By Anita Dongre, as told to Rebecca Muller
When I was 15 years old, I told my mother I wanted to be a fashion designer — to which she responded: “Why would you want to do that?”
I was brought up in a traditional Indian home, where women were not expected to work. I was the rebel of the family. I realized very early on in life that I wanted to pursue my passion for design, and I knew that to be independent, I had to use my voice and economically empower myself. My mother sewed all of my clothes with her own sewing machine growing up. In fact, the only reason she and my father agreed to send me to fashion school was because sewing was seen as a good skill for a women to have as a homemaker. Just as I was taught to cook from a young age, my parents believed learning to sew would help me learn to run a home as a proper woman. Little did they know their little girl was scheming to turn a knowledge of sewing into a business: a fashion empire.
I slowly worked my way up. I started with two sewing machines on my balcony, then moved to a car garage, and then moved to a bigger place in a slum because I couldn’t afford anything better. It was a rough start, because I was struggling and doing this on my own. By the time I was 25 years old, I had started my own business, along with the help of my younger sister, and later joined by my brother. When we started out, there was really no fashion industry in India.
The business started as the three of us, and today I’m honored to say I have 2,700 people working for us directly. I always loved working with my family because our values were aligned from the start, and we still share the same vision. Even when I gave birth to my son, I took him to work with me every day. Today, he runs the North American operations of the company. There’s no question that you need a great team with you, and I’m blessed with a great team.
I love that my designs make women feel and look beautiful, but what I love even more is that I’ve been able to use my passion to empower others. That’s where I find the most meaning in my work: empowering women. I’m grateful that I’ve dressed some great women whom I admire, like Kate Middleton, Hillary Clinton, and Priyanka Chopra. But ultimately, my goal is to empower the women in rural India, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do that. I feel very strongly that what India needs today is for women to work. It’s not just about women in the cities, but also about allowing women in rural India to have an independent livelihood. I do this by working with women artisans and giving them the tools and voices to be independent.
My company is all about sustainability, and we take pride in making everything by hand. We started working with Grassroots years ago, and we decided to train village women so that we could give them jobs with their amazing skills. There are a lot of NGOs in India, and a lot of women in rural India have been practicing embroidery since they were young girls. We saw that these ladies had the skills, but didn’t know how to translate the skill into a business for today’s generation. They needed design intervention. That’s when I learned the term “design for good” in my personal life. I realized that I could work with these women by translate my designs into garments with their skills and giving them jobs.
Today, we work with poor villages across the country, where women have no formal education, but are amazingly talented. We visited one village where the women did not know embroidery, which takes years to learn, so instead we decided to teach them more about sewing. We noticed that the women were unemployed, and so were the men. So, we put up signs around the village for a training center for sewing — a three-month program to give these men and women the skills to earn a fixed income. When I saw that no men signed up, my heart sank. That was such an eye-opener for me. That’s when I saw that it’s the women in India who are really going to drive change in this country. We trained 35 women and ran the unit with them in partnership. Ever since, women have come forward from villages throughout the country, approaching us with similar projects, and we keep growing. It’s always the women who are coming forward, deciding to make change. These women work hard, earn money, save for their kids, buy things for themselves, and aren’t solely dependent on the men.
It’s been a long journey, but I feel that I have so much more to do in this country and so many more ideas to explore. I’m blessed that my work has given me so much meaning in my life, and we have so much more growth to look forward to.