Prescriptions for success of women entrepreneurs: Lessons from the trenches

Four-day mentoring and skill development workshop for early stage women entrepreneurs in Lucknow, organized by TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) in March this year.

My recent experiences of promoting and supporting women entrepreneurs in India have given me reasons to be cautiously optimistic for the future of women entrepreneurs in India. These insights are based on over three years of leading and interacting with most of the 575 women entrepreneurs who participated in our Program - All India Roadshow for Women’s Economic Empowerment through Entrepreneurship (AIRSWEEE).

Project AIRSWEEE received funding support from the U.S. State Department through the U.S. Mission in India in 2016. Over this period, 66 U.S. and India-based mentors of the TiE Global network guided and mentored women entrepreneurs from 97 cities in 20 states in India, through workshops and remote mentoring. An unintended but well received consequence of this program was to become sensitized to nuanced societal norms prevalent in India which helped us discover motivations and challenges for women entrepreneurs.

Potential and Challenges

India’s exploding start-up scene has given women and young girls a path to success in translating their creativity into sustainable business propositions. Investing in women entrepreneurs has a strong multiplier effect and our program’s data supported the thesis that investing in women is an investment in communities. Technology has become a strong ally and a great leveler for access to opportunities. But access to technology is still primarily a man’s domain.

However, there are some fundamental challenges that women entrepreneurs face in India. The following are the top three challenges that our program participants cited most often. These challenges can become a starting checklist for policy makers and influencers to address.

Gender bias

A study by Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE) has ranked India 52nd out of 57 countries judged on the basis of parity for women entrepreneurs. One of the driving factors in India’s low ranking is the societal gender norms that aim to define a woman’s goals are for her. Rigid gender roles have prevailed for centuries and feed into the biases that affect Indian women in all facets of life.

This bias is prevalent not only in the work place but also in our homes. These deeply ingrained gender norms have traditionally offered sons more opportunities than daughters, to an extent that in many cases women entrepreneurs are unable to even recognize gender bias. It is difficult to resolve a problem, if one is unaware of its existence.

Using gender lens to have systemic, engaged and open discussions with family members, both boys and girls, is an essential and effective way to start a grassroots movement that is sustainable and scalable.

Insufficient capacity and skill building opportunities

Most successful entrepreneurs have noted that not only did a differentiated domain expertise help them build successful startups but also having differentiated softer skills such as networking, selling and targeted communication skills allowed them to recruit the best teams, customers and partners. Traditionally, boys and men are exposed to these skills through experiential learning right from their childhood, while girls are deprived from such valuable lessons for many reasons ranging from lack of access to societal norms that perceive these to be unsuitable for girls.

This disparity results in women entrepreneurs needing to play catch up in a rush, when they do arrive into opportunities. Feeling underprepared can affect their actual or perceived competence.

Investing in targeted capacity building and skill building programs can change the growth trajectory very dramatically, and our program proved this fact. AIRSWEEE not only equipped the mentees with technical competence but also provided very high levels of social, psychological, self-esteem, communications and related support which has allowed participants to flourish. But a lot more needs to happen, and this is only a start.

Lack of equal access to capital

Raising funding to commence and sustain an entrepreneurial venture is very daunting for most entrepreneurs. However, women entrepreneurs have a significantly more difficult time in raising this crucial funding compared to their male counterparts.

Substantial improvement is needed in the financial literacy of women, including awareness regarding sources of capital. While there is a strong impetus to make debt capital more easily available to women entrepreneurs, especially by many programs of nationalized banks and similar financial institutions, there needs to be a significantly heightened focus on making equity capital available to women entrepreneurs.

Specialized equity funding vehicles need to be created that support women entrepreneurs in a manner that allows women entrepreneurs to overcome the multitude of challenges that prevent them from getting heard by investors across the equity funding continuum, but most definitely in the early venture and early growth stages of financing the growth of their enterprises.

While the above noted challenges are very macro in their scope and trying to tackle them all in one go may get overwhelming; policy frameworks that consciously address these issues can optimize return on the limited pool of development capital.

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Seema Chaturvedi is the founder and Chairperson of Project All India Roadshow for Women’s Economic Empowerment though Entrepreneurship (AIRSWEEE), TiE Global’s marquee women entrepreneur’s initiative funded by the US State Department. She is also an investor, serial entrepreneur and a strong proponent of gender lens investing. She is Founder & Managing Partner at AWE (Achieving Women Entrepreneurs) Funds. (www.awefunds.com) – an early growth fund platform focused on investing in women owned led, influenced businesses to positively impact gender balance. TiE Global (www.tie.org) is a global not for profit organization with the mission of fostering entrepreneurship.

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