The zeitgeist of the she-preneur

The zeitgeist of the she-preneur

Thursday May 31, 2018,

6 min Read

It’s time we show commitment to getting our women back into the workplace.

I don’t know about you, but I love Anne Hathaway. And I especially loved her in the Nancy Meyers flick, The Intern. It’s one of the few cases where even the greatness that is Robert De Niro, couldn’t hold a candle to the greatness that is Anne Hathaway. If you haven’t seen it, stop now, and watch it…. I’ll understand.

If you have, then high five. And please read on.

No prizes for guessing why I love this film, and why I chose to start my post with it. It’s about a young lady – talented, sharp as a razor, and utterly lovable sticking to her guns, running a hugely successful online venture, and kicking ass. Sadly, that’s where celluloid life ends, and reality kicks in. HARD.

In India, as of 2017, 11% of the 5000 surveyed startups are headed by women – as per Nasscom. That number stood at 7% five years ago. Not bad, I’d say. Now, let’s dig deeper. According to Saha Fund, investors funding women-run startups stand at a meagre 3%. Which means that a lot of the bright woman sparks who’re starting up, are self-funded, angel-funded or bootstrapped. Or then missing from the numbers altogether.

Now let’s take a short trip outside of the big cities with the dazzling lights, and into the heartland of India. In Bharatpur, Rajasthan, a passionate Suman Singh built Kirti Crafts from scratch, after years of hardship – a failed marriage, and no food on the table. She began teaching women tailoring, and that’s how she started Kirti Crafts – what is now the biggest tailoring institution in the Deeg tehsil of Bharatpur. A referenced news article established that Kirti Crafts employs about 20 women, who take home approximately Rs.15,000 per month. And if you’re living in the hinterland, 15K is a small fortune.

And, here’s the fun part. The Suman Singhs of India are indeed missing from the 5000 ‘listed’ startups surveyed by Nasscom. But they’re all legit, mostly successful, and growing. It’s ironic that women-led businesses are hardly even making it to the surveys, let alone to our news headlines. And this is not for want of success – in fact, women entrepreneurs all around the world are growing. Did you know that in Indonesia and South Korea, half a million businesses are owned by women? In China, women own 20% of all small businesses. And in the developing world overall, which includes India, that figure is 40-50%! In fact, the World Economic Forum has noted that smaller gender gaps are directly correlated with increased economic competitiveness.

Which brings me to 2 key questions: 1) while so many Indian women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are carpeing every diem, middle class educated women from bigger cities, are abandoning ship. And the numbers still show a slight bump only – not the steep increase it should. Why? And 2) if women entrepreneurs all around the world, are clearly on a winning streak, why aren’t we seeing more investments being made into women-led businesses? Why are the VCs and the PEs not treating the ‘fairer sex’ fairly?

Why this lack of appetite for entrepreneurship in the middle-income groups?

Well, for starters, society doesn’t really seem to help much in this regard. Married life can often be a domicile of deception (and I say this as a proud, happily married woman). And in my experience of having worked with so many talented women, MANY have dreamed of starting their own business someday – but most have woken up, smelt the coffee, then brewed it to feed the husband, forgetting to leave some for their own. In fact, the married rural woman’s life couldn’t be more different from the married middle-income woman’s. She has little choice, but to double up as a breadwinner and a caretaker, both. To be sure, history has proven that women in conflict and post-conflict zones have stood tall, and established flourishing businesses that have in turn, employed other women, and helped the economy turn around. Rwanda, Afghanistan, India – all cases in point.

Which makes me wonder: perhaps the absence of conflict for the average middle-income woman, is what discourages her from starting up? And if that is so, then this dismal state of affairs needs to change, since women bring in as much innovation and disruption to the table, if not more, than their male counterparts. Like my favorite woman leader of all time, Dame Stephanie Shirley – pioneer, inventor of the Concorde black box flight recorder and an entrepreneur who started a software company in 60s with GBP 6, and grew it to a public-listed entity, employing 8500 people. Know how she did it? She changed her name to Steve. Go figure.

Where’s the money, honey? And why ain’t the women getting any?

Taking inspiration from another disconnected yet relevant approach, India has consciously focused on improving its ratings on the World Bank’s ‘Ease of doing business’ scale, as we try to seduce foreign investors. And true to the country of the Kamasutra, the seduction is going well. Last year, India saw phenomenal progress, improving its position by a whopping 30 places - to now feature in the top 100. Maybe it’s time we show the same kind of commitment to getting our women back into the workplace? It’s not only going to help our organizations grow, it will also augur well for the economy, to have a greater number of successful start-ups, rising exports and IP. In fact, a recent McKinsey Global Institute report on ‘The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Asia Pacific’, projected India achieving an 18% increase over business-as-usual GDP, just by advancing women’s equality. That’s $770 billion we’re talking about.

Over the last few decades, as the developed world has seen growth flatlining, the ‘emerging economies’, and the BRIC nation have seen hundreds of billions of dollars pouring in as investment money got rerouted to geographies that were showing room for growth – and hence, returns. And the results have paid off. Today, economies like China, India are major manufacturing and export hubs of the world. Now imagine, if some of that investment could be directed into women entrepreneurs? Wouldn’t that be quite something?

I guess some of this will be a fight. And some of the onus will rest with us women: the onus to proudly claim the cape we deserve, to finally become the superheroes that we know we are.

Let’s start there, shall we?

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)