Chetna Gala Sinha's inspiration to enter the world of finance and banking stemmed from the realisation that financial services were largely inaccessible to rural women in India. Witnessing the struggles of rural women who were denied the basic right to open a bank account, ignited a fire within her to challenge the existing system and create opportunities for financial inclusion.
The establishment of Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank represents a pivotal step toward challenging the systemic barriers faced by rural women in accessing financial services and creating a platform for their economic independence and social progress. Today, the bank is functional in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka as well.
In an interview with SheThePeople, Chetna Gala Sinha discusses her inspiration behind establishing a first cooperative bank for rural Indian women, alarming gaps in knowledge and opportunities for women, how she aims to make women financially indendet and economic contributors, and the way ahead in creating justifiable long-term opportunities.
Chetna Gala Sinha Interview
What inspired you to pursue the world of finance and specifically banking?
I recognised that financial services played a crucial role in empowering individuals and communities, enabling them to break free from the cycle of poverty. By providing access to banking and credit facilities, women could save their hard-earned money, invest in their businesses, and secure a better future for themselves and their families.
This belief in the transformative power of finance, coupled with the determination to address the inequalities faced by rural women, motivated me to embark on this journey.
What led you to start Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank, the First cooperative bank for women in rural India?
The founding of the Bank was driven by a profound encounter with Kantabai, a woman from a remote village named Mhaswad (where we are headquartered today) who aspired to save money for her family's well-being. Witnessing her determination and the unjust denial of her simple request to open a savings account at a traditional bank compelled me to take action.
When our initial application for a license to run a rural women's bank was rejected due to the non-literacy of many promoting members, the setback only strengthened our resolve. Kantabai and the other women in the village demonstrated incredible determination by undertaking literacy classes to learn to read and write, challenging the notion that education was a prerequisite for financial inclusion.
The rejection became a turning point, highlighting the need for a banking institution that catered specifically to the needs of rural women, irrespective of their education levels. We reapplied, accompanied by 15 other women, and presented our case to the Reserve Bank of India, showcasing the women’s exceptional mathematical abilities and commitment to financial responsibility.
Ultimately, our perseverance paid off, and Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank became a reality. It has since grown to serve over 100,000 accounts and facilitate crores of rupees in business, all backed by member-driven capital. The bank has become a symbol of empowerment, enabling women to gain control over their finances, build businesses, and uplift their communities.
As someone with considerable experience in the field, have you witnessed a gender gap with respect to investments, with women being less involved in their own financial decisions?
In India, many accounts are registered under women's names, but they often lack control over those accounts. This highlights the need to design financial products that give women full control and ownership over their finances.
To bridge the gender gap in investment participation, it is essential to provide women with tools that offer control and security. For instance, promoting the use of mobile wallets and smartphones can enable women to have a secure and private platform for managing their finances. By ensuring that women have exclusive access to their savings and can make independent decisions about how and where to spend their money, we can empower them to take charge of their financial futures.
Furthermore, involving men in financial literacy initiatives is crucial. When both men and women receive financial education, they can better understand the importance of collaborative decision-making and shared responsibility in financial matters. It is essential to emphasise that women's financial independence and involvement in investment decisions benefit the entire household and contribute to the overall stability and growth of the family's financial well-being.
What were the challenges you initially faced when carving your path in such an integral space as a woman and what are the current challenges?
When I first ventured into the world of finance as a woman, I faced numerous challenges. Many people, both within the sector and the community, doubted my knowledge and ability in finance. There was a prevailing notion that women were not capable of handling financial matters. However, I chose to view these challenges as opportunities to prove them wrong.
To overcome these initial challenges, I made sure to be exceptionally well-prepared. Whenever I met with officials from the Reserve Bank of India or spoke about the bank, I ensured I had a thorough understanding of global financial trends, such as the Basel norms, which are determined in Basel, Switzerland.
I familiarised myself with financial inclusion efforts at the national and international levels to a degree that even regulators often needed to be more informed. This level of preparation not only instilled confidence in myself but also in those I interacted with, establishing my credibility in the sector.
The current challenge lies in bridging the gap between the supply side and the demands of marginalized communities. There is often a reluctance to cater to the specific needs of poor and illiterate individuals. Instead, the focus is on trying to teach them about technology rather than understanding and addressing their requirements. However, I believe in providing smart solutions that cater to the needs of the clients. It is crucial to work on the technology side and develop solutions that are suitable and accessible for those who need them the most, even if they may not fit traditional models of technological advancement.
How do you plan to revolutionise the Indian market with growth plans at the Bank?
To revolutionise the Indian market, our primary focus is on transforming into a digital bank for rural women. This involves ensuring that women have access to smartphones, as not all of them currently do. We provide loans to enable women to purchase smartphones, as it is a crucial tool for digital financial transactions.
Once the women have smartphones, we conduct digital financial literacy programs to build their confidence in using digital platforms for transactions. We address any concerns they may have, including issues like voice SMS accessibility, and provide solutions that make mobile banking more accessible and convenient for them. We aim to empower women by giving them control over their finances through their smartphones and mobile apps, allowing them to open their own mobile wallets with personalized PIN numbers.
By combining financial empowerment with digital solutions and entrepreneurship support, Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank aims to create a new paradigm where women become successful business owners. We believe that women-led businesses can thrive in the digital landscape, fostering economic growth and empowerment for women across India.
From your experience, how crucial is mentorship, especially at the grassroots level for women?
Based on my experience, I have witnessed the transformative impact that mentorship can have on women's journey towards financial independence. At the grassroots level, where resources and opportunities may be limited, having a mentor who can provide guidance, support, and knowledge can be truly invaluable. Mentors can help women navigate the challenges they face, offer insights and advice based on their own experiences, and provide a network of connections and opportunities. Mentorship provides a platform for women to learn, grow, and gain confidence in their abilities. It fosters a sense of community and enables women to envision and pursue greater possibilities for themselves. Therefore, mentorship is not only crucial but also instrumental in empowering women and fostering their success.
What more do you suggest countries and systems can adopt when it comes to inspiring women in finance?
Firstly, it is crucial to acknowledge that women seek control over their finances and the ability to make decisions about their money. Providing women with platforms for financial management, such as smartphone access and mobile wallets, empowers them to take charge of their financial lives. We recognised this need and established a system where women save and decide how to spend their money through digital means.
Secondly, women have shown a strong inclination towards asset building. By enabling women to develop assets, they can generate additional income and multiply their wealth.
Additionally, credit access is vital for women's entrepreneurial growth. Many women face challenges in building credit scores, especially when they lack a credit history. It is important for countries to develop tools and mechanisms that help women establish credit scores, even with small amounts of credit. By doing so, women can gain access to mainstream banking services and receive the necessary financial support for their micro-enterprises. Governments and banking sectors should collaborate to create public goods that support women in building businesses and obtaining credit, ensuring that women have equal opportunities in the financial sector.
What is your advice to women with respect to financial independence and investments?
To prioritise education and knowledge acquisition. Empower yourself by seeking financial literacy, understanding various investment options, and staying informed about the changing economic landscape. Education equips you with the tools to make informed decisions and mitigates the risks associated with financial independence and investments.
Financial independence is not just about accumulating wealth but also about having control over your own financial destiny.
What advice would you give aspiring women entrepreneurs?
Don't be afraid to think differently and embrace innovation. When we introduced mobile digital banking in rural India, there were doubts about the feasibility of such an ecosystem. However, I take immense pride in sharing that village women are now confidently using mobile wallets, even with training the village "sarpanch" on digital financial transactions. Secondly, don't be afraid to take ownership, assert yourself and claim your rightful place. Step forward and take the necessary steps to establish your business, own property, and build your brand.
Your ideas have the power to break barriers and create positive change.
Lastly, I want to share the wisdom I received from the women in my community. When I was invited to co-chair the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018, I sought their input on what message to convey. They reminded me that while the world may focus on millions and trillions of capital, “our courage is our capital”. Over the years and at every step, the courage of these women has been my true capital, and it can be yours too.
Suggested reading: KisiSeKumNahi: Grassroots Stories Of Second Chances And Breaking Boundaries