Doctor. Lawyer. Engineer. These are the accepted aspirational careers for Indians – for those fortunate enough to have the opportunity.
Wife. Daughter-in-law. Mother. These are the accepted careers for most rural Indian women. They are often married off young, denied a formal education, are homebound, held back by social norms, and thus lack the opportunity to earn a living. This doesn’t mean that they don’t yearn to learn, to achieve goals, to earn their own money. Financial independence gives these women a voice within their families and communities. It enables them to pick schools for their children, to buy special treats for them, and to make choices for themselves. Most importantly, it gives them self-confidence and a feeling of self-worth.
Over 3 decades, I have built a career in human-centered product design, first in the US, and then in India. I have always counted my blessings and felt a strong urge to give back. Having had a few interactions with rural women over time, I knew I wanted to “do something” with and for this group, and realized also that I would need to do so in a domain close to their comfort zone. I chose sewing, since I know how to sew.
I was also greatly inspired by my aunt, Sharmila Sen, who ran a home-based organization near Calcutta for 25 years, teaching tribal women to make products and providing them materials to work from home. I’ve designed all the products from scratch, through a long process of trial and error. They needed to be easy to make, use sustainable materials, and also showcase our rich variety of Indian fabrics and craft traditions. Our core material, Jute (burlap), and our main embroidery style, Kantha, come from my roots in Bengal. I also added accent fabrics – Ikat from Telengana and Bandhni from Gujarat. All our material is sourced from organic and sustainable sources, including the packaging, which we make from up-cycled, donated saris. All these elements came together as Ohrna, which I started from my home in Pune, Maharashtra, in September 2017.
Ohrna means ‘veil’ in Bengali, For a rural woman, her veil provides her not only shade from the sun, but also grace, comfort and respect. This is what we want Ohrna to be for our makers.
We provide free training to homebound women, farmers and rural housewives, give them materials and pay them to work from home. We pay them fair wages, above market rates. This enables them to not only earn a living, but it also comes with many intangibles that create a sense of self-worth — the joy of creating, of stepping outside their home to work for the first time, having their own bank accounts for the first time, and a sense of being part of a global world where their work and names travel.
Ohrna is now almost 3 years old. We have trained and employed around 15 women so far. Our current customer base while small, is spread across the US, India, Denmark and Germany. A chance application to NY NOW resulted in Ohrna getting selected as a ‘Market Incubator’ for its social impact work in 2018, which put us on a different trajectory. We launched in India at Bhimtadi Jatra, a marketplace for rural entrepreneurs, in Pune, India, where we were well received, and our artisans were able to interact directly with customers.
However, like many businesses, Covid has deeply impacted us. While we have been unable to participate in such fairs, we have turned to e-commerce, and are marketing directly to customers through various sites. Funds remain a big challenge, but we continue to support our artisans in every way we can, and hope you can contribute by purchasing our products online now at orhna.com, or at our Etsy shop here.
In this world of fast fashion, styles aren’t made to last. Ohrna, on the other hand, believes in creating responsible products – organic over synthetic, Sustainable over non-renewable, and handmade over mass-produced. And most of all, we believe in people over products.
Jhumkee Iyengar, is the founder of Ohrna, a social enterprise dedicated to the empowerment of women by teaching them new skills, while also supporting the environment by using organic & sustainable materials. She has built a career in human-centered product design over more than three decades. She runs her own consulting practice helping companies and organizations incorporate design thinking. She teaches human-centered design for the Pittsburgh based LUMA Institute at corporations worldwide, and is an adjunct faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology where she teaches postgraduate design students and MBA students. She also runs an online course for the Indian government’s National Program for Technology Enhanced Learning.