Duke University | Baldwin Scholars Program

Suhani Jalota


Suhani Jalota

Suhani is the founder of a menstrual hygiene company, Myna Mahila Foundation, a network of young female entrepreneurs in slum communities in India who produce low-cost high-quality products. Her company now has a staff base of seven employees and four on the board of directors, and she plans to triple her staff as she receives new grants. Currently, she has one manufacturing unit in a slum in Mumbai that employs young women in the slums to manufacture, market, and distribute sanitary pads. Her goals are not only to develop a business that can be sustained by the local women and to create a positive buzz around menstrual hygiene and health, but also to promote hope, helping the women visualize a future for themselves and their families. Her immediate success was built on the relationships and credibility she formed in the slums as a high school student. This company moves her closer to her dream to improve health in areas where there is no access to basic social services.

 

Passionate about social entrepreneurship and international development, Suhani has had multiple startup ideas in the past and participated in many social entrepreneurship programs and competitions to pitch her ideas. At Duke, she was the President of Net Impact, a national organization that uses business to create global social impact, and she was selected as a Melissa and Doug Entrepreneurship Fellow through the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. She spearheaded the Hult Prize $1M Challenge on Duke University’s campus for 100+ undergraduate and graduate students. She and her team won the first ever mHealth@Duke Shark Tank Competition for a mobile application, mBadlaav, to help doctors in India adhere to protocols when a sexual assault victim comes to the hospital for treatment. In 2013, she and her team won the $10,000 STEAM Challenge at Duke organized by the Innovation Co-lab for a start-up idea using puppetry to teach adolescent girls about Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) to increase awareness and usage of ORT to treat diarrhea in Northern India. She was also a Finalist at the Duke Changeworks competition with her startup, TransMed, to provide emergency care vehicles at the site of road traffic accidents in the metropolitan area of India.

 

Suhani has always been interested in the intersection between community development and health.  Growing up in Mumbai, she spent a significant amount of time in urban slums, developing relationships, assessing residents’ needs, and learning about the challenges related to sanitation.  Suhani also conducted a research project, comparing slum redevelopment in Bangkok and Mumbai.  During the summer before she arrived at Duke, she worked with the National Slum Dwellers Federation to hold meetings with community leaders and to form a community based organization that would run a newly built public toilet. In summer 2013, Suhani tried to understand barriers to sanitation and adoption of latrines in a village in western India, through DukeEngage, a program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She was able to create a sanitation council in the village to construct toilets, by holding numerous meetings about the importance of sanitation, conducting household interviews with about 1000 families, and working with the local government to deliver their promises. Further, in summer 2014, Suhani spent ten weeks in Cape Town, South Africa, working on a UNICEF project to design an unconditional cash transfer program to increase enrollment of girls in primary school. Because of her experience working in marginalized communities for four years, she was also invited to present a TEDxDuke talk on how to repurpose activist energy to govern.

 

In Summer 2015, as a Dean’s Summer Research Fellow, Suhani spent the first six weeks collecting data for her Economics senior thesis to investigate the effect of slum redevelopment on child health outcomes in Mumbai. Her hypothesis was that when authorities relocate slum residents to government-provided free housing, children’s health outcomes deteriorate due to the creation of ‘vertical slums’ with high communicable disease prevalence and lack of air ventilation, among other factors.

 

Suhani is driven and accomplished.  She has identified her passion and is gathering knowledge and experience with intent.  She not only has ideas, but follow-through.  She will be the first person to tell you that she had no idea what she was doing in starting a business; she did not know how to implement solid accounting practices or even how to run the machine that makes the menstrual pads, but she did not let these gaps stop her.  She is an excellent listener and a quick learner.  Suhani is incredibly resourceful in identifying opportunities that will support her ideas and initiatives.  She stands ready to make a more significant mark on the world by reducing poverty and disease. 

 

She acknowledges the risk she took when deciding to leave India to attend Duke. “My extended family was not supportive of it at all. But, I knew I had to get a liberal arts education and was adamant in my decision. Looking back, Duke has completely changed my life - I am a lot more confident, fearless, and thoughtful now. I have had some of my worst failures at Duke as well - been rejected from many places, had emotional turmoil, experienced friends collapsing with Duke's pressure, and so on. But all of that has helped me grow and develop as a mature woman. Duke, its people and programs, have really infused an immense amount of excitement and enthusiasm to try to tackle some of the world's toughest challenges that I had earlier only been able to dream about. Duke gave me the courage to wake up and realise them.”

 

Suhani has identified different role models for different aspects of her life.  “I look up to my mother for the balance she has in her life to be an excellent mother and working woman. My father has taught me how to live life simply and humbly, but with impact. Dr. Jockin Arputham, founder of the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Nobel Peace Prize Nominee '14, has been a mentor and a powerful inspiration since 2011 when I first met him; he has a vision for the world and for future generations that I want to help fulfill. 

 

Suhani graduated from Duke in 2016 with a Global Health and Economics double major, focusing on the study of health systems strengthening and innovation.  She will continue developing Myna Mahila Foundation while working full-time with IDinsight, an impact evaluation firm in North India.

 

She wants first-year Duke women to be excited about the next four years of your life.  Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities and never regret anything. It’s okay if things did not go as expected, but there is no point thinking about it again and again. Move on, get up and get going. Again, make sure that you are 'available' for opportunities to knock at your door. You can do that by being pro-active and talking to a whole lot of people, discussing your ideas and hearing others’, all without any real intention. You'll be surprised that when you are genuinely honest about what you talk to others about, without expecting a return, people will start to connect with you. They will respect you for who you are, and that is a true achievement.” 

 

Myna Mahila video