For Women, By Women: Meet Meenu Vadera, the founder of an Uber alternative creating jobs for women

by Missing Perspectives
Wednesday 9 August 2023

Phoebe Saintilan sat down with the Founder of Sakha Cabs, Meenu Vadera. Sakha has enabled more than 3,000 women in India to gain livelihoods with dignity. Collectively, these women have provided more than 1.8M safe rides and earned more than $2M dollars in earnings.

Phoebe Saintilan: Sakha Cabs has provided over a million safe rides to women customers over the last decade. What led you to establish Sakha Cabs?

Meenu Vadera: The impetus for us was to help provide livelihoods with dignity for under-privileged women.

We understand that for most underprivileged women, the kind of jobs that are available to them are very gender stereotypical such as helping in homes, selling vegetables or working in factories. Most of these jobs are in the informal sector and are not well paid. There is also no adequate security or any kind of social security available for the women in these jobs.

So we tried to look at how we could break the glass ceiling for under-privileged women and find out which jobs with low entry barriers were accessible. Driving was one of these jobs.

While driving is a very male-centric profession across India and the world, the growth of aggregators like Uber has increased the need for drivers and we realised that there was a market for women-led cab drivers.

From a women’s rights perspective, we also understand one of the biggest rights that are denied to women and one which keeps them in a subordinate position is mobility. As a result, young girls grow up confined to their home. The basis for this confinement is the myth that public spaces are the most dangerous for women.

Statistics and data actually show us that the most unsafe place for women is in fact their home. This is not to undermine the fact that women are also not safe in public spaces. We believe that, if women can empower themselves to claim public spaces, they are also able to in this process challenge violence against them within private spaces.

Driving is a profession that attacks at the heart of patriarchy by ensuring that women gain their right to mobility. And when women who have been confined to their homes come out into the world and learn about the world around them behind the steering wheel of a car, it earns them a livelihood with dignity of course and it also empowers them in a way very few livelihoods can.

PS: Why did you want to create a company where taxis are driven exclusively by women drivers for women passengers?

MV: When we started Sakha Cabs, there were no women professional cab drivers across North India, and only a handful across India. There is a belief that the driving profession is not for women, which has also been internalised by women. 

So in the beginning, when we brought women in, we had to ensure they were safe in this space. Another logic was also to facilitate safety for women users of the service. We also realise that in India, in post-liberalisation of the 90’s, there are a lot more young women out in the world that need safe transport.

So we began Sakha Cabs with “for women, by women” and that was our unique selling point. By working with partners who support Sakha Cab like G Adventures, it has opened up the world for these women. From being somebody who has no idea where their home was, to knowing about the world, their aspirations have grown.

PS: Why are you passionate about providing safe transport solutions for women?

MV: I know how empowering it feels to drive and have access to a vehicle. It gives me great joy to be able to share that feeling of empowerment with other women and in the process enable them acquire a livelihood with dignity that allows them to make transformative changes in their lives. 

Delhi is amongst one of the most unsafe cities in the world according to statistics but my own belief is that there’s only so much you can do by changing the law. I think one of the most critical interventions is to encourage women to occupy public spaces. I believe just by their sheer presence, the public spaces become safer for other women.

In a lot of cases in the past, violence occurred in the dark where there’s not many women out on the road. Our hypothesis is that if 50% of public transport drivers and police were women, and there were more women on the road, then that in itself becomes a big factor in inducing safety for other women. Laws, policies and techno interventions such as CCTV cameras can only do so much.

PS: How do you ensure safety for the drivers?

MV: We provide access to a 24/7 help button in the cabs. Cabs are all tracked by GPS and all drivers are trained in self defense and basic safety protocol. The women know that anytime there is a problem there is a whole Sakha team available to help them.

I also ask, what is it that would make you or I feel safe traveling alone in a city we are not familiar with, in the dark?

If I think about it myself, it’s confidence in myself, access to a phone to call for help, knowing that I know how to deal with the police and can stand my ground. My belief is that more than anything else, if the women feel confident, they feel safe and they know how to access help and deal with the police then that will enable them as well to gain confidence and be on the roads. That is what we’ve seen happen with the women drivers. 

Originally we only worked 8AM - 8PM due to safety concerns. But as our drivers gained confidence, we started to open up driving opportunities throughout the night and in different cities because we can see that safety is also an inner resource.  

Women tell us they feel safe in their cabs and this teaches them to also protect themselves from violence in other domains. So there is a spectrum between the private and public, and women realise if they are able to keep themselves safe in public, they can gain the confidence to also feel safe at home. 

PS: Did they face any challenges from their communities given they’d be challenging social norms?

MV: Of course. Even for women to be able to negotiate time for training requires help. Often they don’t have basic citizenship documents so very often they don’t have the basic requirements for them to get a formal job.

There are also restrictions on their mobility. They need to be at home at a particular time or be available for unpaid work and of course there is an issue of violence if women decide to stand up and dedicate time to training. 

This is why Azad invests in building a community level ecosystem, to engage very deeply with the families of the women as well as with the women to be able to shift their own mindsets and understand how they can negotiate and create space in their lives for their own training. 

After a particular time, we hope it becomes the norm. 

But currently the challenge of unpaid care work that women must do as per the social and cultural norms in most places around the world; pervasive violence against women and women not having faith in their own abilities and what they can do, are the major challenges we face. 

PS: What kind of training do you provide around women’s rights?

MV: We work within a Gender Just Skill Education Framework.

The first pillar within this is the right to access such training and that entails the community work I have talked about. The second pillar is a right to what we call Skills++ training. Our understanding is that the reason why women don’t have skills is not because they aren’t interested, it’s because there are structural barriers created by the larger (patriarchal) society that stops them from gaining independence and autonomy. We support women to move from looking at themselves as a victim to a survivor and realising that violence is not their fault and that there are ways to change it. 

PS: How are drivers educated? 

MV: Within the Skills++ approach, one part of the training is about the technical skills of driving such as maintenance, about the car and traffic rules, and the other is about understanding their rights as women. Understanding gender equality and structural reasons behind violence, learning about their own sexuality and how they can take control over their own lives and bodies and protect themselves.

The third part of training is about becoming more confident as an individual. We do this through counselling, English speaking, communication skills, grooming and teaching self defense, which makes women more confident people.

When working with any marginalised community, it has to be Skills++,  about building confidence and providing the skills to deal with challenges that will come simply because of the type of society they were born in. 

All of this together makes it possible for women to enter the market and sustain themselves. If women can learn to see the world through a different lens, they realise it’s not their mistakes that are the cause of inequality or violence. 

There are many women that ‘walk out’, and we use this term over dropouts because women claim their agency when they decide to discontinue the learning program, due to their personal situations. Similarly, some do ‘walk in’ once their personal challenges are resolved. So we have designed the program to be flexible for women to work at their own pace.

PS: What kind of impact has Sakha had?

MV: Over the years, Sakha has enabled more than 3,000 women to gain livelihoods with dignity. Collectively, these women have provided more than 1.8M safe rides and earned more than $2M dollars in earnings.

Individually, 95% women have become principal breadwinners in their family. They become significant contributors to the family wealth which changes their position in the family. The training also allows women to control how the money is spent, so the women are able to make significant investments in themselves and their own education as well as their children’s, their health and even in housing, to ensure a better quality of life. 

It has led to intergenerational changes as options are now available to their children that once they never would have been able to consider.

More than 75% of the women who reported violence against them in their homes have been able to take action about it. At the least, all the women now know that accepting violence is not their destiny.

By working with partners like G Adventures, it has opened up the world for these women. From being somebody who has no idea where their home was, to knowing about the world, their aspirations have grown.

At an industry level, no one believed that women could become professional drivers. Yet today every industry player states and is actively trying to recruit women drivers. The Delhi state government implemented new rules for women to be public bus drivers and now for the first time in the history of Delhi, there are 30-40 women driving public buses while more than 100 are in training.

But there is still not enough understanding of what it takes to train women as drivers and that is more work for us to do.

PS: What are your plans for the future? 

MV: We would like Sakha to grow and become bigger so we can make services available in many other cities. Right now we are still a small speck in this large country and to be able to make that kind of difference, we need to grow. 

The business is supported by a friends and family network and currently 70-80% of revenue comes through partnerships with organisations such as G Adventures, other companies, schools and hotels with the remaining 20% raised through grants and donations.

The challenge is that running a woman only business requires more investment. 

For example, while most of the industry would have a male driver working for 12 hours on the road earning what they earn. Even if they wanted to, women would not be able to commit to these hours due to unpaid care work. So at Sakha, if we have to utilise a cab for 16 hours a day we need to employ two drivers. That means the costs incurred are twice what others are incurring. Sakha raises grant revenue to bridge the deficit and that constrains our growth as well.. 

The future is about finding ways to negotiate around these challenges and continue to build a family of investors as well as to change the philanthropic investment climate, and to ensure Sakha is able to continue to occupy the market. Not for the company’s survival, but more to be able to push through further the idea of women drivers as the norm and to invest in what it takes to prepare women chauffeurs, recruit and sustain them.