Women and Entrepreneurship

Leela (all names have been changed for privacy) is famous in her community for her yummy cupcakes, brownies and birthday cakes. Her lovely pastries have become famous through word-of-mouth and she now earns a tidy sum which she uses to pay some of her household bills.

Shruti is the mother of two sons and the younger one moved to Mumbai for higher studies last year leaving Shruti with a lot of time on her hands. She decided to use her skills in tailoring and designing to good use and opened a boutique in her neighborhood. She now owns two stores in Bangalore.

Anjali is the only daughter of the owner of a construction company. She has done her MBA from the University of Chicago and has now returned to Hyderabad to take over the reins of her father’s company.

Jayashri was tired of working 14 hours a day at a corporate job in a multi-national software company. Four years ago she started her own online travel agency that offers specialized travel packages only for ladies. Her company recently received half a million dollars in funding from a US based angel investor.

Four different women, four different stories, but they all have one thing in common: they are all entrepreneurs who work for themselves. While they all have very dissimilar circumstances, there are some very characteristic problems that all women face when they are the boss. Almost all of them feel that they have to try hard to be taken seriously.

A growing number of women today are moving towards running their own businesses because in many cases, this gives women a lot of flexibility to manage their day as compared to corporate jobs that requires them to be onsite from 9 in the morning to 7 at night. With the onus of raising children and running the house mostly falling on the woman’s shoulder, the luxury of a flexible schedule is what motivates a lot of women to start their own businesses to become financially independent.

Women have always been excellent multi-taskers and communicators. It is these intrinsic qualities present in them that makes them well suited to be entrepreneurs. Yet, according to the National Sample Survey Organisation, only 14% of businesses in India are being run by women entrepreneurs. The survey also revealed that most of these women-run companies are small-scale and about 79% of them are self-financed.

According to definition given by Government of India – “A women entrepreneur is defined as an enterprise owned and controlled by woman having a minimum financial interest of 51% of the capital and giving at least 51% employment generated to women.”

Of course, these numbers still don’t account for the innumerable amount of women who don’t even consider themselves as entrepreneurs. They are the thousands of women in jobs like tailoring, landscape designing, tutoring, cookery and other home-based businesses who earn good money but always consider themselves primarily as homemakers. Rural entrepreneurs and women in small-scale industries like papad-making fall into this category of entrepreneurs. Leela is a good example of this. Even after becoming a local celebrity for her baking, she introduces herself as a mother of two kids.

While such humility is admirable, it keeps women from growing their businesses and taking their professional lives seriously. Women like these do not face any obstacles from their families because their professional lives blend well with their family life. They manage to achieve a good work-life balance which is the a huge positive in this form of entrepreneurship. The biggest drawback is that women do not reach their full potential and continue to perceive their jobs as ‘hobbies’ and not as serious careers. These women need guidance and support to realize that turning a passion into a profitable business takes clarity of thought and focus.

Shruti is one those women who have managed to turn their passion into a business. The challenges these women face is lack of financial aid and mentorship that would take their businesses to the next level. These women usually have invested their own money or their family savings to start their businesses and are hesitant to take loans or apply for funding to expand further. They are afraid that more work commitments will take away from their family time and hence do not venture out to expand. The fear of financial loss also prevents them from taking risks and innovating. Ironically, it is these kinds of businesses that flounder and die out due to lack of innovation.

Women like Anjali seem to have it all and in fact, attract envy and disdain for being at the favorable end of nepotism. The perception is that they have a cushy job waiting for them right out of college and they didn’t have to try hard to attain their position in the office. While sons in this situation also have to try hard to step into their father’s shoes, daughters have to try much harder to impress. Employees often resent taking orders from such women who they feel are privileged and ideas put forth by them are received with much skepticism and scrutiny. They are often perceived as living off their parent’s reputation and money, which can be hard to shake off.

Women like Jayashri have a good understanding of the functioning of the corporate world, yet they still need help with framing business plans and approaching investors for funding. They have no problem with coming up with new ideas that can grow their businesses but networking with the right people can be a problem. Most platforms for applying for funding are still ruled by the ‘old boy’s network’ that women are excluded from. There is also a subtle bias at work that works against women. For example, an angel investor from IIT Bombay could look more favorably towards others who have graduated from his own college. This can work against women who have not had such privileges. Women who wish to break barriers in a corporate setting have the most problem trying to find a work-life balance and are often expected to behave like men and put in long hours to get ahead. They often fear that they might come across as aggressive if they try to assert themselves in front of male juniors.

Whatever their unique story maybe, the requirements that will help women build stable and profitable businesses are common:

Good support system: Since women are still the primary caregivers of children and elders, it is important for a woman entrepreneur to build a good support system in the form of relatives and household staff that is reliable and consistent.

Excellent networking skills: Many women fail to understand the importance of mentors and a good network system. Incorporating social and networking events into their schedule is often overlooked by women entrepreneurs because of their busy schedules, yet it is essential to meet the right people who can help. Entrepreneurs need mentors who can advise them and also to give them reality checks from time to time. It is also important to circulate among other peers in the business community. Many great deals often take place because the person was at the right place at the right time.

Invest in their learning: Many women entrepreneurs do not research their fields thoroughly or spend time on keeping themselves updated with the latest developments. Start-ups that approach investors need to be well-versed in the latest technological and business developments in their fields and have clarity about their financial goals.

As women become more educated and gain confidence, they will venture out more into entrepreneurship. A quote from Abhijit Naskar’s The Bengal Tigress: A Treatise on Gender Equality aptly summarizes this revolution, “Women are no sheep. Women are no fragile showpiece to be placed above the fire-place. Women of the thinking society are the builders of nations. Women of the sentient society are the builders of the world.”

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