Shakti tied for second place and earned $15,000 in the 2018 John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC) on May 22. The startup also received the $10,000 Tata Centre for Development Social Impact Award for India, Instituted by Tata Trusts, to pursue a venture that addresses a socially relevant issue in India and advances it in India. The award can fund travel to/from India or expenses to pilot in India. This award is instituted by Tata Trusts and implemented by the Tata Centre for Development at UChicago (TCD).

Run by Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the SNVC is the social impact track of the University of Chicago’s nationally ranked Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC).

In this Q&A, Shakti cofounders Meghana Chandra, a student at the Harris School of Public Policy, and Mariana Botero, a joint Booth and Harris student, explain how they plan to use a mobile-based intervention to empower functionally illiterate women in India to enforce their rights and access legal and public health resources.

Q: How did your team come up with the idea for your startup?

As an Indian woman and a lawyer, Meghana’s personal experiences with sexual harassment in India and ambition to help vulnerable populations access legal information led her to develop the idea. “Shakti” means strength in several Indian languages.

Q: What problem does your venture work to solve in society? And can you explain the exact services you offer and to whom?

Shakti co-founders outside on Chicago Booth's campus

Bengaluru, India has been consistently featured as a district with one of the highest levels of reported crimes against women in India. More than eight crimes against women are reported in the city every day, however, the conviction rate is a mere 3 percent. Moreover, only 14 percent of the litigants in India are women. There are significant barriers to accessing legal information, especially for women with low levels of literacy. Legal information is convoluted enough and, for women who are unable to read, a lack of legal knowledge and the struggle in acquiring the same deters them from using and trusting the judicial system—let alone understanding their rights.

Shakti will provide this legal information through an interactive voice response system in two formats. The first is through a call-in interactive voice response system, where the concerned woman can call in, listen to an automated prompt that would ask her to press one if she needed information on domestic violence, and navigate the information using her mobile phone keypad. We will be using open source technology called Verboice to do this.

The other format is through WhatsApp. WhatsApp has a function that allows the sender to record and send audio notes. This is widely used by our target market. In this case, the concerned woman might send us an audio note through WhatsApp requesting information regarding economic violence, and we will develop a WhatsApp bot with a similar interactive voice response system that can send the relevant information through a pre-recorded video.

Q: Who will benefit most from your services?

Our market is defined by the number of women who are illiterate, have access to a mobile phone, face some sort of legal rights violations, and are living in urban areas in India. We estimate this number to be approximately 23.3 million women.

Have you already launched a pilot? What are your short- and long-term goals?

We have launched our pilot project in Bengaluru in the local language of Kannada, starting with a call-in interactive voice response system, focusing on domestic abuse. This summer pilot will take us through the next three months and will test the technology, content, and whether our users are open to using this technology to learn legal information. To acquire users, we will partner with organizations who provide emotional support to survivors of domestic violence, specifically NIMHANS – a central government hospital – and Vimochana – a nonprofit forum for women’s rights.

In the long term, we intend to expand to five different languages and reach over half a million beneficiaries in five years.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We are currently reaching out to service partners who work with our target market in India to develop partnerships. We would love to reach out to as many organizations as possible to ensure greater coverage. We are also seeking expertise in fund-raising in India.

For more information, contact Shakti at Learn more about the other 2018 SNVC winners here.