The much-anticipated and awaited Startup India, Standup India campaign announced on 15 August 2015 finally saw light of day a year later on 16 January 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his plan of action for entrepreneurs.
The 19 key points, announced by the Prime Minister, addressed seasoned entrepreneurs, emerging and aspiring entrepreneurs, and even students. However, the action plan made no mention of ‘women’ entrepreneurs.
Is that something that should bother us? Well, most women entrepreneurs, including the women on the panel at the Startup India event, were of the view that women have to stop undermining themselves and focus not on gender differences but on their business and the quality of their product.
But, have we reached a point where the playing field is level and there are no gender biases?
A case in point is Senthil Kumar, who mentors 200 girls in Madurai. Senthil, who was at the Startup India event, spoke of the challenges that he noticed women face. He shared that investors are often worried about girls getting married and their husbands taking control of their company.
Cheelu Chandran, the Founder of DeBox, says, “The questions will keep coming, but we have to move ahead and learn to not to let the questions affect us.”
While people’s attitude towards women entrepreneurs is changing, it is limited to a very small segment of women who are mostly city-bred, educated, and independent women.
“The new policies and framework should give fresh impetus to accelerators/incubators and angel funds to promote women-led ventures, a progressive step towards a world of equals,” Manisha Raisinghani, Co-founder of LogiNext, had said a few days before the Startup India event. The government did not address the questions surrounding incubators and a safe and supporting environment that will encourage women to be a part of the ecosystem.
Another important point was made by Sapna Bhavnani, a celebrity hairstylist, artist and entrepreneur, who was at the event’s Vigyan Bhawan launch in January this year; she raised concerns over social perceptions towards women like acid attacks victims or victims of rape and abuse who were trying to run their own businesses and live their lives with dignity.
The grim reality is that the playing field is not even, not for the vast majority of women. Though the government has allocated a Rs 200 crore fund towards women empowerment, through different schemes like Support to Training and Employment Programme for Women (STEP) and Trade Related Entrepreneurship Assistance and Development (TREAD) to foster entrepreneurship and skill development, all of this would have been possible only if women had been a part of the game from the very beginning.
The process has to start early on—from the primary school level to ensure that more and more girls are educated especially in the STEM fields. Take for example the Startup India, Standup India campaign announcement on programmes for students. Here, innovation is the core of the programme and initiated for school kids targetting 10 lakh innovations from five lakh schools. The Campaign states- A Grand Challenge Program (National Initiative for Developing and Harnessing Innovations) will be launched to support and award Rs 10 lakh to 20 student innovations from Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Centres.
Though the plan is to target schools, how does one ensure that more and more schoolgirls can be a part of this?
These are some real problems that women across the country face and these need to be addressed. The playing field is not level; also a very basic problem is that of women safety. Women don’t feel safe.
Serial entrepreneur and Founder and Creative Head of Galerie De’Arts in Bangalore, Deepa Subramanian says, “Specialised degrees and arm chair CEOs are no longer signs of an astute businessmen. The recent boost to startups by the PM will definitely bring a breath of fresh air to the business environment.”
However, on the question of gender and women entrepreneurs, does the government and society need to do more? Deepa says, “As much as the new generation of entrepreneurs try and eliminate the ‘gender quotient’, there are still some inherent problems faced by women entrepreneurs when it comes to being funded. Investors make it difficult for startups created and led by women by often posing questions of marriage and motherhood. Among the several loopholes being pointed at the plan, allocating a considerable share for women entrepreneurs is definitely one among them. Trust this is revisited and incorporated to give women a fair chance in being part of this wonderful project.”
We welcome the fact that the attitudes and mindsets of some segments of the society including women entrepreneurs and VCs are changing. And while a small percentage of women can say they do not need to be identified by their gender, for millions of other young girls and women, that is still a dream.
Societal mindset has to change and the government can play a greater role in supporting women not just by allocation of funds, but by spreading more awareness, making information more accessible, and looking at how women entrepreneurs feel more safe and secure in running businesses.