Duke - The Fuqua School of Business

Feature Story

Connecting to Women in India

Students spend two weeks in India, working with nonprofit organizations. Sophie (Messer) Heiken talks about the experience.

April 17, 2009

Reflections on an Inspirational Time Abroad

Sitting on a rickety chair in a small, hot village in rural India, I was listening to the beautiful, emotional song of a group of women in bright red, orange, and yellow saris. They sat close to each other on a blanket spread on the ground, and their children gathered around me and my Fuqua classmates. Their singing overwhelmed me with a sense of hope, and I felt a true connection with these women who are from a culture so foreign to my California upbringing. 

These women were part of a Self Help Group (SHG), which is a structure for group lending in India. The women receive microloans from banks, and the women decide — as a group — how to allocate the money among them. One woman may want to purchase fabric so she can make and sell textiles, or another may wish to purchase a goat. When I asked them why they joined the SHG, one woman said, without hesitation, that she wished to gain self-confidence. The economic impact of SHGs is clearly augmented by the wider social effects on the women and their communities.

My journey to India, March 1 - 13, 2009, was the capstone of the Global Consulting Practicum* course at Fuqua, taught by Professor Pranab Majumder. This course offers students an opportunity to develop consulting skills and to work with international nonprofit organizations focused on social entrepreneurship. My class, including 18 other students, focused on 4 organizations in Jaipur, India. I was part of a team of 5 students, working with the Centre for microFinance. We helped the organization analyze the knowledge needs of its stakeholders (policymakers, practitioners, and banks) in the Rajasthan region.

Working with the Centre for microFinance allowed us to meet with influencers in the microfinance sector such as the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), which is a large national bank highly engaged in microfinance lending. It was incredibly inspiring to meet the practitioners and participants in microfinance, the people working daily on the issues we had discussed and researched in class. In India, we learned directly from the practitioners — they informed us of the needs of their staff who work with SHGs. For example, they need training manuals in Hindi on how to market the textiles women create. I felt we were contributing some value to the Centre for microFinance through these in-depth conversations.

The highlight of the trip was visiting the women, who sang to us in the rural village in the Ajmer district, where a multi-year drought has seriously threatened an already impoverished region. They showed such gratitude for the SHG opportunity and such generosity in talking with us.

Meeting these women invigorated my interest in the microfinance sector, as I considered the opportunities the loans provided for them and their families in this dusty Indian village. I have a strong personal interest in women's health, and the trip to India has helped me to reflect on how I might make a greater impact on women like these, around the world. The voices of these women in their bright saris will hopefully keep me inspired to use my talents and experiences to improve the world.

* The Global Consulting Practicum course is offered through Fuqua's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.

Sophie (Messer) Heiken (Daytime '10) also earned a Concentration in Marketing and a Health Sector Management certificate. She is a merit scholarship recipient. She served as Co-President of the Jewish Business Association and was Co-Career Development Director for the Net Impact Club. Also during her time at Fuqua, she served as Outreach Director for the Net Impact Club, and as an Admissions Tour Guide.