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With only Rs 15,000, she became an entrepreneur

Last updated on: September 30, 2009 21:06 IST

Image: Sarala Bastian, a successful entrepreneur.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj Shobha Warrier in Chennai

At 17, when most girls of her age were set to go to college for higher studies, she got married.

But Sarala Bastian did not wish to just be confined to her house. She wanted to do something on her own. She wanted to be independent and carve out an identify for herself.

"My father gave me the initial capital of Rs 15,000 to start a business in 2004. I started a mushroom farm in my backyard," says Sarala. There has been no looking back since. . .

Today, she is a successful entrepreneur in a field not explored by many.  It has been an incredible journey for the 32-year-old Sarala.

To add to her glory, she has been shortlisted for the prestigious Youth Business International (YBI) Entrepreneur of the Year award for 2009. YBI is a UK-based network established by Prince Charles to encourage young entrepreneurs.

Ghada Ba-ageel of Saudi Arabia and Linet Indiazi of Kenya are the other two nominees in the female category for this year's award. The award, to be announced on November 16, will comprise a cash prize of $1,000, a certificate and a medal.

Here's how Sarala transformed herself from a simple housewife into a successful entrepreneur with minimum resources at her disposal. Read on. . .

 The beginning years

I spend my childhood in Coimbatore where my father worked as an auditor in the state co-operative society. In school, I also learnt typewriting and shorthand. I was married to Sebastian after I passed my class 12 exams. He worked with the ICF (Integral Coach Factory).

I came to Chennai with him. I have two daughters, elder one is 14-years old. My seven year old younger daughter is mentally challenged. When she was a baby, she had brain fever and life changed for the worst. She is my life, and I am willing to spend all my money to make her all right.

With only Rs 15,000, she became an entrepreneur

Image: A nutritious business.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
Becoming an entrepreneur

I never faced any financial difficulty and I was happy with what my husband earned. But it was my dream to start something on my own, be independent and offer jobs to other needy women.

I strongly believe that women should not be dependent on men and remain mere 'doormats'. Every woman should come forward and create an identity for herself.

That is why 95 per cent of my employees are women. My dream is to make all women financially independent. The idea to cultivate mushrooms came to my mind as I felt it was a very 'nutritious' business and had not been attempted by many.

Funds to start the business

I got a lot of support from my father. My mother helps me now by taking care of my house and my children. Without my mother's support and my husband's cooperation, I would not have achieved anything.

My father gave me the initial capital of Rs 15,000 to start the business in 2004. I started a mushroom farm in my backyard.  Before starting mushroom farming, I attended training classes at eleven different places, including the agricultural college in Coimbatore.

I continued with my training because I was never satisfied with the knowledge I got from each place. I had so many doubts, I did not get proper answers anywhere. Finally, I learnt many things from my own experience.

With only Rs 15,000, she became an entrepreneur

Image: Sarala shows the mushroom stacks.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
The art of cultivating mushrooms

It was very difficult to get seeds in those days. I bought one seed for Rs 60 and got started. I employed two ladies to help me out in the farm.

We keep the seeds in a perforated plastic cylinder between layers of cleansed hay. Within 17 days, mushrooms start coming out of the holes in the cylinder. From one cylinder, we get about 2 kg of mushrooms.

Initial struggles

There was a time when I used to go to the supermarkets and beg them to keep my mushrooms in their shops. They used to reluctantly agree after a lot of persuasion.

Today, early in the morning, they call me and ask me, 'Madam, how many packets would you send today?' It takes time for any business to flourish, but ultimately you succeed.  Within three months of starting my business, I made a profit of Rs 65,000.

Whatever profit I have made so far, I have put back into the business. More than making money, my aim is to expand the business.

Besides fresh milky and oyster mushrooms, I also sell processed foods like pickles, soup powder, jam, et cetera. I make a turnover of around Rs 250,000 every month these days. Now, my aim is to inspire more women. So, I meet many self-help groups and ask them to do something worthwhile.

With only Rs 15,000, she became an entrepreneur

Image: Mushroom cultivation.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
Working with jail inmates

Some college students from Oorambakkam (near Chennai) wanted me to teach them mushroom cultivation for a project. Later, I found that the students had adopted a village and they wanted me to teach the villagers too. I decided to teach them free of cost.  I went there on my own and taught the villagers.

When these college students were planning to train jail inmates, I went to meet the female inmates of Puzhal prison in Chennai. Initially, I was a bit scared but I spoke to them from my heart and asked them whether they would do the work. All of them said they would.  I asked them, 'Why did you commit crimes?' They told me it is because they didn't have money.

I asked why didn't they do some work on their own, like I do.  I made them promise that they would start a new life, work hard after they come out.

Only after they promised, I agreed to teach them how to cultivate mushrooms. The process is really simple, anyone can do it. You don't have to be educated but you have to be hard working. I plan to give them regular work, and I have applied for that.

Hereafter they will cultivate mushrooms for me. I plan to speak to the men and boys' section also about this new business.

International award

It was the Bharatiya Yuva Sakthi Trust that has been helping me a lot with business advise from the time I started my enterprise. They recommended my name to the Youth Business International (YBI) Entrepreneur of the Year award for 2009.

They had sent around 50 names from India. I am the only Indian shortlisted from the thousands of names they got from all over the world. I do not know how to express my happiness. I am the only woman among the final list of three candidates.

With only Rs 15,000, she became an entrepreneur

Image: Sarala's mushroom garden.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
Advice to entrepreneurs

My advice to all those budding entrepreneurs is: dream big, have the self confidence and the courage to face, both, success and failure. No business will flourish without setbacks. So, be ready to face such situations.

When my shed collapsed on top of hundreds of mushroom beds, I lost Rs 7 lakh (Rs 700,000). Although I had insured my shed, the man who came to make the report asked for a commission to write a report in my favour. I refused to pay any bribe. Why should I pay any bribe when I was right? So he wrote against me and I did not get money from the insurance company.

Though I was badly affected, I did not abandon my business. Instead I started all over again with a vengeance. I don't have a business role model in life; I want to be one myself. I want to do what no woman has done so far, and I want to achieve what no woman has achieved so far.