Prakriti Mainali came to Kathmandu, along with her family when she was a child. Among three sisters, she was the youngest.
“Then, I saw my mother sick and my father old,” Mainali says, adding her dad was already 51 when she was born. “Deep down, I always used to feel that I am the one who would look after my life even in childhood.”
After completing school in Kathmandu, she chose to study commerce considering her family’s financial status; it would require a lot of money to study medical science or engineering. While pursuing a BBS degree, she realised that she should be an entrepreneur.
Around 10 years later today, she has the life that she had dreamed of: an entrepreneur. With her business, she has also made efforts to empower women from disadvantaged communities to live a better life, which according to her is a common aspiration of all human beings.
Empowering disadvantaged women
While studying, Mainali did not have a clear idea of which business she should do. In a way, she was not even confident if she could do any business.
But, during her master’s study, she realised she was privileged enough to dream about starting her own business. In addition, this realisation triggered another question in her: what about those disadvantaged women who are deprived of educational and job opportunities? What should they dream about?
These questions paved a clear path for her entrepreneurial aspiration. “These questions brought clarity on me that I would do such business that would economically empower such women by creating job opportunities.”
Following her desire that had remained in her unconscious, she co-founded Shakti Milan Nepal in 2014 by investing Rs 25,000 with one such woman to work with, one sewing machine, and one product. She registered the company in 2016.
Mainali chose the name not only because ‘Shakti’ means ‘power’. Its connotation in Hinduism is goddesses whereas ‘Milan’ is ‘together’. Hence, it means the power of women coming together, says Mainali.
“Not only does Shakti Milan work to economically empower women, but this enterprise also has another perspective: environmental sustainability. Therefore, we make varieties of bags from rice sacks, which are considered waste in Nepal. by upcycling them.”
Those upcycled bags are mainly exported to Germany. Other than this, the company also sends them to the USA, Australia, Japan, and China. Shakti Milan’s products are also sold in the local market through collaboration with NGOs and corporate houses.
As of now, Shakti Milan has about 20 workers, all women from the marginalised and disadvantaged groups. Mainali says, “We also have home-based workers because it is not possible for every woman to come into the workplace and work. That does not necessarily mean women should be deprived of job opportunities.”
Shakti Milan also has a childcare centre. Mainali shares, “I am a mother myself. It requires my whole family to take care of my child. But, most of the women who work here are single women. They have no alternative but to bring their children to the workplace. That is why we have a childcare centre.”
Challenges as a woman entrepreneur
A mother’s need for childcare facilities has made Mainali clear that women’s journey to entrepreneurship is fraught with challenges. Still, at the personal level, she feels herself privileged as, she says, she never faced any kind of restrictions from her family.
“I was brought up in Kathmandu and got an opportunity to study. My family also always supported me and my entrepreneurial journey,” says Mainali, “But, while saying so I cannot represent every woman. There still are such women from whom it is very difficult to step out of their home and work.”
Still, there are other bigger challenges. Although government policies are friendly for women entrepreneurs, especially loan and subsidies policies, the patriarchal social structure stands as a barrier. “There is always pressure for working women to balance both work and family life, but it is not applicable to men,” she explains.
According to Mainali, the challenges of every woman can be personal, and how they challenge those obstacles shows their potential.
However, as per Mainali, she crossed her ways with many other challenges during the initial days of Shakti Milan.
She explains, “I did such a business that was completely new. Therefore, I did not have any clear idea of anything, be it about quality or designing. But, gradually, we overcame these hurdles by learning by doing.”
Started with only one product of a tour bag, Shakti Milan is now in the seventh year and has expanded its product variety up to 25 kinds that include pencil cases, tour bags, school bags, and handbags with an annual turnover of Rs 10 million.
Promoting women entrepreneurship
There are challenges, but opportunities too, and women also have some comparative advantages over men, according to Mainali.
“Skills-wise, women are far ahead of men. For instance, my mother knows how to make pickles, Dhaka clothes, and also has agricultural skills. But, my father does not have all these skills,” she says, “I feel women can be lifestyle entrepreneurs, especially in a country like ours.”
Therefore, Mainali, who also owns a bread and breakfast venture, also encourages women entrepreneurship outside and within her company as well. So far, she has helped about 10 women from her company only to set up their own businesses by providing sewing machines and technical assistance.
Recognising Mainali’s efforts, the government of Nepal awarded her with the National Youth Talent Award 2020 in the entrepreneurship category. She also has been appointed an executive member of the Social Entrepreneurship Fund under the Social Welfare Council, Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizens.
Further, she aims at “creating more and more job opportunities for women and inspiring them to be entrepreneurs by knowledge sharing.”