The “F” Word: Sapna Shahani

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Sapna Shahani started WAVE (Women Aloud Videoblogging Empowerment) in India in 2009. Her dream was to give young women from states throughout India video cameras and training as citizen journalists. She charged these young women with capturing stories locally and telling the news from their own points of view. WAVE received a MacArthur grant of US$100K to purchase cameras and editing software and to support its enthusiastic team.

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“We didn’t have any plans for sustainability,” Sapna remembers. “It was a shot in the dark anyway. And we thought, Let’s just get through this. Let’s execute a wonderful project and show how it can be done and how great it will be. Then the money will come.”

She laughs, “How naïve!”

Sapna says that starting WAVE was a dream come true, a life-changing experience for her.

“It was one of the biggest milestones I’d ever accomplished,” she says. “We had a big impact on girls in all states in India. I was heartbroken when I had to close it.”

But she also says running WAVE took a lot out of her and that there was no work-life balance. “I felt like I was contributing to the world, but I had somehow sidestepped myself, especially once the funding came to an end.”

[Watch Sapna discuss her idea of the biggest problem for Indian girls.]

 

“I had to move back in with my family,” she sighs. “And then I didn’t have an income for over a year. Even though I considered myself lucky and privileged to have a roof over my head and to not be starving, I couldn’t respect myself. It was bad enough to mooch off of them for a place to live, but having to borrow for day-to-day expenses was too much. I was 31 at the time, and I think when you’re in your 30s, you should be independent.”

One of the most difficult parts, Sapna remembers, was trying to raise funds as the MacArthur grant ran out.

“We applied for grants, hired consultants and tried to set up a trust to accept donations, but the government wouldn’t approve our account. The officer they sent to look over my business even asked for a bribe, which, of course, I couldn’t pay.”

Sapna says she’s not cynical. But she believes that most Indian nonprofits are created by rich people who can afford to pay off bribes. “The culture does not encourage young, independent kids like me who want to make a difference in the world to get grants and start nonprofits. No. Your motives are questioned, like ‘Why would you want to do good for others?’ Life is so difficult here that people just don’t understand.”

By 2011, WAVE was limping along on its last funding leg. But before Sapna gave up on WAVE completely, she enrolled in the Indian School of Business for her MBA through the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program, which sends promising female entrepreneurs in the developing world to business school. She used WAVE as her case study, hoping to find a way to revive it and build a sustainable business model.

“It was amazing. We spent one week in class and three weeks in our businesses. Lots of hands-on, practical stuff. I realized that business mentorship is so important, especially for those in the developing world. I mean, I am fairly confident. I’ve had international experience—I went to school in the U.S.—but I found it so difficult. I am still struggling with it! So I wonder how uneducated women can start successful businesses and how hard their lives must be trying.”

Through a lot of feedback and business modeling, though, her professors concluded that her new idea to turn WAVE into an online video training site was not timely for India. There were too many problems around online access, and the need to build physical centers was not cost-effective, they said. Sapna persevered with the idea for a while, hesitant to give up again and convinced that her projections could work. But she ultimately changed her mind, and agreed that while her numbers looked good on paper, they would not work practically.