With 75 startups and counting, how AIC Banasthali Vidyapith is attracting women entrepreneurs with its holistic incubation programme

WOMENpreneur, an incubation programme by Atal Incubation Centre (AIC) Banasthali Vidyapith, has supported 75 women-led startups, out of which 28 have raised funding valued at Rs 43 crore and created around 1,100 jobs. It is now inviting applications for its fourth cohort.
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In 1927, Pandit Hiralal Shastri, the founder of Banasthali Vidyapith, one of the largest women’s universities in the world, resigned from his post of Secretary of Home and Foreign Department, and moved to Banthali (as Banasthali was then known) in Rajasthan, to carry on the mission of rural reconstruction as laid down by Mahatma Gandhi.

He wanted to train his daughter Shantabai as a social worker, but she passed away following a brief illness in 1935 at the age of 12. However, he vowed to continue working for the cause of women’s empowerment, and started the Shri Shantabai Shiksha Kutir in 1935 with six girls. Initially, he had to go door-to-door to convince parents to educate their girls.

A discussion in progress

This effort gave way to the Banasthali Vidyapith in 1943, which later achieved the status of a deemed university in 1983.

Today, over 17,000 women study at the only residential women’s university in the country, one that offers programmes from pre-primary stage to doctoral level.

In 2017, the Banasthali Vidyapith launched its own Atal Innovation Centre (AIC), with a WOMENpreneur incubation programme exclusively for women-led startups. This year, AIC is inviting applications for its fourth cohort from women entrepreneurs all over the country.

Abhishek Pareek, CEO, AIC Banasthali Vidyapith, takes us to where it all started.

“Banasthali Vidyapith has a long legacy of supporting and nurturing women over many years. We realise that in order to motivate students, faculty or researchers, they need progression as well. We thought of starting a separate space for women as there was no incubator for women entrepreneurs at that time,” he says.

Despite scepticism from many quarters, the institution decided to apply to NITI Aayog (a government think tank), and that’s how the Atal Innovation Centre (AIC) at Banasthali Vidyapith came into being.

Abhishek says in the past four years, AIC Banasthali’s WOMENpreneur programme has grown to become one of the largest women-centric business incubators that has supported over 75 women-led startups, out of which 60 are operational in the market, 28 have raised funding valued at Rs 43 crore, and created around 1,100 jobs so far.

“The mission is to build a National Center for Entrepreneurship, a model that can be replicated across India,” adds Abhishek.

Discovering a startup – the process

Dr Latika Dhuria and Abhishek Pareek

The process of admitting startups in AIC’s cohort is long and extensive. It starts with a call for applications, posted on social media and relevant women entrepreneur platforms.

Dr Latika Dhuria, Incubation Manager at AIC explains: “After a month, the applications go through three rounds of shortlisting by the AIC team and a third party. The shortlisted applicants are then called to Banasthali for a two-day bootcamp.”

The applicants are offered free conveyance and accommodation along with family.

At the boot camp, they go through investor pitching, diagnostic panels and mentoring and training sessions.

After the boot camp, AIC decides whom to onboard based on the idea, investment pitching, sustainability, scalability, sector and what stage they are at.

Once the list is finalised, an MoU is signed, and after a month, the startups are called for mentoring sessions, with a portfolio manager assigned by the AIC team. The whole process includes 10 sessions of 11 months while the accelerator programme takes three months.

“Once they are ready for investment, we start connecting them to investors, followed by a customer demo day or an investors’ demo day.” she adds

Once the incubation programme is over, AIC continues supporting them in the next round of investments, series A investments, business development, or networking.

Challenges – from idea to execution

A pitching session in progress

AIC allots 50 percent of its incubatees to students, alumni, faculty and researchers at Banasthali Vidyapith. But, therein also lies diverse challenges.

“The student goes home on vacation, and comes back saying that their parents have asked them to drop their ideas of entrepreneurship. So, the work of six months goes down the drain. Convincing parents has been a challenging task,” says Abhishek.

The second challenge is that compared to boys in the family, girls don’t get any kind of financial support, as their ideas of business are dismissed as being silly. Abhishek says that a large number of students come from humble backgrounds and their parents don’t understand what startups are, leave alone entrepreneurship. The third challenge lies in creating a programme for women who cannot always come to Banasthali for training and mentorship because of personal reasons.

“We designed a hybrid incubation programme, where the women can do everything virtually with just a few physical meet-ups because those are also important,” he says. This model has been customised as “each woman has different challenges”.

AIC also offers grants from the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY), that amounts to Rs 22 lakh every year. It has partnered with the Ministry of MSME which offers 15 lakh as seed funding. It is also supported by CSR grants and corporates like CKD Birla Group (NBC Bearings).

Success stories at AIC

The 75 startups incubated at AIC have received a total of Rs 43.25 crore in funding so far. Many have received grants and women entrepreneur awards as well.

ThatMate, a startup led by Madhavi Jadhav, that recently raised Rs 1 crore in funding was part of AIC’s first cohort. It is a social startup that helps teens deal with issues related to mental and sexual health through an app with a chatbot and other features.

“We started out as an NGO, but during the incubation period, we changed our model to a for-profit business. They were the first to believe and invest in us, have provided us with a huge network and is always available for help,” says Madhavi.

Divyanshi, a Master’s student at Banasthali Vidyapith was selected in the WOMENpreneur programme for her startup Ujore Nature that develops organic fish feed to reduce the mortality rates in aquaculture.

“I have received every kind of support we required for our startup, including mentoring, networking, exposure to other opportunities, and one-to-one sessions for specific mentoring during the incubation programme,” she says.

After incubation, Divyanshi was able to identify a specific market and core customer size. “We are now connected with more than 250 fish farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan, and expanding to Southern India with customers in Hyderabad too,” she adds.

Akansha, who completed her schooling and undergraduate degree from Banasthali Vidyapith, started Swayambhu – a for-profit that aims to generate bioenergy by linking a Community-to-Community Biogas Plant (CBP). It would use domestic/kitchen, livestock and farm waste on mass scale to produce biogas, thereby generating electricity and other by-products like organic manure and bio-pesticide. Plastic waste management is its new verticle where plastic scrap is collected and converted into plastic sheets. 

“Since the last three years, AIC has not only helped us develop contacts but also supported us in raising funding. We have expanded our operations in two states after generating contacts from AIC. After receiving support, we have served more than 500 beneficiaries and started our new vertical in plastic waste management from bio-degradable waste management,” says Akansha.

Challenges of the pandemic and new cohort

While a lot of incubation efforts have taken a beating during the pandemic, Abhishek says, AIC Banasthali Vidyapith’s has been thriving because it has a well-established virtual process in place.

“The main challenge is that students are not on campus and therefore, physical interactions are not possible. The other challenge is how to help startups pivot to Covid realities as situations had changed.”

In this scenario, he says, one has to “either perform or perish”. AIC collaborated with GIZ that helped them with a grant to support women entrepreneurs to navigate COVID-related challenges. Fifteen startups have received support on how to pivot to something new.

AIC Banasthali Vidyapith is now inviting applications for its fourth cohort.

“The idea this time is to nurture women’s startups in science and technology because there’s not much participation of women in STEM, and this is a big opportunity to create for women-led startups to create impact. Also, Banasthali Vidyapith has a huge number of students in science and technology, and it’s an opportunity for them to take their ideas forward,” Abhishek says.

The continued focus of the incubator will also be to orient women around startups and entrepreneurship.

“We want to “massify” the concept of entrepreneurship. SBI has helped us with a corpus to organise workshops on orienting women onto the entrepreneurial path. So far, we have reached more than 11,000 women, including those from rural areas, students, faculty and scholars. We want to orient 25,000 women in the next five years and expand our ecosystem to benefit more,” Abhishek concludes.

(You can apply to the fourth cohort of the WOMENpreneur programme here)

Edited by Anju Narayanan

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