Building a robust community of women founders and funders for a gender-equitable society

At TechSparks 2021, women investors and founders of VC funds discuss the need to encourage women across all levels and focus on women consumers in the market.
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India's startup and entrepreneurship space are far from a level playing field, but women founders and investors slowly and steadily claim their space.

At YourStory’s flagship event TechSparks 2021, Seema Chaturvedi, Founder and Managing Partner of AWE Funds that invest in early-stage capital in women-owned, led and influenced businesses and Ankita Vashistha, Founder of Saha Fund, the first global venture capital fund to invest in women entrepreneurship and technology, delved on the importance and impact of women leadership, rising economic focus on women consumers, and the need for female entrepreneurs and investors behind the scenes.

The excellent news, Seema said, is that there is no lack of talent, hunger, and creativity among women, and they only need “some level of direction and community and support system.” She emphasized the end goal is to have a more gender-equitable society.  

Ankita believes that India is on the way to becoming a powerful ‘brand country’ and that enabling women across levels is critical.

At Saha Fund and StrongHer, she claimed that the funds look at whether the companies are founded by women and the number of women employees, their growth and promotion to senior levels, and workplace policies. It also looks at how the companies are serving women consumers.

The funding problem

Despite increasing funds injected into the Indian startup ecosystem, only two to three percent goes to women-founded and led startups.

Seema shared that she was told by many fellow investors and venture capitalists that there is no gender bias in India when it comes to investments.

“In their minds, they are not sexist or discriminating. And they say it with the seriousness that they do not see gender when someone is pitching to them but assess the level of quality of the business plan… but the issue is we do not have enough of a pipeline that is available in a manner that can be more equitable. It is also because they are not removing the blinders to look at other opportunities that could be investible if you gave them a chance,” she said.  

When claiming AWE funds to be an innovative plan fund, she says many have accused her of mollycoddling the women. “And I say to them, it has forever been a man's world, and nobody complained. So, what is wrong with us putting it out there and everything on line here?” she added.

The panel also highlighted that having women on the investor’s table will bring a unique perspective and create more funding potential for female founders. “The fundamental unlock is the potency of capital allocation. That's where the magic and power is at, and it is utilised best when women are leading,” Seema added.

“You are usually coming and presenting to a room full of 15 men, and you are talking about menopause, post-natal service or solution, or a lingerie brand. They are not going to fund it because they don't use it. Even if you are doing something amazing, you are not pitching to the actual users, so there need to be more women on the table deciding and investing and being the consumer,” said Ankita, who is bullish on the need for a strong community of women founders and funders.

However, there is only so much that a handful of funds and investors can do. According to Seema, the thesis also looks at catalysing the private sector to take personal responsibility. 

“Much as I have taken personal responsibility, I hope to have a demonstration effect through equity funds where tell other commercial investors and create a FOMO that if you are not investing in a certain business, you are missing out on that commercial Alpha. That is the demonstration effect I am driving through the funds,” she said.

However, they believed that awareness around enabling enterprising women has increased. “When I started nearly six years back, there wasn't much awareness around why it is important to have diverse teams and women leadership. Now I think it is amazing to see so many people running programmes and foundations and so much more capital and awareness around this,” Ankita said.

But more than anything, she believes that building for women consumers has become a powerful trend worldwide.  

A few silver linings

There is no doubt the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the social and economic lives of women. However, Ankita and Seema agreed that a few silver linings have emerged from the COVID-19 crisis.

This includes companies jumping on the digital bandwagon and men taking note of the unpaid care work that most women shoulder at home.

“For the first time, people took work from home as a legit format of working. Earlier, it was considered a hobby to work from home, and ‘serious work’ could be done only at the office. Now with men sitting at home, they said, you can do serious work while working from home,” Seema said. It has also become more accessible for women to access flexible work options.

Ankita said that tech adoption had opened an excellent opportunity for women are upskilling themselves and tap the booming creator economy as micro-entrepreneurs through platforms like Meesho.

When asked about the scope of women-led ventures entering the coveted unicorn club, Seema said that despite the high that comes from becoming a unicorn, that need not be the benchmark or defining milestone, and it could be encouraging to have a million more women being part of the ecosystem in various roles.

“The unicorns will come without a doubt, but I would like to tell all the ladies to stop stressing, just get your business growing, make money for your investors, and you'll do great,” she signed off.

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan

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