Interview with Nidhi Shah by Inspirational Women Series
Nidhi Shah is the Founder of RevoLOOtion, a company that seeks to provide affordable, no-flush, composting toilets for urban families in India. Previously, she served as the Director of India Operations at Toilets for People, a social business that designs, manufactures and sells affordable, portable composting toilets to NGOs working to bring sanitation to communities in the developing world. She is currently a second-year graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is pursuing a M.A. in International Studies and an M.B.A. in Entrepreneurship. She also holds a BSc degree in Chemical Engineering from Columbia University.
What is your background?
I grew up in Mumbai until the end of elementary school and lived in central New Jersey until high school. In college, I studied Chemical Engineering. After graduating with a BSc from Columbia, I went to work for a firm designing chemical factories. We separated chemicals with distillation in our plants. I knew I wanted to do something more meaningful so I tried volunteering by mentoring, campaigning, and eventually for a startup that worked on increasing access to toilets. Inspired by the work, I thought of applying to business school to learn more about changing the world through business, so here I am now.
You are the Founder of RevoLOOtion, a company that seeks to provide affordable, no-flush, composting toilets for urban families. What inspired you to found RevoLOOtion and what has been its impact so far?
My work with the startup I mentioned previously gave me a glimpse into the life of startups and a taste of what it takes to start your own company. I learned that I wanted to make massive impact and that I was excited to carry out my own vision. When I got into business school, it was the perfect time and space to try and build a business.
What are some specific challenges and failures you’ve experienced throughout your work, and how did you overcome them?
A general challenge I face is feeling constantly anxious; I worry a lot, which is something I get from my mother. It often helps but sometimes it can be paralyzing. Meditation and working out help me from getting emotionally overwhelmed. One of the specific challenges I face is making my long distance marriage work, while being in business school, and also working on a business that is focused outside the US. Taking out time to figure out each others’ schedules is one of the ways we make it work.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
My mother, of course, since she has given me literally everything important in my life – from my sense of autonomy to an ability to be brave in the face of fear. She raised my brother and I alone after my dad passed and moved to a whole new country in doing so. Outside of the obvious one, I also feel really inspired by Kat Cole, who is the COO of Cinnabon. She is incredibly compassionate on top of being successful. I’d like to say the some about myself someday.
Going forward, what are some important strategies and policies you’d like to see implemented to improve affordable access to WASH?
One potential policy could be to incentivize private companies who wish to enter the waste treatment or fecal sludge management space as this is the biggest challenge even after people get access to toilets. Governments can provide subsidies to companies to take up this work until they figure out a way to become profitable or at least sustainable.
From your experiences, what are some institutional and structural challenges to WASH that differ depending on region?
I think the most drastic differences in sanitation are seen not between countries and regions but rather within them. In the same city, you might have a bathroom larger than the entire dwelling of another’s. Even in informal settlements, of which I visited three this summer, there was such a diversity of the types of toilets and habits around them.
On a personal level, why is women’s empowerment important to you?
Growing up in a house full of boys, I was acutely aware of where my boundaries were and how unfair they felt. I remember experiencing a lot of hurt. Knowing how real my pain was, I find women’s empowerment important because I don’t want any other little girls growing up believing that there are more boundaries for them than for men.
What advice do you have for the next generation of people interested in leveraging engineering to further international development initiatives?
I can talk about my specific experience. One of the things I am good at, and which engineering teaches you, is to be very systematic and orderly in execution. Most other disciplines I’ve seen lack that same level of structure. My advice would be to learn how to think and bring that structure into international development, where it is badly needed.
What are your favorite books, films, websites, and resources related to international development and WASH?
I subscribe to an e-newsletter called Sanitation Updates, which I love for its regularity and thoroughness. People often think of Slumdog Millionaire when they think about WASH challenges. It was a good movie, but honestly I’m a bit sick of hearing about the movie. I haven’t read it yet, but the book Behind the Beautiful Forevers is on my list. It depicts life in a Mumbai slum, which cannot be complete without discussion of the toilet and hygiene situation. I will let you know how it is when I finish it!