It’s time to put our hands up for India’s female entrepreneurs

Against all odds.
Against all odds.
Image: Reuters/Peter Nicholls
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More than six years after India got its first internet unicorn, a female entrepreneur is set to break into the big boys’ club.

On March 31, online beauty products retailer Nykaa said it had raised Rs100 crore ($14 million) from private equity firm TPG Growth at a valuation of over $700 million. Experts now believe the Mumbai-based venture could touch a billion-dollar valuation soon.

Founded in 2012 by Falguni Nayar, a former investment banker at Kotak Investment Banking, Nykaa’s valuation has more than doubled in the past six months. Nayar’s achievement comes just a couple of months after Mumbai native Ankiti Bose’s fashion e-commerce firm, Zilingo, received $226 million in funding at a valuation of $970 million. Her firm, though, is based in Singapore.

Nayar and Bose’s success is momentous given that all of India’s 14 current unicorns are headed by men. An exception is e-commerce firm Shopclues where one of the three co-founders is a woman.

“The milestone will give a lot of confidence to fellow woman entrepreneurs to build successful businesses out of India,” Ashok Madaravally, ex-director, Nasscom 10,000 Startups, told Quartz.

Female entrepreneurship & India

Like in most other fields, entrepreneurship in India has a serious gender problem. While the number of startups, entrepreneurs, and investors have increased in the past few years, a mere 14% of the businesses in the country are run by woman entrepreneurs, according to the sixth economic census of India.

For two years now (2017 and 2018), India has ranked 52nd in a list of 57 nations surveyed by Mastercard to ascertain parity for female entrepreneurs. The main reasons for this abysmal ranking are the poor social and cultural acceptance for women, a lack of self-belief, and the absence of funding.

“It’s not only an issue in business but look at the immediate society…women are scoffed at for so many things including starting something of their own,” Madaravally said.

Almost 80% of the ventures led by women are self-financed, according to the economic census, highlighting the struggles the founders face in raising venture capital funding. “From a funding perspective, from a mentorship perspective, you’re pretty lonely out there (for women). Access to capital is still all-male; there is a barrier there,” Sairee Chahal, founder of women-only jobs portal SHEROES, told Quartz in 2018.

Even globally, only 4.4% of female entrepreneurs borrow money from a financial institution or seek assistance from the government because they’re not confident about their businesses, said Ruby Sinha, founder of, a knowledge hub for female entrepreneurs. “And not having many role models also leads to self-doubts, which is one of the biggest challenges for women,” Sinha said.

The hardships don’t end even the few women who do manage to fight all odds and startup. “The challenges one faces are many but all are second to the basic lack of support and belief that some women go through,” said 28-year-old Gauri Angrish, founder and CEO of Caredose, a New Delhi-based medical technology company. “Our society has a way of defining the paths of each ‘type’ of an individual—an act that provides comfort to those who never dare to break out of the norm. Due to this, a lot of women, even if they have all the right qualities, are never able to break that glass ceiling.”

Under these circumstances, boss-women Bose and Nayar’s success could go a long way in inspiring the next generation of aspiring female entrepreneurs in India, the challenges notwithstanding.

The torchbearers’ lessons

So how did they get this far?

Bose has attributed Zilingo’s success to her cross-cultural sensibilities. She says her understanding of cultural nuances and empathy towards others have helped her work with technology enthusiasts in Bengaluru, fashion experts in Singapore, and conservative Muslim traders in Indonesia. For day-to-day business decisions, she depends on her earlier experience as a consultant with McKinsey & Co, where she worked closely with a number of startups.

Nykaa’s Nayar also leverages her nearly two decades of experience as an investment banker and broker, she has said in the past. Being part of merger and acquisition deals in her earlier job helped identify online beauty product sale as a business idea and gave her the confidence to bet on India’s growing internet user base.

Nayar has been careful about raising funds. For the first two years, she pumped in money from her own savings.

In an interview with a leading business publication in June 2017, she said:

I didn’t want to raise money. I wanted to make the metrics happen. We had good momentum by the time I went to investors. We are 95% inventory-led. I wanted to be inventory-led and compliant so we couldn’t take foreign funds. So we turned to domestic high net-worth individuals. Being a banker, I knew VC funds come as conditional funding; it’s not really equity. If you don’t do well, it’s debt. I wanted pure equity.

Some younger female entrepreneurs have devised their own mantras for survival. For instance, Angrish of Caredose says, “I was able to develop a hard skin that was completely unfazed by the opinions of others who didn’t support me.”