‘Female Entrepreneurs Face Similar Challenges Everywhere’

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Indian women are lagging behind in construction, manufacturing and technology sectors. Putting greater emphasis on STEM and digital literacy in education and early training programs for women may help improve the ratio, says entrepreneur Shanu Mehta. 

Shanu Mehta – Co-founder – MMC Convert

Today, Indian women are stepping out into new fields and making their presence felt everywhere, even outdoing their male counterparts in many areas.

Yet, according to the National Sample Survey, only 14 percent of businesses are run by women entrepreneurs in India.

Let’s meet Shanu Mehta, a faculty member for Entrepreneurship at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Indore, who is mentoring aspiring women entrepreneurs in India as well as abroad to fight gender stereotyping in the business community.

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Mehta is the co-founder of a fin-tech company, called MMC Convert, which has offices in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. She is also a keynote speaker at Entrepreneur Organization (EO), a body of top entrepreneurs across the globe.

In an exclusive interview with Longjam Dineshwori of EFY Group, Mehta shares her experience as a woman entrepreneur, talks about gender stereotyping in the business community, highlights sectors where women are still lagging, and suggest on how to increase the number of female business leaders in the country.

Excerpts

Q) How has been your journey so far as a woman entrepreneur? Any challenges you faced being a woman?
When I launched my company seven years ago, I started with the dream of taking it global. I started off with four offices in four major continents where our customers are, and for the same, I had to travel extensively across the globe. Within a few months of doing my rounds, I figured that woman entrepreneurs face similar challenges no matter where they are in the world.

There are gender stereotypes, but not all are necessarily negative. There are occasions where women are held up to higher standards than men.

There were many times where I was the only woman around the boardroom table. Frankly, I never felt that being the sole female was an issue. In fact, being the token woman sometimes turned out to be an advantage because I brought a unique perspective on things, which my male counterparts seemed to appreciate.

Also, men have a way of doing things which includes building alliances, sourcing votes before meetings and preparing their positioning beforehand. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s all about strategy, like playing chess and getting your pieces into the right spaces, so I learned the strategy and used it.

My biggest lesson is “don’t just point to the challenges, it’s perceived as complaining, no one will listen. Instead, point to the solutions and act on them.”

Q) In terms of entrepreneurship, where do Indian women stand in the world today? What would you suggest in order to raise the bar?

Indian women have come a long way from being just a homemaker to running a business, leading inventions and creating new ideas.

Still, with only 25 percent of India’s workforce being female, India women come under the world’s lowest GDP contributors at just 18 percent.

The number of women entrepreneurs is soaring high every year in our country; however, the ecosystem opportunities available to them can be notched up further.

Even on the global level, if we see the figures, in 2017, only 2 percent of venture funding went to female founders. Nevertheless, women’s entrepreneurship rates rose globally by 13 percent in 2017 and continue to rise.

“FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS RECEIVE A TINY FRACTION OF ALL VENTURE CAPITAL FUNDING — A MINUSCULE 2.2 PERCENT — LAST YEAR”

Despite the rise in women entrepreneurs, there are still many sections of the society where there is an urgent need for awareness about women empowerment and girl child education. It is rightly said that when we educate a girl, we are indirectly educating the entire family. From a young age, girls should and need to be made independent. Giving girls the freedom to choose their education and career is a small start to this big change.

As time evolves, it is essential that we strive to become a leader and not just a boss. A boss would say ‘Go’, but a leader would say ‘Let’s Go’.

Q) Which are the sectors in India where women leaders are making a strong presence today, and which is the one that needs encouragement?
Indian women are making their presence felt in many areas like fashion, professional services, even at management level; CXOs like Indu Jain, Indira Nooyi, Naina Lal Kidwai are worth mentioning here. Women leaders in politics is also on an all-time high, we have 78 women in the lower house of parliament.

We have many success stories of women in E-commerce stores like Zivame, Shopclues, Limeroad, etc.

However, we are lagging behind in some fields like construction, manufacturing and most importantly technology, where I feel there are not many women coders and tech leaders.

I feel there is a need to put greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects (STEM) and digital literacy in education and early training programs for women.

Also, just because you didn’t gain an early education specifically in tech, doesn’t mean it’s too late to jump into the tech space. In fact, many companies have found that it’s often easier to train a specialist to code than it is to train a programmer on a specific industry. Healthcare software companies actually hire doctors and train them in technology in order to design and build their EMR system.

Q) Startups come with their own set of obstacles and issues. But compare to men, women entrepreneurs face more challenges on this road. What is your take on this?
Funding is the major fuel for a startup. It’s a sad but well-known fact that female entrepreneurs receive a tiny fraction of all venture capital funding — a minuscule 2.2 percent — last year.

Another challenge that female entrepreneurs face is access to networks. Having a robust support network is essential for entrepreneurial success. ‘It’s not what you know; it’s who you know,’ – This simple business philosophy still rings true today and it can be a huge factor in your ultimate success.

Along with these, women face the challenge of not being taken seriously.

This is seen in a male-dominated industry or workplace that does not want to acknowledge woman in leadership roles. This is true even in the family businesses, where they face presumptions that she is living off her father’s reputation.

“DON’T JUST POINT TO THE CHALLENGES, IT’S PERCEIVED AS COMPLAINING, NO ONE WILL LISTEN. INSTEAD, POINT TO THE SOLUTIONS AND ACT ON THEM”

And the mother of all challenges, work-family balance. I have never met a single woman, who has children and is working, and she is not guilty.

On many forums, I have heard of women being introduced as Ms. XYZ, mother of two and founder of… On the contrary, I have never heard a man being introduced as Mr. ABC, father of three.

This mindset needs a radical change.

Q) As you said there is less participation of women in the technology industry? What, according to you, is needed to improve gender diversity in this area?
We don’t hear enough names of women in the field of technology. Yes, there are more high-profile role models today than there were a years ago (for example Sheryl Sandberg, Dr. Sue Black and Anne-Marie Imafidon) but they are not enough.

Two major reasons behind this low participation are 1. Women are not being taken seriously in the tech industry due to gender perceptions and 2. We have very few role models in this industry.

We can improve this number by organizing Women Hackathons. The other thing that is being talked about a lot is editathons to add more women to Wikipedia, as the female gender has always been underrepresented on the site.

I also think we need more female speakers. Most tech events I attend have around 90 percent male presenters in the panel list. I don’t know the answer to fixing this problem, but I really think encouraging female speakers would help to bring more female experts (I know there are many) in the public eye.

Q) In her budget speech, Nirmala Sitharaman talked about empowering women entrepreneurs. She proposes expanding women SHG program and providing loan under Mudra Scheme. How would you react to this?
I must say overall Ms. Sitharaman has struck the right chord and I expect affirmative actions from the government.

Many women leaders have identified gaps in credit availability, gender disparity, rural women upliftment, education, among others as key areas for promoting women empowerment. Her budget touched upon all these issues in a direct or indirect manner.

The mention round a committee for gender analysis as well as the extension of Stand Up India program until 2025 are being considered as a much-needed move by the women leaders community.

While rural women SHGs do get a push to pursue entrepreneurship, interest subvention does not truly solve the real problem of access to credit. Data shows that women who take loans are more credit-worthy than their male counterparts, with a higher likelihood of repaying their loans on time and a lower likelihood of default.

The government should increase the line of credit accessible to rural women entrepreneurs, say from INR 2 lakh to INR 15 lakh; this would truly give them the freedom to set up a business.

Q) The Govt plans setting up 80 business incubators and 20 technology incubators in 2019-20? How can aspiring women entrepreneurs take advantage of this opportunity?
The stories of success from these incubation centres should travel across and reach each corner of the country.

The inspiring stories of young women entrepreneurs, single mothers or even the girl next door imbibe confidence in many others. You can be an acid attack survivor or a woman taking care of street dogs in the locality

Be it a young architect, a vibrant bartender, a travel blogger or a photographer, it is encouraging to see women of today’s India shining in every field.

“KEEP LEARNING AND DON’T APOLOGIZE FOR BEING A FEMALE”

In a small village called Pipliya, I interacted with some of the women who have just started their journey. I asked them how they managed to get around from one village market to another village market, they laughed and said, “Google!” Whether it’s Pipliya, New York or Johannesberg, women just need an opportunity to fulfill their aspirations, and fortunately, we are living in the age when the opportunities are there.

Q) To promote startups ecosystem, the budget also proposes to start a dedicated TV show on DD which would be managed and run by Startups to discuss their issues. Do you take it as good news?
It’s a very exciting time to be an entrepreneur in India.

I believe, this show will encourage one-stop innovation hubs, especially in villages, small and peri-urban towns, where entrepreneurs can access working capital loans that go well beyond microfinance; have access to information on the latest technologies – whether digital or hardware – that promote business efficiencies; provide customised services for expansion; create debt counselling and refinancing facilities; and help entrepreneurs access bigger, better and newer markets.

There is an enormous business opportunity just waiting to be tapped. I’m talking about not just moving out of poverty but moving towards prosperity.

The point is that India has always been a nation of entrepreneurs – we’ve had to be. But most small businesses have, so far, depending on the informal economy for access to credit.

The show will catapult this issue and would lead to a change, making financial institutions realise that a significant part of the massive job growth India needs is going to come from nurturing entrepreneurship.

Q) Any government scheme you believe has helped in encouraging women to become entrepreneurs in India. What are your expectations from the present government?
The government has supported and encouraged women entrepreneurship through various schemes such as MUDRA, Stand Up India and the SHG. With increasing access to information and technology, the demand from the grassroots for business loans is growing.

There are many other schemes to help women entrepreneurs.

To list a few:

  • TREAD (Trade-Related Entrepreneurship Assistance and Development) Scheme
  • Mahila Udhyam Nidhi Scheme
  • Annapurna
  • Udyogini
  • Cent Kalyani Scheme

Also, I’d like to mention that under Jan Dhan Yojna, lots of people have opened accounts, which demonstrates how important and necessary banking services are for the disadvantaged sect. Now the next challenge is increasing transactions – and for that much more effort is required.

“GOVERNMENT CAN CREATE INCENTIVES FOR INDIVIDUALS AND ORGANIZATIONS TO INVEST IN WOMEN-OWNED COMPANIES THROUGH VENTURE FUNDS, CORPORATE VENTURE, PRIVATE EQUITY AND SOCIAL CAPITAL”

My expectation from the present government is to get social bonds for women entrepreneurs.

In fact, globally there is a great deal of interest in social bonds that channel philanthropic money to encourage entry and innovation for social businesses.

The government can create incentives for individuals and organizations to invest in women-owned companies through venture funds, corporate venture, private equity and social capital.

In addition, Govt can consider modernizing existing government certification, grant and loan programs that help women-owned businesses compete to reflect changing investment models; and creating new sources of capital, such as crowdfunding and impact investments.

Q) With the development in India’s startup ecosystem, more and more women are pursuing their careers towards becoming entrepreneurs. What would be your advice to them?
I would appeal to women to keep learning. I have worked with a lot of intelligent men, and I believe, you need to learn from both men and women – that balance is important.

One piece of advice that I can give to women is “don’t apologize for being a female.” I never apologised and I never portrayed masculinity to advance in the workplace. I can bring to the table as much as my male counterparts can, I never felt the need to change.

 

 

 

 

 

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