Winning Harvard Business School’s Top Prize in Social Enterprise

Photo of Amrita Saigal, representing Saathi while sitting with an Indian mother and her young daughter, writing on a sheet of paper.

Saathi on the ground in India

Harvard MBA candidate Amrita Saigal (Class of 2014) and her co-founder, Oracle engineer Kristin Kagetsu, swept Harvard Business School’s top entrepreneurship contest yesterday (April 29), nabbing the grand prize and the Audience Choice award in the New Venture Competition’s social entrepreneurship category.

Their idea? Saathi – a social enterprise startup that provides low-cost sanitary napkins and jobs to women in rural India. The two, who both hold mechanical engineering degrees from MIT, wowed both the judges and the jam-packed audience at the Harvard event, drawing top marks – enough to push them ahead of a farm-to-market tomato paste producer in Nigeria, a school tuition program in Colombia, and an education consulting service. The two will use their $50,000 prize to move to India and open up shop.

Poets&Quants caught up with Saigal at HBS shortly after Saathi’s big win. She explains everything from the inspiration behind the idea to the HBS classes and professors that played a pivotal role in creating the business.

What event or experience gave you the idea for Saathi?

I landed an internship my junior year as an undergraduate engineering student at MIT with Proctor & Gamble in the feminine hygiene division. I was 21 years old and did not realize that feminine hygiene meant Always and Tampax – I thought it meant Head & Shoulders and Pantene.

I showed up on the first day and was honestly shocked at what I found. I was a designer, and designing equipment that summer, I was confronted with the fact that women in rural India didn’t have access to pads. Girls were not going to school because of pads. So that was the inspiration. And I knew I could get people passionate about this idea I really cared about.

So I came back to MIT my senior year and convinced my senior design team that we should create a small-scale manufacturing process to make pads out of some type of locally available fiber. We looked at a number of fibers and partnered with a chemical engineering team at MIT who told us that the bark of a banana tree is the most absorbent fiber in the world and it’s readily available.

The interesting thing about banana trees, which I didn’t know, is that from the time you plant the tree to the time you get the bananas takes 9 to 12 months. But they only produce the bananas once, and then you have to cut down the main shoot every year. The farmers cut it up into little pieces and use some of it as fertilizer, but they just stack the majority of it in piles and piles, waiting for it to decompose.

How do you produce the final product for Saathi? Are consumers okay with tree trunk? 

We process the bark into fibers so it comes out as stringy pieces, which are dried and pulverized, and that provides filling for the pads. So it’s a nice fluffy material that we’ve all tried and the consumers are fine with it.

What resources at Harvard Business School specifically did you find helpful?

The idea came up way back in 2009, so we started this prior to HBS. I moved to India in early 2012 to get it up and running and ended up coming to HBS. Here, the Rock Center, the Social Enterprise Initiative, and the i-lab have been great resources, particularly the i-lab’s meet-and-greet events. The legal counseling, the early feedback sessions where you can submit your business idea, and the judging process really helped us through the competition. We’ve come a long way since we applied in March with an executive summary. The process has forced us to make sure we can hash out every detail in Saathi. The judges pushed us to think beyond our initial scope and it’s been absolutely invaluable.

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