The following is a conversation between Dilip Kumar Pattubala, Co-Founder and CEO of Uninhibited, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Dilip Kumar Pattubala first learned about the lack of menstrual health options for women when he was working for a social enterprise in Bangalore. Surprised by this information, he began to research the problem and discovered that many women in India did not even know what a menstrual pad was. The end result, the co-founding of an organization which today goes by the name, Uninhibited, and he’s with us now.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Dilip.
Dilip: Thank you so much, Denver. Absolute honor to be here.
Denver: I mentioned you’re learning about the lack of menstrual health options for women in India. How did you first discover that?
Dilip: Yeah, to begin with, my entire career has been in the development space. I’ve worked for a few charities, and like you mentioned, I was working for a social enterprise which was selling solar lights in communities without electricity in Bangalore in India. One of the days, we were in the community selling solar lights when an Australian colleague asked me, very innocuously, “What do women in these communities use when they menstruate?” Although I was working in these communities for nearly three years time by then, I did not have an answer. I was shocked that I did not have an answer because I assumed that I knew these communities pretty well. But then I was embarrassed I did not have an answer, so I promised the colleague that I will come back with more information in a week’s time.
So I went back home, started reading articles online. This was late 2013, and I was 23 years old. At that point of time, the menstrual health space in India was very, very new since the only research article that was available then was a Nielsen Research article, which flashed the news of like only 12% women use sanitary pads.
And as soon as I read that article, it was very discomforting because my immediate response to it was: How can such a normal process be such a massive issue? Why can’t women just go buy sanitary napkins from a shop and manage their menstruation? And that was the level of ignorance I had at that moment. But I also did not believe these numbers, so I was like, I need to validate this. So I went back to the communities where we were selling solar lights to understand if it was possibly true. So I, along with my friend, did a survey with about 250 women to understand the menstrual health status in these communities. And these communities were not more than two kilometers radius from where I was born and raised.
At the end of the survey, we found the results were not very different from the Nielsen report. About 83% of the women are not using sanitary napkins. And among that 83%, there were about 6% of the women who are managing menstruation using other alternatives like newspaper, plastic, leaves, saw dust, et cetera. And that was unbelievable. I was like, I’ve lived in this community, in the neighborhood for almost 23 years, and how could I not be aware of an issue like this. So there was an immediate impulse that drove to the following steps that led to where we are right now.
Denver: My, my. Let’s talk about a couple subsets of all that. First, what is the breadth and scope of this problem, menstrual hygiene, across India?
Dilip: Before we get to India, one easily known fact for all of us is a little more than half of the planet menstruates every month. And in that half of the population, about little more than a billion women and girls even today do not have support to manage their menstruation either safely or confidently.
And if I ever talked specifically about India, India is about 660 plus million women and girls, and among them, there are about 200 plus million women and girls even today who are not able to manage their menstruation safely. And India has about 25% of the world’s adolescents. This is like the new future generation of the planet. And 93% of the adolescent girls miss one to five days of school every month just because of menstruation.This almost means that a significant number of the adolescent girls miss about 60 days of school in an academic year. This has huge implications on how they’re able to educate themselves, participate in life.
Denver: Yeah. And I would imagine, it has severe economic impacts for older girls and women who were into the workforce; they probably don’t go there either, I would imagine.
Dilip: Absolutely. And there was a recent research article that was published that if women were able to participate equitably at workplaces, there’s going to be an increased GDP of almost $28 trillion. So this is not just an issue about hygiene or health, but this is also an economic issue. So how do we really start looking at it from that lens?
“We really wanted to improve the hygiene practices of these women. So then we were like: We really need to focus on education for these women to actually realize the importance of hygiene and to move to hygienic practices.”
Denver: Mm-hmm. So you started this organization. I know you only had about $350 in your pocket. You did a crowdfunding campaign, and you came up with a couple of thousand dollars and you got the ball rolling. But if I recall, Dilip, maybe 2014, ’15, ’16, you kind of hit a dark patch. It really got difficult as it does, I think, for so many social entrepreneurs. Tell us a little bit about that period of time and what got you to the next phase and on the road again.
Dilip: Absolutely, Denver. Like I mentioned earlier, I still faced the problem when I was 23 years old, and I quit my job and started Uninhibited in June 2014 when I was 24. Impulsive decision, if I can say so; it was like…
Denver: I made a few of those when I was 24, too, Dilip.
Dilip: Yeah, the idea was if no one is solving the problem, I will solve this problem. And yeah, it’s stupid if I think in hindsight, but at that point of time we didn’t have money, I didn’t have experience, I had never worked with women. So it was just this sense of belief that I really want to solve this problem that really made me and my then co-founder start the organization in June 2014. We, like you said, ran a crowdfunding campaign, raised about $2,000, and at that point of time, that was huge. And six months down the line, we had drained out the $2,000.
But we also started with this very absolute notion that if we sell sanitary pads, the problem is solved. So the first thing that we did was source sanitary napkins which are good quality, which are affordable, and started selling them. I truly acknowledge that accessibility to sanitary pads is a critical component of menstrual health. When we distributed the sanitary napkins, what we realized six months down the line was women are buying sanitary napkins from us, but the women who are buying sanitary napkins from us are the women who are already using the sanitary napkins, and they’re just finding a way to buy cheaper sanitary napkins from us.
But that was not our objective, like we really wanted to improve the hygiene practices of these women. So then we were like: We really need to focus on education for these women to actually realize the importance of hygiene and to move to hygienic practices. So that’s when we actually moved to education initiatives and such.
But even when we talked about education, our idea was very limited. So what we did was we went to these low-income communities, made a lot of noise. Invited 100, 200 women into an auditorium, gave them chai and samosa to participate in these education sessions, spoke for two hours, starting from menarche to menopause, to like products, to disposal, and myths and taboos, and assumed that, okay, now women understood and now they will really start using more hygienic practices.
But it took us another few months to realize that these women don’t remember even 5% of the content that we are actually dispersing in these sessions. So that’s when we realized that what we really need to do is not just educate, but we actually need to shift attitudes and behaviors. So I stopped that before I get into further journey of the organization, but what was happening, I believe was while we came to the end of the distribution process of the sanitary napkins, we had drained out the money that we had raised through crowdfunding, and we had no clue where to raise money from at that point of time because we did not think it through.
For the next two years, starting December 2014 to December 2016, I would say it has been one of the most difficult phases of my life because there was this strong intent that I really want to do this, and I can do this, but also there was no experience on how to really solve this problem, nor a support system because I come from a very conservative family, and they did not buy into the idea of me selling sanitary napkins. So there was no support system as such because we did not know who the mentors are, where the funding is; nor did we have the technical understanding of how to work with them and know how to work on menstrual health. So…
Denver: Right. As a matter of fact, you had nothing going for you.
Dilip: Nothing going, except for that intent that I really want to do this. So for almost those two years, it was difficult because I would go to the communities all by myself every time, try something new, and realize that’s not working and come back home. And it almost got to a point where there were times where I would go to a community with like a hundred rupees, which is less than $2 now, to the communities, and a woman who was distributing sanitary napkins earlier would be like, “I want to get paid my arrears,” and I would just give $2 to her and I will not have money to return home. Then I would have to call one of my friends to actually come from one end of the city to another, practically pick me up, feed me lunch, and take me home.
And there were weeks where I would just lock myself at home because I wouldn’t know what to do because I had no ideas and no money to actually get out of problems. Then I would have friends come back and brainstorm with me for two hours, drop money in my pocket, and encourage me to actually go try out something new. And this went on for two years which I think is a long period of time.
So while we were doing this, what eventually happened was we’re realizing these components of distribution are not enough; simple education is not enough. We need to shift behaviors and attitudes. So by the end of two years is when we actually came to this understanding that we need to work with small groups of women and girls and educate them over a period of time by meeting them again and again to actually shift behaviors.
So as soon as we landed on these ideas, probably it was because we were existing by then for nearly two years, we started participating in a few social enterprise competitions. So there were these idea stage competitions. We would go pitch, and they would give us like 10,000 rupees, 15,000 rupees, 20,000 rupees, and that kept us going from 2016.
While I do think that 2014 to ’16 could have been avoided in multiple ways, I also think that it grounds the organization today because we tried so many things, and we know what works and what doesn’t work on the ground. And that gives us a whole lot of confidence today on how we are able to look at what needs to be done to solve for this problem in a sustainable manner.
“There were a hundred different problems, but I was particularly really pulled towards this cause. So what I really took away from that entire process was that I’m really passionate about looking at issues that are stigmatized, which had to be normal in an ideal world.”
Denver: Yeah, and it really gives you, the organization, an experimental mindset that kind of carries forward; it’s built into the DNA that, “Hey, we don’t worry about failure. We just move on; we try something else, and eventually we get there.” And I think in one of your statements, which I was really taken by, that happened during this time you said, “Realizing why I do what I do shifted how I do what I do.” Tell us a little bit about that.
Dilip: Yep. Thank you for bringing that up because during these two years, when people ask me like, “Why as a man you’re doing this?” Because in 2013, ’14, there were not enough men who are actually working on menstruation since it was often looked at with a sense of skepticism on what is happening here. So my answer to them initially would be like, “I saw a gap in the supply chain, and I wanted to address it.” But it doesn’t make sense…
Denver: No, but it’s a very manly answer, if I may add.
Dilip: That, too. So that’s when in 2016, when I was deep in this crisis, I got selected for the Acumen Fellowship program, and it was during this program that I really… Acumen has these exercises of understanding your own lives and what really makes you who you are today and how you look at the world today. And those exercises really helped me reflect on why I was really pulled towards this particular cause so much more than any others because I was working in communities that didn’t have toilets; they didn’t have electricity; children are not going to school. There were a hundred different problems, but I was particularly really pulled towards this cause. So what I really took away from that entire process was that I’m really passionate about looking at issues that are stigmatized, which had to be normal in an ideal world. This kind of goes back to my own childhood– in how much space I was given to be myself, express myself. I took a good 25 years to come out as a gay man and start being myself.
I truly believe the idea of shame around our bodies and identities has a direct impact on how we show up in life. And I think menstruation has a similar impact on the lives of women and girls. When I say women and girls, it includes people who don’t identify themselves as women, but who also menstruate.
So what we essentially realized at the end of those two years is that we really need to create safe spaces for women and girls to come together and start talking about the subject so that they’re able to move from a place of shame to being uninhibited. And that’s why we rebranded ourselves as “Uninhibited” eventually. And that process will enable them to seek information, products, health, and rights, and enable solving the problem in a more sustainable manner.
Denver: Yeah, it really is an issue of oppression, I guess, at the end of the day. And what are some of the myths around menstruation that are prevalent in India and in other marginalized communities around the world for that matter? What are some of those myths?
Dilip: I think there are unlimited lists of myths on menstruation.
Denver: Unlimited, Uninhibited.
Dilip: So, yeah, there’s so many. And as we talk to new communities, new tribes, and new regions, we realized that there’s way too many myths that are existing. But most of these myths are rooted around this one particular idea that the process of menstruation is implying that a woman is dirty when the menstruation occurs.
And that kind of leads to various different notions like isolating women and girls during menstruation. And in most of the parts of the country, even today, women are to isolate themselves or are expected to isolate when menstruation occurs. So that’s five days, they’re not really engaging with any of the households, not touching anything, not even having the same food as the rest of the family members. In some cases, not even touching their own babies for those five days.
There have been various different notions around other bodily processes like vaginal discharge, which is a normal process if it happens. Normally, there are women in the communities that we work with who believe that vaginal discharge happens when bones melt, and that’s not really healthy, and vaginal discharge happens if you’re sexually active, which is not true. And yeah, women don’t go to temples when they’re menstruating, sometimes don’t even go outside the house, which means that they are not participating in either school or workforce or community activities when they’re menstruating.
And it’s not just limited to their community that believes the period is impure, which automatically means that the community expects you to not engage in life equitably when you’re menstruating. So the impact of these myths and taboos is multifold, so it’s not just about whether they’re practicing hygiene or not, but it is about how we are treating women and girls when the process of menstruation occurs.
And when we talk about menstruation, we often limit it to these five days of menstruation. But what we often tend to miss is that it is a life cycle. It starts with menarche, and it ends with menopause. Most of the women menstruate for many years, so what kind of impact do these processes have on their lives is something that we often don’t give enough importance to.
“We are working with a subject that I think is very tricky because one, we’re talking about a subject that is hugely stigmatized, which people don’t talk about within their own households. And two, it’s culturally embedded. So there are a lot of myths and taboos that we talked about, which are either religiously or spiritually or culturally deeply rooted. And three, has a long-lasting impact on their daily lives, even today.”
Denver: Yeah. What have you learned about change management? Because selling products is just a band-aid, change management in particular is so deeply woven into a society or many societies for that matter, how do you create change, and how do you make that change last?
Dilip: That’s a good question because we are working with a subject that I think is very tricky because one, we’re talking about a subject that is hugely stigmatized, which people don’t talk about within their own households. And two, it’s culturally embedded. So there are a lot of myths and taboos that we talked about, which are either religiously or spiritually or culturally deeply rooted. And three, has a long-lasting impact on their daily lives, even today.
Like I said earlier, having a technical approach like we’ll go and deliver a one-hour education session on menstruation and expect that to change might not really work, or hasn’t worked because like you mentioned, it is a slow change management process. We need to give it time. We need to make that effort to actually let that change happen. And that’s what we do at Uninhibited, what we have learned to do over a period of time, where we bring these women and girls into small groups of 10 to 15 and take each of these groups through four-point interactions spread across four weeks where we meet them again and again. For every time we meet them, we spend a good two hours engaging them about different aspects of menstrual health.
But the idea is not necessarily to just disseminate knowledge, but the larger idea is: Are we making them feel safe enough to start talking about a subject that they don’t talk about? And what we typically see, the trajectory is the first time we meet them, there are a lot of giggles and hesitation that they don’t want to talk about. Second time we meet them, they’ll probably smile at us. Third time, they really acknowledge our presence and listen to us. And fourth time, most probably they have a question about their own menstrual health and sexual reproductive health.
And we think that is a lasting impact because if women are able to really start talking about their own menstrual health, their sexual reproductive health, their needs, there’s a direct impact on how much information they’re seeking, what kind of products they’re seeking, and are they going to hospitals when they have sexual reproductive health issues, et cetera.
We have women in our communities who have critical sexual reproductive health conditions like they’ve been bleeding for four months. They have rashes which are not making them walk properly, but they still hesitate to go to a hospital because they’re shy to tell the doctor that, “I have a problem in this part of my body.” And that’s the level of stigma that we deal with.. So unless we really are able to equip women and girls to talk about a subject like this and seek support, we will not be able to solve this sustainably. And we think that is the root cause and we really need to get to that for us to be able to solve this in a sustainable manner.
Denver: Interesting. When COVID-19 struck, you pivoted and turned a lot of your frontline workers into helpline workers, and Hello Saathi was born. Tell us about it.
Dilip: It’s been quite a journey because through all of these difficulties over the five years, we were at this point in 2019 where we intentionally slowed down to build capacity and said that 2020 is going to be this year when we scale up. And we were already in February, we had almost selected our fellows, which I’ll talk about in a bit, and that’s when just the pandemic happens. And like I emphasized before, almost all of our work is about mobilizing people on the ground where we bring people together and educate them in groups and our campaigns.
So none of this is possible when the pandemic happens because of obvious reasons. So they had to stop our work fully as soon as the COVID protocols kicked in. We had two options. One is wait it out and see if the pandemic just goes away in a couple of weeks, a couple of months, and restart our work. Or two, go back to the women and girls and try to understand what are the challenges that they’re experiencing today with the challenges that COVID has brought in.
And we did an immediate needs assessment, and what we realized was there was a sudden increase in the sexual reproductive health foundations among the women and girls in the communities that we’re working with. Because of restrictions around mobility, there were increases in unhealthy abortions, unintended pregnancies, reproductive tract infections, urinary tract infections, and so on. And a lot of these women and girls were not able to seek healthcare in a timely manner because the government hospitals are flooded with COVID cases, and they were too scared that if they go to the hospital that they’ll catch COVID.
And the healthcare centers in the communities are not opening because the doctors were scared where these communities have a really high number of COVID cases. That’s when we realized that access to information and access to our healthcare, specifically focusing on female health is a critical way to help.
.So in a period of 45 days, we moved from an all-on-ground intervention to an all-digital organization where we first experimented by making our frontline workers’ phone numbers as the local helpline phone numbers to experiment and see if people are reaching out for information in healthcare, and it grew up. In a period of 21 days, we had almost 350 calls, which emphasized the need for information in healthcare.
And that’s when we moved by basically re-engineering the entire organization to new roles and responsibilities, where we trained our frontline workers who were earlier not even comfortable using a smartphone, to actually operating as helpline assistants in a period of 45 days through intensive training. We moved people who had jobs as engineers earlier, but who moved into the organization to implement programs on the ground. We took their help to actually build the helpline and basically shifted roles, responsibilities, and became an organization that was working remotely and launched India’s only menstrual health and sexual reproductive health helpline, where any woman and girl, including men and boys now, can give a call to our helpline, and they will be able to access menstrual health information, talk to a helpine assistant about any of their concerns, or even schedule an appointment with a gynecologist absolutely free of cost.
So the whole idea is how can we work with the constraints that COVID has brought in and ensure that the pandemic has reduced consequences on the sexual reproductive health of these women and girls in the communities that we work with. And one and a half years down the line, almost two years now, we have had about 120,000 plus engagements on the helpline, and it’s just been an insane journey. And I think all credit goes to the team.
Denver: Yeah. And I wonder sometimes if it was some of the muscle you built during that 2014 to 2016 period, and got some resilience into the organization that enabled you to pivot so quickly and so well.
“And what we acknowledged was one, Uninhibited is not enough to do this. So we really need to focus on strengthening the ecosystem for us to be able to do this. We need more talent. We need more organizations like Uninhibited for us to be able to collectively solve for this.”
Denver: So talk a little bit about scaling because I know you are trying to build an ecosystem even beyond an organization. You kind of alluded to maybe what your vision was at the beginning of 2020, but I know you’re doing it now. So tell us some of the elements of how you’re trying to scale the organization to reach, I don’t know, a couple of hundred million women.
Dilip: So as soon as we landed on this behavioral change program in 2016, ’17, when we realized that this is working, we’ve seen some incredible impact of almost doubling the attendance of girls during menstruation, like 43% of the girls did not come to school while they’re menstruating before our intervention and that reduced to 13% after. That’s really good evidence for us to validate that this is working and this is scalable.
But as soon as we thought about scale, we realized that India has nearly 200 plus million women who do not have access to hygienic menstrual practices. So even if we cut, copy paste, or replicate this model continuously, we might not reach all the women any time soon. So we really had to ask ourselves, what is our ideology of scale?
And what we acknowledged was one, Uninhibited is not enough to do this. So we really need to focus on strengthening the ecosystem for us to be able to do this. We need more talent. We need more organizations like Uninhibited for us to be able to collectively solve for this. And that’s when we launched a fellowship program called The Period Fellowship where we select individuals who are deeply passionate about menstrual health, sexual reproductive health, or gender, and are looking to build a career in this space but don’t know how… Where we select these candidates from across the country and train them and capacitate them to replicate this behavioral change program in some of the most rural parts of India.
So it’s a two-year fellowship program. We train them for a month and place them with various community-based organizations in the country, where they go to these communities, identify these frontline workers, train them and manage them for a good two years to scale the program.
While the idea is to scale through these fellows, the larger goal is: How can these fellows have an immersive journey? Then by the end of these two years, they become menstrual health leaders in the ecosystem where they continue to work in the ecosystem; they start their own organizations, or even join our own team to actually amplify the work that they’re able to do.
So we are just about to launch the fourth cohort of The Period Fellowship program, and we are happy to say almost 95% of the fellows have continued to work in the menstrual health ecosystem over the three years. So,yeah, over the next five years, we’re just about to launch our five-year strategy starting April 2022. Our goal is to reach about 1.8 million women and girls, and induct about 180 plus Period fellows into the ecosystem, and also support these fellows and community-based organizations to set up their own menstrual health interventions so that we’re able to cement the ecosystem together.
Denver: And during all this time, you’re always trying to get a little bit better at what you do. And maybe the Period Lab would be a place where you concentrate those efforts. Tell us about the Period Lab.
Dilip: Definitely. So Period Lab is our sandbox of sorts where we do continuous research and development to understand how do we get better at what we are doing, and not just with our existing programs, but also identify what are the gaps in the ecosystem. For example, through COVID what we realized was: as much as we had launched the helpline for the women and girls in the communities that we’re working with, what we realized was the most vulnerable groups have been sex workers and transgender communities because that’s actually a part of health that was underlooked even before COVID. But with COVID, that has been amplified. So then we, in the Period Lab, we contextualized our helpline for the needs of the sex workers, as well as the transgender community.
And one of the second experiments that we’re currently running is building coalitions in the regions that we’re working with. Like I said earlier, what the outcome of our work is increased demand for information, product, health and rights. But we are not necessarily distributing these products or providing these healthcare systems, so we are building a coalition where we bring all the elements… stakeholders together, including government, stakeholders, product distributors for them to be able to build their pathways in these districts, so that they’re able to solve for these problems in a sustainable manner.
So constantly looking at: What are the gaps? And what do we need to do as an ecosystem, as an organization, for us to be able to amplify the outcomes and impact of our work is the intention of the Period Lab.
Denver: Yeah. It was almost like you’ve been a direct service organization, and now you’re becoming more of a training and consulting organization as you try to spread the word across the country. I can understand The Period Fellowship because you’ve been the beneficiary of some fellowships. We’ve mentioned Acumen. Another one was Rainer Arnhold of the Mulago Foundation. Tell us about that experience and how they played a role in this journey.
Dilip: Absolutely. We are selected as part of the Mulago fellowship program this year, so we’re halfway through the program as we speak. And Mulago is one of the most reputed fellowship programs on the planet and they select about 10 social entrepreneurs from across the globe. And it’s an absolute honor to be part of a program like that because of a couple of reasons. One, also because from an ecosystem point of view, we’re also one of the first organizations who are working on menstrual health to be part of a fellowship program like Mulago, which itself is a huge recognition of the work that we’re doing in menstrual health and for the kind of philanthropy visibility that we’re going to get.
But as an organization, what Mulago is really helping us do is being able to, one, articulate our work in the most succinct manner, which kind of helps bring me these different stakeholders for working on health, sexual reproductive health, WASH, recognize that menstrual health is a critical area of work to amplify those outcomes as well. And two, is to look at scale. Like I said, The Period Fellowship is a marker for scale, but so far, until Mulago happened, what we have been doing is looking at annual plans in that 2019, we’ll do this; 2020, we’ll do this, like, Okay, what are we going to do in the next five years? And what is the dream that we have? What is it that we’re going to shift in the ecosystem? Is that good enough? Is that potential enough?
And I think building those perspectives strategically and thinking strategically about the work that we are doing is a critical need of the arc, because we’ve been around eight years, and this is the time for us to look at exponential scale. And being part of a fellowship program like Mulago helps us articulate and also like remove the loose parts because like I said, we are doing quite a few things, but asking ourselves, “What is that critical component of work that needs to be scaled for us to be able to achieve the impact as fast as we can?” It’s a question that we often talk to the team at Mulago about, and we’re hoping by the end of this year, we’ll be able to get to that clarity and prepare ourselves for that exponential scale.
Denver: Tighten things up a little bit, it sounds like. This is always a question I’ve had and I’ve never understood. Menstrual cycle is so essential to a woman’s health, so why do you believe it’s not central to philanthropy?
Dilip: Quite a few reasons, I would say. One is menstrual health has appeared in the spectrum of philanthropy over the last five to 10 years. So a couple of things that we often talk about with various different philanthropies is, okay, menstrual hygiene is important; sanitary napkins are important. But how does this have an impact on the life of a woman? And the evidence around that is a work-in- progress right now. Like if menstrual health is not an issue, what impact does it have on the school attendance of girls, learning outcomes of girls, participation at workforce, or even gender equity, and then the formal gender roles, et cetera.
So there is not enough evidence yet, but there is a lot of preliminary evidence at this point of time, which kind of is hinting that this is a critical focus area. So while I would say there have not been many philanthropists who have been supporting menstrual health work probably five years before, we see a huge momentum there over the last five years in terms of prioritizing menstrual health.
So one, I would say is evidence around the importance of menstrual health and impact of it on the rest of the lives of the women and girls. And two, is being able to understand the intersectionalities of menstrual health and various different areas like for example, critical amount of funding going into sexual reproductive health, product, facilities, WASH, and gender. But what menstrual health is, it’s at the center of all these three things, right? Like it is a combination of sexual reproductive health, WASH, and gender. So the more we understand the interlinkages between these areas and acknowledge that this is an entry point toward these issues, we will not be able to really bring this to the limelight on a global platform. And I think that’s the priority of the ecosystem right now, and we see that changing year by year.
Denver: Dilip, in looking back in hindsight, if there was anything you could have done differently, what would that have been?
Diliip: Thank you for asking this question because, my impulsive or default answer to it is: I wouldn’t do anything differently because I’ve taken so much from it. And also, it is my conditioning of how my own life has gone… because I always have been told that you need to hustle, struggle to feel, to earn something, and I do feel that I was struggling and hustling to get to a place where I am now.
Dilip: But if I have to slightly modify, I would say what I would do is I would talk to more people who have been through this, who have done this, who have made these mistakes before. And while I do acknowledge that I did not know how to do that when I was 23, 24, I could have definitely made the effort of finding those people who have been through this journey. And even today, like I talk to various different Mulago fellows, and just learning from them on what are the mistakes that they have made, and what is it I can learn from them is a truly enriching process and totally motivating. And I think that would have maybe helped our journeys. Probably they would have told me that this is not going to work, and you should just stop doing what you’re doing. But I definitely think I would have taken a lot from those conversations, and I think that’s what changed over the years as well. So me telling myself that I can do this, to me asking people, “How can I do this?”
Denver: Yeah. That’s a great insight. I sometimes always wonder as to whether you are so determined to do what you’re going to do. You don’t need anybody’s help because it’s going to have that laser-like focus, or you just feel like you don’t have time. It’s like I’ve got to stick to the work and I’ll read a book, but I guess that’s not the case. Yeah.
Denver: Let me close with this, Dilip. You mentioned your team before, so I’d like to ask you about the corporate culture of Uninhibited. What makes it unique? What makes it special? What makes it distinctive? And how have you changed as a leader, as a result of these past two years, where everything in terms of the way we work and the way the world operates has changed, both your team and you as a leader? Tell us what your thoughts are on those.
Dilip: Absolutely. I think one of the things that we are really known for, at least in the Indian ecosystem, is the culture of the organization. And that’s something that we have constantly invested ourselves in letting it evolve and protect. We strongly believe that work doesn’t drive culture, and culture drives work. And if you think that we really want to create safe spaces for women and girls to start talking about the subject they don’t talk about within their own households, it is also the question that how are we able to create that safe space within the organization. How are we able to measure the work that we essentially want to see on the ground within the organization?
And that kind of really brings in a lot more perspective around: How do we really make sure that workspace is safe? What kind of values are grounding the organization? What kind of language are we using within the organization that makes everyone feel included and together as a tribe? So today we are nearly a hundred-person organization. It is a challenge as we scale to really hold on to that culture that we really think is working for us. And so there is definitely a lot of thought about it.. And as we think about: How do we scale our behavioral change program? … How do we scale our helpline?… one of the things that we spend a lot of time thinking about is: How do we scale our culture? And I think that’s something which we don’t talk about in the ecosystem enough, and we’re glad we’re able to do that.
And personally as a leader, I think the last eight years, I would have been a very different person if not for Uninhibited, and no doubt about that. And two, is on how I’ve changed over the last eight years, or particularly the last two years, because I think it makes me realize that every individual is seeking different things at different phases of life. Like I for sure know that I wouldn’t be able to live the first four years of Uninhibited ever again. I don’t have that sense of courage or that sense of innocence anymore. But what I sure know today is I’m really seeking stability, and that mirrors how I look at the organization and how we are able to look at the strategic operations of the organization.
So I think the different phases of the organization have helped me understand what is my role to play and how can I really contribute to the organization accordingly. And two, like I said earlier, why I do what I do really helped us understand how to do our work better. And I think that process has really liberated me as an individual, like by coming out is a lifelong process. I feel a lot more confident about being myself, and the sense of shame around my identity has reduced over a period of time. And I think that has had a huge impact on how I show up in life and either like my family or my friends or even in the workplace in itself. And I don’t think that would have happened as swiftly as it has without. So,yep.
Denver: You’ve been good for each other. Uninhibited and you have been a good team, and I think you’re absolutely so right about a leader. As the organization evolves, the leader has to evolve with it. And very often, people think leadership is a static thing, but it isn’t. It really needs to morph and be the right leadership for the right time, where the organization is.
For listeners who want to learn more about Uninhibited or financially support this work, tell us about your website and some of the information they will find there, Dilip.
Dilip: Absolutely. So you can find the site, www.uninhibited.org.in. We’re on Instagram; we’re on Facebook. So please do reach out to us. We need your support to make sure we’re able to destigmatize menstrual health in marginalized communities.
Thanks, Dilip, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program.
Dilip: Thank you so much, Denver. Absolute honor to be here.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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