Kaya puts women in India on path to financial inclusion
Kaya Montarsolo has spent the past three months in India introducing women to life opportunities that many of us take for granted.
It is a career goal that she has had since she was an economics student at the University of Sussex.
In 2022, having graduated near the top of her cohort, she applied for an internship with the Mann Deshi Foundation, a charitable organisation that gives underprivileged women entrepreneurs in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka access to finance, markets and business skills.
The work was in keeping with the dissertation on female financial inclusion that Ms Montarsolo wrote as part of her undergraduate degree.
“From that I really realised the benefit that female financial inclusion has — on the women themselves that become included and become empowered through it, but also on their families as a whole,” the 22-year-old said.
“It means that girls can go to school; that women are likely to save for healthcare for their kids, for further education for their kids. So I really wanted to get involved in working in an area which was helping women to become financially independent.”
The Saltus Grammar School graduate was initially drawn in by a development economics course at Sussex.
“I just really loved my academic experience there. Studying economics is something that I'm very interested in, very passionate about, [as is] the application of economics to solve real-world problems like female exclusion or poverty.
“The University of Sussex is a very big university for development economics and development studies and I think it really sparked an interest in me in those areas, which is what led me to write a dissertation on female financial inclusion.”
She learnt of the Mann Deshi Foundation through a family friend. Inspired, she started researching and was further encouraged by a TED talk with Chetna Gala Sinha, who in 1996 founded the Mann Deshi Foundation and the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank.
So far it has helped 850,000 women to build their business skills, improve their financial literacy and give them access to markets. The organisation is on target to reach one million women by next year.
Aside from wanting to help, learning of the work made Ms Montarsolo think about all the rights she took for granted.
“These women don't have access to bank accounts,” she said. “It made me realise how privileged I was to have an upbringing where I was empowered. I was always made to feel like an equal to men and I was always made to feel like I could do whatever I wanted.
“It made me realise that that is not the case for a lot of women and a lot of young girls and I really wanted to get involved in learning more about it and tackling that as a problem.”
Although internships were not advertised, she reached out with an inquiry, went through an interview process and left Bermuda in October.
India was a place she had never visited but had always been curious about “because it's got a lot to offer culturally, and it's obviously a very beautiful country”.
In Mumbai she was put to work on Mann Deshi’s Mahotsav, an annual exhibition of entrepreneurs, artisans and farmers from rural areas.
“The idea is to provide them access to a higher-paying and bigger marketplace,” said Ms Montarsolo, who had previously worked with the MEF Group in Bermuda and NatWest bank in London, England. “We fundraise for their travel to Mumbai to give them an opportunity to be able to sell their products to more people.”
While there, the women have access to financial literacy courses and are taught how to use WhatsApp and Facebook to grow their business. Then and thereafter, they have the opportunity to sell their products through Mann Deshi’s website.
Ms Montarsolo is also helping to deliver solar power to three remote villages that have been waiting for electricity since 1985. As with all of Mann Deshi’s programmes, the women also have access to training in various industries through its mobile business school.
“We're also going to give them access to solar flour mills so that they can have an industry that they can make some money through. So the hope is to connect them, and then also work to financially uplift them,” Ms Montarsolo said.
“The idea is to give these women a skill, which then makes them employable. By giving them a solar power source, that means that none of the learnings will be limited by the location of where they're being offered.”
A team of about 420 people pulls it all together.
Said Ms Montarsolo: “It’s very much an organisation where everyone does a little of everything because there's so many programmes going on at all times.”
Her one regret is that she will not see all the projects she has been involved with to completion.
“It is quite a shame that I won’t necessarily see the impact, but I organised a workshop for 100 young girls; we did different kinds of sessions and seminars and the whole idea was to build their confidence. In just three days you could see how much more open they were. They were talking much more and they just seemed so much more comfortable in themselves. Being able to do that has been so heart-warming for me.
“That I've been able to impact the life of even one person has been incredible, let alone impact the lives of many more through these different projects. It's been a very inspiring experience altogether, and it's made me very much want to continue to work for organisations that are trying to make a change and that are on the frontier of change.”
In talking with people before she left for India to live with a family she previously did not know, many warned her to expect “a big culture shock”.
“In some ways, it was. There were a few things that were quite shocking to experience. When I first landed, I was in a taxi from the airport and it was stopped in traffic and a young girl, a very young kid, came and was knocking on my window and begging and that was heartbreaking. But for the most part, the people are just so kind and warm and welcoming.
“The women that I've spoken to and a lot of the women that the Mann Deshi Foundation work with have such incredible, inspiring stories. They've overcome so much and they've achieved so much that it's been a very moving experience as a whole. And I think it's very much made me realise that in Bermuda we have a very privileged life for the most part. It's opened my eyes to a lot. There's obviously a lot of poverty but the people are so warm and so kind.”
At the end of her internship this month, Ms Montarsolo intends to travel around India for a bit before she returns to Bermuda. In September her plan is to pursue a master’s degree in London.
After that, she wants to put what she has learnt through her studies and with Mann Deshi to work.
“I definitely want to use my degree in economics to work either with organisations on the frontier of change or to implement change. I think I'd be quite interested in maybe going down the policy route and I think that that, potentially, is where change can happen — through government policy.
“But I definitely want to continue to work for organisations that are empowering women and helping to lift people up and get people out of the cycle of poverty and all that. That's definitely where I see myself going in the future.”
• For more information on the Mann Deshi Foundation, visit manndeshifoundation.org