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Uma’s Sweet Success

In the heart of Chennai’s bustling streets lies a vibrant oasis called Nila Ice Cream. The small shop is owned and operated by Uma, 20, who spent weeks painting the walls in fun colors and celestial murals, hand-making decor, and procuring seating. Every detail she selected has intention and purpose.

“I chose yellow for the walls because it means love,” Uma explained during a recent visit from Zoe Empowers staff. “Brown means hope.” 

For Uma, Nila Ice Cream is more than just chocolate shakes and ice cream sandwiches to beat the South Indian heat. It’s a dream come true. 

Five years ago, Uma’s childhood was upended when her father died. As the breadwinner, his abrupt absence left his family in immediate financial hardship. Because Uma’s mother has a chronic disability, impeding her ability to walk and work, Uma assumed the role of caretaker, including responsibility for her brothers, who were four and five at the time.

Uma’s mother eventually brought her children to the temple, where they begged for food each day. Additionally, Uma found work cleaning shops at the market—grocery stores, salons, restaurants, and anyone who would hire her. Time spent sweeping and mopping floors instilled a yearning to open her own store, but Uma doubted the feasibility. 

Then, in January 2022, Uma heard about Zoe Empowers and attended a recruitment meeting. Hearing Jabez Williams, Zoe Empowers country manager in Chennai, explain the empowerment program moved Uma to tears. She had prayed for an opportunity for four years. This was it.

“He [Jabez] gave me so much hope,” Uma recalled. “It was the hope that changed my life.” 

After a couple of months of training, Uma started Nila Ice Cream. A business loan from her Zoe Empowers group covered the cost of a freezer, product inventory, and other business supplies. Uma secured a space to rent in a busy marketplace and wasted no time opening the doors. 

On the wall behind the register, Uma hung a framed portrait of her father. She credits him for teaching her to be bold and brave, take risks, and chase her dreams. She is emotional thinking of her accomplishments in one year with Zoe. Her life is unrecognizable. Rich with meaning.

Uma’s father

However, Uma’s ambition isn’t unusual for a woman in her circumstances. “The slum kids have the biggest dreams and work the hardest,” said Jabez Williams, who has helped thousands of orphaned and vulnerable children in India through Zoe. “The more desperate their circumstances, the faster they come up.”

Today, Uma’s lively ice cream parlor serves dozens of customers a day during the summer months. Business slows in the rainy season, but Uma accommodates by saving and investing her earnings. Eventually, she hopes to franchise her business and is actively looking for the right partner and location to expand. 

 

With her profits, Uma can afford regular meals, rent a home, and access healthcare for her entire family, including her mother, whom Uma cares for. Overcoming homelessness, food insecurity, and stigmatization through Zoe Empowers has given Uma a hefty dose of confidence. 

“The training taught me to push through, and now I have the ability and resources to solve my problems,” Uma said proudly. “I can figure out anything now.” 

Uma’s brothers are reaping the benefits of their older sister’s success. After joining Zoe, both boys enrolled in school. One is training to become a carpenter and assists Uma at the ice cream parlor. The other is training in data transcript processing and hopes to be hired by Amazon in the future. 

Uma’s talent and determination have stood out among her Zoe empowerment peer group, who appointed her as the group secretary. The responsibility requires Uma to attend regional meetings, where she swaps stories and business lessons with other Zoe participants. 

The group aspect of Zoe has made Uma’s years of isolation and loneliness a thing of the past. “I have made a lot of good friends,” Uma said. She specified another young woman named Nivetha who sells dresses. “We like to share ideas and help each other’s businesses.”

Furthermore, Uma shares her knowledge and strengthens the economy in her community by training other children. So far, she has trained sixteen children how to operate an ice cream parlor, and six have opened their own shops. 

Friendship and ice cream have ignited a profound joy and sense of purpose Uma can’t believe she lived nearly twenty years without. It’s as if her life has just begun. And, in many ways, it has. Given her resilience, determination, and creativity, Uma’s future looks as bright as her ice cream shop walls.