Grassroots banker reinvents banking in a remote place with poor connectivity

By Chetna Gala Sinha*

In March, the banking sector started becoming increasingly worried about the fall out of the countrywide lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic. The general perception was that the market would come down and affect both the stock and government bonds market. I too was anxious. But within three months of the lockdown, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from Sushama Shendge, the Chief Financial Officer of the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank who said that she had made a profit of Rs 300,000 for the bank on government bonds. I was amazed by her success at following and trading government bonds so rigorously from our small rural town of Mhaswad.

The job of a Chief Financial Officer, particularly in a rural bank, is full of challenges. First of all, the general perception is that this is a man’s job. However, Sushama with her keen eye for details, hard work, persistence and never-say-die attitude has always delivered impressive results. In fact, Sushama is an extremely interesting and inspiring woman.

Decades ago, Sushama’s parents migrated from the remote village of Dorgewadi in Man Taluka to Mumbai. They worked as daily wage labourers, intent that in Mumbai their children would be ensured a decent education.

Sushama studied in a Marathi-medium school. Though extremely bright, particularly in Mathematics, she was a shy child. Socially reserved, she rarely answered questions even though she knew all the answers. She was particularly insecure about her dark complexion and this filled her with a deep inferiority complex.

After graduating, she started a job at a private firm. A little later, her parents decided to marry her to a boy from a drought-stricken village in Vaduj. Sushama’s life took a 360 degree turn when she shifted from Mumbai back to a remote village. From cooking on a gas stove, she had to adjust to cooking with firewood. From being financially-independent, she had to fit into the role of a homemaker. She not only had to take care of her in-laws and the house but also had to contribute to working on the family’s farm and taking care of its cattle. However, somewhere in her heart, she was intent of eventually returning to a salaried job and being financially-independent.

In 2003, she applied at the Mann Deshi Bank. I knew that being a Mumbai girl Sushama would be the right fit for the multifaceted work that we required at Mann Deshi Bank. We needed someone who could easily chat with village women in their language, understand their financial situation and accordingly provide the financial services. While initially Sushama was given clerical work, within a few years she was promoted to Branch Manager. We were particularly impressed by hard work and the dignified and respectful manner in which she interacted with village women. She single-handedly built up the Mann Deshi branch office in Vaduj. We also noticed that she was excellent at ensuring compliances – not an easy task at all! Not only was she punctual with official documentation but also filed the bank’s returns at RBI regularly and efficiently calculated the various ratios we have to maintain. Not surprisingly, she was promoted to Chief Compliance Officer of the Mann Deshi Bank.

In 2010, the RBI issued a regulation where 25% of SLR had to be invested in government bonds. Mann Deshi Bank was forced to set up a treasury, something that we knew would be especially challenging. Who better than Sushama? She was promoted to Chief Financial Officer. In a remote place like Mhaswad, with poor network connectivity, it was tough to access the server and get real time market prices. But Sushama was unrelenting and maximized her limited internet time. She also went to Mumbai train at the Bank of India on how to trade in the bond market.

It fills me with great pride to share this story of Sushama, who has come a long way and made an impressive name for herself in a male-dominated cooperative banking sector. Recently, the news about the Citibank getting its first woman CEO made headlines on social media. Of course this is wonderful news, I do wish it had happened much sooner. There has been quite a bit of discussion recently of how countries headed by women have handled COVID more efficiently. Women, I feel, allow for more diverse thinking at the table, which is needed in all areas, including banking.

In order to reinvent the banking sector, we need to magnify our lenses. The focus shouldn’t just be on having a greater number of women in the sector but on giving them more leadership roles. There’s a lot that we can learn from bank customers too. For instance, a Mann Deshi was set up because Kantabai, a welder who lived on the street, was unable to find a bank that would accept her meager savings. We did, and today, she has her own house. Bankers should learn from Rupali Shinde, who hasn’t completed her high school but has trained more than 7,000 women in digital transactions and now regularly gives lectures on her experiences, including at Azim Premji University. We need to learn from Mann Deshi Bank’s employee Ruksana, who is an expert on mortgages and our non-literate farmer client Kerabai, who is a popular radio jockey.

Only when we are able to embrace this type of diverse thinking will we be able to reinvent the banking sector.

*Founder, Manndeshi Bank

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