I am Sarika Saksena, a sophomore studying Economics and Women's Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Before starting freshman year of high school, I spent 3 years with my grandparents in New Delhi, India. There I met six wonderful women who often turned to my grandparents for support. Shook to the core upon learning of the plight of these poor women, I was determined to help them. I learned the art of candle-making at the Blind School in New Delhi, and with the help of my mother and the six women, I started making candles. Our first opportunity to sell candles came from my school, American Embassy School, which gave me a stall to display and sell the candles. The candles were a hit, selling out in a couple days. The profits were donated to the women and the Blind School. Over the next few weeks, I met with a few knowledgeable, socially sensitive, and empathetic women who helped me set my goals. A vision emerged to help disadvantaged women become self-sufficient and self-reliant: ‘A Pay Forward System’ in which each woman learning candle-making would teach other women the skill with one thousand candle makers becoming ten thousand and so on. And thus was born 'UJALA,' which in Hindi means "bright light."
In 2016, I started to intern with the prestigious non profit organization, Ashoka, based in Washington DC. Ashoka Youth Venture has helped take my work with Ujala to the next level as I have been able to incorporate Changemaking as a part of my candle-making workshops for the marginalized women living in the slums and rural areas around New Delhi, India. A result of the Changemaking workshops is that these women have started to advocate for their young daughters' educations, bringing much needed change in a traditionally patriarchal society. Today, Ashoka is the fiscal sponsor for Ujala, providing a major platform for Ujala that will help turn dreams into reality for millions of women living in some of the poorest, most oppressed parts of India.
I have been the recipient of the Social Entrepreneurship Award at Gunn High School 3 years in a row, and was awarded Ashoka's Outstanding Changemaker Award. We've now been able to teach over 1000 Indian women candle-making. About 100 of these women are recipients of the profits generated from the sales of these candles and are well on their path to becoming self-reliant and financially independent. Not only have they earned respect with other family members but also gained self-confidence that has translated into a higher self-esteem. It has been heartening to see these women slowly assert their independence and speak up in a society with a heavy patriarchal mind-set. I feel blessed being instrumental in starting a transformative journey for India's underserved women. Many, we hope, will run a small business that enables them to support their families and liberate them from years of injustice, abuse, and exploitation.
The journey continues. Today, as a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, I am proud and humbled by my life-changing and powerful 5 year journey as a Changemaker and will continue to devote the rest of my life to continue helping marginalized women!