Bala Venkat Muthukaruppan (left) and Shalini Jha (right) of The Purple Wings/ Credit: Needham Observer

Shalini Jha knows she is resourceful, having developed a successful career 20 years after emigrating from New Delhi, India, and raising two children. But after her father died unexpectedly, she saw herself differently. 

“I saw the fear in my mother about her future because she had no clue about her finances, and I realized I could be in the same situation,” said Jha, who works in IT in Children’s Hospital’s fundraising department, and is president of ICON (Indian Community of Needham). “I was ignorant and had been happy to have my husband handle everything.”

As she discussed this with her friend Bala Venkat Muthukaruppan, the two Needham residents realized that many other women, not just those who came from India, probably felt the same way. 

“I told her, ‘I’m in the same boat,’” said Venkat Muthukaruppan, who is from Tamil Nadu, India, and lived in Malden before settling in Needham 10 years ago. “My dad had taken care of my finances, and after that, my husband did. I was oblivious.”

Their solution was to create, with two other Indian-American women, the nonprofit The Purple Wings to educate themselves and others and to foster a community of women to explore together through classes and conversations. The other founders are Shweta Bhola, who works in product management, and Aditi Pranjape, who is a public health dietetic consultant. 

“The goal is to help women not have fear and to reach out for help,” Venkat Muthukaruppan said. “It can be overwhelming not knowing where to start. We’re obviously not experts, but we can help women connect with each other and with people who are.”

For the next three weeks, The Purple Wings will continue its six-week class, Financial Literacy for Women, offered through Needham Community Education. Each class is taught by a volunteer professional with expertise in a specific aspect of finance. The classes are wills and trusts, retirement, investments, real estate, banking, credit and loans, and mortgage and home equity. The organization hopes to offer another course this spring.

Lotus Elgert of Westwood decided to sign up after she advised her 17-year-old daughter to take a financial literacy class at Westwood High.

“I told her, ‘You need to know this,’” Elgert said. “I never had a class like that, and I have a gap in knowledge. I’m just starting to plan, and it helps to know what the general landscape is.” 

Molly Singh, who is raising children ages 1 and 6 in Needham with her husband, who is Indian, said she is afraid of financial risk. She said she hopes the knowledge she gains in the class will make her more confident weighing risks and benefits. 

Many men also find it challenging to understand or handle personal finance, but women are more likely to have this problem. In a 2002 financial literacy survey by the nonprofit financial services organization TIAA, women answered finance questions correctly an average of 45% of the time, compared to 55% for men. 

Financial literacy can be as basic as a woman knowing the amount of money she has, where it is invested, her expenses and her debts and how to budget for daily life and emergencies. And ideally, it should include an understanding of how to maintain and grow wealth through home ownership, investments, retirement planning and wills and estates. With that knowledge, women can prepare for their future and — if they have a partner and/or children — benefit the family, the founders believe. 

By focusing on women, The Purple Wings founders want to create an environment where women feel free to learn and ask questions, which may be more likely without the presence of men. When the organization started two years ago, it held Zoom sessions for friends with professionals at Jha’s home. One evening, a woman was asking a question but stopped abruptly when her husband entered the room. 

Although in some cases, men do not want to share financial decisions with their wives or partners, it’s more likely that the arrangement reflects a traditional division of labor, Jha said. 

Her husband, Sanjeev Jha, an IT manager at Harvard, encouraged her to form the organization and helped the nonprofit with website, legal and tax issues. 

Since forming the nonprofit, Jha and Venkat Muthukaruppan have made changes in their personal finances. Importantly, Jha created a will after learning that without one a court would make decisions about guardianship and property inheritance. And she became a licensed mortgage originator after home financing became a new interest.

“I didn’t know that it’s dangerous not to have a will,” said Jha, whose sons are 13 and 24. And Venkat Muthukaruppan, whose sons are 9 and 16, now deposits her paychecks into her own bank account and makes transfers into a joint account as needed. As director of engineering and product operations at a robotics company where she oversees a team of 50 men, having her own bank account is a seemingly small step that reflects a sea change in goals.

“It’s become a habit now to know what is in it and how it’s being spent,” she said. “I always wanted to be a woman who breaks barriers, but I never thought about my own finances.” 

Although The Purple Wings started in the town’s Indian community, it welcomes all women. The Indian community has grown from about 50 families a decade ago to more than 200 families, she said. A former president of ICON, she is now social chair and a founding member of Needham Resilience Network.

“We came together at events for the Indian community, and realized that we were doing a lot of cultural and social things,” she said. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we do something more educational for us and other women?’”

Now, the founders hope that women who meet in the class will form a connection that continues when the class ends, and they eventually would like The Purple Wings chapters to form in other communities. 

“We want people to have a community to talk about financial literacy,” Jha said. “I don’t think we talk about finance enough and I’d like to see it become more normal.”

With family, community and work commitments, Venkat Muthukaruppan knows that building the organization will take time. 

“We want to do so much more, but for now it’s very gratifying,” she said.

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