India’s female entrepreneurs agree with Ivanka Trump: the struggle is real

But things may be changing.
But things may be changing.
Image: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
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The struggles that women entrepreneurs go through are pretty much the same across the world.

So when Ivanka Trump, a senior advisor to the US president, spoke at the inaugural session of the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Hyderabad on Nov. 28, her message resonated with Indian women entrepreneurs. Women made up over half of the 1,500 attendees at Trump’s speech—a first for the GES, which is themed Women First, Prosperity for All this year.

“Only when women are empowered to thrive will our families, our economies, and our societies reach their fullest potential,” said Trump, a former business tycoon with a namesake fashion brand. ”One study estimates that closing the gender entrepreneurship gap worldwide could grow our global GDP by as much as 2%.”

A self-proclaimed champion of women in the workforce, the 36-year-old has backed equal pay and called for quality child care, though her actions haven’t always aligned with her words. For instance, Trump supported the move to scrap the Obama administration’s equal-pay initiative and remains mum on the dire condition of Indian garment workers making clothes for her brand.

Basic imbalance

But some of the challenges she mentioned at the GES hit home for India’s female entrepreneurs. “I have seen firsthand that all too often, women must do more than their male counterparts to prove themselves at work, while also disproportionately caring for their families at home,” Trump said.

Indeed, striking that right balance has seldom been easy for women, particularly in India. In the IT industry, for example, only 7% of women reach the C-suite, according to a September 2017 report by hiring firm Belong. In fact, even many graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology, the country’s most prestigious engineering schools, are often unable to scale the maternity wall.

“Marriage and motherhood see women make large sacrifices, taking pay cuts, giving up promotions etc., unfortunately affecting their chances of managerial positions,” Sonali Lalvani, co-founder of jewellery startup ToniQ Retail Brands, told Quartz.

Lalvani recalls being warned by her boss in the run-up to her marriage—she hadn’t yet ventured out on her own then—about her chances of a good bonus being affected. The marriage would “distract” her and she may not remain “as committed” after that, her boss had surmised.

No doubt, gender-based inequality has deep roots in India, mostly going back to college and school-level education. “My brother was put in a co-ed school while I was put in a convent school. My brother did engineering but I was put in hotel management,” said Arpita Ganesh, founder and CEO of lingerie brand Buttercups.

Even making it to their preferred institutes is only the beginning of the struggle. “There’s still a sort of unspoken bro code even at the top engineering colleges, and a kind of moral policing, which holds woman engineers from growing,” said Sairee Chahal, founder of SHEROES, an online community for women seeking career opportunities and mentors. Being subject to strict dress codes, curfews, or travel restrictions “may sound like non-issues, but it all adds up in the long run, making it an uneven playing field,” Chahal explained. And these haunt women throughout their professional lives—if, at all, they have one.

For until just over a decade ago, women would often head out to work only if the family needed them to do so, said Malika Datt Sadani, co-founder of New Delhi-based The Moms Co, a personal care startup for mothers and infants. If and when they did, there was hardly any support system.

For instance, an estimated 90% of the venture capital firms in India are headed by men, Buttercups’ Ganesh said. So, when she was trying to get her woman-centric business of bras up-and-running, Ganesh struggled to garner interest in an overwhelmingly male-dominated environment. Not having female role models didn’t help much either.

Throughout her two-decade-long entrepreneurial journey, Ganesh sought support from fellow women founders like YourStory’s Shradha Sharma and Rashmi Daga of Freshmenu but success was rare. That prompted her to work towards making life easier for upcoming talent.

“We all do a lot of mentorship for young people because we believe we didn’t have that when we needed it,” said Ganesh.

But slowly, things may be changing.

The change

Entrepreneurial activity among women increased by 10% between 2014 and 2016 globally, and this is trickling into Indian startups. “More women (are) choosing to start businesses and re-enter the workforce,” Sadani of The Moms Co said.

ToniQ’s Lalvani credits social media for the rise of such “momtrepreneurs” who have started businesses in diverse industries, from fashion to accessories to organic foods, right from their homes. On the SHEROES platform, “we see a growing trend of homepreneurs, one-woman shows, microentrepreneurs as well as small businesses,” Chahal added.

Meanwhile, as the US implements policies to support women, India’s office culture is also due for an update. Things are looking up with the Maternity Amendment Act 2017 letting women take a longer paid absence. This alone is expected to go a long way in easing women’s positions in the workforce and among entrepreneurs. Working from home is also gaining acceptance and all private companies with over 50 employees are expected to provide crèche facilities within a certain distance of the workplace, where mothers are allowed four visits daily.

“But there are still so many lacunae,” Chahal warned. The 120 million women working in the unorganised sector don’t enjoy these benefits. And though paternity leave is becoming more commonplace, “there’s almost a kind of unspoken stigma around it,” she added.

There is a lot of distance to be covered. “What’s missing is a strong support network for advice, networking, and mentorship,” Lalvani said.

Because, like Trump said, “When women work, it creates a unique multiplier effect…Women are more likely than men to hire other women, and to give them access to capital, mentorship, and networks. Women are also more likely to reinvest their income back in their families and communities.”