By: Jon Daniel McKiever
This past week has been filled with meeting incredible individuals who are impassioned by the desire to improve the lives of those around them. Martina Ljungquist is one of these people as she embarked on a journey 26 years ago to empower the local Tamil women by establishing the Naturellement Café.
From the Naturellement’s website, one can see the aims of the restaurant are to (1):
- Empower women from disadvantaged back grounds by providing them meaningful work.
- Engage in socially responsible and fair trade business practices.
- Support sustainable farming by using organic raw-material whenever possible.
- Provide natural handmade fine foods of the highest quality to our customers.
Martina’s quest has always been to “bring down into the matter, something higher. The question is, ‘how do you do that?’” This question inevitably led Martina to Auroville where she claims, “the startup of this company created itself and I’m always trying to catch up!” The rise of this social enterprise has allowed its workers to create a livelihood for themselves all while learning an array of skills from cooking to operational management for their restaurant.
It’s evident Naturellement’s success is due to the combination of Martina’s love for her workers and the motivation her love spurs within the ladies to generate a solid work ethic amongst the restaurant staff.
Martina makes it very clear she’s never been well versed in typical “business” operations but she actually began her career as a Kindergarten teacher! She’s an educator at the end of the day; yet, she’s using the café to educate and empower the local women through the lens of business.
(Left: Tanya Elder, Right: Martina Ljungquist)
Through her past jobs, Martina learned how not to be a boss. She’s learned this and has applied to it be an effective manager for the Naturellement café. Her model for success is never benchmarked by maximizing profits. Instead, Martina’s desire for the well-being of her ladies if the focal point of the café.
“When your aim is to have maximum profits, you start making short cuts.” – Martina.
Her dedication to maintaining a sustainable supply chain while setting higher standards of living for her workers has established a more ethical approach to business operations. The company’s revenues are making a positive impact for the 35 ladies that are employed here today.
When “profit maximization” is removed from the worker’s mindset, it cultivates a more personable environment where the ladies are free to unwind and be themselves while working.
Her love for these women is evident as she elaborates on the various ways she strives to provide for these women. Some of her stories are more light-hearted as she illustrates how they all took a break last week to turn on a movie in the office during a work break. Her other stories are more serious as she expresses the difficulties she faced when she’s learned some of her employees have been beaten by their husbands.
According to the Times of India, around 60% of men throughout India admit to wife-beating. (2). While it’s shocking to learn these cruel and archaic practices are still prevalent throughout India, one can only imagine the ethical dilemma it creates between Martina and her ladies.
Martina is in a unique work environment where her business model is centered around the well-being of her employees. Thus, it may seem necessary to intervene as a manger when your employee is physically assaulted because it harms the core of this restaurant’s business structure. However, Martina is a Swedish entrepreneur who may come across as a “westerner” or “foreigner” to her employees’ husbands. What do you do when your good intentions to protect your employees conflicts with cultural norms that you were never born into?
This is a complex issue which Martina has artfully navigated throughout the years with her fellow workers. She mentioned her initial reaction was to ask the ladies if she could speak to their husbands about this issue; however, she learned the women didn’t want this as it would only make the situation worse.
This experience must have taught her how to help where she can by being a listening ear and a support system for these incredible women. Her efforts yield results as we learned none of her current employees are beaten today! Progress here at Naturellement café could be perceived as being “shwiya ba shwiya” or “little by little,” yet the progress made within the lives of the Tamil women that work here is interminable.
- Dhawan, Himanshi. “60% of Men Admit to Wife-beating: Poll – Times of India.” The Times of India. Bennett, Coleman & Co., 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 Dec. 2016.