No country for bold women: A 5-step recipe for a female entrepreneurship revolution in India
If there is anything called a rush hour at the grocery store check-out lanes, it is definitely between 6pm and 7pm. Last week, I was one customer away for my turn at the check- out counter and this lady (who was obviously in a bit of rush) requested if she could be allowed to go first, since she had very few items. I obliged and we started to talk. I gathered that she was an entrepreneur running a social media marketing firm, co-founded with a friend nine months ago.
“Business has been growing a lot faster than we expected. However, we’re not there yet. And considering my husband is out of a job, I’m at least able to pull in some money,” she said. I congratulated her, “I have to commend you for taking the plunge and starting on your own!” But she just looked exhausted. “I just got back from work and now I have to go home and quickly whip up some dinner for hubby and the kids,” she said.
She could immediately see the question on my face. Shaking her head sideways, she muttered, “Him cooking? My in-laws will kill both of us if they found out that I made him go into the kitchen.” She laughed, “Well, the family is old-fashioned that way.”
We need to start encouraging girls from very young age to follow their passions and chase their dreams. We need to instill the entrepreneurship mindset in them.”
This encounter spoke volumes and got me thinking about women workers and entrepreneurs and the limiting social programming that still plagues our society.
It is well known that women entrepreneurs have more challenges in India than perhaps anywhere in the world. Despite the odds, it is heartening to see so many women taking the plunge and succeeding. An exponential rise in this trend will not only provide a fillip to India’s growth potential but will also limit social externalities, in times to come.
However, the systemic bias in our society to portray the business world as a man’s playground and to push women to the background is only one among the many challenges women face. To break out of this cycle, we need to first change our collective attitudes, followed by what I call a 5-step recipe to cook up an entrepreneurial revolution with women as the key ingredient.
Step 1: Erase the macho myth
We need to erase the stereotype that men make better entrepreneurs or that they are naturally better suited to be successful as entrepreneurs than women. Start-up success is gender agnostic. Competency has no gender bias. It is time to break the traditional mindset of “she’s a girl fit only to run the household.”
The responsibility to bring about this change lies with parents, teachers, investors and employers. We need to start encouraging girls from very young age to follow their passions and chase their dreams. We need to instill the entrepreneurship mindset in them.
Step 2: Stop expecting women entrepreneurs to act like men
Our definition of entrepreneurship is based on a false male-model standard. Unfortunately, women’s ability to create and grow businesses is evaluated on how similar they are to the male standard. However, women bring a lot of unique strengths to entrepreneurship. The so-called “feminine” characteristics like risk aversion and patience are actually necessary ingredients for start-up success. In fact, certain lines of businesses may be more suited for women than men.
Women entrepreneurs are also generally happier than their male counterparts, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2013 Global Report.
Hence, the second step is to start recognising the natural strengths that women bring to entrepreneurship and encourage them to use their skills in business. Women entrepreneurs can certainly teach a thing or two to men.
Step 3: Create women-focused funding
The third step is to shatter the financial glass ceiling.
While female consumers represent 70-80% of consumer spending, VC dollars go to about 3% of companies with a woman founder or CEO. A study by Emory University showed that woman-run ventures are 40% likely to be funded. The stats are even abysmal in India.
In addition, research also shows that gender bias extends to business lending. It is shown that women entrepreneurs face tighter credit availability and higher interest rates compared to men. What is more unfortunate is that female lenders and funders are less likely to give credit to women than male entrepreneurs.
Women entrepreneurs in India present a great untapped opportunity for the venture community. It is time for VCs and angel investors to recognise the potential and put some extra energy in seeking out start-ups and businesses run by women. And it makes great business sense too. VC firms that invest in women-led companies out-perform those that don’t, according to research from the US Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. And the Emory University study also reported that women-run businesses are 15% more likely to be profitable than male-run businesses.
Our government can help too. While there may be a scheme here and there for women, there simply are not enough programmes to develop women as entrepreneurs in India. The few schemes to assist women that exist are difficult to understand, and the red tape is too daunting.
And our banks need to change their thinking too. They are still stuck in physical asset based lending. I laugh whenever I think of this imaginary scenario where WhatsApp founders approach an Indian bank manager for a loan. “So you have no revenues, don’t foresee any in the near future but you think one day your company will be worth $18 billion! Here’s the number of a good psychiatrist.”
Step 4: Build women-centric Mentor networks
National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), the initiative I am heading at Wadhwani Foundation, has pioneered in mentoring women for several years. The ‘Dream to Destination (D2D) programme we ran last year saw several high-potential women enterprises benefit from our mentoring network.
Savita Rajiv, the passionate founder of Springs Innovations – which operates the learning creativity and innovation programme called ‘Ideas ki Paathshala’ — was able to turn around her business model within just few minutes of meeting her mentor through the NEN network. “My mentor understood my difficulty in less than a minute. He asked me to convert my content into live interactive videos. So, I designed 20 TV telecast-quality videos with students as a part of marketing content,” says Savita. Thanks to the mentoring she received, her start-up evolved into a strategic research innovation firm and went on to win the Cherie Blair Foundation Award.
I believe mentoring can have a remarkable impact on an entrepreneur. Unfortunately there is a severe lack of mentoring support for women in India. At NEN we are doubling our focus on launching a national mentoring platform, with specific focus on women entrepreneurs.
So the fourth step is to develop a national platform of local and regional mentoring networks that women can tap into to find capable mentors to guide them.
Step 5: Develop women’s own old boys’ networks
There is a severe lack of support networks for women in India. Most business networks are male oriented. Yes, women are welcome to those networks but they are structured primarily for men. Women can learn as much from other women entrepreneurs as their male counterparts. But women need networks they can call their own.
So, my fifth and final step is to build thriving networks of women entrepreneurs helping each other. These peer-networks will play a great role in many more women joining the entrepreneurial journey. Networking helps women share best practices, explore and build business opportunities together, and share resources like capital and technology. This in turn can help them in growing their businesses.
The time is now
There is ample evidence to show that societies that support female entrepreneurship have higher rates of self-employed women and female business owners. So, it seems obvious to me that one of the essential ingredients of Prime Minister Modi’s acchhe din recipe should be to embrace and promote female entrepreneurship in India at a national scale.