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Sikh Girl awarded with Giving Back Award

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    Benita Singh, an Indian American, has been honoured by Newsweek for helping disadvantaged women. In 2003 Benita Singh visited Guatemala to research her Yale University senior year thesis. The Long Island, New York-born Singh wanted to study how women, especially in rural communities, were recovering from the traumas of war.

    Singh had earlier worked with street children in New Delhi and in Mexico City. In those cities she encountered what she describes as a certain moral position by the poor — “I don’t have money; you do have money; so could you give just a little bit of it to me.”

    But in the village of San Alfonso in Guatemala, Singh was amazed that people did not ask her for money. “The only thing they asked for, was for us to buy their bags and their jewellery,” Singh, 23, says.

    “I realised these women may be victims of trauma, but more importantly they are actually entrepreneurs,” adds Singh, youngest daughter of India-born Sikh parents. Her father works for a customs brokerage company and her mother is a lawyer, who founded a charity called Children’s Hope. “They (the women of San Alfonso) were a motivation for me to become an entrepreneur.”

    Last week Singh and her Yale colleague Ruth Degolia, 24, were honoured by Newsweek magazine with its first Giving Back Awards — in recognition of people who “devote themselves to helping others”.

    The two were singled out in the under-25 category for starting a non-profit organisation, Mercado Global. Launched in 2004, Mercado has organised 18 co-operatives in remote rural areas of Guatemala. The products from the co-operatives, shawls, bags and jewellery, are sold at marked up prices to high-end stores in the US and through e-commerce.

    Profits generated are rolled back to the communities in Guatemala to build schools and educate young girls. And this year Mercado is sending computers to each community for the women to manage their record keeping.

    Other honourees for Newsweek’s award included Brad Pitt for bringing to the world’s attention the plight of African people and CNN’s Soledad O’Brien for her coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Singh and Degolia were featured on the cover of Newsweek with Pitt and O’Brien.

    When Singh first went to Guatemala, she had hoped to come back and register for a PhD program in comparative literature. But during her trip she focused on calculating the cost of production of rural products.

    Workers in rural pockets of Guatemala usually earn one quetzal an hour, equal to Rs 9. Mercado’s partner co-operatives pay a wage of at least eight quetzals an hour, which is above the minimum wage in urban Guatemala.

    “Actually whenever I went to Janpath with my mom in Delhi, I never liked the way she would bargain with people,” Singh says. “Because they (the sellers) end up losing money. They have spent so much on the material that they have to get some of it back.”

    The Newsweek coverage has suddenly brought a lot of attention to Mercado Global. Earlier, their web site would receive approximately 80,000 hits a month. But after the Newsweek article they received 40,000 hits in just two days.

    “We want to capitalise on all of this, make sure orders go out on time and we provide good customer service,” Singh said. “For all of these hundreds of orders that we are getting now, we need to make sure that they tell a 100 other people. So much of this business is about word of mouth marketing and good customer service.”

    A few weeks after the interview with Newsweek, they got a call from the magazine’s photo editor saying they were going to fly the two to Los Angeles for a photo shoot with Brad Pitt. Singh thought it was a joke.

    “I sent him an email saying LOL (laughing-out-loud) and with a smiley face,” Singh says. “It was really great meeting Brad Pitt,” she adds.

    The actor posed for pictures, shook hands with other honourees and also talked to each of them. “We had prepared a press kit for him and gave him a bunch of our jewellery for Angelina (Jolie),” Singh says. She also presented some to O’Brien.

    Then last week Singh got a call from Jolie’s publicist. “She (Jolie) wants more information so she can support our work,” Singh says.
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