The Social Entrepreneur

Neelam Chibber on her impact initiatives in areas of unemployment, livelihood, women empowerment, poverty, and economic development

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NEELAM CHHIBER, Co-founder and Managing Trustee, Industree Foundation, and Co-founder, Director, Mother Earth

Industree Foundation

After graduating from the National Institute of Design 34 years ago, Neelam went on to incubate Industree Foundation to build rural livelihood and semi-urban livelihood and over the years the focus has moved on gender economic empowerment in the space of what we call creative manufacturing. Industree Foundation further built the strategy of micro-entrepreneurs while working with artisans who supply to the best of global brands. All throughout, she has been a promoter of inclusive entrepreneurship. She moves these self-help groups into producer companies supplying to the likes of IKEA & H&M wherein volume production is done by women. “We create fashion and lifestyle products at scale, which are handmade with globally compliant policies,” shares Chhiber. She has been instrumental in providing work to women at their location rather than asking them to relocate. Chhiber believes with Atmanirbhar Bharat and ‘Vocal for Local’ campaigns by the government will bring the focus back on the manufacturing being done in India and bringing these women out of poverty. Through the public-private partnership, the foundation works with producer companies. She calls Amul a huge inspiration that has been built on the same model. Over the years, the foundation received funding from donors globally and the USA has funded the majority of the women's produce.

“I am a big believer in sustainable consumption and Covid has given a massive opportunity because people are thinking in this direction.”

As Chhiber says, “Design is about problem-solving.” Rather than focusing on urban and mass manufacturing, she has focused on keeping alive old traditional manufacturing. Initially, she worked in rural areas on a project supported by the handloom corporation, which is under the Ministry of Textiles. She worked in Chhattisgarh for about two years and was highly influenced by traditional artists in areas like Buxar. Chhiber sees covid as a challenge and a great opportunity both. “I am a big believer in sustainable consumption and Covid has given a massive opportunity because people are thinking in this direction. Consumption plays a big role in sustainability,” shares Chhiber. As the for-profit retail arm, she has been running the business of Mother Earth that has helped build the nonprofit which can support subsequent for-profit collectives to become profitable. “For two-three years producer companies will put in grants but post that you have to sustain. Social entrepreneurship is what we need today,” she rightfully adds. According to her, the Covid crisis would put pressure on funds to build socially built initiatives.

She soon received external funding from Grassroots. Talking about her learning as an entrepreneur, she says, “For us, we always wanted that the producers should own the business but we realized it is not possible because if you raise investment, the investors are controlling the company. I’ve raised up to 5 million dollars of investment for Mother Earth but I haven’t been able to build a producer-owned company doing that.” That’s a humble way of looking at business through an impact lens.

(This article was first published in the March 2021 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)