Social entrepreneur Lakshmi N Menon on her unique business ideas

Kannur: Lakshmi N Menon is not just an entrepreneur who has climbed the stairs of success, becoming a role model for young women who aspires to become businesswomen. She is also a social worker who deserves the credit for reviving a unique cultural heritage after Kerala was ravaged by the deluge of 2018. With her unique ideas and enthusiastic personality, Lakshmi weaved a beautiful tale of grit, courage and survival.

The iconic ‘Chekkutty’ dolls that was born in the flood-ravaged weavers’ village of Chendamangalam travelled all the way to the United Nations to spread the message of love and compassion. The ‘Chekkutty’ dolls that were made from the damaged handloom fabric from Chendamangalam were sold for Rs 25 in India and for a higher price abroad. The amount that was collected like this was distributed among the weavers who had lost everything in the flood.

Image Credit : Special Arrangement/Manorama Online

Lakshmi then focussed on producing cloth wicks called ‘Ammoomathiri’, ensuring employment and income for the elderly living in old age homes. Meanwhile, the insurance project that she had introduced for the fisherfolk who had turned saviours during the floods had been successful. Anyone could sponsor a fisherman by paying an annual premium amount of Rs 24. To promote this, the students of various campuses in Kerala made paper boats that bore messages of love and hope for the fisherfolk. Those paper boats are now exhibited at the NIFT campus in Kochi. Lakshmi even plans to create an artistic installation using those paper boats.

During the lockdown period, Lakshmi appealed to everyone who was stuck inside homes to make miniature houses or ‘Coveedu’ to gift to police personnel, health workers and other frontline warriors. With miniature houses and food packets, people honoured the service of the COVID-19 warriors. Now, Lakshmi is busy planning a project called ‘Toil Less’ to ensure safe and clean wayside toilets for women.

Lakshmi is a member of the national innovation foundation governing council. She has won countless awards and honours including the prestigious Vanitha Woman of the Year award. She was also included in the ‘Genius’ list of the renowned Marie Claire magazine. In 2017, an online media house had included her in their list of ’10 Most Inspiring Indian Woman Entrepreneur’. In an exclusive interview with Manorama Online, Lakshmi N Menon speaks about her life, her missions and her future plans.

What was your first innovative idea?
When I was working in a gallery in the US, I wanted to introduce something unique. That is how I came up with the idea of straw art. I thought that it would be amazing to create attractive designs on cards and fabrics using a straw. I learned that craft as I thought that there was a great scope for it. Babu, an artist who is based in Kollam trained me in straw art. I took the raw materials and some tools with me to the US.

I tried straw art on wedding cards, jewellery and fabric. This was a novel idea for the people in the US. I called it hay art. The word ‘straw picture’ didn’t capture the essence of the art in its fullest sense. I also work in paper, glass, fabrics, metal and timber. After that, DC Books asked me to recreate M Mukundan’s novel ‘Pravasam’ in hay art.

Image Credit : Special Arrangement/Manorama Online

Many firms like the Radisson made their souvenirs and gift pieces done in hay art. The success of hay art compelled me to turn to the traditional art and culture of Kerala. I felt that local items could easily grab global attention. These items would attract attention amid the usual stuff.

It is the hay art that gave me the confidence to promote a product like ‘Amoomathiri’. In the US, if we have a great story to associate with the product, then it would have more appeal. It would attract great attention if the product has a social angle too. In San Francisco, handicrafts items have great significance and the products attract great price. I used to earn 15 – 20 dollars per hour even twenty years ago. People are aware that handmade items are expensive. We cannot compare the prices with what we have here. I had done wedding cards for 20 dollars apiece. 

What was your first project as an entrepreneur?
My first business was a handloom project that I did with Indu Menon who hails from Kanjiramattam and her daughter. We sold towels made in handloom fabric. My mother too was a partner. I thought that empowerment happens in society when skilled people do jobs like these. That has been an inspiration to include people of the locality while planning other projects.

Were you inspired by any incidents to help society?
In 2008, I had flown down from the US to accompany a friend for cancer treatment at the RCC in Thiruvananthapuram. My friend had to undergo chemotherapy. I bought medicines worth Rs 9000 at the pharmacy. When I asked for a bag, they told me that they don’t sell bags. I made a cloth bag using my shawl and carried the medicines. I was saddened when I saw that most people were carrying medicines in their hands. These medicines are costly and the poor people wouldn’t be able to afford them if one of them slipped out and broke.

Image Credit : Special Arrangement/Manorama Online

During those days, eco-friendly non-woven bags were easily available for Rs 2. I enquired about it to their purchase manager. He replied that they used to supply bags earlier, but had stopped giving bags anymore. I felt that it wouldn’t be a great expense to give a bag that costs just Rs 2 for those who buy medicines worth thousands. I found a bag supplier. Then I went to the RCC again and asked whether they would give bags for Rs 2 if I arrange the supplier. They thought that I run a bag business. I contacted doctors who are my relatives to convince the authorities there.

Even after going back to the US, I kept pestering by constantly contacting RCC. One day, when I called them, they informed me that they had decided to give me the bag for free. I was really happy. The first thing I did when I reached Kerala the next time was to visit RCC and see for myself whether they were doing it. I was excited as if I had won a lottery. I understood that anything could be achieved if we tried hard. Then I began looking for opportunities to make some changes in society. The energy that I got from RCC had inspired me to take up projects like Ammoomathiri, Shayya and Chekkutty dolls.

Where do you get the ideas from?
I have worked with a few NGOs in the US. I had read somewhere that Bic had produced more than 100 billion pens until 2000. If those pens were placed one after the other, it would be long enough to go around the earth 360 times. All I could think about was the massive plastic waste it would have created. I used to do paper crafting at my gallery. I made paper pens out of fun. I then drew pictures of the Golden Gate on the paper pens that were sold as gift items. By 2008 – 10, I began regularly visiting Kerala. I began selling paper pens here seeing the extent of plastic pollution. Later, I began making pens using seeds and named them ‘Pen with Love’. I trained persons with disabilities to make these seed pens. Now ‘Pen with Love’ has become a source of income for hundreds of people in many rural areas.

My grandmother Bhavani Amma brims with energy even at this age. She keeps doing something all the time. She makes cloth wicks to light the lamp during our evening prayers. I began thinking that I could gift them to my relatives if she makes more. My grandmother was happy when I told her that. We began gifting cloth wicks to our friends and relatives who visited our home. I named it ‘Ammoommathiri’. One day, she asked me whether the wicks had any demand. I then realised that she was really enjoying it.

Image Credit : Special Arrangement/Manorama Online

I tried this idea with the help of two others and it clicked. Later, I decided to introduce this project at an old age home. I thought that this would not only become a pastime for them, but a source of income too. I then turned it into a business plan.

‘Grand Mark’ is another project where products made by the elderly are marketed under a brand. Only the products made by those who are above 65 would have this unique mark of distinction. There is a retired professor who makes pickles. The income that she earns from it is used for the education of her maid’s daughter. There are small tales of goodness like this behind it.

What about Shayya?
I began Shayya in 2020 March. I saw two little kids sleeping on the roadside, while I was traveling to Bengaluru via road. I wondered how to gift them mattresses so that they can sleep comfortably. Tailoring wastes were stuffed into mattresses. Tiny mattresses were made without any huge investment. Lack of employment during the COVID-19 and cutting waste from the PPE kit units were major challenges. These problems too were solved with the help of Shayya project. The cutting waste from PPE kits and masks were used for making mattresses. There is no need for expert skills or training to do this job. Besides, the government had instructed to open at least 50 CFLTCs in every panchayat. We could produce mattresses that were required at these centers. We used PPE waste for that. Moreover, we widely spread the videos of it to find solutions for unemployment.

9 tonnes of PPE cutting waste were used at Shayya across the state. This massive waste that could have ended up in water sources or would have been burned were turned into soft mattresses.

Who do you discuss your ideas first?
I discuss them first with my mother. Then, I speak to my friend Anju who is settled in the US. There are a few mentors too. They would interfere only if it has the potential to materialise.

What about ‘Toil Less’?
This is my latest project. I plan to build wayside toilets for women. I always wonder why we don’t have clean toilets for women. The real issue is not about having toilets but keeping them clean. The government cannot bear the expenses of keeping the bathrooms clean. There are limitations for the NGOs too. I thought it would be wise to collaborate with private entrepreneurs. Even though toilet facilities are available at the petrol pumps, they might not keep them clean as it is free. Hotels and small firms also have bathrooms. The wedding halls are closed for half of the year. The toilets here could be renovated and opened for the public. So, there is no need to build new toilets. Private entrepreneurs can arrange toilet facilities and maintain them properly. However, they should charge a small fee. You can pay up to Rs 30 – 50 for clean toilets with all the facilities. Resting centres, leisure spaces, kiosks and tea stalls too should be arranged as part of the toilet complexes. Technical factors too are significant in this age.

How do you plan to inform the people about the location of these high–end washrooms?
It would cost at least Rs 10 lakh for making the app. So, we have decided to give information about the location through Instagram. Such high–end toilets could be built near the plant and pet nurseries in the urban areas. Those who use the toilets would definitely buy two plants. The same thing would happen at the tea stalls and at small stores. Toil less means seamless.

The names of the projects are interesting?
I am the one who comes up with these unique names. At the Jwala awards ceremony, Mammootty appreciated me for the name ‘Ammoomathiri’. I think he really enjoyed that name. He also liked the name ‘Pen with Love’. I like to visualise everything. These names just come to me when I sit down to write. Now, I cannot talk about a project without having a good name for it.

What inspired you to connect the innovative projects with the common people?
I am genetically modelled to show kindness and compassion to society. My greatest fortune is that I was born in an amazing family. My father PK Narayanan was the Rubber Board Commissioner. I have seen him associating with the local communities and working alongside them. My father who wears a chic safari suit to a conference at the Taj would change to a simple mundu and thorth on his shoulder to attend the awareness campaigns for the rubber farmers. He had realised that even your outfit could help you acquire the trust of the farmers and become one among them. The farmers had great respect for him. He used to take us to our relatives’ homes. He managed to have a close and special relationship with everyone. All these have inspired my thoughts too. My mother Sreedevi too was like that. The workers at the rubber board employees’ quarters would come straight to our home if they are injured. They were sure that they would get the first aid treatment at any time.

Everyone had right over the mangoes on our mango tree. We enjoyed community living there. My elder brother Vasudev who runs a supermarket chain in the US too is like that. Both my grandfathers had earned name as social workers in their respective places.

Don’t you think you would get more opportunities to work among people if you enter politics?
Not at all. Our politicians have lots of jobs. I can do small things well. I do not like things to remain in paper. I would reveal my ideas only if people could connect to them.

What are your aims?
I wish to travel whenever I want. I like to enjoy and experience everything closely. I am not interested in sitting aloof breaking my brains about the market and targets. I am extremely happy about what I have achieved so far. I got the global patent for the seed pens. I did that not to make money, but to prevent anyone else from getting the patent and mass-producing the pens to enjoy the monetary benefit. Seed pens are made at many places. Many people had asked permission to be part of the Shayya project. We had been spreading videos of mattress making since the beginning so that everyone can do that freely.

Gender-neutral outfits have become the topic of discussion now?
Outfits should be one’s personal choice. I cannot do many jobs wearing a saree. But, my mother would do that easily. Meanwhile, my brother Vasudev insists on wearing the mundu whenever he is in Kerala. I feel the same about uniforms too. Let the students wear whatever they want. We should be discussing more about giving better education for our children.

What is your professional background?
After completing my graduation in Home Science, I studied fashion designing at Chennai. I worked as a jewellery designer in the US. I had designed jewellery for the New York fashion week. In 2000, I designed the corporate office of DC Books. This was my first project as a professional designer. After that I went to the US. I made paper products at the gallery. I did design jobs too. Besides, I did the interior designing of John’s Unbrellas’ corporate office, CIAL, homes as well as restaurants. I occasionally take up such jobs even now.

(Lakshmi who was born in Kottayam now lives at Kanjiramattam in Ernakulam)

What about help and support from the government?
All these projects can be taken up and maintained by the government. It would be really helpful for the common people. Moreover, these aren’t expensive projects.


Maria Flores

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