In the August Company of Shwe

This Women’s Day, we were blessed to have a heartfelt conversation with a woman who genuinely believes in the cause for women, Shwe. She has started a Law Partnership Firm in India which was an all women’s company until last year! She is also a saree evangelist. We got to have an in-depth conversation about problems that women face in India and a first-hand look into her experiences that she faced in her 20 years long career in law.

How did the All Women’s Law Partnership in India come to be? How was your journey?

It is not like I started out to do an all-women partnership but once you start meeting like-minded people, it happens and until last year, we were an all-women partnership. Our company now is about 80% women and I’ve realized that women are very creative even in traditional domains such as law. We are a very empathetic workspace. Work from home was not a compulsion but an already available option. We have women of different ages so we have women coming in with their children and we created a space for them. We are almost always busy so we have a gym for everyone to workout. We have had period leave for 5 or 6 years now and these may be new concepts to the world but we have always had it because it is an all-women firm and we understand. We’ve even been ranked as one of the top 3 places to work for Women in law by Vahura.

Yes, even at The August Co., all our tailors are women and when the pandemic initially struck us, the production team still came to work with their kids who had space to even take online classes. They felt safe and secure in a way.

Our office is in Noida and we want to make everyone feel safe and not everyone drives around by themselves. So we have transportation arranged for them. So when the pandemic happened and not everyone was willing to take public transport, since we already had transportation for women, it was easier for us to figure out a way to carpool everyone in a sanitized vehicle.

Since you were an all-women company till about last year, what kind of biases did you face in a male-dominated industry and how did you face them?

I can say that now I embrace my greys but I’ve fallen for this before in my profession where grey hair signifies wisdom. I’ve faced it before and now it has been 20 years in this profession and back in the day when I used to go to the court, judges would address me as “Young Lady” and question if I’ve come here to ask for a date on behalf of a senior. It was so difficult for them to comprehend a woman arguing against the counsel. I have no qualms in saying that big overseas clients from Silicon Valley who are Fortune 500 Companies have no problem in me representing them in court once they assess my abilities but many Indian clients still ask if I am qualified enough or have the abilities. They have no problem with me doing the paperwork behind the scenes but I am not supposed to represent them. It is ingrained in the Indian mentality that men are a better choice and both the arguing counsel and the Judges can’t digest the fact a lady is here to argue.

Speaking from my experience, we used to set up these stalls at exhibitions a year and a half ago and since I didn’t have a big team, my husband used to help me out. These vendors would come and talk to my husband about the business and even when he would rightly point out that I’m the business owner, they would continue talking to him. It still happens to date.

Yes, this has happened to me as well. A few years ago, my then-husband and I were looking to rent a house and I had some issues with some clauses in the contract. The broker knew one of us was a lawyer and when I asked him, he said to me, “If you don’t mind, I’ll speak to Wakeel-Sahab.” And I said, “I am Wakeel-Sahab.”

I know it is ingrained in our brains that this is the system and how to be part of the system. We don’t want to be the black sheep. How do you go about this?

A more appropriate question to the answer below would have been,

As an Indian lawyer, when I go to these Conferences overseas since I’m an IP lawyer, I remember talking to my senior friends in the profession and I would ask them for tips in terms of what outfits should I wear for such meetings, and one unanimous tip that I used to get was, embrace homogeneity and don’t make your clothes too distracting so they can concentrate on what you have to say. And one thing I resoundingly rejected was that I should wear monochromes and I should wear greys. I remember in London that there was a conference with 12 other men and everyone wore grey, navy blue or charcoal black. I went in wearing a red blazer and I am someone who owns her style. I knew that once I started speaking, they don’t care about the tomato red woman but recognize that I’m one of the best lawyers they’ve met. I think we should have our own style and let that define you rather wear what everyone else is wearing.

How do you find your voice and yourself at a young age when there’s so much pressure to conform to societal norms?

I find that confidence comes from knowing your subject and you get comfortable talking about it as you read and knowing about it. Not everybody is an eloquent speaker and if you’re nervous, make your points. Be 100% prepared. I will rather be over-prepared rather than give somebody a chance to say, “She wasn’t good enough.” When you’re talking about something you believe in, don’t look around for validation. When you are in a room full of men and you want your voice to be heard, begin with baby steps. Practice an exercise where if you are in an elevator, don’t make way for others. Let others find their space. When you start doing this, I believe occupying physical spaces and psychological spaces go hand-in-hand. I practice tough love and when something doesn’t work, I say no. I don’t apologize. I tell my clients that they come for me for my advice and not because I’m accommodating and let them do things their way. Also, coming back to your original question about garments, other than establishing your style, it is also about comfort. I’ve seen colleagues try to right their hem and skirt because that is not what they normally wear, rather than focus on their content. 

About your question on how to remain polite but firm, if there is a mistake from your end and there are genuine issues regarding your garment, then address it. But if the customer is being unreasonable and you lose your temper, you have already lost the battle. As women, we have the power to be polite yet firm. Let us tap into that power.

Coming to the topic of the pandemic, how did you all fair with it? With the kids at home, a lot of women had to let go of their jobs and I know how hard it was on my production team. Can you give me some view on how it is shaping up for urban women?

At the cost of the pandemic, we have realized that women, particularly urban women do not have any bargaining position. No one is talking about Urban Women as a collective. Nobody is compiling and sharing the statistics. Sometimes, I think it is important to talk to organizations or the Big Four and ask them what is Corporate India doing? Why is there such a large number of women dropping out of the workforce? Companies are opening up while the schools are closed and if they are making a mandate that everyone should come to office without providing alternatives, then Corporate India has been shamed! If people do not talk to representatives and talk to local MPs and question them about this then we won’t have friendly workspaces. We have had period leave for such a long time now, but some companies balk at the idea to date because they think women overreact regarding this matter, let alone allow work from home.

We should talk more about these and make gender-neutral laws and policies instead of making it a hashtag one day of the year. Talk about it, that is how the conversation gets started.

I agree we should all talk about it. How do you suggest we support each other?

Many women in the PR like Faye D’Souza, are ready to talk about such matters and they do. Start a conversation and create events around it. When these happen, there is a realization that systemic change is needed. In Indian Organisations, many times there are panels that are all men. If I see it, I will call it out. 

Very true, we should raise our voices and let women know that they are not alone out there. There are people they can bank on. It starts with something as simple as being nice to somebody. 

Agreed, we don’t have to be grey-haired like me to be mentors. You can talk to someone who needs help and share your experience just so they won’t have the same pitfalls as you. All you have to do is just be a little available to talk to or to respond. 

I have also put up a founder’s note on my website that if any budding entrepreneur needs any help, drop an email and I shall help out in any way I can.

Yes, I give this short advice and put up videos on Instagram where I answer questions on copyright, textile laws, etc. It is just about helping each other.

Any piece of advice you have for a small startup like ours?

I was a buyer before I was invited to speak with you and I can say that you have your finger on the pulse and your lines are clear and the materials are beautiful. I like that you have your roots in deep sensibility and I love the fact that you have so many design alternatives. It is fashion for the bold and sassy women of 2021. Just focus on building your signature style and stay on the path of ethical clothing and that is all we women are looking for.