In September 2006, I was sitting in the back seat of the old 4WD that was Harry's car as Team Leader of an Aid project in Lucknow, the backwater capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India.
As Wife of Team Leader, it was my job to do things like buy gifts for team members, which is what I was doing that day, assisted by the most junior member of the team, a young woman I'll call Sweetie, since some Indian parents do actually call their daughters by that name. We'd become very fond of her, and I asked her what her dreams were in life.
It was an idle question, but her answer, "I want to export fashion," took me by surprise and later in the day, it generated an idea that led to all this. Add Sweetie's dream to a few other things: the beautiful embroidery of Lucknow, the exploitation of the poor women who produce it, the horrifying rates of HIV infection in India, and the backward attitude in UP to HIV/AIDS, exemplified by the imprisonment around that time on obscenity charges of AIDS awareness workers.
The idea grabbed me by surprise, as if from behind: produce lovely embroidered clothing for export to Australia, employing poor women, including women affected by HIV, on fair wages, for embroidery of course, but also training them to become tailors, managers, accountants - whatever such an organisation needed to operate. And of course, employ Sweetie as the start-up manager, because Harry and I were leaving India within a few months. Once I was grabbed, I stayed grabbed, as big dreams of the possibilities presented themselves.
Harry was instantly enthusiastic. The generosity of the man never ceases to amaze me. I'd given up all income earning when I came to India to do Wife, yet he felt he owed me! What I could understand was his frustration at spending two years of his life engaged in difficult work with the world's worst client, achieving absolutely nothing for the farmers who were the notional beneficiaries of a multi-million dollar project. He said to me, "If we can succeed with this idea of yours, then the last two years will not have been a waste." And with this thought he committed to investing thousands and thousands of his hard-earned dollars in a venture for which we were hardly well-equipped.
Our valued Indian friends were the next invited to shoot down the concept. With experience in both small business and social development, they were the ones whose opinions most counted as we thought about the feasibility. I expected them to kindly remind me of my naivety, my foreignness, my lack of experience, but they didn't - the only part of the concept they were negative about, each of them separately from all over the country, was the idea of a not-for-profit entity. "You'll pay more in bribes to get tax-free status than you'll pay for years in tax," they said. "Use a business model, and you can distribute the profits however you like." And so we did.
We asked Sweetie what she thought of the idea. She was blown away, and excited by the prospect of even a 'feasibility study', but soon suggested we should include a young male friend of hers, who'd worked a little on the Aid project and so was known to us. He was a lawyer (I'll call him Avind) and, knowing the position of a young unmarried woman in the hierarchical society of India, we agreed he'd be of use. They thought about it, we thought about it. We set problematic questions, they gave satisfactory answers. I felt sick at the idea of the risk to our bank balance, but when we considered ditching the whole thing, we knew we'd always wonder if it would've worked, if we could've done something for even one poor family. Having had the idea, we couldn't walk away from it, and so we leapt in.
The long term picture of the dream looked like this: a thriving little workshop employing HIV-affected and other needy women in good conditions and with fair pay to produce garments of highest quality for the Australian market. The clothes were to be designed in Australia to fit Australian women, which so many Indian-made clothes do not. The profits would support whatever extras our employees needed, be it training, child care or good nutrition, and eventually the whole shebang would be handed over to them and we'd withdraw completely.
The short term goal was to build a viable business that was self-sustaining. Our resources are finite - it has to become profitable as soon as possible, and a profitable business is the first step towards the dream anyway.
We left the Aid project, and our luxury Lucknow apartment, just before Christmas 2006, and returned to Australia with an agreement to start employment of Avind on January 1st, 2007, supported out of hours by Sweetie, who was to continue with the project. Harry slipped smoothly into the role of Chairman of the Board ("Let's have a meeting on the yacht!") and I picked up every other hat as it presented itself, from HR to designer, scooping them all into one big hat box with the laughable label of Managing Director. Through Avind, we began the process of registering a private limited company in UP, a subsidiary of our Australian consulting company. It took nearly nine months!
We floundered around during those months, partly because it was difficult to do much without being a registered business, partly because we had zero experience of the fashion industry between us, and partly because there was drama after drama in the personal lives of my young staff. I made my first visit in March 2007, to the much less salubrious apartment that was our new office. On Day Three, after spending the evening before with me at a Fashion School planning her studies in Fashion Design and Business, Sweetie suddenly resigned, implying she was required by her parents to be prepared for an arranged marriage. I was dismayed. Avind looked devastated.
I returned to Australia pretty glum, wondering if the whole thing was going to die before it was born. Sweetie had been the source of the original idea, and it felt like she was the core of it. However she was not the reason we were doing it, and once reminded of that, I decided to press on with Avind alone, with a change of direction because we'd just lost so many skills from the team.
From April through till August I became more and more concerned about what Avind was doing, working alone on a good salary and getting nowhere fast with the goals we'd agreed. Indian bureaucracy moves at a glacial speed, so I knew the company registration process was hard for him to progress, but nothing else was happening and there were too many days when my emails went unanswered and his time was unaccounted for.
In June I learned the true reason for Sweetie's sudden departure. She had been promised marriage by our young lawyer, though she was of a lower caste and his mother would be difficult to convince. However, in March she'd learned from elsewhere that he had no intention of going ahead with the marriage, and indeed in late June he suddenly informed me that he was to marry a young woman of his parents' choice the following week.
Another crisis: Harry and I felt that in betraying her he had also betrayed our business agreement, that he had used her to gain access to employment with us. The lack of honesty was of great concern, and we were glad we hadn't given him more than was essential financially. In fact we knew he hadn't appropriated any funds, but we wondered how far we could trust him.
As the company registration progressed, however slowly, we decided to employ a new person to take over production. Arvind was all promises and many contacts and things were always about to happen, but he agreed that his role was never envisaged to be hands-on production. I began micro-managing his time, requiring daily activity reports and dictating his work in a way that was not part of the original vision of how the business would operate. He failed to find an employment agency to help with recruitment, so eventually I instructed him to place an ad in the paper, with applications coming directly to me by email.
Finally the company registration came through, and though there were still several legal registration processes to go through, we knew we could seriously get started, so I planned my next trip to Lucknow for recruitment of a Production Supervisor, and to open a company Bank Account. And to sack Arvind.
Sweetie agreed to help me with the recruitment process - I'd had more than twenty applications and had arranged interviews by email. I let Arvind go the day I arrived, so I was on my own. I knew Lucknow well, but my Hindi was limited to fruit and veg shopping, so when bank officials told me I'd need a company stamp, and you get one "anywhere in the market", I was at a loss. What sort of stamp? What sort of shop sold them? Where would it be? How could I explain what I needed?
Sweetie had arranged a car and driver for me, and now she took time off to bail me out. Her brother arranged the stamp, and a million other things, leaving me to approach the banks and run the interviews. I'd left Australia thinking the bank account would be straightforward and the recruitment a nightmare, but India is nothing if not surprising.
As it turned out, opening an Indian bank account requires many forms, letters of introduction, proof of identity, proof of residence, of course the company documentation, and all stamped with the rubber stamp saying "authorised signatory" (which of course you can have made for any company name, so how it offers any security whatsoever I don't know), hours of waiting while officious men ignore you, several return visits for the document they failed to tell you is required, etc etc etc. International banks like HSBC and Citibank, which I thought would have more modern systems, proved to be impossible, and we ended up with one of the many Indian state banks, where a gent with henna-coloured hair, neat spitting aim into his waste basket and an endless supply of tea, finally gave me an account and immediately suggested we could do business together - he had some connections with embroidery suppliers and he could get me a good deal and by the way, his son was wanting to study in Australia and he hoped I could help.
It was a nightmare, but the day before I was due to leave, I had a cheque book in my hot little hand, and a tongue bitten half way through after restraining myself from commenting on Indian bank procedures, Indian bank officials and Indian men. Somewhere along the line I had decided to exclude men from the management levels of the business. We would leave class, caste, race and religion outside the door as we entered our office, but we were going to be sexist through and through!
By contrast, the recruitment of the Production Supervisor was a delight. I knew that if I didn't find someone, the game was up (and I could avoid any further visits to banks), but I had three full days of interviews arranged, with Sweetie by my side, and she was trained in HR. For the fourth day of second interviews I'd roped in another of the team from Harry's former project, also with HR quals, so I was hopeful that amongst the twenty-three applicants there'd be one who knew how to get things done in Lucknow, with whom I could communicate without too much trouble, and whom I could train in the standards of tailoring and sizing required for the Australian market. With Avind gone, I was also hopeful that one of them would take on the administrative work - hardly likely, you'd think, from a bunch of Garment Production Supervisor candidates, but some had CVs very weak in production and quite strong on finance and admin. They probably applied simply because we were a foreign-owned company, which was then pretty much unheard of in that backwater city.
Of the more than twenty applicants, scheduled tightly over 3 days of interviews, all but five were no-shows, despite multiple confirmations of date, time and intention - and one of those ran away when she saw the interview questions. On Day One I didn't know that, of course. By the end of the day I was a little alarmed that we'd only managed two interviews, but I also knew I could go ahead with the business. The lady was exceptionally well-spoken, with enough experience and an approach combining self-confidence with a willingness to learn and genuine enthusiasm. The relief was overwhelming. I'd come prepared to sell everything up and close the door, but now I could persevere with the bank officials and lurch forward another step.
On Day Two something magic happened. Applicant no. 2 walked in the door and the world of the business turned upside down. The excellent lady from Day One paled to passing fair beside Pragya. Everything about her was right, from her work experience to her personal drivers in applying. As much as I interviewed her, she interviewed me, challenging the decisions I'd made about how the business would work and demonstrating a heap of personal and professional attributes that led me to feel I'd found The Perfect Fit. She was so good it was scary. There had to be a catch.
There was no catch. Pragya has become the key to our success in building a happy and productive workshop and office in India. At the time, I'd learned enough to be wary, so I couldn't believe my luck when Sweetie agreed to take on the admin role. She'd been stunned and inspired by Pragya, and Avind was out of the picture, and she was unhappy with her job. These all combined to make my proposal attractive - these and the huge payrise we offered. For us it was worth it to have someone we knew well on the team.
I needn't have worried. It soon emerged that Pragya was indeed a dream come true, but also that Sweetie was not up to the task. Lazy? Disorganised? I don't know, but in the unsupervised work environment that was AIF when I left, she failed. Partly it was our fault: calling her 'our Indian niece' gave her to understand that what was ours was hers, as it is in Indian families. She may not have cheated us in the strict sense of the word, but she took advantage of us in many little ways, which would have been forgivable if she'd worked well. But she didn't.
So, it was a relief when three months later she suddenly announced she was to be married, this time for real. By then, in December 2007, we had a tailor who was working very effectively with Pragya and turning out samples from which I'd make my first production order. Through a recruitment process conducted by Sweetie and Pragya alone, a replacement was found and 'trained' in what appeared to me from a distance to be a haphazard and ineffective manner. Poor Maya (another substitute name) was thrown in at the deep end, but was up and treading water by the time Harry and I met her the day after Sweetie's marriage in February.
However, by late 2009 it was clear that Maya was never going to ‘swim’ well, to complete the metaphor. She has moved on to a more appropriate job and we have recruited an assistant for Pragya who is fully trained and who, on moving to Lucknow, wanted to work either in fashion or in social work. With us, Arshpreet has both, and she proved to be the best thing for the little business since Pragya walked in the door. Our team became stable, led by two strong, hard-working women who never lose sight of our reason for existence.
In 2017 I look back on those early adventures with the amusement of distance. Our initial plans and dreams have been adapted as events have unfolded, as plans and dreams do. The most important change was to the goal of employing HIV-affected women. Though Pragya and I visited the local support network and expressed our desire to offer employment to these women in a safe and supportive workplace, it became clear they felt too unsafe in travelling around the city to take up our offer. While we would still welcome such women, we agreed that the cause of women’s vulnerability is not so important that we can’t offer employment to any of the poor who want and need the work.
Our team is always growing and changing. The team of Pragya, our first tailor, “Masterji”, and Arsh now lead an enlarged admin crew, a group of male and female tailors and the embroidery workers drawn from the slums of the city who were always our reason for existence. We encourage them to learn new skills and are delighted when one of them agrees to learn how to use the sewing machine, thus improving her incomes and her long-term earning capacity an independence. It’s a joy to visit each year and hear how each one is getting on, to know these women personally and recognise the dignity with which they live in such straightened circumstances.
Since 2012 the workshop has been visited by various designers wanting to meet the people who are their partners in making their products, and to work beside them for a week or two. This brings a good deal of pleasure to the team, to show these ‘foreigners’ their world and the delights of the city, and of course it is a delight for the visitors.