Hyderabad: Diana Jude and Jackie Stenson are two dynamic ladies who had just one dream. To offer life- improving low-cost technologies to the underprivileged. And thus was born Essmart Global, which aims at bringing social-impact technology to the populations who need it. This was a dream they nurtured during their undergraduate years at MIT. Not surprisingly, they have been nominated as the Asia-Pacific finalists for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards and the only women from India on this list.
Diana did undergraduate studies from MIT where she double majored in economics and urban planning. She says, “At MIT, students who were interested in international development took D-Lab, a suite of classes that introduced predominantly engineering students to community development around the world. In this class, my colleagues were designing products like parabolic solar cookers, infant baby warmers, small-scale agricultural technology, and more.”
Her partner Jude studied mechanical engineering at Harvard. “The first time I learned about low-cost, life-improving technologies was when I enrolled for the same course that Diana did. We took some of the same courses, but we actually didn't meet until four years later.
Diana was starting the second year of her masters at MIT, and I had just moved back to Boston after finishing my masters at the University of Cambridge in a course called Engineering for Sustainable Development. I reconnected with D-Lab, and was introduced to Joost Bonsen, a lecturer at MIT, who introduced me to Diana.
Prior to this, the two friends and business partners have travelled extensively for over four years to east and southern Africa and also visited remote communities in India and shared their experiences. Diana says, “I travelled in rural China and India as part of my research and work with Essmart.
I’m Chinese-American, and my visits to potential shops are sometimes met with skepticism. Many of these villages have had negative experiences with cheap, low-quality Chinese products. However, we have been able to break through these stereotypes by building long-term relationships with stores and villagers in their respective regions.”
Jackie has her share of experiences as she spent about two years travelling overland from Ethiopia to South Africa. “I also did my master’s research in western Kenya, and worked on a variety of other projects in Rwanda, Ghana, South Africa and now India. During these travels, I visited a number of small, remote communities.
What struck me the most was that if I did find a product in a village, it was always in some state of disrepair, a water pump that broke down 10 years ago, a bicycle ambulance rusting on top of a house, a peanut sheller abandoned in the back of a shed. That’s when. my focus and passion shifted to the challenge of technology dissemination, and how to get these products into the hands of people who are supposed to benefit from them.”
Their four-year-long journey has seen the support of many individuals whom they remain grateful to. Diana says, “So many people have supported us, both as individuals and as Essmart. After beginning operations, we’ve been supported by members of the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, which we won in 2012. We’re also supported by Echoing Green, which awarded us fellowships in 2013. Finally, our wonderful friends and family have supported us, even when they weren’t quite sure about what we were doing.”
As driven and as committed these two ladies are to their enterprise, they are definitely not the type of entrepreneurs who work 24/7. Says Diana, “We have others interests and healthy social lives. I consider myself to be a big foodie, and finding new places and foods to eat in Bengaluru (our management team's headquarters) is a hobby. I also love working from coffee shops, writing personal essays and reading nonfiction books about economics, psychology, innovation in international development, and current events. Additionally, I’m actively involved in my church, Ashraya Fellowship of India, and appreciate my friends and fellowship there.”
Jackie’s interests include riding motorcycles, rock climbing, and dancing. She says, “I’ve ridden motorcycles on four continents, including a short trip in southern India, and a much longer trip through Western Europe and West Africa. I’ve played a lot of different sports, but rock climbing is one of my favorites, I love being up in the mountains, soaking in the surrounding nature and being humbled by the magnitude of the entire world. I also love to dance, I used to perform in a dance group and I choreographed a flash mob at my own wedding. I guess you can sum up all of my passions in that I love taking risks and pushing comfort zones, so I’m usually up for just about anything.”
And finally, we ask about being one of the finalists for the Cartier Women’s Awards.
Says an excited Jackie, “Diana and I are so excited to be one of the finalists in the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. We never really planned on being entrepreneurs, nor did we realise that women entrepreneurs are still not terribly common when we first started off. We’re greatly looking forward to the finals in France in October.” Good luck to the ladies!