Debjani Ghosh was brought up thinking that she was no less than her brothers. That confidence helped her perform well in school and rapidly climb the career ladder. “But once I reached management level, I was seen as intimidating. Curiously, men were not complaining much,” says Debjani, currently MD (South Asia), Intel. That’s when she struggled. For a while, she tried to be a little quiet during meetings, only for many people to think she had lost interest. It was her mentor who came to her rescue. “My (male) mentor told me to go to HR. You have to be true to yourself, you can’t fake it in a sustainable way – if your style results in success, people will easily accept it quickly.”
Debjani’s and other such stories were shared at the Startup Girls event in Bangalore on 19 April. Entrepreneurs, investors and other members of the startup ecosystem were present at the dialogue on women in startups and entrepreneurship by KStart, a seed programme from Kalaari Capital.
Every entrepreneur has, or should have, his or her own style in leadership. Anjali Bansal, MD and Partner, TPG, explained: “Assertive leadership is good. But in many situations, women feel they have no space to exercise leadership at workplaces.”
Mukesh Bansal, founder of Myntra, added, “A lot of women apply to lower and middle level jobs. But if she reaches the top and is willing to fight the system, she is seen as not blending in.”
Cultural fit and ambition are factors to look out for when hiring for your startup. Kirthiga Reddy, former head of Facebook India, believes that every employee and every interaction speaks of the brand. “Entrepreneurs have to be conscious of investing in the team and how much they understand the brand,” she said.
Varsha Rao, Head of Global Operations for Airbnb, who founded her first company, eve.com in 1998, believes that there is no straight path when you’re an entrepreneur “No cosmetics company wanted to sell online when we started. I used to call them throughout the day, and one day, two women agreed (to work with eve.com to sell cosmetics online),” she said, talking about her first years as an entrepreneur in the US.
How boards can help entrepreneurs
As seen in Debjani’s case, mentorship is very important in building a good leader. For startups, investors and the advisory board play the role of a mentor. Moderating a panel on Effective Board Management, Bharati Jacob, Managing Partner of Seedfund Advisors, added that a board meeting is never a personal report card. “Entrepreneurs are not being judged there by investors. Everyone is working towards creating a sustainable company together,” she explained, adding that entrepreneurs are like teenagers: they want to experiment and learn on their own. “But board members often have a ‘been-there-done-that’ attitude, which doesn’t work. The board should be nose-in-limbs-out; entrepreneurs know the market better,” she concluded.
Swati Bhargava, founder of Cashkaro.com, felt that the advisory board should be a sounding board with whom you can discuss ideas. “The ultimate decision is yours; they respect your space and vision. I send my reports 4-5 days in advance so that I can point out the matters on which I want their advice during the meeting,” she explained.
Zivame founder Richa Kar spoke about how investors having different points of views can confuse the entrepreneur. “The board should understand what stage the company is in, and advise accordingly, without a different agenda,” she explained.
Practo founder Shashank ND felt investors must be there for entrepreneurs – almost like they were co-founders – regardless of how big their fund is. “It’s ideal to be in touch on a monthly basis and build a personal relationship beyond the board,” he says.
Very often, you hear that women can achieve everything, that all the discrimination is in our heads. This could be true for a lucky few. But Shradha Sharma, founder of YourStory, believes that it is these unique experiences that make our stories what they are. "As entrpreneurs, we are given a lot of advice, told a lot of stories. What we need to do is listen to these stories, and take away what is most relevant to us. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work there," Shradha explained, adding: “I am in my 30s, and now, rather than seeking external validation, my sense of acceptance comes from within. It makes me happy, it keeps me positive. That is my story and my learning. Each of us needs to find that within ourselves. We need to learn to love ourselves first," Shradha told the audience.
It is this acceptance that directs you in leadership. Angel investor Meeta Malhotra, however, pointed out that it is essential to separate your personal and professional life. “Although in small companies your team becomes your family, as a leader and an entrepreneur, you have to take hard decisions some times. Don’t be emotionally invested; hire people who fit your ambition and culture,” she says.
At the event, veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta quoted a Harvard study which said that education is rising but workforce participation is declining for women in India. Times have changed with entrepreneurship gaining prominence. “Some time ago I would have had to search for women entrepreneurs. Now there are a roomfull of women entrepreneurs,” he said.
Shekhar recollected how he missed out on his children’s teen years because of his career. It seems like women and men have similar issues. Sucharita Eashwar, founder and CEO of Catalyst for Women Entrepreneurs, spoke of the cultural barriers that prevented her from becoming an entrepreneur until after her children had grown up. “We are conditioned to think that we have to be with our families, ensure things are taken care of. But it’s all about putting a system in life and making things work for you.”
Gender diversity remains a challenge
Ensuring gender diversity at workplace does not happen easily. Loginext Solutions saw equal number of male and female employees at their inception. However, according to Manisha Raisinghani, Co-founder: “Now we have more male applicants. So we do events for women entrepreneurs so that when they tell their success stories, more people will venture into it.”
It appears to be the best of times and worst of times for women entrepreneurs in India. On the one hand, the global economy has slowed down, violence against women is rising and in the corporate space, breaking the glass ceiling remains a challenge. On the other hand, more women are educated now and better equipped to tackle these challenges than ever before. Women, therefore need to support each other at workplaces, because a silent revolution is already underway.
Kstart has launched a Survey on Women’s Entrepreneurship to understand the current landscape for women entrepreneurs in India. You can take the survey here, or forward it to a woman entrepreneur you know.
(Disclaimer: Kstart is a seed fund by Kalaari Capital, an investor in YourStory.)