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Bollywood and business: What Padman (2018) teaches us about entrepreneurship

18 April 2019
In 1998, a pack of 8 pads would cost 20 Indian Rupees, the equivalent of three days of grocery shopping.

In our latest post, Dr Shumaila Yousafzai explains how a screening of the Bollywood movie Padman (2018) led her students to some important lessons about entrepreneurship.

The media often amplifies the spectacular rise of so-called overnight global sensations.

While the stories of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and their peers are undoubtedly inspirational, very few of us can personally identify with the fairytales surrounding their entrepreneurial journey. And, they do little to represent the realities of entrepreneurship, especially for our students.

Their extravagant stories are not only intimidating, but also form part of the reason why students are afraid to embark on entrepreneurial careers of their own. Their rise to fame and fortune also propagate myths surrounding entrepreneurship. And so, it’s important for us, as educators, to deconstruct these mythical views of entrepreneurship.

“This process of ‘debunking’ is a step towards believing that each one of us has what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.”

We can learn about entrepreneurship from a diverse range of environments.

As part of my the Venture Growth module (part of our MSc in Business Strategy and Entrepreneurship) I arranged a film screening of the Bollywood movie Padman.

His product journey started with the discovery that women in rural India couldn’t afford commercially available sanitary pads.

The social taboo of menstruation in India                                           

Released in 2018, Padman is a true story about Arunachalam Muruganantham who pioneered a process for mass-producing affordable sanitary pads and creating employment opportunities for thousands of women living in rural communities across India.

His product journey started with the discovery that his wife and, by extension, many women in rural India couldn’t afford commercially available sanitary pads and had to recourse to dangerously unhygienic options.

“In 1998, a pack of 8 pads would cost 20 Indian Rupees, the equivalent of three days of grocery shopping.”

Shocked, he began work to create a more affordable and safer version of sanitary pads by reverse-engineering existing solutions and the processes that went into the creation.

Due to the social taboo of menstruation in India, Padman was met with powerful opposition. However, his belief in his product vision drove him to solve a problem experienced by thousands of women.

Arunachalam’s TED Talk, delivered in Bangalore, India in 2012, outlines how he started a sanitary napkin revolution.

Padman’s work has been life-changing and solved a problem experienced by thousands of women. And his mindset and entrepreneurial journey was as strategic and effective as anything we might witness in Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk.

Padman introduced my students to the societal barriers in India which Arunachalam had to overcome in order to achieve his aim and make menstrual hygiene taboo-free and affordable for his wife and millions like her.

The film enabled me to translate his experience into lessons on Lean Entrepreneurship, Frugal Innovations and Effectuation Theory.

Here’s some of what we discussed:

Lesson #1: Identify your desired impact on the world and do not hesitate to break the norm.

Profit motive is simply not enough to sustain the rugged terrain of entrepreneurship.

While fast-growth companies are primarily concerned with wealth creation, money and profit are rarely the sole motivating factor behind entrepreneurship. For entrepreneurs, connecting themselves to a greater cause often acts as a totem pole giving them with a critical inner force when things get difficult.

I tell my students to think about the impact they want to make upon this world, rather than how much money they want to earn in the process. Profit motive is simply not enough to sustain the rugged terrain of entrepreneurship because guess what? Entrepreneurship is hard work and requires satisfaction and desire that is derived from deep within.

While watching Padman we witnessed that the sight of his wife sneaking out with a dirty rag during her periods, turned Padman from a school dropout mechanic into an innovator. Had he been motivated by money alone, he would surely have given up when faced with massive adversity.

Lesson #2: Entrepreneurs take action with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and experiment as they go along.

In the context of entrepreneurship, experimentation means taking action. This might be going out and collecting real-world information to test new ideas, rather than sitting at a desk searching databases for the latest research. It involves asking questions, validating assumptions and taking nothing for granted.

In the words of Francis of Assisi: “[an entrepreneur] starts by doing what is necessary; then does what is possible: and is suddenly doing the impossible”.

After developing the first trail sanitary pad (minimum viable product), Padman tested it by persuading his wife to use it. Through several trials she consistently fed back that the pad lacked the necessary absorption. To understand the issue, Padman decided to test the product himself by going about his daily routine with a simulated uterus made from a football bladder filled with animal’s blood.

Exhibiting the skill of reflection, Padman went on to gain the domain knowledge by examining the competitor’s product, researching on Google, talking to vendors and consulting a University Professor. He realized that his product lacked a fundamental requirement – longer, more reliable liquid absorption – and worked out that he should use cellulose fiber instead of raw cotton.

Lesson #3: Need identification. Understanding your customers’ problem before solving it.

The skill of empathy is understanding the emotion, circumstances, intentions, thoughts and needs of others. It’s being able to relate to how others are feeling because you have been in a similar situation yourself.

Empathy is a critical skill for entrepreneurs as it is essential for truly understanding and developing a meaningful connection with your customer.

While Padman, a man, could not know how it is to have periods, he goes to extreme lengths to understand the issue. He understood the barriers of shyness, shame and taboo as women struggled to find a socially safe way to openly discuss their menstrual cycles, or to explore options for safer practices and products.

He also understood that the existing products were too expensive for rural women to consider as a viable solution.

Lesson #4: Entrepreneurs collaborate more than they compete.

Like Padman, every entrepreneur must collaborate with people who speak the customers’ language.

Community plays an important role in entrepreneurship. It’s critical for entrepreneurs to be open and to have the desire to learn from others. They must draw on shared experiences and have a support group of like-minded entrepreneurs willing to help one another out with a “pay-it-forward” attitude, while they all collaborate for the greater good.

Padman’s journey would be more difficult, if he didn’t seek help from others. His accomplishments were possible because of the people he approached, and they supported and complimented him. Budding entrepreneurs would be surprised at how easy it is to get help.

Of course, as well as receiving help, you should also try to be helpful to others. The most successful people in most fields are those who give to the others – not those who take from others.

Padman further recognized that his method of driving adoption was mistaken; making the right product and selling it at the right price alone will not facilitate the acceptance of his product. Like Padman, every entrepreneur must collaborate with people who understand the customers and can talk their language and thus bring about adoption more effectively.

Lesson #5: Entrepreneurs do not limit themselves – you are more capable than you think.

If Padman restricted himself to what society expected of him and how it defined him, he wouldn’t have achieved his desired impact and wouldn’t have changed millions of lives.

Entrepreneurs do not hesitate to learn new things and test new ideas. Padman faced a world of criticism, ridicule, and fury from everyone including his own wife and mother. However, such was his belief in what he was trying to accomplish, that he allowed nothing to bring him down. He persevered until his ideas received international recognition.

For a school dropout, with no exposure or resources, Padman’s resilience and determination are true reflection of his entrepreneurial values.

Lesson # 6 – Reinventing the business models and staying relevant.

Business models are necessary but figuring them out is difficult.

Padman’s business model started with producing affordable sanitary pads and through this process he figured out that his core competency is in building the pad producing machines.

This new distributed business model was not just a health intervention, but also about the creation and empowerment of self-help groups in which pads can be produced by female run cooperatives using his low-cost machines.

Ultimately it became a way to liberate society from the negative social and cultural attitudes towards menstruation. 

Lesson #7: Don’t underrate the power of frugal, need-based innovations.

In the Indian context, the word Jugaad is used to refer to, the much appreciated while also much- slandered, frugal, flexible, and inclusive approach to problem solving and need-based innovation.

Padman was shocked and challenged when he learned that imported sanitary pad machines cost millions and that he could never hope to raise such investment. He did not give up but broke up the process of making sanitary pads into three cheap, easy to build and replicable procedures.

This goes to prove revolutionary innovations do not need huge research and development investment to succeed.

Social change

A girl’s ability to manage her periods in a dignified manner is a basic human right. Using hygienic solutions, not only helps in solving many health and fertility related issues, including reducing the maternal mortality rates, it also detaches burdensome taboos related to menstruation thus helping girls to build higher self-esteem when they are at the most critical stage of their development.

In many parts of the world, girls miss school because of the lack of sanitary pads. That is why, I see Padman, not only as a successful example of entrepreneurship, but as a revolutionary agent of social change.

Dr Shumaila Yousafzai is a Reader in Entrepreneurship at Cardiff Business School.