Article (July-2016)


Breaking paradigms: Women entrepreneurs brave it all

Deepshikha Singh

Designation : -   CEO, Literati

Organization : -  Mumbai


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Ideas do not have a place for a woman generally but people say that it is changing. It must be changing if they say so. But mostly women are shunned out of the domain of ideas and prisoned in the grid of roles, customs and traditions. These words sum up in a nutshell the kind of feeling of resignation that mark women's approach to work in India. The cultural norms and family expectations are the major impediment to career growth for women in India and women entrepreneurship is not much to talk about. Though there have been exceptions but by and large Indian women still struggle to find their place in the sun when it comes to entrepreneurship. 

Some of the mindsets that women have and some that men have, which are conditioned by cultural nuances, influence the interactions between men and women greatly. But certain basic issues remain the same irrespective of the culture and these are the gender specific issues. The degrees may vary but the biases are there. Most of these biases are proved and driven by data collected and analyzed by the agencies over a period of time.

First let's look at the mindsets that influence the decisions of women who venture into entrepreneurial and leadership role, according to the region they belong to. In this book we are not discussing why not if they aren't. We are only dealing with the challenges and issues they face when they deal with men and how they could overcome those.

My own experience with entrepreneurship has been full of such instances wherein I have been reminded again and again that why do I need to do what I am doing. Yet Mumbai as a city is much more accepting and encouraging to women entrepreneurs as compared to any other part of the country. This is due to the fact that Mumbai is a city of entrepreneurs, the Financial Capital of India. There are two kinds of women entrepreneurs in India who are running businesses that are maybe medium size and very few are running big businesses. These two kinds of women are: those who come from big business families and inherit businesses, and those who are brave enough to do it on their own. The challenges faced by the women entrepreneurs range from lack of venture capital or bank funding to social stigma that comes with business networking.

Entrepreneurship was sort of accidental to me after I quit a lucrative position with an education start up and decided to start on my own. I had no clue about what it was going to entail. I just did what I had done for that start upthat I had helped the owner set up. And I have survived for almost six years. The growth has been organic because I didn't know any magic formula. I just relied on my own knowledge and instincts, and while doing that adapted to the business needs as I deemed correct. Given below is the list of attitudes I faced while doing what I was doing:

-    Oh …it is nice to see people like you coming into learning and development. (An HR Head of a corporate)

-    I can teach you how you can run the business (a business owner in the same commercial complex)

-    Love the perfume that you are wearing.(fellow networker in a business networking event)

-    Do you really make that kind of money? (fellow woman entrepreneur)

-    Do you know about it? (fellow entrepreneur)

-    What about your family? Where is your husband? (fellow entrepreneur )

-    Do you have staff? (Prospective client)

-    You look too soft to run a business. (fellow entrepreneur )

These are the verbal ones and there are innumerable non-verbal ones. Even your own women friends doubt as to what you do and whether you are doing well, etc. The fact is literally no one supports you except for maybe people who are in similar positions like you or the people whom you employ or the clients with whom you deal. 

I had a VC visiting my office in the earlier days of my entrepreneurship. He was not impressed by my skeletal staff. The only question he asked was "where are the others"? I had no answer because despite lot of efforts I could not find a co-founder, so I decided to carry on alone. He did not ask anything further because he felt I was just 'a woman' trying to do something big; as big as setting up an online learning organization. The only online course that my company had must have been considered as a flash in the pan. 

The reasons that I could not find a female co-founder are, firstly, women were risk averse and they think small so my ideas were simply unacceptable for them. They wanted to be paid employees rather than become a co-founder. I do not blame them for this because the fact remains that women in India do not have the financial muscles, so being risk averse or being insecure is not something that we should not accept. Secondly, mostly all the women who associated with me were there to learn and start their own small ventures from their homes. They were inspired by me and I am happy about it. Mostly women who are married look at their husbands for permissions to do anything and unmarried ones wait to get married and prefer secure corporate jobs. And then there was this third category of wives of rich businessmen, who wanted to do something that could give them some recognition; but as soon as they realized that entrepreneurship means a great deal of hard work and due diligence, they simply backed out. This was about the women and my futile efforts to find a co-founder.

Now why I could not find a male co-founder? When I started many people got curious from the education industry in India and I kind of got an instant attention. It so happened that people who worked at highest levels in big edu-corporates, approached me for associations a couple of times and very soon they found out that entrepreneurship is tough. Another type of men who tried to associate with me tried long winded conversations to convince me that they would develop the business and I should focus on providing classroom training; and for this they wanted huge revenue. These people appeared from nowhere and I found this quite funny. After a couple of such experiences I stopped looking for co-founders because I realized that it would never work out with me, given the huge egos that men from education industry possessed. An interesting instance that I remember is when one such person, after trying his best to reduce me to the position of a trainer in my own organization, sent me a text when he failed to do so. He wrote in the text that, "I was just trying to help you because you are a woman". His audacity shocked me and slowly I started avoiding such floating population of businessmen.

My own experience can really summarize the kind of challenges women entrepreneurs face in India. The banks ask for collaterals, the VCs ask for co-founders and team, the society views you with suspicion and the family loses patience amidst all this.

Yet things are actually not that negative as they may seem. It is all about you. I realized it as I started getting the recognition from my clients and support from my employees. Lot of recognition came from outside the country as my website and my online marketing efforts attracted business from clients based in the USA and some other countries.  
Therefore, in a nutshell one needs to understand, as a woman entrepreneur, one is not 'at loss' in any case. One just needs to have the strength to fight the attitudes along the way as one strives to achieve what one wants. 

Here are a few tips that a woman entrepreneur can imbibe during their entrepreneurial journey:

  • Do your homework. Work harder than anyone that you meet. You should know about everything because knowledge is power. Never compare yourself with anyone and never idolize anyone. You have all of it within you, and you just need to discover whatever you need to grow. Do not think in terms of gender and weaken yourself. If you think that men have it all, it may actually not be true, women have their own strengths which they need to grow and have faith in. 
  • Develop an appetite for risk because if you do not take risk you can't expect to gain anything. Taking a well-thought out financial risk is a part of the game. Do the market study and plan your strategies in phases. Do not rush. Always keep your back covered. Remember slow and steady wins the race. Do not expect miracles overnight. At the same time do not be too slow and cautious that by the time you respond things would have already changed. 
  • Do not hesitate from networking because you need 'knowledge' and you need connections. Do it all the time offline and online. But be careful with the ones who are in this, to waste your time. You need to really use your instincts to be wary of time- wasters and distracters, who will try to become your advisors for nothing. Basically you need to be very smart, suave and strong when dealing with people. 
  • Be adaptable with your plans by revising them because running a business means matching the market pulse and requirements. In initial years one needs to change, may be slow down at time, maybe just hibernate at times and at times go ahead like a blast. It happens if one realizes the power within. Do not hesitate in going solo at times to keep your business alive because you are the brand. And also do not hesitate to quit if you think that you are at the dead end.
  • Life follows a zigzag route and one has to navigate using the right techniques for a better living and success. When one gives in anticipation for what one gets in return, the 'giving' becomes a wasteful exercise and relationships do not thrive on the basis of such selfish motives. This is also true for business relationships.(Excerpts from her book-The Entrepreneurial Outlook: Hacking Code of Success - Published by Shroff Publishers and Distributors, Mumbai)