Alina Alam’s journey as an entrepreneur is rooted in two influential factors: being raised by her grandmother, who had a disability, and watching a thought-provoking documentary that ignited her sense of purpose. At the age of 22, while on the brink of her college placements, Alam knew that she wanted to work in the inclusion space and create a path where individuals would be recognized for their abilities, rather than being overlooked due to their disabilities. Her vision was to provide them with opportunities to work and earn respect. It was through this aspiration that she discovered a common thread – food – which would be the catalyst for the change she sought. Today, her venture, Mitti Cafe, which she founded in 2017, has expanded to 26 outlets across the country, employing over 213 differently-abled individuals, and she is just at the beginning of her journey.
The initial spark for Mitti Cafe came when Alam watched a life-altering documentary about Roman emperor Nero during her final semester. The documentary depicted Nero burning prisoners in front of a gathering, emphasizing their perceived lack of worth. This film set the course for Alam’s entrepreneurial journey, as she realized that the problem extended beyond Nero’s actions; it encompassed the indifference and inaction of the audience witnessing these atrocities. It was a turning point that made her realize she didn’t want to be a passive bystander and was determined to take action for causes she believed in.
Alam’s grandmother, who had a disability, also played a significant role in shaping her perspective. Despite her grandmother’s disability, Alam saw her as a person with numerous abilities, not defined solely by her physical condition. This stark contrast between how Alam perceived her grandmother and how society viewed people with disabilities fueled her passion to challenge societal norms and create opportunities for those who were often marginalized.
Alam began volunteering with organizations in the inclusion space, where she recognized the duality in society’s perception of people with disabilities. She sought a unifying factor that could shift mindsets and create awareness, and food emerged as the perfect avenue. By starting a cafe, she believed she could not only generate employment but also promote inclusivity and change.
However, Alam’s journey as an entrepreneur was far from easy. Starting with limited resources and facing multiple rejections, she kicked off her entrepreneurial endeavors in Hubballi. Her first outlet was a decapitated tin shed infested with rats, but with the help of a student community, she managed to clean and launch her first cafe. Through perseverance and seeking help from others, Alam overcame the challenges she encountered.
One of Alam’s proudest moments was witnessing the transformation of her first employee, Kirti Kale. Kirti, who initially came crawling in search of a job because she couldn’t afford a wheelchair, now owns one that she purchased from her salary. This story exemplifies the impact that Mitti Cafe has had on the lives of its employees and the community. Serving over 10 million meals, Alam’s vision goes beyond providing employment; it is about creating awareness and fostering a sense of belonging for individuals with disabilities.
Alam also faced gender-related obstacles as a female entrepreneur in a predominantly male-dominated industry. Many investors held preconceived notions and stereotypes about women starting businesses, dismissing their ventures as side projects. Despite these challenges, Alam carved her path and expanded Mitti Cafe, proving that with determination and community support, social change is possible.
Alam believes that true inclusivity requires a bottom-up approach, shifting mindsets within the community. Policies alone are insufficient if they are not understood and effectively implemented. Development should be inclusive, ensuring economic independence and dignity for millions of people with disabilities. Creating awareness, providing opportunities, and implementing policies designed for inclusivity are crucial steps in achieving this goal.
Mitti Cafe’s impact extends beyond serving meals and beverages. It aims to integrate individuals with disabilities into society, involving employees, customers, and vendors in the process. Alam emphasizes the power of community and how collective efforts can bring about the desired change. The cafe employs individuals with cerebral palsy and autism, who contribute their unique talents and abilities. Alam recalls an employee’s inspiring words during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, expressing their desire to use their cooking skills to help feed the hungry. This exemplifies the compassion and dedication of the Mitti Cafe team.
Alam’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly young girls and women, is to identify their purpose and pursue it unapologetically. She encourages individuals to listen to their hearts, leverage the power of community, and support other women along the way. Developing resilience and compassion are essential qualities for driving social transformation.
In conclusion, Alina Alam’s journey as an entrepreneur and her creation of Mitti Cafe demonstrate her commitment to inclusivity and her determination to create a society where individuals are valued for their abilities. Through her vision and the power of community, she has not only provided employment but also created awareness and shifted mindsets. Her story serves as an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs and advocates of social change, highlighting the transformative potential of compassion, courage, and collective action.