A true trailblazer

12 min read
15 Apr 2017
12 min read
1771 words
"I needed to make money quickly. And driving a tempo seemed like the best idea"

Laxmi Sharma, even at 68, has the same energy she had when she ventured into the business world 34 years ago as a young single mother of three. Resilient and determined, Sharma is Nepal’s first female Nepali tempo driver and the founder of Laxmi Wood Craft Udhyog. Popularly known as The Button Lady, Sharma took the path less travelled—along which she encountered many hurdles.  In this interview with VMAG’s Gaurav Pote, Sharma talks about her childhood, her broken marriage, the challenges she has had to face and how she overcame them all to be where she is today.

What was your childhood like?  
I was born in 2006 BS in Maharajgunj to a family of traditional farmers. Until I was six years old, I stayed with my mother at her parents’ home. It was during that time that I got the chance to work at the royal palace as a helper to King Tribhuvan’s sister Bunu Maharani. I had to pick flowers from the palace grounds for daily pujas, clean the puja room and spend the remaining time with the princess. For this service, I received 20 paisa a month.

Then, when I was 11, the queen passed away, and I had to go back home. At home, I had to clean the house, cook and cut grass to feed the goats. It was difficult for me as a kid to adjust to such drastic lifestyle changes—from living in a palace, where people took care of me, to going back home, where I had to learn to cook and clean. And when I was 13, my parents got me married.

How difficult was it to be married at such a young age?
When I was 13, I found the idea of getting married quite exciting. I was dressed up and got new sets of clothes, but that thrill didn’t last long. My husband was much older than me, and it was tough for me to adjust into a new family and settle in as a wife at such a young age. Although I was quite young and was not ready to be a mother, I was forced to bear a child. I lost the child as I was not physically, or mentally, ready to mother a child. When I was physically ready, I had my first daughter. But by then, my husband’s relationship with another woman had surfaced. It was an emotionally traumatising time for me.

At that time, on account of society’s patriarchal barriers, there was no question of leaving my husband. My family wanted me to work on the marriage, and for the sake of my newborn daughter, I decided to stay. I stayed with him for three more years, and had two more daughters. It was when my youngest daughter had just turned two years old that I decided to walk away from the marriage. As a decision maker, that was the first difficult decision I ever made.

At just 23, how did you find the courage to take the step to separate from your husband?
The times that I grew up in were very patriarchal. Women were expected to do what was told to them, and there were countless boundaries. But I could not stand being disrespected by my husband anymore. I did not want to raise my daughters in an environment where the women in the house were disrespected. Not having a husband in such a patriarchal society does make you a little less sheltered at times, and society makes you realise it even more so every day, but I stood by my decision.

What did you do next?
I worked at the homes of Russian, English and Australian diplomats where I earned around Rs 100 a month for doing household chores—sweeper, cook, babysitter—I undertook all roles. I learned how to cook Continental food and now can cook around 130 Scandinavian dishes.

I have always been an active woman. Ever since I was a child, I have had to work. I had hungry children to go home to, and I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. I did not even realise how further along the road I had come over all these years. Now that people actually want to interview me, I realise that I have come a long way.

How did you venture into business?
In 1979, I enrolled myself in an industry observation course for eight months in Patna, India. There I picked up the basics of entrepreneurship, about how businesses worked, how manufacturing worked, and how I could start a small business of my own. I decided to invest my money on a tempo.

Why a tempo?
At that time, I needed to make money quickly. And driving a tempo seemed like the best idea. I am an uneducated woman and opportunities were limited. I did the best I could with what I had. Back then, you could buy second-hand tempos at Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000. I took out a loan of Rs 10,000  from a family friend and bought a tempo and repaired it. It ran for three to four months until it met with an accident and was rendered useless. But I took out more loans, and in a span of eight months, I managed to salvage five second-hand tempos. I also went to Banaras and learned everything I could about tempos—from the engineering to the body of a tempo.

And how did Laxmi Wood Craft Udhyog take shape?
I continued running my tempos for five more years, but my daughter Junu did not like the idea of her mother being a tempo driver; and I also had a huge loan (Rs 70,000), and so I decided to stop running tempos. I had to start a new business, and so after doing research for two years, I decided to open my own button-making factory.

I rented out my last two tempos on monthly contracts, and I hired a team of four people to start working at my factory. My buttons would be made from the bones and horns of animals, particularly buffalos. We went around to butchers all over Kathmandu and collected bones. We then washed and cleaned them and turned them into buttons. As soon as they were out in the market, they started selling like hot cakes. Now my buttons are exported to Germany, Switzerland, Zambia, Denmark and the US.

How did you cope with all the challenges and hardships that were thrown your way?
My overcoming the struggles in my journey is the reason that I am here. My stint as a tempo driver was difficult. Men would harass me and some even damaged my tempo. But I never lost hope. Even my mother had problems with my coming back home late in the evenings and driving alone. During my hours of sadness, when I would be all alone, I would paint. I never received an education and don’t know how to write—painting was my only medium of expression and escape.

What has your years of experience taught you as a business person?
As a business person, there are a few things I have learned; and unfortunately for me, I learned them the hard way. You have to be careful while dealing with people; you have to be ready to take risks. For someone who can barely write, I helped create many job opportunities for people and helped add to the economy. You have to be up to date with the times and with the technology you are working with. You have to be diplomatic when handling customers.

"For someone who can barely write, I helped create many job opportunities for people and helped add to the economy"

How important do you think wealth is? And how do you create a balance between pursuing wealth and happiness?
I don’t believe you have to chase after either. You as a human have the power to do anything—even change the direction of your life. It is in your power to change what you want changed in your life. And to be content with what you have.

Did you ever imagine that someday you would be a successful businesswoman?
It is strange, but I have never had any ambition. I have only made use of the opportunities that have presented themselves to me and done what I had to do to feed my family.

Is there any advice you would like to give our readers and viewers?
Heaven and hell are both here on earth. And as human beings, we have a responsibility to make society a better place. I have seen the best and the worst in people, but there is always the option of choosing to do good. Kindness is what drives the world. Always be kind.