Rohan Vyavaharkar spoke to Shruti Gonsalves, MD & CEO, Sitara, on how the use of DEI as a strategic lever has helped them build a stronger and differentiated business.
Q1. What is the core philosophy behind building Sitara as a housing finance company aimed exclusively at the under-served segment of low-income women?
Our core philosophy has been heavily inspired by and drawn from the SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) approach of organizing self-employed women in the informal economy and assisting their collective journey for greater social justice, equality, and fair treatment. SEWA is among the largest central trade unions in India, with a membership of over 2.5 million low-income, self-employed women workers from the informal economy across India, with the twin goals of achieving full employment and self-reliance for its members.
At Sitara, we believe that the dream of every woman, especially in the lower income brackets, is “to have her own house”. Our vision is to help her realise her dream. Our mission is to finance access to decent housing and sound living environments for and with participation of low-income women and their families, particularly those employed in the informal sector. Sitara aims at improving the quality of life of these informally employed households, especially the women, by creating a tangible financial asset in their name, usually the first-ever asset in their own name.
Q2. Almost all the loans disbursed by Sitara are deposited into a woman’s account and every loan must be co-signed by a woman. How has this changed the fabric of communities you operate in?
Creation of financial assets creates opportunities for women from low-income families to generate income, accumulate assets, and participate more fully in both economic activities and household decisions, thereby promoting social and economic empowerment.
We aim to empower our customers and provide them more autonomy. This started changing the fabric of communities that we operate in because a house provides a safe and secure environment, as well as a means for income generation. It also has a positive impact on other axes of well-being and quality of life such as hygiene and sanitation. For instance, having a toilet within the house is one of the requirements in getting the home loan. Housing security also positively impacts other critical facets like food and nutrition, health, safety, etc.
Q3. What are the product design features that are specifically women friendly?
We have several features aimed specifically at making our loan women-focused.
First and foremost, the woman of the family has to be the main applicant in the loan request, and the money is deposited in the account registered in her name. The ownership rights of property should be with the woman, or she should be a joint-owner.
Another key feature is that building and maintenance of water and sanitation facilities are mandatory to keep receiving disbursals of the loan, thus ensuring that women have these facilities within the house, reducing risk of infection and promoting hygiene as well as safety.
We also ensure that the branches have female loan officers, and that branch officers form personal connections with the applicants to be able to assist them throughout the process, especially since most of the applicants tend to be uneducated.
Q4. What is the composition of the Board and leadership team at Sitara? Has it been a conscious decision? How does this composition impact your business?
The Board of Sitara consists of 5female and 6 male Board members. This mix has definitely been a conscious decision. A business like ours needs a more empathetic and balanced approach while managing and driving business growth. It was also important to us that both male and female team members complement and support each other to create diversity of human capital, resulting in equity, and an innovative and diverse workforce.
It is critical to us that every leadership team member is completely mission-aligned. It would, of course, be easier to grow if we widened our target segment, but our genesis was our focus on our current TG, i.e. women employed in the informal sector. Thus, we have also ensured that whenever someone joins the senior team, as well as in the wider team across the organisation, they understand and relate to the mission. This ensures that the interests of our end-customer remain front and centre in all our decision making.
Q5. At the overall team level, what have been the roadblocks in making Sitara a more diverse workplace? What according to you is the most difficult axis of DEI to build out in an organisation?
While it has been our endeavour in making a more diverse workplace, we have faced various roadblocks.
The big one has been in tier II and III cities where we face challenges in hiring women in field positions due to various aspects like demography, shortage of the right skills, road connectivity, safety perceptions, etc. There is also a perception that banks are safer to work in than privately owned housing finance companies. Hence, female employees prefer working in banks than in housing finance companies.
For us, the most difficult axis of DEI to build out in an organization is Equity. People often confuse equity with equality. Equity strives to identify the specific requirements of employees — needs that are related to ethnicity, age, religion, gender identity, and so on. It subsequently takes the varying needs of each group into account by working to make up the difference between the minority and majority groups. In short, equity is key to truly empowering minorities of any kind.
Q6. What steps have you taken to ensure the diversity of views across the organisation, especially given the different markets you operate in, are heard and factored into your decision making?
We have taken several steps to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and taken into account while making decisions, especially since we are spread across multiple branches, regions, and types of needs of customers.
- Strong governance structure in place
- Policies framed and circulated to all employees
- A bottom-top approach to understand the experiences of people on the ground and take their feedback when drafting and finalising policy
- People-centric HR team which connect with employees through various platforms like HRMS, regular meetings, as well as other digital platforms and provide various communications channels and forums to address grievances of employees
- Management team’s open and transparent communication with employees at large using various mediums such as regular branch visits, webinars, WhatsApp groups etc.
- Voice of Customer - Regular customer connects and engagements also help us in understanding the needs and challenges of customers
Q7. Finally, how would you explain the importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as a strategic lever to young founders? How would you advise them on getting started with DEI?
In today’s day and age where markets are getting highly competitive, Diversity & Equity in the workplace — with true inclusion — matters to employees and customers, and even for the long-term business growth. Diversity in the workplace expands and solidifies the customer base, by allowing various viewpoints and innovative solutions, and sometimes even unique ideas that can provide business edge. A well-thought through DEI strategy can also help build long-term business growth goals.
Young Founders can follow a 4-step process:
- Empowering rigorous and proven data-led DEI strategies, priorities, and roadmaps
- Benchmarking and communicating internal progress with global standards, industry standards, and peers
- Involving objective, mission-aligned 3rd parties to stress-test strategies and plans. For example, we worked with one of our investors to come up with a Gender Action Plan, which also helped us identify gaps in our plan and fix them before executing it
Regular tracking and monitoring of DEI Priorities and roadmaps, and pivoting strategies and goals when required