If you're a woman who plans to be a mover and shaker in the tech space, here's why empoWer might be the perfect launchpad for your journey.
Hailed as one of the top women-focussed initiatives all over India in 2016 by YourStory, ‘empoWer,’ the first tech accelerator for women entrepreneurs in India, initiated by Zone Startups India, launched its second edition at Bombay Stock Exchange yesterday.
Backed by Department of Science & Technology (Government of India), Microsoft, Capital First, PayU, ICICI Bank, Social Alpha (a Tata Trusts initiative), Cherie Blair Foundation, Amazon and FlexiLoans, the accelerator programme has been designed on the basis of extensive research conducted by Zone Startups, to identify the need-based gaps witnessed by women entrepreneurs - like the lack of a peer group of like-minded women, limited financial independence, a risk-averse mindset, lack of training in technology & finance, absence of role models, scarcity of funding , and, lastly, networking. Zone Startups India is gunning to fill all of these gaps in their programme.
The first edition of empoWer, launched in April 2016, had received 191 applications from across the country, out of which 15 women entrepreneurs were selected for a six-week accelerator programme followed by a demo day presentation in front of a jury of HNIs. The applications for the 2017 edition of empoWer are now open, and 15 women entrepreneurs will be shortlisted for this year’s programme as well. “The range of applications we saw was right from hardware to medtech to edutech – which is quite surprising because people don’t expect women to run tech startups especially in the hardware space,” says Prachi Singhal, Program Lead for empoWer at ZSI.
While there were 16 mentors last year, like Rashmi Bansal Virginia Sharma, Anuja Chauhan, and cash prizes and benefits in kind worth Rs 70 lakh for all the startups, Prachi states that they have added several new tracks to the programme this year, besides the accelerator.
“The gaps we had observed were the lack of a peer network for women entrepreneurs, and limited access to mentors and industry stalwarts. empoWer 2017 is much more than an accelerator – we are now starting a year-round community, skill development for homepreneurs, bootcamps, access to funding, industry connects etc., for women entrepreneurs over and above the 15 who are selected for the accelerator,” she says.
The meetups for their year-long initiatives will happen monthly. The industry leaders associating with empoWer this time around would be women achievers like Avani Dawda, Vicky Saunders, Deepali Nair etc.
The winner of the Rs 10 lakh cash grant from the Department of Science and Technology last year, Suhani Mohan, Co-founder of Saral Designs, said she got associated with empoWer last year on a friend’s recommendation, mostly excited about cash component, but the experience she got out of the programme was unprecedented, and the benefits she derived far way beyond the grant. “The cash component was also an incentive, as an early-stage startup. But the most important thing was the peer community I derived out of it– the 15 of us are so close that I can pick up the phone and ask any one of them – 'acha, how did your acquisition happen?' and get the raw, juicy details,” she quips.
She notes that even as mentor-networks are cropping up, peer networks for women entrepreneurs go a long way in building a support system for the aspirants. “We are all at diverse stages in our startups – some have raised their Series B, some got acquired, so there’s a range of things we can give back. I can even ask them stupid things like 'how to use this social media tool' – something you can’t ask a senior industry leader. We have a very active WhatsApp group, for feedback, which is great especially for me–since I’m working with sanitary napkins, this set of women always test it out first and give me great feedback,” she says.
The Rs 10-lakh grant came at the opportune time for the young company to carry them through the funding freeze in 2016. “We were working out of such a small space first that we could not possibly scale. This grant allowed us the breathing space to expand production. Post-empoWer, we sold one million pads in the year. But the peer network is something I value the most,” she says.
Multitudes of such success stories sprung out of empoWer 2016 for the first cohort- Vanity Cube raised Rs 100 crores from VLCC, ThinkerBell Labs raised Rs 1.3 Crores from IAN, including a personal investment from Anand Mahindra, DAZL got accepted into a Silicon Valley-based HAX hardware accelerator, Advenio raised $100,000 from Kalaari Capital’s K-Start Program, and YourDost raised $ 1.2 million from SAIF Partners.
The benefits of this programme are both financial as well as non-financial, so Suhani says that to make the most of this opportunity, the incoming cohort must make sure they follow through with the connections they make, and actively convert them into business associations. “If you network but don’t follow up, it will be just like meeting people at any other one-off conference. Here, you are given the chance to be part of a much more tightly-knit community, and you must make sure that you build real relationships with the people you meet,” she says.
"We kickstarted empoWer with a belief that there was a lot of potential for women entrepreneurs in tech. Our aim is to identify high-potential startups very early on. And we want and back them all the way,” says, Ajay Ramasubramaniam, Director for India, Zone Startups.