factory with two plants, one for laser cutting and the other for fabrication of steel products.
Four workers using a crane to move a large sheet of steel to the laser cutting machine. These were low-skilled workers, and we were surprised at the super high turnover. Each only stays about 15 days, making some money before taking a break or hopping to another job.
The owner showing one of the products his company makes — from scratch! I was a bit amazed to see the workers turning sheets of steel into these products — cutting, bending, shaping, polishing, etc., and all largely by hand. I was also immensely impressed with the owner. He gradually saved up in suitcases, unbeknownst to his family, cash (6 lakhs) to contribute enough to acquire a loan for his first factory. In 12 years, the company has grown to 2 factories, about 35 total employees, and an increasing turnover.
Overall, visiting these companies has been insightful in providing a better understanding of DICCI’s member firms and the Dalit entrepreneurs themselves. They have worked hard for their companies, are proud of where their companies are, and are optimistic and are actively looking to expand. These businessmen are embodying DICCI’s mission – “Be job givers, instead of job seekers.” Though these men have been successful, however, seeing the employees — Dalits as well — and the neighborhoods in which the factories were located impressed on me the need for continuing opportunities and empowerment of Dalits. There are still many job seekers (and still much poverty in India), and there is still much work to be done.