They could be CFOs and managers at multi-national corporations like PepsiCo and HSBC.
No matter what the size or focus of their endeavours, women entrepreneurs are changing the face of business in India.
Challenges of Women Entrepreneurs
Historically, India has been a largely patriarchal society. With this cultural bias, women have not always been easily accepted as entrepreneurs. Founding or running a company seems to contradict the traditional roles of daughter, wife, and mother.
Women who pursue business are still sometimes pursued by stereotypes and stymied by roadblocks—the legacy of these patriarchal attitudes.
Small things come in the way of running your business. Most of the time, people assume that you (as a woman) are not running the business or not the final one in charge. I remember once in our Gurgaon factory, a courier guy had come to deliver a fridge, he refused to give it to me. He kept on insisting, “boss ko bulao, sirf boss se baat karoonga,” and only after the watchman came and told him that I am the owner, did he relent.
-Nidhi Agarwal, in an interview with Shradha Sharma on YourStory.com
Not only do women entrepreneurs have to be good at business to succeed, they must also be good at exceeding expectations and ignoring the ignorance that would hold them back.
Women entrepreneurs are in many ways pioneers. They are blazing new trails, and often face resistance.
Yet the odds are not insurmountable.
The work of trailblazing women entrepreneurs has already left its mark on India. While there are still many challenges to be faced, from funding their businesses to finding respect, society is changing.
As opportunities for women in management in India slowly increase, women are entering professions previously seen as the domain of men in the corporate world: advertising, banking, civil services, engineering, financial services, manufacturing, police and armed forces, and emerging fields such as IT and communications.
-“Perspectives on Women in Management in India“, a report from the Society for Human Resource Management
The Indian government is also providing money to foster female entrepreneurship. And many organizations have been established to help women navigate the special challenges that can come with trying to start and grow their own businesses.
Women Finding Funding
When it comes to finding funding, the experiences of women entrepreneurs in India are as different as the women and the businesses themselves.
Pranshu Patni co-founded the educational software company Culture Alley. She found that only another woman questioned her about her entrepreneurial standing in her husband-and-wife team.
Nidhi Agarwal, the sole founder of women’s clothing brand Kaaryah, had a different experience. She is a chartered accountant with more than fifteen years’ experience in the field. She has a Master’s of Business Administration. She had been a strategy director at Honeywell.
Yet, despite all of her financial expertise and business acumen, Nidhi was rejected 113 times in her quest for growth capital. Moreover, she was threatened by armed extortionists at her start-up’s office.
While many of the rejections were not because of outright sexism, investors had concerns over what would happen when Nidhi married and had children. As she astutely pointed out in an interview with Tech in Asia, “Aren’t these questions applicable to men?”
Women Bringing Greater Success to Start-Ups
While the idea of women in the boardroom may be uncomfortable for some, statistics show that companies would do well to consider giving women entrepreneurs some room at the table.
Catalyst’s report on The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Gender Diversity shares the following findings:
- Companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance than companies with the lowest women’s representation.
- This finding holds for both financial measures analysed: Return on Equity (ROE), which is 35 percent higher, and Total Return to Shareholders (TRS), which is 34 percent higher.
– Dave Richards in Forbes India, “Why India Needs More Women Entrepreneurs”
What’s behind these statistics of woman-powered success?
Some suggest that women tend to be stronger than men at relationship-building, which pays off long-term in the business world.
Nidhi Agarwal, who founded the clothing brand Kaaryah, speculates that women in the business world are more in touch with the needs of female consumers. Since women tend to be in charge of household purchasing, it makes sense that they would have more insight into what consumers want.
Still others believe that women, having long been corporate outsiders, tend to more fiercely protect what is often a minority viewpoint. The result, per Guoli Chen, is that “[corporate] boards with one or more female directors will have more contentious and comprehensive discussions when making decisions, and will be less likely to rapidly come to a consensus.”
A study by Guoli Chen, Craig Crossland, and Sterling Huang, entitled “Female Board Representation and Corporate Acquisition Intensity”, found that boards with a higher percentage of women tended to consider spending decisions more carefully. Ultimately, boards with more women made fewer acquisitions, and spent less money than all-male boards. That certainly contradicts the stereotype of women as spendthrifts!
Products and Services that Make a Difference
Several start-ups founded by women entrepreneurs in India have a social mission, in addition to their focus on profit.
The Hello English app from CultureAlley started out as a general tool to learn any foreign language. Hello English, which teaches the English language to people who speak any of fifteen different Indian languages, came later.
As Prashnu Bhandari, the co-founder of CultureAlley, told Tech in Asia in an interview, “In India, folks who do not speak proper English are not able to get better jobs. Some of them are not even able to get their first job. We realized that English was that really fundamental need that was a must-have for people.”
The company proved quite correct about consumer demand for an English-learning app: They grew to seven million users the first year they were in business, and are now the premier free English-learning app in India.
Springboard offers a virtual data science learning community for students around the world. They recognize that learning must be a lifelong endeavour.
Springboard, formerly known as SlideRule, was co-founded by Parul Gupta. Gupta once worked at IBM Research, and while there took courses from Udemy and Coursera. She began to think about ways to expand upon the emerging virtual learning trend in India.
Gupta wanted to improve online learning as she knew it. She believed that online learning would be much more valuable to students if it were curated by experts, who would assemble several courses together in a learning path. The skills learned would be applied in the completion of student projects. These projects could then become part of a student’s portfolio, making them more marketable as job seekers.
Doing a startup takes a lot of courage, determination and hard work, but it is a very fulfilling experience. Do it for the right reasons – do it because you are passionate about creating something of value, not because everybody else is doing it or because you want to make a quick buck. There is no such thing as easy money or fame, and a startup will demand a lot of your lifeblood. Also, choose a problem that you are truly passionate about, not something that is hot or “in”, because that is the only way you will survive and thrive in the arduous journey.
– Parul Gupta, co-founder of Springboard (SlideRule), in a withStartups.com interview
With course advisors, expert mentors, real-world projects, and an online curriculum, Springboard offers students not just courses, but a jumping-off point for a career.
Anu Sridharan co-founded NextDrop, a company based on a software app for cellphones. The app works with Indian citizens and government engineers to better pinpoint when water will be available.
With only two cities in India supplied with water throughout the day, trying to figure out when water will be piped in for use can be a daily burden.
NextDrop helps lift that burden for over 75,000 people in the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad. Through the NextDrop app, subscribers get reliable information about when their taps will flow with water. With this information, citizens know when they can cook, clean, and wash. Without it, they face hours of frustration.
NextDrop communication works both ways: In an example cited by Sridharan in a Forbes interview, a citizen in Bangalore reported a damaged pipe directly to NextDrop.
NextDrop acted as an intermediary, contacting the proper authorities. The pipe was fixed in two hours, to the customer’s incredulous delight.
Founded by Ajaita Shah, Frontier Markets brings clean solar energy to remote rural areas in India.
As solar energy is relatively new to India, Frontier Markets faces the challenge of convincing the rural consumer that solar power is sufficient for their needs.
This task has been made more difficult by inferior solar-powered products that have been provided by the government, and by companies who installed a few solar-powered lights and then did not provide technical support for questions or problems.
Shah works with a largely female board to tackle these challenges.
Not all entrepreneurs do their work in the big city. Some work out in rural areas, changing lives and perceptions of women.
Kalpana Heblekar has taught over 30,000 rural women in India, Africa, Thailand, and Sri Lanki to be entrepreneurs. Through her company, Handikrafts Sourcing, Kalpana has given these women more than the skills to make their own handicrafts: She has empowered them to run their own businesses.
Out of the tens of thousands of women Kalpana has trained, over 1,000 small-scale manufacturing units have been created.
The women continue to turn to Kalpana for advice—they even conference with her via Skype!
Although Kalpana still mentors them, the trained women take over as leaders of their own groups. They manufacture handicrafts that are made from recycled materials, using environmentally-friendly techniques.
Business in Bihar
Through self-help groups, women in the villages of Usrar and Bataua reclaimed disused ponds and converted them into fisheries.
The ponds they claimed were in terrible condition. The women enlisted the help of some of the men in the village to undertake the back-breaking labour. “It took us 10 days of grinding hard work by 25-30 people to make all the ponds conducive for fish farming,” said Udia Devi, who heads the fishery committee for the two villages.
The women who have participated in this endeavour have had their lives changed.
Until the fisheries programme started in my village, Usrar, our men folk would rarely allow the women to step out unescorted. It was also mandatory for us to keep our faces covered. Occasionally, we would work as farm labour or shell ‘makhanas’ (lotus seeds). But these were seasonal jobs that brought in negligible income despite hours of hard work.
– Udia Devi, Head of the Fisheries Committee in Usrar and Bataua, in an interview with The Better India
The women are now much more confident. They have their own sources of income, making them more independent.
And their authority in the villages is being respected as never before.
Earning Stitch by Stitch
Women in both rural and urban Rajasthan tend to be poorly educated. However, they are often masterful seamstresses, in the centuries-old tradition of their region.
The Sadhna mutual benefit trust has paired their sewing skills with a cosmopolitan marketplace.
Sadhna evolved from the Patchwork Programme, created in the late 1980s during a time of extreme economic hardship.
The Patchwork Programme started with 15 women. Its current incarnation, Sadhna, represents 700 sewing women in Rajasthan. Sadhna brings their collective work to tourists and other collectors.
The women work in greater comfort and earn more than they had at previous occupations, such as scavenging.
As with the fisherwomen of Usrar and Bataua, the women of Sadhna have found a new respect for themselves—and from their families and fellow villagers—as their roles in the village expanded, and their earnings increased through entrepreneurship.
Women Entrepreneurs: Changing India, and Changing the World
Entrepreneurs can do much to contribute to their communities and their nations.
Entrepreneurs provide needed goods and services. These products may change their customers’ lives, or simply make them a little easier.
But women entrepreneurs especially bring something more to the table. By thwarting cultural bias, they buy freedom of choice for other women.
Women entrepreneurs make it possible for others to truly see women: Not as they “should be”, but as they actually are. And in a world unfiltered by preconceptions and prejudices, businesses can benefit from the unique perspectives of women.
Celebrating the achievements of women entrepreneurs recognizes individuals who have succeeded and flourished in a world where the odds can be stacked against them.
Highlighting the work of women entrepreneurs brings us closer to a world where we cultivate talent wherever it is found.
Working together, we can create a world where women entrepreneurs will be acknowledged simply as entrepreneurs.
Is India truly becoming more receptive to women entrepreneurs? Which woman entrepreneur best exemplifies the spirit of change that will bring more opportunities for other women? Are there other women entrepreneurs you’d like to talk about? Let us know in the Comments!
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Michelle Baumgartner is a freelance writer and editor. One of her current projects is an internship with LEAF Society. Michelle’s company, StellaWriting LLC, provides blogging, online content, copywriting, and marketing materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.