Rupal Kulkarni is standing outside in front of a wall with paintings of money trees hanging on it. She has black hair and is wearing a dark purple top with white pants and a white scarf.

Rupal Kulkarni: CEO, Shram Sarathi

The #SheInnovates stories team sat down with Rupal Kulkarni to discuss the role of women in innovation. Get involved at She Innovates Global.  

#SheInnovates Stories: Innovation is solving the world's problems. What problem are you solving?

Rupal Kulkarni: Seasonal labour migrants in India are considered risky financial customers due to their low incomes, irregular jobs and high mobility. Therefore, their exclusion from formal financial services makes them extremely vulnerable and pushes them into modern forms of slavery or debt-bondage. Our company, Shram Sarathi, solves this problem by delivering uniquely designed financial services such as credit, insurance, pension, remittances, and savings to footloose workers in India, both in sending and receiving economies.

#SheInnovates: When did you realize your innovation was a breakthrough?

RK: We realized our innovation was a breakthrough when we saw visible change in the lives of the 20,000 migrant families that we have provided financial access to. The migrant families we work with have created wealth, smoothened their cash flows and have [gained] a greater sense of future financial security. Our housing finance innovations have helped migrants build concrete homes, and migrate without worrying about the safety of their families in their absence.

At the same time, several workers have benefitted from our financial interventions, which enabled them to recover from prolonged tubercular illnesses and rejoin the workforce. Our innovations in financial services have also created a formal history of strong repayment rates among migrant communities that were previously unbanked. This has been a big breakthrough in changing the perceptions of the financial industry about the credit-worthiness of migrants. Our services have given workers a greater sense of dignity and reduced their distress associated with migration.

#SheInnovates: What were some unexpected obstacles you overcame in the innovation process?

RK: When we first began our work with migrants, we realized that existing financial products in the market were either unsuitable for them or were delivered through channels that migrants didn’t have access to. So, in the beginning, our biggest challenge was to bridge this gap by designing solutions and processes that incorporated the ‘mobility’ of workers into their design, in order to build greater financial access. At that time, most financial institutions perceived migrants to be a very risky class to bank with. So this posed several unexpected challenges in the form of raising funds to carry out our work, and creating a shared vision based on the need for the financial inclusion of migrants. 

#SheInnovates: What inspires you to love your work?

RK: I spent several years living and working among tribal migrant communities in rural parts of Rajasthan, India. An insight that I gained during this experience was that hardship and poverty do not inhibit innovation. These communities, even though excluded from formal financial services, had devised inventive, informal financial instruments to meet their needs. Even today, this creativity and resilience that communities exhibit in the face of financial hardship continues to inspire me and [leads me to] truly enjoy the work that I am doing.

#SheInnovates: What do you hope that young women coming behind you take from your work?

RK: I hope my work encourages young women to immerse themselves in the lives of people that they seek to impact, learn from them, and design solutions that are embedded in communities and informed by their profound experiences. My personal driving force is to recognize and nurture people’s potential to be innovative, even in the face of hardship, and I hope my work inspires other women to do so as well. 

#SheInnovates: Why are women in innovation important?

RK: I think women, are natural innovators. Historically, a paucity of opportunities over time has made us resourceful, resilient and inventive. I also think that women-led innovation is much more participatory in nature and embraces diverse viewpoints. Therefore with the right platforms, we can harness our natural instinct to be innovative and impactful. 

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Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.