Rashmi Daga, founder of cloud kitchen start-up Freshmenu, during the early years of her venture, often used to take her young daughter around with her while she delivered meals. This was the way she could take care of her daughter, spend time with her while still babying her start-up. Freshmenu is now one of the leading online food delivery platforms in the country.
Serial entrepreneur Ishita Swarup, currently founder of online flash sales portal 99labels.com, had to encounter questions about when she planned to get married from bankers who she approached for loans for her first venture Orion Dialog. Prospective lenders often demanded to speak to her father, even before they would talk to her. Orion Dialog eventually grew into one of the largest back-office firms in the country, and was acquired by the Essar group.
Oh, I could go on with all these stories. Typical gender stereotypes, tales of challenges, discrimination, the scepticism with which women entrepreneurs are greeted, etc. It is a depressing reality though. IT industry body Nasscom, in a report in November last year pointed out that women entrepreneurs accounted for only 11 percent of all start-ups in the country. The second edition of the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs in 2018 ranked India at a lowly 52 from among 57 countries, when it came to promoting women entrepreneurs.
Cultural and Social Factors
At the Economic Times start-up awards function this year, women entrepreneurs talked about the opposition that they still had to face from their families while trying to pursue careers, let alone starting their own ventures. That mindset just doesn’t let go; it still wants to label women and box them up safely within the confines of some physical, metaphorical boundaries.
The Mastercard Report also indicated cultural bias and lack of financial support and funding as two of the main obstacles to women entrepreneurship in the country. It is all tied in with the position and perception of women in the society, the acceptance of their contribution to society, their participation in the workforce, and a host of other factors, which are too deep-rooted in our social and cultural ethos.
Apart from the cultural bias, there is another factor that works against women. Typically, most start-ups are started by people when in their thirties and early forties. It is around this time that women are most tied up with their family responsibilities, either still caring for their children or caring for their parents and other elders in their families. In the absence of a good support system and encouragement from families, it makes it impossible for a woman to give the kind of dedication and time that is needed in a start-up.
Globally, only up to a fifth of all start-ups are founded by women.
Lack of Support from VCs and PE firms
Venture capitalists, private equity financiers also loathe to ‘risk’ their venture money on women entrepreneurs. Questions that regularly crop up are “what happens if you get married?”, “what happens if you have children?”, “what if your husband decides to relocate?”, “would people be willing to work for you” … what if ..what if… the doubts and questions are endless.
Men head more than 90 percent of VCs and PE funds. The ecosystem of women-headed VCs is still to grow and mature. In such a scenario, women entrepreneurs are not only battling for the overall pie of the funding available to start-ups but they are doing it against ingrained biases, prejudices, and scepticism. They start at a disadvantage while pitching because of their gender.
Even in the US, the poster child of capitalism and free enterprise, women entrepreneurs get only seven percent of venture funds. In India, that figure is worse, with women-led start-ups getting only 2 percent of equity funding from VCs.
It's not all Gloom and Doom
While the situation looks rather bleak, it is not hopeless. The Indian Government is doing its best to encourage women to take up entrepreneurship as a means to livelihood as well as to create jobs.
The NITI Aayog has tied up with industry bodies FICCI, Nasscom and others to set up the Women Entrepreneurship Platform, with the aim to help both established and fledgling women entrepreneurs in the country. The initiative will hand-hold women founders, mentor them in their ventures, help them in their funding, scaling up their businesses, etc.
Recognising the role that women play in the medium, small and micro enterprises, the Government has roped in various agencies including NGOs to fund women entrepreneurs, especially those who do not have the required educational grounding or skills. The Small Industries Development Bank of India is, for instance, providing up to 90 percent of the project cost for women–led enterprises.
Pushing the Boundaries
Despite all the obstacles, there are enough success stories to give us heart, keep the momentum going, and encourage us to hang in there.
Dream Weavers is a venture started by a mother-daughter duo, who manufacture a range of products for women and the beauty industry. They started with as little as Rs 500 and have a thriving business with a turnover in crores now. Patricia Narayan came out of marriage with a drug addict husband and a personal tragedy, to use her cooking skills to open a chain of restaurants in Chennai. Or take Sarala Bastian, married at seventeen, starting a mushroom business with Rs 15,000 loaned by her father, and going on to make a successful venture out of it.
It seems a cliché, but it is true when there is a will, there is a way. Once women show that they are determined, there are sure to be helping hands reaching out.
The thing to remember is that we women need to keep pushing and expanding the boundaries. As long as there is struggle, there is hope.
Janaki Krishnan (Author)