With her ‘holistic approach’, she tries to help communities to lift themselves out of poverty and to stay out of poverty. Laurien Meuter (1976) studied economics in Groningen and went on to work as a banker but, while working in Mumbai, discovered that her heart lay with the very poorest in society. And so she set up the foundation Tiny Miracles, where she works passionately to realize her dream. The University of Groningen elected Laurien Meuter as Alumnus of the Year 2020. Meuter will receive her award on 6 September, during the opening of the academic year.
Text: Ruth Koops van ’t Jagt; Photograph: Reyer Boxem; Source: Broerstraat 5
The walls of every room in the Tiny Miracles office are covered in photographs, newspaper cuttings and quotes. There are photographs of colourful Indian interiors, women with broad smiles, a radiant Queen Máxima during a state visit in 2019, and two generations of Indian men standing beside each other. On the toilet door hangs a life-size photograph of Tisha, the now 18-year-old girl who shows like no other how the holistic approach taken by Tiny Miracles really can break the cycle of poverty.
Laurien Meuter, dressed in jeans, a sweater and sneakers, and with a cheeky smiley on one of her red polished fingernails, points to a photograph of run-down huts along the side of a road. ‘That is how Tisha sat, on the ground between four poles, strung with a couple of tarpaulins. There really was nothing. Every day was about surviving. Now, she lives in an apartment and dreams of a career as a banker. You can rise up, if you are given the chance and have confidence in yourself.’
Meuter grew up in Bussum, went to secondary school in Hilversum and, like her father, went on to study economics in Groningen. She then worked as a banker for ABN AMRO in Amsterdam for many years. When she was given the opportunity to work in Mumbai for a year, she did not choose to spend her weekends at the expat club, unlike many of her colleagues. Instead, she visited a homeless shelter underneath a railway bridge, where she squatted next to drug-addicted boys who lived on the streets to teach them how to clean their teeth, and to talk to them.
‘In my time as a banker, I often thought that there must be more to life than this rat race. But it was completely clear to me that year: I could go to the expat club at the weekend, or I could go and sit with those boys and girls. That is where I wanted to be, and that is what made me happy. It was because they saw me for who I was; there was no: “Where are you from, what is your surname, what did you study, which club were you in, where do you work and how much do you earn?”’
In 2010, Meuter decided to take a more structured approach to tackling poverty, by focusing on a whole community. She googled ‘poorest area of Mumbai’ and spent three weeks in the red light district. There, on two pavements roughly 150 metres long, about 800 people do what they can to survive each day. Sitting between poles and blue tarpaulins, dirty, staring ahead with a hopeless look in their eyes. ‘I went to a café and wrote out my dream in detail. This hell, because that is what it was, would soon become an oasis; I could see it in front of me, “The City of Miracles”, that is what it would be.’ Not much later, she was able to share her plans with Raymond Cloosterman, the founder of cosmetics company Rituals. Meuter explained to him in great detail how she imagined her City of Miracles, and how she planned to achieve it. After just a few minutes, he said: ‘I can see the passion in you, and I recognize myself; I see myself again, going door to door with my soap. How much money do you need?’
Over the next seven years, after many ups and downs, Meuters established Tiny Miracles according to her holistic method and largely funded by Rituals. This method ensures that the poorest communities in and around Mumbai not only free themselves from poverty, but stay out of poverty. Slowly, the focus is shifting to creating employment – jobs in which people earn a decent salary so that they can lift themselves out of poverty. The foundation encourages large companies to use their infrastructure to contribute to greater equality and reduced poverty.
People in these communities now also make products for Rituals and for the Rijksmuseum, for which they receive a good salary. Moreover, the foundation ensures that children go to school and that good healthcare is provided. For every six days that Tiny Miracles employees are paid, they also follow two days of ‘awareness sessions’ on various topics, from sexual abuse to budgeting. These sessions increase awareness, knowledge and skills. In this way, Tiny Miracles contributes to the development and self-sufficiency of the community, and the foundation makes a lasting change to the root causes of poverty.
All of this is based on the principles of equality, mutual respect and trust in each other. On rights and responsibilities, because that means that you take people seriously. Grinning, Laurien describes the yearly trip for the women who work for Tiny Miracles, who last went to a kind of tropical leisure pool. ‘The next day, I called Grace, who manages everything in India, to ask how it was: “They’re just telling each other that it was the best day of their lives.” They are small steps, but it is these small steps that eventually lead to a path of awareness and freedom.’ This approach resulted in a nomination for the Financial Times/IFC Transformational Business Award 2020, in the category of Transformational Solutions in Education, Knowledge and Skills.
Outside, above the river IJ, the sun breaks through the dark grey rain clouds. Leaning against the window, beside an old painting of Mahatma Gandhi, is a photograph of one of the street boys. That is how it started: by learning how to build a truly equal world from one another, together with the business community. And because of this, Tiny Miracles can show today that all those small steps do result in big change, in real change.
Meuter gives an example: ‘Last November, in the same week that we had just received a large order, I got a phone call. Something terrible had happened to a girl in one of the communities, and her mother wanted to report the crime. When a group of men beat the mother up as she was on her way to the police station, the women of the community stepped forward. They threw three of the five men off the community council, and took the seats themselves. This led to a movement that demands equal numbers of men and women in the councils. That a social structure like this can change, affecting the lives of thousands of people, and that Tiny Miracles was an invisible catalyst for this change… Because they work for us and, together, they feel strong enough to say: “We no longer accept this”.’
‘That really is lasting change. Not giving money to charity because, as a company, you feel guilty about your need for more for less, and about how you interact with the production chain, but really standing for something: tackling the root causes, in a holistic way. This is why I am very hopeful that our generation is starting to think differently about things. Take, for example, Dolf van den Brink, also a UG alumnus and now CEO of Heineken, who said: “This is business as usual. I don’t have to be a Messiah who is on stage for that, like the generation before us still had to, the Paul Polmans [previous head of Unilever] of this world. They paved the way, we just have to do it now.” You can really solve problems, especially as a large company!’
‘Do I have the ambition to run a large company? No, it doesn’t bear thinking about! Right now, I am in charge of the day-to-day running of the foundation from the Netherlands, but I aim to pass on that role soon. I want to scale up our model in India and enter into partnerships with new companies. I want to show that everyone, through the things that they buy, can contribute to a better world. As Alumnus of the Year, I hope to show people that you really can make a difference with just small steps. Inspire others to do the same, that is my mission: you’re big enough to make a difference!’
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit India very hard, including the 3,000 inhabitants of the communities in and around Mumbai in which Tiny Miracles works. There has been a hard lockdown, less to no income, and rapidly increasing food prices that threaten to cause famine. There is no social security system in India, and the announced government aid frequently does not reach the poorest in society. Laurien Meuter and Tiny Miracles therefore launched an emergency aid plan in the first week of April 2020 to collect as much money as possible for food and hygiene parcels (50 euros per family of 5, enough for a month). After a month, they could start work again. Another 5,000 people from neighbouring communities, who are also part of the Tiny Miracles approach, received help via emergency parcels.
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