‘Spirituality is my guiding light every day’

Entrepreneur and environmental activist Manisha Gutman is working hard to create a sustainable world. She is not your run-of-the-mill businesswoman.

Manisha - entrepreneur and activist

Her tip for women entrepreneurs 

“At Coexist we expect and encourage each other to ask for help. It’s very important to show your vulnerable side and to ask for help. If you insist on doing everything all by yourself, you end up all alone.”

Entrepreneur and environmental activist Manisha Gutman is working hard to create a sustainable world. She does this with her company eCoexist, working from the city of Pune in India. She is not your run-of-the-mill businesswoman. She studied architecture and environmental science and lived in a spiritual community, an ashram, for six years. “Spirituality is my guiding light every day.”

eCoexist develops sustainable products that generate income for people on the margins of society, such as prisoners and small farmers. In addition, eCoexist conducts awareness raising campaigns, like the UseMeAgain campaign that promotes the use of cotton bags in Pune.

‘It is our tradition to play with powder colours and water’

Her business came about organically. Manisha worked for the environmental group Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group in Pune for six years. One of their campaigns was aboutusing sustainable products during religious festivals. “Take Holi, for example, the festival that marks the beginning of spring. It is our tradition to play with powder colours and water. But in recent times the colours in the market are toxic industrial colours.” One of Manisha’s colleagues approached farmers with the question: can you make a powder colour that is safe and natural? And they could.

‘I am convinced you can learn anything if you are willing to work for it’

To launch the new Holi colours onto the market, a marketing business had to be set up. “My colleague said, ‘Manisha, would you like to market the powder for us?’ And I thought: I have no experience running a business and I have no marketing background, but I will learn this. I am convinced you can learn anything if you are willing to work for it. If you have an open mind. If you always ask questions. And ask for help. So my answer was yes.”

Manisha’s careful choice of words reflects her spiritual attitude to life. “Spirituality and social service is the basis of my life,” she says. That foundation was laid during her childhood in Mumbai. She was born into a socially engaged and idealistic family. Her father and mother were both active in social and political work. “They were inspired by Gandhi’s freedom movement. After their studies in the United States, they returned to India at a time when most highly educated people were leaving. They came back to serve.”

After studying architecture, she spent several year living in an ashram near Mumbai. To study and serve, as she describes it. She describes this as the most important part of her education.

‘It’s not about what kind of work you do, but your attitude to that work’

“You can compare an ashram to a monastery in some ways. You are there to discover yourSelf, to learn. It’s a form of education that taught me lessons about life. For example, how you can use your mind and then let it rest again. I also learned the value of work. How you can apply your mind and body to something that is bigger than yourself. And it’s not about what kind of work you do, but your attitude to that work.”

After concluding her stay in the ashram, Manisha moved to Pune where she took up studies in ecology. In 2006 she began the eCoexist journey.

‘If you devote plenty of love and attention to something small, it can grow into something bigger’

“When I first started eCoexist, I had my doubts sometimes. Holi colours, isn’t that too much of a niche product? Shouldn’t I be working on larger things, such as saving the forests? But I found out that nothing is too small. If you devote plenty of love and attention to something small, it can grow into something bigger. Our natural Holi colours, for example, have allowed a great many farmers to earn more income.”

From the moment it was founded, Manisha had two goals in mind: I want it to be a social enterprise that makes money, and I’m not going to do it on my own; I’m going to get more people involved in this. In a short time she had gathered a core group of eight people around her.

‘I am a creative person who is easily bored and quickly enthused’

The collaboration went well, but at one point eCoexist had taken on too much work. “I am a creative person who is easily bored, quickly enthused, and interested in many different topics. That meant that we were doing twenty things at the same time. During a meeting my team said: ‘Manisha, we can keep doing twenty things poorly or we can do five things well. That took me a moment to process and accept. But I understood how important this advice was. Now we’re working on four projects.”

“Of course I still get excited about things quickly. But I have found a good way to deal with that. I come across something that I think is extremely interesting almost every day. Instead of leaping in myself, I approach someone from my network and try to make them enthusiastic about it. For example, I did that with the issue of sustainable packaging material. It is incredibly important and interesting, but far too large for eCoexist to take on. A few acquaintances of mine picked it up instead, but I do remain involved from the side lines.”

“We want to grow in the coming years and outsource more and more. This way we’re able to focus on what we’re good at: Walking ahead of the troops, showing people what is possible in the field of sustainability. For example, thirteen years ago we were a pioneer in the matter of natural Holi colours. Now there are many companies that produce it.”

‘I know it’s very important to show your vulnerable side and to ask for help’

“Another quality of eCoexist is that we expect and encourage each other to ask for help. I ask my colleagues every day: ‘Have I tackled this properly? What could I do differently?’ It’s a continuous process. We have mentors who have helped us every step of the way free of remuneration.  And there are more people like that, supporting our work and doing things for us free of charge. Of course I sometimes feel vulnerable when I ask others if I am doing well. But I know it’s very important to show your vulnerable side and to ask for help. If you insist on doing everything all by yourself, you end up all alone.”

Manisha doesn’t have to think long about which of her qualities she would never want to lose. “My interest in spirituality. It helps me to always keep the big picture in mind. We are  only here on earth for a short time. That realization gives me the focus to continue working on the things that are important to me.”