Vandana Suri from TAXSHE empowering women drivers in India – a positive change for a better future
A woman faces a lot of challenges in India. We talk about gender equality, but still women empowerment is in shackles in our country. We still think that a woman is dependent on a man. But, times are changing and people are taking positive steps towards a change.
A few people are taking progressive steps towards women empowerment and their efforts are commendable. Vandana Suri founded TAXSHE with a vision to empower Indian women, to choose a profession which has been male-dominated till date and help them live on their own terms. Her endeavor has been a welcome change and has helped many women from the lower strata of the society finding a new way of life. TAXSHE has been featured at several places from BBC, TOI, DeccanHerald, The Hindu to Sheroes, LinkedIn and others as well.
Recently her story was featured in a book released by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) called “Bold and Brilliant – Stories that inspire” along with celebrities like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Vinita Bali, Deepika Padukone, Jija Harisingh, and many others.
[BV]: Tell us something about Vandana Suri as an individual.
[VS]: I am a single mom, whose world revolves around my child, who is my strength, and for whom I have natural motherly concerns. I have capitalized on this strong motherhood instinct to set up a business where I can extend this care and keep more children safe. I created a fleet of women drivers who do more than transporting people from one place to the other. I believe in hard work, dignity at work and in creating opportunities. I believe, to lead, one must set an example. So, I broke the stereotype and became the first woman driver of my organization and inspired others to join. This experience also made me understand the difficulties the women might face on the road and be ready with a strategy to make it comfortable for her team.
[BV]: How and When did TAXSHE start? Tell us more about ROO.
[VS]: In November 2014, a rape in a cab in Delhi made headlines. The voice of the victim was very clear, “If there was a woman driving me, this would not have happened.” That statement stirred me to the core. I realized that I had to do something about this myself than waiting for a change. That motivated me to start TAXSHE which came into existence in Jan 2015.
I realized that one of the few reasons why women driving industry had never taken off was because the women who would drive, were themselves unsafe. And I had to first make the drivers safe. So we decided to cater to a segment which needed us most, the kids. That is when I thought of a logo, and the one thing that came to mind was a kangaroo – a very caring animal yet a very strong one, who would constantly keep its baby in the pocket safe with her. Then, I decided to brand my women drivers as ROO- a short form for the kangaroo.
I wanted to move beyond the blue and white collar system in India. Here the societal status of the driver did not matter. What mattered is that the driver will be a lady, keeping a child safe. This was also helping in building up respect for her. Not only from the society but value for what she was doing herself, this was beyond just a regular job, this was a responsibility she was taking up and loving it.
[BV]: How does NEEVA Foundation work? What are its main objectives? Who are your major partners or collaborators?
[VS]: Once the business module of TAXSHE was cemented, making it safe for the women driving as well as for the clientele, then came the task of building this up further. A business thinks very differently from an NGO, and we realized an NGO was required with a whole lot of softer skills to reach out to the underprivileged women. This gave birth to NEEVA FOUNDATION (Neev in Hindi means foundation). NEEVA took up the task of mobilizing women from the slums and training them extensively in professional driving skills over a 6-8 month period. Yes, it takes that long for a lady to be ready to drive you. These women are from a very poor background and have never even sat in a car prior, how can they think about driving? It takes a whole lot of real-time driving and skilling. They also support the girls with self-defence, legal and gender training, grooming, first aid. All this builds up her confidence even further, it is a total personality overhaul.
We have seen a lot of support for the work we do. We have been supported extensively from MARUTI SUZUKI, AZAD FOUNDATION, MAHINDRA FINANCE and a few individuals who have come and helped out in their personal capacity for sponsoring their training or contributing by way of adopting these women for grooming and confidence building.
[BV]: In India, many are still not so confident about women drivers. Does this mentality affect your business? How do you cope with it?
[VS]: In fact, it has been the opposite for us. The Roos have been accepted very well by the clients. Firstly, the bigger issue getting solved here is their child’s safety. Women drivers are your best bet against child sexual abuse. The parents have welcomed this change and are extremely supportive. The training itself has been very strong so we have not really faced negativity on this front as of now. Initially maybe for a month or so, these concerns were there. However, there were more than enough supporters. Soon the message spread out in the society that women are safer drivers, then the same parents entrust their kids to us.
[BV]: Women’s safety is a big concern in India. How do you ensure the safety of both your drivers and the passengers (mostly kids), especially for long journeys?
[VS]: The Roos are trained in self-defence, they are also equipped with pepper sprays (thankfully we haven’t needed to use them as yet). They are tracked via live GPS. Even parents and families have been given that link.
Our cabs are also not coloured pink or anything which will call for attention. There are small stickers on the car and that’s about it. It doesn’t shout that there is a woman driving or a woman passenger in the car. This has worked extremely well for late night airport drives, we don’t attract any unwanted attention. It was important to play down on loud branding, again going against the regular branding norms.
[BV]: Do you face competition from the big players in your field Ola, Uber, etc.? How do you deal with it?
[VS]: No, not in the school segment at all, this is a totally different segment altogether. In fact, many people have been calling us the Uber for kids! Thanks to the goodwill enhancement of our existing clients, now in Bangalore anytime a parent needs to send his child alone, TAXSHE has earned itself the privilege of being the first and only automatic car rental service by default choice of the parents.
We do face pricing issues for late night drives to the airport, as we are more premium. But we very patiently explain to the clients that if the lady driving the cab does not make a handsome pay for driving in the nights, her family will not allow her to take up this career itself. And we must support this till the numbers increase to build this industry. People are open and willing to understand this. Generally, we charge clients Rs. 23 per km plus 5% GST. Since this is a new industry, it will take time to develop and stabilize and clients understand that.
[BV]: How do you balance your personal and professional lives?
[VS]: Wow, this is a tough one! I wonder if I can call this balance, I think jugglery is a better word for this! Thankfully I have a wonderful son who is very proud of his mommy, and I have a very supportive mom who believes in women to women strength. So they both back me up like a wall with patience. Like all moms, I do go into a guilt state every now and then, but the overall purpose of what is taking shape dilutes the guilt quite a bit.
Even professionally, the way we have brought up these women, they have become like my adopted kids. So currently, I have 25 daughters aged between 30 to 45 years, some even older than me! But what the heck, they are also my children today.
[BV]: You believe that every woman is an HR personnel. How do you explain that? How do you think a woman should discover her untapped potential?
[VS]: I think multitasking is the biggest asset that a woman has, and it is in her power to unleash this productively. Let us understand that in India, we women have a tradition of going into our in-laws’ place after marriage and dealing with so many new people and blending in. That requires good management skills, isn’t it? How many people able to do that properly? But every woman in India does that. Also, financial management comes right from managing the home itself.
When we already have these skills, then why undermine our talent and potential. We need to realize what we have, not when someone else just keeps telling us about it. Another person’s stamp of approval is not needed, maybe the other people are just not as adequately equipped as you are!
[BV]: What are the common challenges or concerns that you face from women drivers? How do you train and motivate them to be the best?
[VS]: The biggest challenge we face on the road is lack of toilet facilities. This is a seriously sad state of affairs. Men pee on the road, where do women go?
As far as the women drivers are concerned, most of the times the apprehension from their families is that this is not a safe job, timings are another challenge and taking care of their kids is also a major concern. We have therefore managed these reservations by giving the Roos fixed drives, fixed routes, fixed clientele. Our retail business is pretty low, as we have the whole day blocked with school kids, tuition going kids as well as office women. Plus our pricing is more premium, yes, this is one industry where the women make MORE than their male counterparts. We have given them higher income, respect and the feeling of being wanted. By driving kids, they understand the role they are playing in the society, they are just not drivers, they are caretakers, much in demand. They are keeping children safe. It is the pride that brings them here. The children love them and are totally non-judgmental of their financial backgrounds.
We train these women for over 6 months in driving skills. So wherever – practically everywhere there is traffic hell, is a training zone for us! We love Silkboard Junction, Whitefield, Hebbal, these are our obstacle courses for training! Not only do we train in driving, there are more courses like English speaking, self-defence, legal rights, first aid, financial literacy. All these further build up her confidence.
[BV]: Where do you see yourself and your brand in the next 5 years?
Hopefully in history textbooks! For changing the face of women driving industry in India. We are looking at around 4000 women drivers on the road, keeping close to 80000 women and kids safe every single day. This is my modest dream.
[BV]: 3 words to describe your family.
Love, pride and fun.
[BV]: What do you love to do the most apart from your work?
Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, zzzzzzz….
[BV]: Any particular success story that you would like to share.
Roo Sujata was abandoned and dumped by her parents when she was 3 years. She was working at a pizza outlet from morning 8 am to 11 pm, earning a meager of Rs. 7000. Then, she got trained with us, joined our Organization and now she has her own car attached to us and earns around Rs.60,000/- per month today. She is not highly educated but earns more than many techies. This is truly a success story for her as well as us.
[BV]: What has been your ONE biggest moment of happiness of achievement in your entrepreneurial journey.
There was this polio-affected girl Selvi who worked with us who had a small limp. So the RTO refused to give her the license. We had to fight with the RTO from the beginning. But, the day she went for her permanent license test, the expression on the face of the RTO officer changed. He was totally zapped with her confidence and skills. That glee in her eyes and the pride on her face was enough for me to know that WE HAVE MADE IT.
[BV]: A piece of advice for women who wants to start something of their business.
Nothing is easy. You have to jump in. You cannot put your toe in the water and learn to swim. There will be losses, but count them as experiences which you will value for the rest of your life. So, when there is nothing to lose, what are you waiting for?
BananiVista wishes her all the best in her future endeavors and eager to see TAXSHE achieve many more milestones.
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