5 Lessons from the Life of Chetna Sinha

Feb 18, 2019 5 Min Read

At The Economic Times (ET) Women’s Forum in 2018, I heard a story about a bank that provided doorstep banking as well as digital banking using biometrics, which also had a radio programme with its own radio jockey.

The story of how this bank began is rather moving – it starts with Chetna Gala Sinha, a young lady from Mumbai who fell in love with a dynamic farmer and moved to Mhaswad, a small village in Maharashtra India.

Coming from a comfortable and well-educated up-bringing in the city to a tiny village with no running water or toilet, the transition to Mhaswad in 1987 was difficult for Chetna, and even more so for her family, who were horrified at her decision.

The story takes a twist one day when a local blacksmith lady came to her asking for help. She wanted to open a savings account at the local bank and save Rs 10 per day (that’s less than USD0.15).

While Chetna questioned how someone who sleeps on the streets would be able to save, Kantabai (the local blacksmith lady) was determined to open the bank account to do so.

Chetna accompanied her to the bank, but the bank refused; the amount was too small. This led to Chetna forming the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank, the first rural women’s bank.

As a follower of political leader Jayaprakash Narayan, she was driven by social causes. However opening a bank didn’t come easy. When she went to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI, the central body for banking in India), her application was rejected on the grounds that some of the members were illiterate.

The power of a strong will

Chetna was disappointed that the RBI rejected the application, but the rural women said: “Why are you so sad? We are illiterate now, but we will become literate and come back.”

Every day for four months, the rural women studied after their long days at work and soon re-applied for the banking license. This time, they also challenged the bank officials to see who could calculate the interest on any principal amount faster – them or the bank officials. The bank officials had no reason to not grant them the license.

They bank was set up and supported the rural women; however, enrolments stagnated and then dwindled because the women had to walk miles to get to the bank.

That’s when Chetna started doorstep banking, and when the digital wave swept the country, she introduced digital banking. However, the rural women refused to do banking with four-digit pin codes; they asked her to come back with a better solution.

Hence, Chetna introduced biometric banking, using thumb prints to complete transactions. The rural women hailed this, saying: “People can steal my PIN, but not my thumb for sure.”

Chetna says that one lesson she took away from that was to never provide poor solutions to poor people, as they are very smart.

Watch the TED Talk by Chetna here:


While Chetna and the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank continue to do inspirational work for the women in rural Maharashtra, here are my takeaways from her journey:

1. You can do something for every issue

When Kantabai came to Chetna, she didn’t give up just because the bank refused to open an account for the blacksmith. Instead, the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank came into being because the banker said no to Kantabai.

Ola Cabs came into being when Bhavish Aggarwal didn’t manage to find a cab to go home after work. Tribe bags came into being when Priya Rege felt that there were no stylish and functional bags for women to carry to work. InstaReM, the instant money transfer company, came into being when Prajit Nanu had a frustrating experience transferring money from India to book a resort in Thailand.

When you face a challenge or issue, go ahead and use it to your advantage.

2. There is inspiration all around you

When the RBI rejected her application, it’s the inspirational women around Chetna that kept her going. It’s not always possible to find inspiration within us, but if we look around, there will be ample sources.

Albert Einstein, an inspiration for millions, took inspiration from Gandhi and vice versa. Author and entrepreneur Michael Masterson says that friends, family and the people around him make him want to be a better person.

Inspiration to do more and do better for ourselves and others is always available; we just need to let it encourage us.

3. Courage is a key ingredient

Brene Brown describes it well: “You can choose courage or you can choose comfort. You cannot have both.” A couple of years back, my colleague and I signed up for a project which we didn’t know much about, in a place that was unknown to us, and in an industry which was predominantly male. We did show courage by boarding a 5am flight, and had one of our most wonderful and satisfying projects over six months.

“Their courage is my capital,” says Chetna of the rural women whom her bank serves, “and if you want, it can be yours too.” I think we can all use the courage capital.

4. The sky is the limit

Chetna’swork started with building a bank, to starting a school, cattle camps, and more. Amazon started as a book store and Apple as a personal computer company; closer to home, Reliance Industries had first started as a textile company.

Each of us may not be the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos, but we can expand business to new cities and countries. Take a new job in a new industry, work in a foreign land. By being purposeful, the drive to keep going can take us soaring to the sky.

5. It’s all about love

Since this is the month of love, let me put my last lesson out here too. Choose a partner whom you love passionately, then even a village without the basic requirements can be the right place to start something amazing.

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Riddhi has over 15 years of experience in various business roles, including talent management, human resources, sales, and business development. She is a director of Leaderonomics India, helping organisations develop their leaders as well as support the growth of leaders of all ages across India. She is a trainer, facilitator and leadership development specialist who is passionate about building leaders at every level.

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