For bank manager Miki Yoshida, her desire to do volunteer work in rural India started from an unlikely inspiration on an American expressway.
“It was a defining moment in my life, when I realized that I wanted to help people,” says Yoshida who, while working at Shinsei Bank, Ltd., in Tokyo, also runs an embroidery job training center in West Bengal, India. The center has created career opportunities for more than a dozen rural women so far.
“I set out on the expressway in Philadelphia to the shopping outlets after I completed my MBA, excited because the state does not tax clothes. But I suddenly realized that the expressway was built using Americans’ taxes, while I, as a foreign student, was not paying a cent and driving on it as a matter of course. Then it struck me that I had led my life so far with so much help from others. I felt, there and then, that I had to do something to reciprocate.”
Yoshida, who was born in Osaka, but considers Zushi in Kanagawa Prefecture her home, said the decision to help Asian women came in a flash. “I wanted to make a difference in those parts of Asia where women are still dependent and can’t survive on their own.
“As I’m not a doctor, I don’t have the skills to support people at the ground level. So I decided to use my management knowledge, my time, and my energy.”
In a journey that would take 12 years, she first set up a translation company in Japan to finance her volunteer work, eventually expanding it into a business consultancy firm.
“As it would cost to hire employees, I did all the work myself. The company generated just enough cash to finance my volunteer projects.”
But it was when Yoshida married an Indian four years later that she was drawn to the business possibilities in rural eastern India.
“I received a beautiful bed cover as a wedding gift from my husband’s family, embroidered in the kantha style.”
Kantha, traditionally made in West Bengal, is similar to the stitching of sashiko, a Japanese quilting technique. Yoshida had always been interested in textiles, but was stunned by the intricacy of the quilt work.
“It’s made with stitches that are smaller than 1 mm. It practically makes you faint to see them.”
She opened the Kantha Embroidery Job Training Center for women in the suburbs of Kolkata in 2006. The workers, all about 20 years old and single, undertake six to eight months’ training before going into full-scale production. Some travel to the center for two hours each way. It takes six weeks for one worker to make a piece of quilted work 25 cm square. It takes six months to embroider a silk dupatta, a traditional long scarf. They are given a small salary during training “to keep up their motivation.”
To launch this project, Yoshida had to wander into the depths of the Indian countryside to locate kantha experts who could help her. It was an undertaking, she says, that was only possible with a lot of luck and support from others.
“I knew there was a national award for kantha expertise, but I could only find the name of one village where one award winner reportedly lived. I took my husband with me so we could communicate. I asked more than 10 farmers in the village, but it was only at the end of the day when one told me that the award winner had married and moved to the next village. Each person I asked then gave me different directions!”
When Yoshida finally located the kantha expert, she turned out to be an overseer who distributed work to villagers, supervising everything from design, pricing and salaries. “I realized that there was no place for an outsider to intervene, so I decided to build a training center in another village where there was no such mediator.”
The key thing for Yoshida was to find a reliable partner to supervise the daily management. After more than two years of further search, she secured the support of the Craft Council of West Bengal, and another kantha award winner who agreed to teach at the center.
Meanwhile, Yoshida imparts her management knowhow to her people in India and supervises the sale of products in Japan, all proceeds from which go to support the work of the center. Her own company is now used wholly for import and export. She also sends quality materials such as stainless steel embroidery needles and special drawing pens to the center.
Her current buyer is the trendy import store Sun Motoyama Inc. in Tokyo’s Ginza. “It’s a very famous boutique, with elite customers looking for genuine, good quality articles. We provide the shop with stock, as well as take specific orders.”
The main difficulty that Yoshida faces is the synchronization between Japan and India. “What we think is common sense here is not over there. For example, I asked the center to start immediately on an order mid-December. But there were no updates and when I phoned three weeks later, they still hadn’t started on the work.”
Yoshida explains that the business mentality is entirely different. “There are times that, even though I may specify a certain pattern several times, when the products arrive they are different from what was ordered. I am told all the reasons why the work wasn’t done as requested, reasons that are unacceptable in line with commonly observed business norms of international business.
“It puzzles me why people don’t realize they may be missing out on opportunities to make good business, which would in turn help out more women. But maybe they don’t think of it so much as a great opportunity as just a job that was being advertised.”
But, Yoshida says, there is no point in getting frustrated. “I have to remember why I launched this project in the first place. I wanted to give something back to the world, and as long as what I produce is not zero, as long as I can help out one woman during my lifetime, I’m happy.”
To expand the center, which Yoshida considers her life-time project, she is anxious to find more retail outlets in Japan that will purchase the kantha products, and more people to help her cultivate the markets.
“I want to introduce microfinance to the workers so that they can be independent, and teach others in the village. I want to make sure that the project is sustainable.”
All Yoshida’s volunteer work is done outside her full-time job, during time “squeezed out” in the evenings and on weekends.
“I also travel to India a few times a year to check on the center, partly by using the three days’ paid leave for voluntary work that we get at the bank.”
A more troubling aspect of the project is maintaining her own health while traveling to India. “One time, I went to the hospital when I returned to Japan, and found I had worms.
“But even then, it made me think that there are many Indian villagers with the same problem but no one to cure them.”
Ultimately, Yoshida’s energy and determination stem from the inspiration she had on the Philadelphia expressway.
“I was so glad I was given the chance to realize I needed to do something. Now, rather than worrying about whether it can work, I just do it. It is better than doing nothing.”