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Meet Sarla Ahuja: The Seamstress Who Built A ₹8,244 Crore Shahi Exports Empire

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Meet Sarla Ahuja: The Seamstress Who Built A ₹8,244 Crore Shahi Exports Empire

How often have you stopped yourself from screaming OMG!…WOWWWW at the dazzling displays of Labels like GAP H&M and other brands when you stroll by glitzy malls? Brands that whisper promises of luxury, quality, and a touch of exotic often beyond your budget.

What if we told you that hidden beneath those sleek designs are threads of Indian origin and the unshakeable spirit of a woman named Sarla Ahuja.? A woman who dared to dream beyond societal norms, who defied expectations, building an empire that stands tall at ₹8,244 crores and empowers over 86,000+ women today.

Want to learn how did Sarla Ahuja do it? Read on

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A World Torn Apart

Ten years old, and the world Sarla Ahuja knew shattered. Partition ripped Sarla’s family from their home, leaving them adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Scars etched deep, they crossed the border, carrying the weight of displacement. 

Yet, amidst the ashes, a flicker ignited within young Sarla. It was a whisper of dreams refusing to be extinguished. This is where our story begins.. the beginning of an incredible journey.

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And Motherhood

The odds were stacked against her. But Sarla wasn’t one to bow. She craved more than the confines of domesticity.

Sewing, a skill passed down from her mother, became her first brushstroke on the canvas of her ambition. Motherhood, however, paused the painting.

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Undeterred, she moved forward.

At 22, Sarla Ahuja stepped into a factory, needle in hand, determined to support her family. However, juggling home and work proved too much, and she quit to take care of her home.

But she was not fazed. Saving relentlessly for two years, in 1974, with just ₹5,000, Sarla took the plunge. Standing tall before established exporters, she refused to be silenced, and Shahi Exports was born not in a gleaming office but in the heart of Ranjit Nagar, Delhi.

With export orders flowing in, Sarla employed 15 women from her neighborhood to fulfill a capacity of around 200 pieces daily. 

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Challenges Galore

Sarla Ahuja faced constant complaints from neighbors about workers walking in and out of her home-cum-unit and lounging about drinking tea. 

But Sarla kept going, often handling tasks and working until midnight to finish last-minute orders. Soon, she exported clothes directly to America and Europe using her network! 

She may have toiled in a patriarchal society when women had little independence and power, but she made it her mission to empower women. 

Visiting slums nearby and encouraging women to work with her was challenging. The men wouldn’t let their women work and even threatened Sarla.

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The Next Generation Joins

Sarla Ahuja’s young sons, Harish, and Sunil Ahuja, would help her after she returned from school and college.

Fast forward a few years, and they joined the family business in the ’90s, starting a new chapter. With their foresight, hard work, and export quotas out of the picture, Shahi Exports flourished.

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Beyond Profits, Building Lives

In 2007, Shahi became the first company to pilot the life skills program, Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (PACE) program by Gap Inc.

It empowers women with communication, time management, decision-making, and financial literacy. 

Over 75,000 women have benefited from the program, contributing to increased productivity and personal growth. 

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Sujata’s PACE Story

Sujatha was a beneficiary of the PACE program. Starting her career as a worker, She was promoted to supervisor. The PACE program helped Sujata excel with her skills and confidence.

Her journey was documented in a GAP video, showcasing the transformative power of the PACE program. 

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Success in Numbers

As of 2023, the home workshop unit has expanded into 51 factories across India, 2 weaving and processing mills, 75 million meters of woven fabric, and 85 million meters of fabric processing capacity.

Shahi Exports serves an extensive clientele, including Walmart, Gap Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch, Zara, PVH, Kohl’s, H&M, Target, and other renowned brands. 

What started with 10 women employees, Shahi Exports boasts a workforce of 86,000 women among its 115,000 employees, accounting for 68% of the total workforce.

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People and Environment First

In its 50+ years, Sarla Ahuja has always placed people and the environment first.

It means creating a unique circular dress under its Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) concept, which combines science and design to achieve sustainability, minimize environmental impact, and promote durability. 

Sarla’s grandson, Anant Ahuja, the Head of Organizational Development at Shahi, is committed to the company’s sustainable future.  

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Sustainable Future

Shahi envisions supporting the long-term sustainability of the fashion industry by transitioning its operations to run entirely on renewable electricity.

The company has set up two solar power plants in Karnataka with 32 MW and 52 MW capacity, meeting 65% of their electricity needs. They’ve implemented an 8.57 MW wind energy plant in Maharashtra.

Integrating energy from process steam turbines, wind, and solar sources made it carbon neutral for 77% of its electricity consumption.

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Shahi Exports aims to use multi-cloud, AI, and other technologies to improve their key metrics, impacting growth and sustainability.

They have strategically partnered with 10 innovative startups, forming a collaborative force for digital transformation.

They utilize bots employing intelligent process automation to streamline repetitive, rule-based, predictable processes (RRP). 

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The Legacy Continues

Shahi Exports now prioritizes key factors like increasing revenue, managing costs efficiently, minimizing environmental impact, and cultivating positive relationships with all stakeholders. 

At 88, Sarla may have slowed down and retired due to ill health, but her legacy burns bright. Sarla’s grandsons, Anant and Anand, are poised to carry the torch forward, ensuring Shahi’s impact transcends generations.

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I’m Archana R. Chettiar, an experienced content creator with
an affinity for writing on personal finance and other financial content. I
love to write on equity investing, retirement, managing money, and more.

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