Megha Vora begins every self-defense class at her Mumbai martial arts gym by teaching the women how to scream.
“They just can’t scream,” she says. “They’ve been told all their years of growing that they cannot talk loudly, they have to be polite, they cannot argue back. Then, one fine day when they are in trouble you expect them to scream, which is so not fair.”
“We need to give them a voice of their own,” she says.
Vora is the chief sensei, or instructor, at the flagship Women’s Self Defense Center in Mumbai. Co-founded by Vora and her husband, it is the first private self-defense gym in India to offer free classes for women and girls. With nine locations across the country, the center has trained more than 20,000 women in basic self-defense.
With a black belt in jujitsu, Vora has adopted its method of using an opponent’s force against them to teach women about their own strength, both inner and physical.
In martial arts, she has found the means to fight the sexism she encounters as a woman in India.
Vora was a university student, just months into taking karate lessons from a friend, when a neighborhood boy threatened her and she beat him on her way home from class. “That was the first time I experienced the power I had inside me,” she says.
Vora came to the United States as part of the U.S. State Department’s Global Sports Mentorship program, an exchange program that pairs accomplished female athletes from around the world with leading U.S. businesswomen. Julie Eddleman, global client partner for Google, served as Vora’s mentor.
“I think the mentees have gotten a really good foundation of brand-building, marketing and digital media that will help them when they go back to their home countries and implement their action plans” to improve their businesses, Eddleman says.
Vora worked with Eddleman to build a strategy to attract corporate sponsors who will help her scale up her center’s model and ultimately expand to 1,000 facilities.
Previously, potential sponsors would reject Vora’s pitch on the basis that women’s self-defense was not their cause. After coming to the United States, the professional contacts she met through Eddleman helped Vora decide to take a broader approach to the focus of her business.
“I was already working on women empowerment, I was working on building up confidence for these girls, guiding them to legal actions they can take,” she says. “It instantly struck me that, yes, it cannot work with just self-defense on the agenda. It has to be all these things put together and I’m going to do all this through self-defense.”