Businesses and consumers will only gain from having more women entrepreneurs in the fray
"Entrepreneurship is hard for men and women alike. You need the fighter gene to succeed, and that requirement is really gender-agnostic," says Mukherjee, founder of Limeroad.
Anandan is convinced the dearth of women entrepreneurs in the country – only 6% of Indian startups are run by women – is translating into poorer products and services targeted for this substantial demographic.
"Across a range of internet businesses from content to commerce, the women user base will drive growth going forward," said Anandan. "Whether it is content or products that appeal to women, it is women who have a much better sense of the needs and can create much better products."
At networking events, startup community gatherings and hackathons, women are already making more of a presence, as they overcome forces of tradition, financial barriers and structural bias to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions. Zivame’s Richa Kar, Shopclues’ Radhika Aggarwal, Nykaa’s Falguni Nayar, and Limeroad’s Suchi Mukherjee are respected names in the ecommerce industry, to mention a few. Twitter’s first and only acquisition in India, ZipDial, was founded by Valerie Wagoner.
"Entrepreneurship is hard for men and women alike. You need the fighter gene to succeed, and that requirement is really gender-agnostic," said Mukherjee, founder and chief executive of fashion website Limeroad, which raised $15 million (about Rs 95 crore) last year from Tiger Global and other investors. Aggarwal’s Shopclues raised $100 million earlier this year, again in a funding round led by Tiger Global.
Like them, a small but increasing number of women entrepreneurs are now circumventing the traditional boys’ club barrier of venture capital firms to score sizeable investments and valuations. While women running small family businesses often find themselves rejected by banks for loans, there are more subtle barriers for larger-scale entrepreneurs in the race for venture capital.
Yet women founders have come a long way in the past decade. Startup and tech events are no longer characterized by a sea of men, nor are investor meetings only represented by suits and ties. Women now make up 20% of the one million sellers on ecommerce platforms, ET reported earlier this month. In the US, women-founded businesses secured 13% of venture capital funding in 2013, a giant leap from 4% in 2004, according to a report by research firm PitchBook.
Ashwini Asokan, founder and CEO of one-year-old artificial intelligence startup Mad Street Den, is a proponent of a movement to fundamentally rethink the exceedingly time-intensive and hostile startup environment, and make it more accommodating of other life priorities.
"Why are there only 48-hour hackathons? Why are there ping-pong tables but no child care? The entrepreneurial system has to support different stages of women’s lives," said Asokan, a mother of two young children who runs her office from home, where employees and venture capitalists alike are welcome to come in and out.
After all, an entrepreneurial setting gives women the autonomy and flexibility to balance their own personal and professional priorities - in other words, to ‘have it all.’ "Startups need a lot of time, and so do kids. Yes, I think I work longer hours and complete harder work and smarter work," said Aggarwal of Shopclues, who co-founded the company a year after having her second child.
The key, women entrepreneurs agree, is having a good support system, in the home as well as at work, with a strong set of mentors, a resilient team, and a network of friends to fall back on.
This was the core focus for Limeroad’s Mukherjee at the start of her entrepreneurial journey. "We surrounded ourselves with a strong set of investors and advisers, fought hard, and scanned the country to find highly motivated talent. I dug out all the people who had ever worked with my extended network of friends and families," she said.
The best reinforcement the startup ecosystem can provide to bolster women’s ventures is role models - in the form of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, as well as influential board members.
These forerunners who have "been there and done that" not only are shining examples that the seemingly gargantuan feat is feasible, but can also actively mentor others who have decided to take the plunge.
"There is a need for women-focused seed, angel, and VC funds, preferably by women investors," said Sucharita Eashwar, India managing director at WEConnect International, a network for womenowned businesses, adding that such funds have already materialized in the United States and Europe. "This would enable women-founded businesses to remain majority-owned by women."
Until that becomes more fullfledged, it will have to be people like Anandan and Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Education and a former Infosys director. Pai in January announced a new fund focused exclusively on women entrepreneurs.
"It is a great market opportunity. Remember, women are responsible for 55-60% of consumer decisions," he said. "Fifty percent of our population has been shut out and the time has come where there is great value in opening up."
— With Additional Reporting by Payal Ganguly in Hyderabad & Shonali Advani in Bengaluru