In India, the proportion of women in paid work is among the lowest in the world, at just over 23%—a figure which contrasts sharply with the corresponding rate of over 78% for men.
Opportunities for women to enter employment in the country are limited by a range of factors. These include a dominant tradition of female domestic responsibility, and a prevailing social patriarchy.
Deeply entrenched cultural expectations mean that women are more likely to stay at home. And when they do work, it is mainly on an informal basis, without the luxury of secured wages and contracts.
Against this backdrop, the idea of female entrepreneurship in India faces major challenges. Setting up a business can require significant efforts outside of normal work times, and can lead to women being perceived as irresponsible if they dedicate time to entrepreneurial activities.
But it seems as if things may be changing. My research on women entrepreneurs in India reveals they are contesting social, cultural and family pressures to challenge the status quo in Indian society. They are also empowering other women while providing innovative solutions to major social problems.
Some of the women I spoke to greatly inspired me with their stories. One manufacturing business founder, Pinky Maheshwari, was challenged by her son to make environmentally friendly paper. She went on to create handmade paper made out of cotton that is embedded with seeds. These can then be planted and grown into trees when the paper has served its purpose.
Her award-winning ideas have won appreciation and support from the highest levels of Indian government. She is, she told me, motivated by the idea of empowering others, and “hires women from rural and small towns so that they earn a livelihood and get acknowledged for their creativity”.
She added: “I have employed largely women and I support them in any way I can.”
A similar spirit shone through other women entrepreneurs I interviewed. Padmaja Narsipur, the founder of a digital marketing strategy firm, supports women “re-starters” to join her workforce after a break in their working lives.
She said: “Women re-starters are highly qualified and committed. I have been one myself. I have built a workplace where trust in employees, giving flexible hours, work from home options, is built into the DNA and it is paying off.”
The CEO of Anthill Creations, Pooja Rai has a vision to create “interactive learning environments in public spaces with a primary focus on sustainability,” by using recycled materials to build accessible play areas in remote parts of India.
These are just some of the many Indian women entrepreneurs I met who are creating businesses of real purpose. Despite the cultural obstacles, they are changing perceptions and creating innovative businesses that have a real impact on their communities and beyond.
Their work is rewriting the rules for business, families and society while challenging the mindset that there is limited scope for them to create good businesses.
With a blend of social purpose and business acumen, Indian women are embarking on a journey to change perceptions and creating prosperity for themselves and for the nation.
This is the new face of women entrepreneurship in India. And there is evidence that public policy is increasingly supportive of this transformation while society is beginning to celebrate their successes.
Indian society is gradually becoming progressively egalitarian with much needed government initiatives such as “Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao” (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter) designed to improve the prospects of young girls.
Improved access to social media, education, and social enterprises are all contributing to change. These are giving momentum to the aspirations of women entrepreneurs in India.
Their stories will hopefully inspire women entrepreneurs from around the world, while encouraging policy makers to create avenues that support their aspirations.
Such policies could include promoting entrepreneurship education amongst women and helping to finance women led start ups. The work has started, but there is much more to do to encourage the female businesswomen of India to overcome historically entrenched barriers and become part of a global entrepreneurial society.
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