Inspirational Woman Interview: Manjit Gill
Manjit Gill is the CEO and founder of the social enterprise Binti International. Binti seeks to empower women by eliminating the social and cultural stigma surrounding menstruation. Manjit managed to amass nearly 20 years of business expertise and was involved in 7 startups prior to Binti. She previously served as a mentor to businesswomen in Kenya with the Cherie Blair Foundation. She has been nominated for several awards for her work at Binti including AWAA Social and Humanitarian highly commended. Last August she was named Woman of the Year through receiving the Asian Achievers Award. She has also been profiled in many notable publications including Marie Claire, The Independent, The Metro and The Times of India.
How did you come to found Binti International and can you share with us the key features of Binti’s business model?
Manjit Gill: I mentored a business woman in Nairobi with the Cherie Blair Foundation, and helped her to strategically look at her revenue streams and explore different ways of generating income. We used to speak on Saturdays via Skype and despite the miles our lives seemed quite similar until one day that she told me that women in Africa do not have access to sanitary pads. They use animal skin, cow dung, newspaper and a whole host of unhygienic substitutes. I travelled there and heard the stories on the ground which were quite horrific with girls as young as 10 selling themselves to earn money, Since then, my mission and obsession in life has become to create a world where all women have menstrual dignity. The main mission of Binti International is to provide sanitary products to women, that could be through donation drives, or for them to produce their own through the projects we set up. We teach communities what menstruation is from a biological, emotional, cultural and spiritual stance. We utilise social media to #smashshame and explore where the stigma and taboos come from so that we can empower girls to make decisions that do not hold them back because of the natural process of menstruating. While we have over 75 volunteers globally we focus on creating a sustainable organization, with ambitious plans to create a menstrual movement and make a social impact on the lives of the girls we work with.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when founding and scaling Binti?
Manjit Gill: Funding is one of the challenges. Because we want to help all the girls now. But when you have a goal and are living for a purpose to create positive change, you find ways to overcome obstacles. Our way is create positive solutions where all are welcome to utilize the Binti platform and make a difference. Binti has held many charity and fundraising events, workshops including period parties, art workshops, menstrual health classes and partnered with amazing, reputable organizations, in order to raise money and ultimately help girls and woman worldwide.
How did your experience working at seven startups influence your approach to Binti?
Manjit Gill: The word no doesn’t phase me rather it gives me the motivation to go find a solution. I am very persistent and determined I know when to bend rules and when to create our own. Becoming a sustainable organization utilizing technology and creating corporate partnerships where we all win whilst making a social change is the driving force. This makes Binti appealing as a charity because people like to see results. I have teamed my business background with a moral purpose and combining that with a passion to succeed creates a recipe to talk about periods in front of anyone any where at any time. I feel the fear and do it any way.
Can you tell us about your experience as a business mentor at the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women?
Manjit Gill: I encompassed what I already knew about business and passed it onto someone else. Being a mentor is about shining a light on someone until they are able to shine the light on themselves and see for themselves the value I – and others – can see in them. It is one of the most rewarding things that you can do, when you work with someone young who has a burning light to go find something to utilize their energy on.
From your experience, what are the main cultural and structural/logistical barriers to menstrual hygiene in India and East Africa?
Manjit Gill: Affordability, Awareness, and Availability. The awareness can be tackled through education. There is still stigma attached to talking about menstruation. It is still a taboo topic. So there are engrained cultural structures of stigma in play when it comes to menstrual hygiene. A big part of the Sikh religion and culture is ‘sewa’ which means ‘charity’. My desire to give back stems from this Sikh value of helping others. I have a real passion to empower girls and love doing the groundwork and meeting them to tell them they should not let periods hold them back. If we increased the education of menstruation for girls by 10%, the GDP of India would increase by 2%. So it’s also about educating the powers that be so that girls receive dignity and a country and culture can achieve equality. Creating projects where women can produce low cost pads will tackle the Affordability aspect be they reusable or disposable. Once we have created the affordable pad and communicated the importance of it while tackling the stigma and taboo we will get closer to making it available for everyone.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Manjit Gill: My mother. She is a woman who never took ‘no’ for an answer. She knows there is an answer to everything that comes her way. She built and fixed things around the house when nobody else did. I guess as a kid I wasn’t allowed to sit around doing nothing. I was always given projects here and there from painting the house to ensuring all the paperwork was completed for the family. They say we end up becoming our mothers and I am proud to say I have become determined like mine. I had a strict cultural upbringing which I did not understand at the time. But I appreciate it now. And I have to say, while I had a strict upbringing, I still defied cultural norms by becoming a sales person and traveling the world to close my deals. I realized from the beginning I had more to offer and that the world is my oyster.
What is your advice for prospective social entrepreneurs?
Manjit Gill: Find your passion and don’t give up. Keep looking for that one thing, and once you find it don’t stop. It’s your calling and it all makes sense when you are on that path. Explore opportunities and when you are afraid, just do it. You will grow and things will fall into place. But, don’t lose sight of your vision. Get a mentor to guide you and help you stay focused.
What are your favorite books, websites, films and/or resources?
Manjit Gill: I am inspired by real-life stories – mostly business-people who have done something tremendous with their life. One of them is Arunachalam Muruganantham aka ThePadMan – he really didn’t let anything get in the way of understanding how menstruation impacts girls lives and he didn’t let anyone or anything stop him from making his mark. I have a few wonderful mentors and they all know who they are, because without them I would not have achieved so much so soon. My family is the wind beneath my wings and my friends the ones who keep me sane. I loved the new Bollywood film Toilet, with Akshay Kumar, I think utilizing the power they have to send messages of change are incredible, so if you haven’t watched it yet you must. I am also looking forward to the PadMan, another Bollywood movie which will probably force people to say ‘period’ more times than ever before. Its a movie about my hero and his wonderful journey becoming known as the man who wore an inside of a football with goats blood to test out the absorbency of his sanitary pads.