Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Nav Sawhney as part of her regular series for ‘iGlobal’ to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.
London-born Nav is the Founder of the Washing Machine Project, which aims to ease the physical and mental burden of handwashing clothes for everyone, everywhere. With over five years of professional engineering experience at global technology companies such as Dyson and Jaguar Land Rover behind him, Nav believes in combining his desire to help people with his engineering skills. Here, he gives Reena insights into his passion for international development and the Eureka moment that set him on his current mission.
How was the Washing Machine Project born?
In 2016, I decided to take a sabbatical from my engineering career in the UK and apply my skills to help people who really needed it. I was working with a social enterprise in Pondicherry, trying to come up with a solution that alleviates the burden of cooking with solid fuels. We created clean and efficient cookstoves in South India.
While in , I lived in a small village called Kuilapalayam. The community had limited access to continuous electricity, and water was switched on twice a day. I would miss my water switch on times all the time! My next-door neighbour and I became excellent friends. Her name was Divya and she was the only lady on the street that could speak English. She was a stay at home mum, was around 30 at the time and had a few young children. She used to help me out by making sure I had water for the day.
Divya and her family had simple problems. Sukumar, her seven-year-old son, would need to study for his exam and would not have light to do so. I would give them my mobile phone for them to use as a torch. Food would go bad very often because the fridge would stop working because of lack of electricity.
When I would come back from work, Divya and I used to catch up on the day’s activities outside her house. We would spend hours in the evening talking about life and our dreams. While we caught up, she would hand wash her clothes. I was always so shocked at how long and how much effort it would take to conduct the relatively unproductive task.
She would use up to 20 hours a week hand-washing clothes, crouched on her hands and knees, besides the nearly 40 litres of water per cycle. She would complain of back pain, joint pain and skin irritation. She would scrape, scrub, and smash each individual piece of clothing.
As an engineer, I thought this was an incredibly inefficient use of her time and energy. She could use this time educating Sukumar or owning her own business.
This was when the idea for the Washing Machine Project was born. Perhaps I could create a solution for my friend that would help alleviate this burden of handwashing clothes. When I suggested the idea to Divya, her eyes lit up, and she said she wanted one as soon as possible.
I am accountable to her to make sure this project is a success. I returned back to London in late 2017 and the project was founded in 2018.
Which one person has had the greatest influence in your life, and why?
My mother is the person that has had the most significant influence on my life. The eldest child of seven, born in relative poverty and taking up an English tutor role at the age of 12 to feed her family, she is the embodiment of triumph over adversity.
Even when my father suddenly passed away, leaving behind three young , my mother took up the role of both mother and father. My mother sacrificed so much for her children to succeed – often passing up promotions at work to spend more time with my sisters and I. And, 56 years later she is still working, and she teaches me every day the importance of working hard, being honest and understanding the importance of women empowerment.
She is my biggest supporter, and I owe all of my achievements to her.
What has been your career highlight?
I’ve been lucky enough to have accomplished some fantastic achievements in my life that I look back on fondly. By far, the most prominent highlight that has led to a series of fortunate events is leaving my well-paid position at Dyson to work for a higher purpose.
This led me to living in a village in , making clean and efficient cookstoves. As a consequence, I became friends with Divya and promised her a manual washing machine. When I founded the Washing Machine Project, little did I know that Oxfam and the United Nations would request a shipment of 50 washing machines to be delivered to Iraqi refugee camps.
We got to work by putting together a team of 80 volunteers dedicated to the project and successfully providing a pilot of these machines in Mosul, Iraq.
As a consequence of this work, I was lucky enough to be shortlisted by Forbes 30 under 30.
How would you best describe your relationship with the UK and India?
Being a British-born Sikh with a heritage that traces its roots back to Rawalpindi in undivided Punjab, my relationship with India has always been quite interesting.
During my childhood, my family and I would travel to India for the entire summer every year, eating at every single one of my aunts’ houses. India is where my extended family lives and where the inspiration for the Washing Machine Project came from, so India always has a place in my heart.
The UK is where I call home, where I was born and will always be where my roots are. The UK is a place that has provided me with so much opportunity.
Over the last few years, I have understood more about what it means to be a person of colour in the UK and an ethnic minority in India, and as a consequence, I look forward to a time where it’s a safe and just place for everyone.
Reena Ranger is the Chair and Co-Founder of . In this exclusive “” series for ‘iGlobal’, the dynamic entrepreneur-philanthropist will be catching up with high-achieving Global Indians across different fields to spotlight some insightful life lessons.
*The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees.