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Interview with Nupur Agarwal - Evolve Foundation (India)

Updated: Jul 4, 2023


















Ms. Nupur Agarwal


Ms. Agarwal is a social entrepreneur from Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. She co-founded the Evolve Foundation in 2016. The foundation is described as a sustainable ecosystem designed to economically benefit rural, Indian communities. Evolve achieves their mission in a variety of ways through supporting farmers and sustainable farming, empowering women, and furthering the education of children. Another incredible accomplishment is the creation of Dehradun Drum Circle to promote self-expression. Ms. Nupur Agarwal and her work have been recognized on multiple platforms including Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ list, being named one of ‘100 Successful Women Entrepreneurs in [Micro, Small, & Medium Enterprises] MSME’, and was honored with the United Nation Volunteering Award. The interview will focus on Ms. Nupur Agarwal’s experience and challenges as a young woman and the creation of the Dehradun Drum Circle and Evolve Foundation.


Visit our "Organizations" tab to learn more about the Evolve Foundation



Gender Equality Statistics


India

Gender Development Index: 0.820 deviation

Gender Inequality Index: 0.488

Group Classification: 5; low equality in human development amongst genders


 

Interview with Ms. Nupur Agarwal (Shortened Transcript)


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

My students are really interested in knowing about your hometown Dehradun- how large is that community?


Nupur Agarwal

15 lakhs….Like 1.5 million.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Yes, so 1.5 million in Dehradun. How did you feel as a young woman, growing up in a large city like that?


Nupur Agarwal

According to Indian standards, this is not a big city. We have cities like Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore, which have populations of like 20 times [that of Dehradun]. You know, according to the Indian standards, it's a fairly small town. It's not a really big city.

I believe it's a little tough and a little challenging, because even if you're an educated woman, a majority of the time you are asked to get married, have children, and take care of the house… basically to only be a housewife. Unless you’re really breaking the ice and doing breakthrough work. You have the motivation to fight against society, prove yourself, and prove that your work has a bigger value, impact, or purpose to you. Otherwise, most educated women from very good family backgrounds also get dragged into this entire stigma of being a housewife.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

So, Nupur, when you were growing up there in Dehradun, your family was expecting you to become a housewife?


Nupur Agarwal

Yeah, so, although my family's very advanced and supportive, they still felt this societal pressure the day we turned 25. The family needs to start finding a boy for her. This is still a culture of arranged marriages, so it's the family [of the girl] who looks for a boy and all those things. I had to really fight that. I had to say No, I am not meant for arranged marriages and let me do my work and I will find a boy for myself. I eventually got married at the age of 29 to a person whom I wanted to marry and with whom I was doing my business.

It wasn't a cakewalk for me to be able to do this, because the guy I married doesn't belong to my caste- he's different- and also because we were working together.

I understand that in a lot of places, women are allowed to work. Not out of choice, but out of compulsion. It is because they have to add money for the upbringing of the household. That is why they are allowed to work, but if a family's well off, they will never let their women or their girls work, because they feel that women should not do it. In a sense, they feel we have enough money. Why are you working? Don't work. Instead, just relax at home and party. But if the woman says No, I want to start a business or property or do a job, with respect to how much money they have, I think that becomes a problem.

It is a challenge, but I feel women today are breaking all these barriers- again I'm talking about masses, you know, I'm talking about a bigger size of the population- and a lot of women are coming up front, becoming entrepreneurs, doing jobs, and so many more things.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

I was thinking, there must be a moment when you are growing up that you see all of these limits you have to deal with as a woman. When was that moment in your case? When you realized, Oh my God, this is so small for me. I need to break limits here and I'm going to recreate my work. When did you feel that you [must] do something like that to be able to be happy?


Nupur Agarwal

It was in 2014, around the same time I studied abroad in England. I come from a very privileged background, but the scenario is the same: either I had to work with my family business, or I had to get married. I could not do anything else. I broke through those limits and shackles in 2014, but it is not like you just tell your family or society once and they will accept. You have to keep hammering their thoughts. Even today, I hammer their thoughts, again and again, to my in-laws, to my own parents, and the rest of our society. I have fought for so many other women in our society [by] saying, There is no limit for a woman just because it's a different gender. You can't limit her. She has the same arms, legs, eyes, nose, mouth- everything is the same- brain and heart. Everything is the same. Why do you have to discriminate and distinguish?

I think that was in 2014, around the same time in October, when I felt extremely sick. I was vulnerable and low on energy, so I was bed resting for about three months. I was in India, and I was literally scolding my parents by telling them, you don't let me do what I want to. I was also upset with society. Society was always judging me for what I [was] doing, and because of this, my parents were forced to judge me. I felt very sick, because I was so depressed and unmotivated in life. That was when I realized I wanted to work to empower people - probably just coming out of my own need to be empowered. If I empower more people, I will be more empowered.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

You told me that at some point, you went to the United Kingdom- to England- to study. What did you feel when you arrived? Did you miss what you left behind? Did you find a “new” world?


Nupur Agarwal

I went to England when I was 17 years old, so I was very, very little. Before that, I studied in a boarding school. While I was a school student, I had also traveled to Europe and England. So, it wasn't a very big challenge for me to be in England. I lived in an all-girls boarding school and from there I went to England to a college sort of a life in a small town called Lancaster, so that wasn't [a big change].

But when I came back from Lancaster, I was almost 21-22 years of age, and that was a bigger shock for me. I was molded into a very different person. I was not what society expected, you know. I was more like a global citizen than a very core, Indian, original citizen. I valued humanity above gender, castes, and religion, so being accepted by society and my own family and friends was very difficult, because they had different expectations. I had turned into a different person. They thought I was the same, little child who was left in a boarding school, and I thought my parents were those I knew when I was in class seven. But times changed, and we all had changed.

I felt that I was given the wings to fly, but as I came back, my wings were cut.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

How did people treat you in Lancaster? I mean, we all know that there are differences, but unfortunately in our world, if you come from another country, the first thing people think and feel about you is that you’re a foreigner.


Nupur Agarwal

No, I did not feel like a foreigner. I think I had a beautiful set of friends. I had a very beautiful ecosystem around me. I think I could integrate very well. Evidence of that is that I became the Vice President of my college my second year.

I don't look like how foreigners imagine Indians look. I would probably look like a Spanish person because of the color of my skin. White and brown eyes and brown hair, so I don't look like a typical Indian. And I could speak English very well. I was very, very good in my academics, with my public relationships and my networking, and participated in all sorts of events. I wanted to try new things. I was not the only foreigner. It was a multicultural/ethnic campus.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Would you recommend any woman or man that is around that age- 17 to 19- to try to experience something similar to what you did? That is, to live abroad in another country or society? Is it important to live abroad for a while for us to develop as a person?


Nupur Agarwal

It is very important to move out of your comfort zone, move out of your shell, learn new languages, meet new people, discover new challenges and new possibilities. In our culture, we have this expression: “kupamanduka” meaning frog in a well. Do you want to be a frog in a well? A frog which just knows the boundaries of a well? Or do you want to jump out of the well and become a prince/princess?

One must travel and explore and meet more people and gather more experience and information. A lot of information today is available on the Internet and in books. You can read and gather a lot of information, but only your physical presence, experiences, and exposure will leverage more and more experience in your life. Once you combine that experience with the information that you've gathered in books, I believe you will become a wiser human being and you will become more impactful.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

After first dealing with that society and dealing with your physical and psychological issues, you began to develop an amazing number of initiatives. How did you begin this new period of your life? What was the first project that you began to develop?


Nupur Agarwal

The first project that we started was Dehradun Drum Circle. Our goal was basically to create a discrimination-free society and a more outspoken society, because I felt that we do not express ourselves a lot. Because we do not express ourselves, we have less acceptance. This leads to a lot of discrimination. They say, This is how things are done. Everything is very limited. We started this movement at that time, and it was coming out of my own challenges, those I was facing at a personal level. I did it with some friends who were facing the same challenges, so it became like a social movement.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

You founded Evolve Foundation, a really interesting project. I’m interested in knowing how you could develop this project in rural/traditional communities being a young woman.


Nupur Agarwal

Yeah, so I think I had an advantage there, being a woman, talking about change, and being young I think that was very well accepted, because when a young child goes carrying a bag on their back and just goes door to door asking people, Would you like to join? Would you like to do it?, I think that shows a lot of purity and a lot of good intentions, different from what one can expect if starting a big industry. In this case, you are not creating a community. Instead you are basically enslaving people and making them your own sort of employees by buying and paying them.

That wasn't the scenario in our case though. We weren't buying them. Rather, they were trying to help us instead of [us] trying to help them. It is not who has adopted that place, [rather] it is that place which has adopted us. You know, a lot of philanthropists say, We've adopted this community. Actually, who are you to adopt that community? It is that community which has adopted you. They have accepted you, but you have not accepted them. You do not have the power to accept them.

I see a lot of philanthropists in African areas, like people from America and developed parts of the world, coming in. [Similar to] what the USA did with Afghanistan. It is very sad. They come and say, Oh, we're protecting you, and when they need actual protection, they say, Oh no, we can't protect you anymore. Then, Why were you there for more than 10 years? What were you doing? Then you say that you spent three- I don't know how many- trillion dollars. Their economy is not even worth a billion. The economy of Afghanistan is not worth billions. It is such a shame. It is a shame- not on a country, but it is a shame on humanity- what is happening in the 21st century with Afghanistan. Is this how we have evolved as humans? It is the same as what barbaric people did. There is not much difference between what happened 2000 years back and what is happening right now. And then we say we're protecting…? I found this very funny. Again, I might have very different opinions on how international diplomacy works, but on a humanitarian front, I feel this is not justified.

I am putting this information here to answer your question regarding how well [I was] accepted. We work the other way around. We never went as God to them. You know how people come off acting as if they are stronger? They come with full egos crowned on their heads. I am powerful. I am the god. I am the influencer. Follow me. Then, when you ask them to do something, they pack their bags and go back. So I would say, we never went as Gods then. We went as one of them. We never told them, We will change your lives. We said, Come, let's work together and see what we can do. We do not have money but are looking for money to do something better. You also don't have money, but you have the resources and your tradition. We have some modern language and know how to speak English, but the content will be yours. You tell me your story in your tribal language. Then I will convert it to English because the world understands English. We will give you credit and let’s sell it.

Just saying that rather than, Oh, we are great human beings, and we are Gods, and we are really doing you a favor by helping you. We are not like that. Nobody should do that. Nobody can help anybody. You can only empower people. We say we are protecting nature- who are we to protect nature? Nature is protecting us. How many human beings are there and how many trees and animals are there? We are not even 3% of the total population of trees on planet Earth. Who are we to protect nature? Nature is protecting us. The shame is that we can't even sustain it. We can't even value the respect that nature is giving us.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Going back to your marriage. You told me that it was difficult because your husband is part of another caste and he was working with you on the same project. The first point is very interesting. The second point is also super interesting, because I didn't know that that was a limit in your case. Do you mind if I ask you to explain a little bit more about those two aspects of your marriage?


Nupur Agarwal

Me and my boyfriend started the Evolve Foundation in 2016 together. Then eventually, we thought that because we have similar philosophies and purposes in our lives, we could probably get married. We're both Hindus, but we belong to different castes. My family wasn't accepting of him because of his caste. My family thought that it didn't fit very well with their social status, and they wanted me to marry in the same caste we belong to.

In 2019, almost two years later, I decided to marry my then boyfriend and now husband. It [was] quite a challenge to convince my parents. I think it is only a mental stigma in your parents’ head, because they want things to be their way. They feel that whatever their children are doing is not the right decision because they want the controls to be in their hands. That's typical Indian parents, I would say.

Yeah, so that was the case. I think that's the case for a lot of people, even highly educated people. I come from a very educated and privileged family, but that's still a stigma. In India, it's not highly acceptable. A Hindu and Muslim can just not marry. The marriage ecosystem is very traditional I would say, but it is toxically traditional.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Do you think that the situation you have described about women and marriage will change in time? How long will it take to change it completely? A couple of generations?


Nupur Agarwal

I think change is inevitable. Our societies are dynamic and changing constantly. I'll give you an example. In India, 250 years back, there used to be a practice called suttee: women burnt themselves. Those who did it centuries ago thought, Rather than dying every day, I will just die. One day only, I'll die. I will not die every day. I will not torture myself every day. It will otherwise damage me to a different level. It is exactly what we see in Afghanistan today as well. A lot of women there killed themselves because they don't want to be tortured by the Taliban Armed Forces. They don't want to be raped by them, so it is the same situation. Nevertheless, today we consider it the worst thing that humanity could ever see. We reject it. Although it is very situational, change is inevitable.

I will quote another example here by talking about change in my own state, which is in India is Uttarakhand. About fifty years back, women started a movement called Chipko. They began the movement because the government was cutting down trees. They hugged the trees and said if you want to cut the tree, you cut me first and then you cut the tree. Today it is us who are cutting those trees. Something has changed. Is it a good or a bad change? All these are very big questions that we have to answer.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

We don't have much more time, but I always finish our interviews in class with the same question. The question is this: imagine, Nupur, one morning you wake up and you realize that you are the new Prime Minister of India. What would be the first initiative that you would implement?


Nupur Agarwal

This is a very difficult question. In Hindi we have a saying: ek teer se do nishaane. In a sense it means with one arrow you are able to hit a hundred dots. That is the kind of strategy I would like to formulate, so it would be one initiative that solves many problems, just like what we are doing at Evolve Foundation or at KIWI. With one product, we're trying to help a lot of stakeholders around us like the environment, the people, the farmers, the consumers and so many others. So, I think that will also be my approach. We minimize the input and maximize the output. With one initiative, we are able to influence… influence is the wrong word. [We are able to] impact and empower more and more people and the environment.


Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Thank you very much, Nupur.


 

Zoom Recording Preview: Coming Soon


To obtain the password to the complete Zoom recording of this interview, email womenwhochangetheworld.org@gmail.com.

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