Speak up, be heard: that was the message that emerged when a group of women entrepreneurs gathered in Mumbai last week to discuss the troubles they face in their professional lives.
Yet, seldom did they speak about it during their discussions at the event. They had clients to handle, investors to convince, and colleagues to manage.
Around 100 women and a handful of men thronged the venue at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), Asia’s oldest stock exchange, for an event called “Women Power 2016” on March 5.
Organised by The Mentorpreneurs, a business and consulting firm for startups, the event had clearly evoked interest. After all, India is yet to throw up a female version of a Sachin Bansal of Flipkart fame or Kunal Bahl of Snapdeal. Besides, of India’s eight unicorns (startups valued at $1 billion or more), none was founded by a woman.
In 2014, Dell anlaysed 30 countries (pdf) to study how female entrepreneurship is fostered. While India has one of the world’s fastest growing startup ecosystems, it scored a mere 26 points—fifth from the bottom—in this index. Even Ghana, Nigeria and Panama, among others, performed better.
An Economic Times study of 187 startups in India found that only 2% had women chief operating officers. Further, of the 500 founders of these startups, only 8% were founded by women, the newspaper reported today (March 8).
The Dell report said that in South Asia, although 65% of the female population was willing to start a business, “the region’s weaknesses are related to the lack of women’s equal rights.”
Equality, therefore, is something that needs immediate attention.
Who will bell the cat?
At the event, the sessions revolved around challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in raising funds, scaling up and even just starting up. I was moderating one such discussion on the “challenges of scaling up”.
During one of the panels, a woman entrepreneur nudged me. “Why is no one talking about gender biases?” she whispered, off the record. Clearly, she wasn’t comfortable even raising the issue.
That defined the main problem: The panelists were young and smart, but even they didn’t want to openly discuss gender bias. ”It is the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about,” the woman said.
Angela Kurien, a delivery project leader with IBM and one of the speakers, said it was time women spoke up—be it in the startup world or corporate offices. ”We need to stand up and say ‘if you don’t want it, it’s your loss, not mine’. I have given up on occasions when I felt that I wasn’t getting what I deserve,” she said.
Biases come in all forms. From asking women employees if they can manage their family with work to if they really understand complex financial matters such as valuations. In fact, one leitmotif is that women entrepreneurs are almost always talking about things such as work-life balance.
Meanwhile, I prodded the entrepreneur who spoke to me about biases to tell me more. ”Look, it happens a lot,” she said. “Whenever I talk to my accountants about some financial issues, they always tell me, please get your husband, too, who is my co-founder. Straight on my face. They don’t think women have the financial bandwidth.”
Last July, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), India’s largest industry body, organised a panel discussion to make “complex accounting numbers & jargon simple for women entrepreneurs.”
“It has been a long-held view that knowing and comprehending numbers in business is a challenge for women entrepreneurs,” the FICCI press release said. Such patronising under the garb of extending support is reflective of the embedded bias. This, in a country where some of the top banks and financial institutions have had women at the helm for years.
India also lacks a sizeable number of women venture capitalists (VCs). Top VC firms such as Accel Partners India, Helion Venture Partners, Nexus Venture Partners, and Bessemer Venture Partners have no women leading them or even at the managing director level.
Data also indicates that funding remains a big challenge. According to Nasscom, of the $5-billion funding received by Indian startups in 2015, only $168 million went to those with women founders. And these weren’t companies with only woman founders—there could be a male co-founder, too.
In July 2015, news website YourStory studied 25 companies that received recent Series A funding. Not one had an all-women founding team; only two had a female co-founder.
Banks rarely take women entrepreneurs or clients seriously. Often their interactions assume a patronising tone.
A restaurateur, who identified herself as Smita, said often banks never even completed the formalities because she was a woman. “Where do we go then for finance?” Smita asked Mahesh Murthy, well-known angel investor and one of the speakers at the event.
Smriti Dalvi, co-founder of Florista, an online flower and gift delivery service, shared her experience with the panel I was moderating. ”When we were preparing to pitch to an investor, someone sent me a link with some research finding. It said that the chances of a pitch being successful are stronger if it is by a good-looking male,” she said. ”So, does that mean I should tell my husband then?” Dalvi asked.
In January, Nidhi Agarwal, founder of Kaaryah.com, a fashion website, told NDTV that she had been rejected by no less than 113 times while seeking funding.
Some speakers said men weren’t the only ones responsible for these biases. A candid Murthy said, ”Women don’t like to work for women. They prefer to work for men.” Women, he said, take to micromanaging, which isn’t something employees in a startup like.
I asked my co-panelists if micromanagement was necessary.
Aastha Almast, co-founder of Smartican, a social media website, said there ought to be a limit to micromanagement. ”There is a very thin line between micromanaging and being a control freak and that leads to a lot of internal disputes. You need to trust people,” Almast said.
After the sessions, as the audience networked over coffee, some more steam was let off. The head of an accelerator spoke to me about inherent sexism. ”Well, this is totally off the record, but sometimes when I am networking with investors, I wonder if they are genuinely interested in the business model or are they just flirting. This happens all the time.”
Other women nodded vigorously.
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