Interview with Ms. Elca Grobler | Founder & CEO | My Choices Foundation
We always strive to bring meaningful and powerful stories from India and around the world to empower and motivate our growing community. As part of this endeavour, we invited Ms. Elca Grobler for an exclusive interview with us. Let’s learn more about her incredible journey, her background and her advice for our growing community.
Tell us a little bit about your start-up and your journey and how did the idea for your business/startup come about? How did this affect your family?
I hold an honours in Econometrics and Mathematical Statistics, as well as a CFA and received my MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management. My expertise is in finance and banking. After completing my MBA in Sydney, Australia, I made the decision to leave the Financial Services sector after 15 years and use my skills and experience to empower developing communities, joining Opportunity International Australia – a world leader in micro-finance in the developing world.
After spending 3 years as part of the organisation, our family decided to move to India in 2011, with my husband and three young children. This was as a result of a call and desire that I felt to serve women in India by working for their education and empowerment. I knew that to really serve the women in India, I needed to start by listening to them, spend time with them and allow them to share their stories with me.
My idea was to use my expertise in Finance to strengthen women to become economically independent.
Our Family took a big step to move to India, but looking back at the 9-years that we have lived in India, it has only been a blessing to live in India and spend so much time with my family.
My Family has always supported and motivated me to continue to share my passion with the world and especially India. Having my family support and believe in the work that we at My CHoices are doing, is the best gift one can ever receive.
To my surprise, the women, women’s groups and NGOs that I met with kept reiterating that they needed help solving one issue that few were acknowledging, let alone addressing: Domestic violence. Financial empowerment or education, I realised, is not effective if women are subject to violence at home.
I continued meeting with women almost everywhere across India to further understand women’s needs. It was clear that we first had to address domestic violence in the lives of women and children in India before we can move onto any other services to them.
It was out of this need that Operation PeaceMaker, the first initiative of My Choices Foundation, was born. I worked with local women, passionate about their own communities to develop a program that would meet the challenge of domestic violence in a way that would not disrupt family, cultural and religious values. One thing was sure; I, together with my small team at that stage, wanted to create a solution that would work for women, it would have to work for their families too.
Operation PeaceMaker focused its efforts on counselling, and solving violence through mediation and including every member of the family – including the perpetrator – in the process of establishing peace. Although this was our first initiative, we grew and established Operation Red Alert, addressing sex-traffickign and the exploitation of women and girls in India.
Operation Red Alert commissioned an 18-month research paper (that won the ESOMAR Best Paper of the Year Award 2015-16), doing landscape analysis and studying the behavioral aspects on both the supply and demand side of trafficking, you can learn more about our Good Father campaign that resulted from the research, The Good Father.
I was honoured when I was invited by TedxHyderabad to share my story and how we started My Choices Foundation, you can view the video here, TedxHyderabad. Later in the interview, we will discuss more about the two operations.
My Choices foundation is now 10 years into its journey of creating choices for women, choices to live a life free from abuse and sexual exploitation.
What was your key driving force to become an Entrepreneur?
I would recognise myself as a Social Entrepreneur, especially the work we focus on. While residing in Australia I completed my MBA (Australian Graduate School of Management), after completing my CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) in South Africa (USA qualification). We lived and worked in Sydney and I worked in Consulting. It was clear that working in the finance sector was my passion and in this lies my expertise.
Once I completed my MBA whilst working, I realised that I did not want to return to the corporate sector and wanted to leverage my MBA experience, with my finance expertise for social good, becoming a social Entrepreneur. I started working for a leading provider and pioneer in a socially focused microfinance group, for the remaining 3 years in Australia.
My deep desire to speak for those that are most oppressed, and for those that cannot speak for themselves was fueled by my experiences working in microfinance. This desire for social justice, specifically for women and girls is a seed that had grown in my heart for many, many years. When we arrived in India my desire for social justice and working for the women and girls in India, resulted in starting My Choices Foundation.
How did you come up with the name for your business/startup/organization and what exactly is your organisation focused on – what service do they deliver? (Organisation)
The name of our organisation is a reflection of what we want to give each and every woman and girl in India – a CHOICE to live a life free of abuse and sexual exploitation, and a CHOICE to live their lives freely. To offer them this life of freedom.
My Choices Foundation aims to see the transformation of India into a safe, peaceful, and flourishing place for women and girls, by empowering women and girls with the awareness, education, and support they need to become their own change agents. We address two of the most pervasive and intractable human rights abuses, domestic violence and anti sex- trafficking, through our two initiatives. Operation PeaceMaker and Operation Red Alert.
Operation PeaceMaker of My Choices Foundation aims to stop domestic violence while promoting gender equality through sustainable grassroots programmes that empower girls and women to be agents of change. We address the issue of domestic violence by providing free counselling, legal and safe home services through our 5 counselling centres and 11 regional partners across India. We also conduct customized awareness programmes based on the demographic we are addressing to help reduce violence against women and girls.
Operation Red Alert created the Safe Village Program, aimed at sensitizing at-risk community members about sex trafficking risk factors and child marriages, creating awareness about ways to prevent trafficking, sustaining the awareness, and empowering the community through Rakshaks, Nodal Teachers and Gram Mitra concepts. Focused on rural India, the Safe Village Program includes innovative tools such as comic books and a national helpline, and is tailor-made with special messaging for each of the stakeholders to speak to their particular situation and provide powerfully relevant information and motivation to be safe. The Safe Village Program uses innovative technology called the Village Mapping Tool that helps identify villages that are at high-risk for being in the radar of traffickers. Learn more about the importance of Operation Red Alert here, Meet Bhavani.
Nine years have passed since the establishment of My Choices Foundation and we are humbled by the honour that we have to have reached thousands of people through our Operations. Working alongside my team, partners and the women and girls in India, through Operation Peacemaker we have established 5 Counselling centres in the state of Telangana and 11 regional partners across India that have worked to resolve over 11,000 cases of domestic violence and educated 144,961 women and girls about abuse.
Through Operation Red Alert we have conducted:
over 5,000 Safe Village Programs and educated over 5 million people on the dangers of trafficking.
We have received over 50,000 calls on India’s only national trafficking helpline to date. And this is just the start.
How do you market your business, and which tactics have been most successful?
For us as a Non-profit organisation, Marketing looks different than for a corporate institution, although Marketing is still a vital part of running our organisation. Marketing for us is important in the sense that we want to raise awareness for the work that we do. We want everyone to be aware of the grave realities that women and girls face in India and around the world. To highlight this, below are just some statistics and realities to what women and girls face:
Close to 49% of married Indian women face abuse in their homes. A major and the overwhelming reason for this is that a big portion of India’s population still implement the dowry system, underlined by patriarchy. In one short sentence, the Dowry System undermines the value of a girl.
In essence, the dowry system leads to girls being seen as a commodity that is being traded and not recognised for her true value. Thousands if not millions of families will go into debt to pay the dowry/ gifts/ financial contribution. They will never recover from this debt and because of this, the girl is therefore seen as a burden. Add a layer of a patriarchal system on top of the girl already seen as a burden and this leads to a multitude of problems with severe consequences and ripple effects in the society.
I would just like to elaborate on some of the ripple effects and how this contributes to abuse:
One of the most horrific consequences are feticide (selective abortions) and infanticide (killing baby girls once they are born). To be killed before you are born is inexplicable – 10 million Indian girl children were brutally killed due to selective abortions) over the last 10 years. 50 million girls were exterminated from the population in the last 50 years. These are not just stats, each number represents a life.
If we move onto the trafficking of young girls, the combination of the Dowry system and patriarchy leads to the young girls seen as commodities to be traded by the traffickers and brothel owners. The average age of a girl being trafficked is only 12 years old, she is locked up and raped up to 30 times per day. The life expectancy for a girl once she is trafficked is only another 7 years due to the brutality and abuse she faces everyday AND only 1 % of ever being rescued.
So for us, Marketing is raising awareness on these severe issues mentioned above. If we raise awareness on the issues, the importance of the work that we do is highlighted. My Choices Foundation is dependent on funding to reach these vulnerable communities and women and children. We cannot do it without funding and support. Our marketing strategies include reaching out and applying for grants through huge philanthropic organizations. In addition, we continually through social media reach out to individuals and our website is a vital part of ensuring the message that we convey is sent out.
What risks are you facing and did pandemic (COVID 19) affect your organisation? If yes how and how did you continue during this time?
To be fearless for the women and girls that we serve – that was what drove our team at My Choices Foundation more than ever during COVID-19. Each one of us had to be fearless. 2020 was a deeply painful year. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed one of the deepest cracks in our society: our continued failure to protect women and girls. All crimes against women and girls showed a sharp rise, from domestic violence, child sexual exploitation, child labour, sexual harassment, to trafficking.
COVID-19 created a pandemic within a pandemic. Women had to choose between going out on the streets and being killed by the virus or staying at home and being destroyed by abuse.The unprecedented protective measures to contain the spread of pandemic has made home a dangerous place for thousands of women and children.
They are fighting for their survival from their perpetrators in the prisons of their homes. In parallel, human traffickers got creative, tweaked their ‘business models’ and abused technology to recruit and exploit victims. School closures led to increased crimes against children such as cyber-trafficking, grooming and live streaming of child sexual abuse.
We understand that the stride towards ending violence against women and girls is a long-winding road with many stumbling blocks. Honouring the words of Dr. King, we continued to march on, armed with resilience and hope amidst all adversities. Along the way, COVID-19 has taught us many life-changing lessons as well.
We have learnt how to be stronger, wiser and kinder. More than ever our team had to see through the eyes of the women and girls we serve to understand how better to help in these challenging times.As a team, we knew that the women were counting on us to continue our work and we were counting on them. Uplifting women and girls is the greatest gift we can give them, the gift of providing them with choices to live a life free from abuse.
During the pandemic We distributed essential supplies to more than 13,000 people, charted out new digital strategies and harnessed the power of technology. We discovered new ways to reach vulnerable populations, we launched an additional domestic violence helpline, we strengthened our Implementing Partners (grassroots NGOs) that are based in eight states of India and we kept going.
Have you considered any alliance/partnership/funding?
We strongly believe in partnerships at My Choices Foundation. Alone we cannot solve the magnitude of the problem, but as a collective we can.
My Choices Foundation strongly believes in partnerships and achieving SDG Goal- 17- strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. Our programs will not be feasible without the support of the immense network of grassroots NGOs that we have built over the span of years. These partnerships have helped us create a movement to bring about change in the remote parts of the country.
Our Anti-trafficking operation- Red Alert has over 100+ on-ground NGO partners. Our partner base of 100 NGOs across the country helps us understand the cultural and linguistic nuances within the community, and programs conducted through them have a greater impact. Operation Peacemaker leverage from this existing partnership. Partners also provide geographic relevance to our programs. The local contextualization that these partners provide, is critical to the success and effectiveness of our programs.
These partnerships are well established and do not require any additional partnership building from the Operation Peacemaker team and will allow for the consultant to easily conduct the awareness programs. At Operation PeaceMaker we have built very strong partnerships with the Police and Bharosa centres, we are also the preferred partner to do trainings with Police on gender sensitization.
As an organisation that works to fight gender based violence, it is very important for us to build lasting and tight relationships with the police as well. Police play a vital part in addressing the challenges that so many women face. Although we have strong relationships, it is vital to nurture these and build on them. This entails continuous action and communication from our team.
What are your responsibilities as the Founder and CEO of My Choices Foundation?
Although a founder role and the role of the CEO is that of an oversight role and that is such an important part of my day, I am actively involved in the daily operations and human resources of the organisation. My role entail liaising with funders and building crucial relationships to expand the work that we are doing.
I have to admit, without an incredible team that shares my passion and visions I will not be able to continue with the work that we do. I oversee and lead both of our Operations, Operation Red Alert and Operation Peacemaker.
How many hours a day do you work on average & can you describe/outline your typical day?
As a CEO, you work 24/7. You Are readily available if your team needs you. The work we do at My Choices Foundation is my passion and working many hours a day, is such a joy and honour. When you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. It is an honour to fight for all the women and girls that have no voice. Although it is such a joy and a passion, it also entails facing sadness and hardship that I will expand on later in the interview.
I am fond of cycling and training and believe this is such an important aspect of living a healthy lifestyle, especially leading a team. My daily routine will consist of early morning training, before I start my day. After training I start with my emails and various zoom calls setup for the day. Unfortunately, due to Covid we are not meeting in person, but are spending a lot of time online. I end my day with reading and spending time with my family.
What is your greatest fear, and how do you manage fear?
I would rather address this question as follows. Changing my greatest fear into my greatest opportunity. My greatest fear is that the injustices that the women and girls in India face continue at the scale it is currently doing. We, at My Choices Foundation have changed that, as we are actively reaching out through counselling, awareness raising to these communities and informing them of the dangers of trafficking and domestic violence. I have used my greatest fear, and changed it into an opportunity and acted on this opportunity that was presented to me.
What keeps you going, amidst the fear, difficulties and challenges as part of running an organization like My Choices Foundation?
I have to admit, the work we do is not easy. Our work deals with immense pain & suffering.
And in the process our hearts are repeatedly broken and there is a grief that sits deep in our souls. But, doing what we do everyday also gives us courage and courage transforms not just us, but also those around us. And the amazing thing about courage is that is contagious. Courage can change families and communities and villages and cities.
My team and I have been given the privilege to sstep into thousands of families’ lives & home and help them slowly repair the broken pieces, and replace violence with peace. This motivates us, the privilege that we have to step inside the homes of families.
What also motivates me is the resilience of the women and girls we work with and the courage that the women and the girls portray, who come from extremely abusive homes, is a true inspiration and keeps me going day after day.
When someone, for the first time in 14 years, shares their story with a PeaceMaker or a counselor at one of our centres for the first time, it is inspirational. It is inspirational how they have had the resilience to live through this all these years for the safety of their children. Moreover, it moves us how they have the courage to start speaking and standing up to the abuse, once they have received the tools on how to cope.
Most of these women do not have a choice to live a life without abuse and exploitation. They have to go back to their homes for the sake of the children and that displays true courage. The spirit of the human soul that does not give up can be reflected in the schoolgirls’ absolute commitment and courage to look after one another and not make the same mistake that their mothers made. In most cases, this is not the mistake of the mothers, since they were born in this situation.
But to think about a girl who dreams of a better life and is willing to learn and sit by candlelight only to have a better future and be educated – this is inspirational and this is what encourages me and my entire team.
The courage of a 14 year old that phones the helpline, stating that her parent is forcing her into a child marriage, and can we please help her. It is this type of courage, resilience and beauty of these girls that keeps us going and inspires us and that makes us get up every morning to stand up for them, when they can’t do it themselves.
What comes first for you money or emotions?
What we do, we cannot do without Money. For My Choices Foundation to function, we need adequate funds, but we do not do what we do for money or enriching ourselves – exactly the opposite. We do what we do to change the lives of women and girls in India! So for me, emotions definitely come first.
My passion for justice drives my emotions to act on the injustices that women and girls face. Everyone at My Choices is moved by passion. What we face on a daily basis results in us feeling a deep sense of sadness and a righteous anger to act. So for us, emotions before money.
What piece of advice would you give to college graduates who want to become entrepreneurs and what are the character traits needed to succeed and do you keep your passion alive?
I believe in life-long learning and that there is not such a time as “you know enough” or “you are now done with learning”. Being a leader, it is vital to listen and learn from the people around you. I am an eager learner and reader and listener, and have done this since the day I arrived in India and will continue to learn from the phenomenal women that have gone before me.
The work that we do entails new ideas and constant revisit of our vision. By continually enabling myself and learning, one can adapt and even be ahead of the changing environment around us. This entails acquiring knowledge through online courses, familiarising myself with the issues that we deal with – Law protecting women in India, The psychological habits and thoughts of perpetrators. Being familiar with a subject matter, also make one confident to operate and build your organisation. These are important habits to cultivate if one wants to be successful.
Lastly, one cannot adapt to the changing world and environment if you do not adopt technologically, and at a rapid pace. This is an important aspect to take into account when someone starts their own business as an entrepreneur or social Entrepreneur.
My Choices Foundation is proud of the technological advancements it has incorporated as part of the organisation that enables us to reach women and girls in the most remote areas of India. We built a data analytics tool, the Vulnerability Mapping Tool, to map villages highly prone to trafficking in eight states in India. Our partnership with Quantium has existed for the past three years and together, we built India’s first ‘mapping tool’ using big data analytics – identifying the most risk villages to trafficking. The Village Vulnerability Mapping Tool is big data solution developed by Quantium that analyses India’s census data; government education data, and other sources for factors such as drought, poverty level, proximity to transportation stations, educational opportunities, population, and distance to police stations; to identify the villages and towns that are most at risk of human trafficking.This allows us to prioritise and conduct our education programs on a priority basis – critical to those villages where girls are most at-risk and every moment is crucial. The tool also enables our 100+ field trainers to capture data online and in real time perform necessary analysis.
Quickly adapting to the changing environment due to Covid-19 we conceptualized the building of eLearning modules (Anti -Trafficking 101,Allied Issues & Laws & Safe Village Program, as well as Modules on Domestic Violence). Building on our existing technology platform, this proposed digital module will be built to be scalable, replicable, and sustainable. This module will have a ripple effect not only in the way we deliver training and retaining to our field workers and counsellor training, but can also become part of the program delivery.
It will enable us to spread virtually to all colleges and schools – as an open course with modules on trafficking, domestic violence, abuse against women and allied laws. The reach and impact and reach of these courses will be significant. It also entails launching all our content on open source platforms. These include different Global education platforms such as ChalKit, Philanthropy University, EDx to name a few. These online training modules will develop into accredited courses which allows people to globally participate.
Please share with us the 3 lessons learned in your journey as a social Entrepreneur?
Firstly I will echo the words of C.S Lewis: “ Do not dare not to dare” – If you don’t dare, you will never achieve. By being relentlessly brave, we grew to be one of India’s fastest growing NGO’s and the leader in prevention and awareness work.
Bringing and END to Gender-based violence - is one of THE MOST powerful ideas in the world worth spreading!
Secondly: Be sure to have a strong purpose and unwavering vision of what you want to create and achieve. If this is not clear to you and the team, we will not be able to reach the women and girls in India and give them a life free of abuse and exploitation.
Lastly: Embrace the grieve that comes with the journey. Grieving with the injustices and pain these women and girls are facing is not a weakness. It can become a strength if it is channeled correctly.
What advice would you give students and young professionals who want to have a successful career?
There is a saying – “A dream is something you want to do, but a Calling is something you have to do.” Starting a business or starting a Nonprofit Organization has one definite characteristic in common and that is the unrelenting desire and passion for what you believe in. My passion for righteousness, a righteous anger – to give women and girls choices to live a life free of abuse is so strong, it motivated me to take action and start My Choices Foundation. The desire will result in success although there are many obstacles along the way.
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