In a league of her own

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Women entrepreneurs in India are a rarity, up against systemic barriers that are slow-moving even in the start-up era

By Rishika Singh

During the first wave of the COVID pandemic in 2020, a home-bound Shruti Singh was looking to do something creative in a time of extreme restrictions. In her apartment complex in Pune, Maharashtra, it had been collectively decided that food deliveries and movement will not be allowed inside the gates of their society.

For her and many of her neighbours, this situation presented itself as an unlikely opportunity. In a time of uncertainty, women in her colony came up with a solution to address both the boredom of being quarantined and the demand for home deliveries from restaurants. They started home restaurants and began cooking for each other.

As of February 2022, Maharashtra has had 78 lakh cases of coronavirus cumulatively–the most cases out of all states in India. The state saw some of the strictest lockdowns on the smallest of movements, with acts like grocery shopping getting curtailed and public transport being shut down.

What Singh and her neighbours did was a bit of an exception. India’s women constitute only about 13% of the country’s entrepreneurs, according to the Sixth Economic Census of 2013-14 conducted by the Ministry of Programme Implementation and Statistics. For most women, this statistic tells a story about the society they live in and how freely certain avenues can be accessed by them.

It all started with a one-day online class Singh took to learn baking cookies. Then, in July 2020, she started a home bakery business, called Sweet Sprinkles. When she began, most of her orders were from her network but over time, she began receiving larger orders. 

“This happened through word-of-mouth, and because of people who suggested using Facebook and Instagram for marketing. I was still a little late to it, and only now when I have entered into it, I realise that it is an entirely different world,” she said. Singh learned social media marketing by observing other home bakers and cooks and started her own page.

Enterprises started by women usually involve little investment. As per the Sixth Economic Census, 79% of all women entrepreneurs in the country self-financed their businesses. 83% of all enterprises had no hired workers. 

However, even when some amount of scaling-up of a business happens, problems specific to women crop up. Geetha Swaminathan, the owner of a cloud kitchen called Adrasam in Noida (Uttar Pradesh), thought of starting her venture during the pandemic as well.

A cloud kitchen does not have a dining area set up and involves only cooking and delivering food based on orders via apps like Swiggy and Zomato. It made perfect sense at the time and after initial success, Swaminathan rented kitchen space, hired cooks, and began investing more in her self-financed business.

“It was a mixed response, so while some people were very understanding others could not understand the concept of women running a cloud kitchen,” she says. “Workers would not take me seriously, and only after constant requesting would they budge.”

In India, only 25% of women engage formally in the labour market as per the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index of 2020. Only a few women entrepreneurs then occupy spaces typically expected of men, making it unusual for the larger society to see them in a position of leadership.

That does not mean that women entrepreneurs are all out on their own, at least on paper. The government recognises the need for a greater focus on women entrepreneurs. A slew of schemes such as Start Up India, Stand Up India has been rolled out to address various stages of starting a business.

Most women-led businesses come under the MSMEs categories or Medium, Small, Micro Enterprises. While the upper limit for this categorisation has medium-level enterprises with an annual turnover of up to Rs. 250 crores, the smallest enterprises form the micro category with an investment of less than Rs. 1 crore and a turnover of fewer than 5 crores annually.

“The main problem is that awareness of these schemes is not much. There is mainly propaganda by both state and central governments which focuses on the benefits of such schemes,” says Gadde Ravi, Joint Director & Head of Office, MSME Development Institute, Chennai.

“Industry is a state subject, so we are only there at a guiding level,” says Ravi. Many schemes, such as the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme (PMEGP), require the implementation to be done by state governments.

Under PMEGP, Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) is the nodal agency at the national level. State KVIC Directorates work at the state level and are in charge of implementation. KVICs route the subsidies that the scheme provides into the entrepreneurs’ bank accounts. 

The role played by the state governments, specifically, their willingness to undertake this work is a big factor in determining whether the schemes’ benefits actually reach beneficiaries. This is but one reason why the number of women entrepreneurs varies state-to-state across India.

Tamil Nadu, for instance, has the largest number of women entrepreneurs in India with 13% of the total women entrepreneurs of India. Its neighbouring states also have a significant share each, while states like Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan lag much behind at about 6% and 3% respectively.

More visible methods of government promotion include exhibitions that allow Self-Help Groups to display and sell their products in bigger cities.

“But most of the products come under the micro sector and involve items related to cooking, clothing, and similar products.” Women entrepreneurs are mostly working in the non-engineering sectors even though a lot of potential remains in manufacturing, says Ravi.

There is no simple answer for why women are not visible in such fields, or why the contributions they do make are not on a larger scale. Studies have indicated that women-led businesses repay loans on time, and are not in any way financially less viable than businesses started by men. Age-old barriers of perception about women are but one part of the equation.

“When I was applying for a loan at an MSME office, they looked at our company’s statements and asked why we were drawing salaries. The official said we should invest that money in the company, expecting us to have husbands and fathers to keep us afloat,” says Sudarshana Ghosh, an entrepreneur based in Kolkata.

Having started her Kolkata-based marketing and content writing venture named Melange Solutions with a friend in 2016, Ghosh shocked those around her for leaving a stable job as an HR professional. “But that’s the thing, there is a kick to being an entrepreneur. You win some and you lose some, but at the end of the day, it is my company and my baby. I work for myself,” she says.

For her, there is some benefit to organisational support from other women entrepreneurs. Most of her clients have been other women-led start-ups, but at the same time, she stresses the need to be independently secure for taking an idea to its completion. Ghosh says:

“It is 2022, and even now the names you see of women entrepreneurs are all Goenkas, Bajajs, etc. We still need truly independent women-owned businesses, and we cannot be dependent on anyone for that. We have to just go for it.”

Still, in the last few years, organisations and associations have come up to address issues of women entrepreneurs. In a way, their existence itself points to the strides that have been made in increasing the visibility of this class of women.

Ghosh also mentions that in a field dominated by men, women are not always looking to be supportive. The need for survival is strong, and the inherent competitiveness of being in a business setup means that women do not come together to address their common issues.

One such organisation is the Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Organisation (WEDO). Based in Chennai, its operations moved online during the pandemic. This helped them reach more women than ever, to whom guidance, mentoring and community could be provided for starting their own businesses.

Kadambari Umapathy, Founder and CEO of WEDO, identifies some major issues that affect women entrepreneurs. “First and foremost, is mindset. Women are concerned if they will have permission to start something. Then there is family pressure on them, and families often don’t let them get into business,” she says.

For the ones who do get past this, the idea of running a venture is many a time just that–an idea. Umapathy says that there is a lack of knowledge about how and when one should proceed, and to learn all of that women need time to learn the know-how.

“Lack of time is a big problem because time is needed to upskill, acquire contacts because most women do not know what to do,” she says. She adds that this is the reason why the ventures that do take off are often ‘bootstrapping’, or using their own funds instead of external sources of borrowing.

Scaling up then becomes a rarity, a phenomenon Umapathy blames on “seller mindset over entrepreneurial mindset”. She explains: “Women end up being lifelong sellers, whereas the focus should be on having an enterprise run by itself, one that ends up having a legacy.”

She says that today the tag of ‘woman’ has become a “marketing mantra” for companies, in a time where Corporate Social Responsibility cannot be abandoned and “women empowerment” is stressed on. Leveraging this need for companies to be image-conscious, women can make use of the opportunities at hand.

Photo Source: Start Up India

“There has to be responsibility from the women’s end as well. They have to have clarity of vision and put themselves first. Often if a woman’s husband gets transferred or has to move, she will not think of her work and move too. This does not work to guarantee stability for a lender,” she says.

At the same time, Umapathy acknowledges that even successfully putting oneself first does not guarantee a smooth ride to the top. Those women who do succeed are often suppressed by spouses and families as they are unable to handle their success in “nine-and-a-half out of ten cases”, she says.

“I obviously want to grow this, but right now my children are young and I want to devote time to them as well,” Shruti Singh says of her future plans for her home bakery. “Even right now the biggest issue is time management, especially when I get big orders, but that’s where the fun lies,” she says with a small laugh.

Maybe eventual scaling-up will not be the case for all women entrepreneurs who came up during the pandemic. Those who go for it will certainly encounter the challenges that have remained for decades, if not longer. But their presence itself indicates that both potential and momentum exists today, waiting to be explored.