24 Good Businesses 2012

There she goes

Priyadarshini Taxi is of and by women, but for everybody

With her hair tied in a bun and wearing a crisp pink shirt and black pant, Rashida Shaikh steps out of her tiny apartment in Mumbai’s Santacruz suburb with car keys in hand as she heads for another day at work — as a driver. Smashing the myth that women are bad drivers, Priyadarshini Taxi Service has been putting women behind the wheels of Mumbai’s easily recognisable black and white cabs over the past four years. Until three years ago, 28-year-old Shaikh was the abused wife of an alcoholic. She decided to part ways with him, moved in with her parents, and joined Priyadarshini as a driver to support her two young sons. She always dreamt of driving a rickshaw whenever she travelled in one as a child. “Khuda ne meri khwaish poori kar di, mujhe gaadi dila di (God has fulfilled my dream and gotten me an automobile after all),” she says gleefully.

Susieben Shah, the 45-year-old founder of Priyadarshini Taxi Service, holds a degree in law, and has been working towards empowering women from the weaker sections of society through her NGO Stree Shakti Kendra, besides co-founding a pharmaceutical company, VS International, which is Priyadarshini’s parent firm. “Women were ready to do something different and I wanted to help them,” says Shah. 

It was during a conference on legal awareness for women organised by Shah that she met Renuka Chowdhury, the former union minister of state for women and child development. Chowdhury suggested that Shah train women to be drivers. Shah liked the idea and advertised for applicants in 2008. “We received 55 applications based on the advertisement in the newspapers and through my NGO,” she recollects.

Initially, Shah envisaged the “train a driver” business as an initiative under her NGO. The cost of training for three months amounted to₹10,000-12,000. The families of only two women, of the 25 short-listed, agreed to pay. Still, Shah managed with government funding and grants.

The drivers were trained at Maruti Udyog’s driving institute. The women, who came from an underprivileged background, were tutored in self-defence and etiquette. As these women went out seeking jobs Shah found that nobody wanted women drivers. “It was never my intention to get into the taxi business but I did it to provide these women a platform,” she says. And Priyadarshini Taxi Service was set up in April, 2008.  

 Behind the wheel

Priyadarshini’s model is similar to that of other radio taxis. The company owns the cars and allows the women to rent them. The drivers pay ₹700 per day, which goes towards maintenance and insurance, and the rest is for them to keep. So, Shaikh spends about 10-12 hours driving and takes home ₹10,000-15,000 per month. 

Priyadarshini’s services are trusted by women commuters. Shirin Batliwala, a Mumbai-based business consultant, says, “I use it twice a month to and from the airport. It even takes bookings in advance from the airport.” The clientele also extends to elderly couples who opt for packages that help them with chores like medical checkups. The company approached corporate entities but the costing did not work out. 

But the model is surely working for the women. Most of Priyadarshini’s drivers are sole breadwinners, and the cash helps them pay bills. Shaikh is now able to send her older son, Faizal, to a boarding school, and her younger son, Ahmed, to a local primary. 

The drive ahead

Since Priyadarshini is a private taxi company, unlike other taxis, it operates under ‘T’-permits (tourist permits, which are easily available) — and cannot pick up passengers without a reservation. The taxi permits used by black and yellow cabs, and radio taxis, are regulated by regional transport offices, and always in short supply.

While other fleet taxis in the market have primarily obtained the permits by transferring them from black and yellow cabs at a premium; Shah could not afford the same luxury. After filing an RTI, Shah discovered that around 17,000 taxi permits have expired and have not been renewed.

She then requested the state government for a reservation for women on expired taxi permits. If it comes through, Priyadarshini will be able to compete with taxi companies like Meru, Easy, Tab Cab and Mega as well as augment its revenue. So far, Priyadarshini relies on its parent company for funding but is actively looking for investors. The company earned ₹20.57 lakh as revenues from 12 cars in FY12, up from ₹18.8 lakh the previous year. The company has also upped the number of drivers to 20. Five more cars will be introduced this month. It also has spread its web to cities like Pune, Nasik and Shirdi. 

Early this year, Shah was invited as a finalist to the Sankalp Summit, an Intellecap Initiative that connects private equity investors with social entrepreneurs. “Investors look for exponential growth and scalability,” she says. “You need to believe in the impact of the organisation to push in money; you cannot get 100 taxis in two months, it requires a lot of capital.” 

Shah would rather wait until the company becomes economically viable before expanding aggressively. “Once we hit the 35-50 number, the impact will be huge,” she adds. Shah expects to raise another ₹50 lakh as capital through PE investors, and further expand the fleet to 55 by end-FY13. “We have women who drive, run call centers, and sit on our board,” boasts Shah. What better to represent the power of women!