Posted on 07th November 2022
Meet five women who became entrepreneurs by choice, not by chance
By Sahana Sitaraman
Balancing both professional and personal commitments is no cakewalk. Family support and valuable mentorship have built a small pool of women leaders, but they make up only 13% of the entrepreneurs in the country.
In the last 15 years, Romita Ghosh, a scientist by training and an entrepreneur by passion, has co-founded and successfully sustained four companies. She built them from scratch, developing ideas into products and services that touch people’s lives daily. Sadly, she is an exception in the world of business.
Dr. Renuka Karandikar, founder of BioPrime AgriSolutions tries to practice gender neutral parenting for her child because she has witnessed the domino effect of gendered stereotypes very closely.
According to the Economic Survey, 2019-2020, India ranks third on the global entrepreneurial scale. However, when you tease apart this growth, you notice that women are only contributing a minute percentage towards this ranking. They make up only about 13% of entrepreneurs, of which those with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) focus are even less. This is obviously not because of a lack of aptitude or interest. The problem lies with systemically strengthened stereotypes enmeshed within the fabric of society.
Experiments conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois have showed that six-year-old girls start avoiding games for ‘really, really smart’ children and exhibit gendered beliefs about intelligence, which tend to have a cascading effect on other choices, such as study of subjects like science and maths that are for ‘smart people’.
That is exactly the kind of stereotype that BioPrime AgriSolutions founder Dr Renuka Karandikar tries to avoid while bringing up her child.
Of all the scientists, engineers and technologists employed in research institutions in the country, women make up only 14%. With such a low representation, it is no wonder that young girls (or even adults) find themselves dissociated from the sciences. Even those who push past these hurdles to enter the field do not get a welcoming embrace. Despite similar or even better credentials, women are constantly paid lower salaries, given smaller lab spaces, awarded fewer grants and cited fewer times than their male counterparts. Their voices are muted and their contributions ignored. And this is not limited to academia.
Entrepreneurial circles cater to the needs and lifestyles of men as they dominate that space. Women mostly have responsibilities of family and childcare and hence are excluded from these spaces. The system does not make it easy for them to juggle home and work. Dr Srishti Batra (founder, QZense Labs), Dr Aridni Shah (founder, ImmunitoAI) and Dr Shambhavi Naik (founder, CloudKrate Solutions) stress the importance of family support that enabled them to balance work and home life.
Srishti became a mother this year and resumed work 10 days after her delivery. This would not have been possible without the support of her husband, parents and in-laws, each of whom pitched in to take care of the newest member of the family. She believes “the biggest barrier for a woman entering the entrepreneurial field is lack of family support.”
Shambhavi has also been extremely lucky in this department. Holding her six-month-old baby in her lap during the interview, Shambhavi told me the story of how a stern, but encouraging talking-to from her dad about being financially independent, even when her husband was earning well, was the “swift kick in the butt she needed to get her company off the ground”.
Dr Srishti Batra (left) and Rubal Chib (right) found QZense Labs which offers an IoT solution for fresh food quality assessment and management.
Trisha Chatterjee and Aridni Shah have founded immunitoAI, which is an artifiial intelligence-powered Antibody Discovery company.
Aridni recounts how encouragement from her husband was key to her starting a business.
Women’s professional growth is usually affected by lack of childcare facilities, exclusion from networking events outside of working hours, gender bias and workplace harassment and a general dismissive attitude towards them. The victims might be only women, but the repercussions of their exclusion are felt by everyone.
Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by heads of different countries showed that women-led countries had significantly better outcomes and half as many deaths on average, as compared to those led by men. This was attributed to the fact that women leaders showed more willingness to listen to diverse voices and incorporated suggestions from experts when formulating their strategies. With a gender balanced staff and a majority of women led departments, qZense sets a great example for a diverse and inclusive enterprise. These ratios happened organically, clearly demonstrating that hiring and promoting women is not something to be mandated but celebrated.
A great example is the invention of sanitary belt by Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner in 1957, long before disposable pads entered the scene. The belt was used to keep the cloth pad in place and prevented blood from leaking and staining garments. I cannot think of a man coming up with such a product, simply because they don’t have the need for it.
Despite the wealth of benefits that come with female leadership, somehow, their presence is still not accepted in the business world. An experiment done by researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that most investors preferred to invest in a pitch presented by a male voice. Carol A Nacy, founder of Sequella, Inc., a pharmaceutical company, recounts in this Atlantic article, how on many occasions, ideas explained by her have not inspired confidence in male venture capitalists, but the same words repeated by her male colleague resulted in happy and satisfied faces.
Renuka speaks from experience when she says that “if it takes X effort for a man to earn trust, a woman might have to do 1.5 times of that.”
Romita, who founded iHeal HealthTech Pvt Ltd, faced hurdles at multiple stages, including from her parents who were ‘ashamed of her leaving a job to start a business’, to seeing biased behaviour from investors. In an email interaction, she said, “I have seen investors question women entrepreneurs about the future of their businesses if they decide to marry or become a mother.”
She has also seen employees questioning her abilities but has managed to turn them around through her work. Shambhavi says “she never experienced blatant gender bias. But there are benefits to having a male co-founder to deal with situations populated by men.”
Romita Ghosh has established four successful companies in the last 15 years, including iHeal HealthTech Pvt Ltd
The team at immunitoAI
About her experience of getting funding, Srishti says, “I think acquiring funding, in general, is very hard. But it is difficult to find out if gender bias played any role. More often than not, an investor is just looking for a good business.”
Srishti believes that women-led companies could benefit from more female venture capitalists, so that they have someone who understands their point of view.
One of the strategies that has worked for Renuka in convincing VCs to invest is to include them in the scientific process from the first day, even before she actually needed the funds, instead of bombarding them with dense technical data all at once.
A common thread among these trailblazing entrepreneurs is the initial support they received from different sources, giving them room to make mistakes and learn from them. Srishti and Aridni met their respective co-founders at Entrepreneur First, which not only facilitated their collaboration, but also provided them with a starter fund. Shambhavi was selected for the first ever iteration of the IIMB-Goldman Sach’s Woman Start up Programme at NSRCEL, which provided her with a stipend and valuable mentorship that helped launch her company.
These women are only five out of the small but growing pool of brilliant women entrepreneurs in the country. Surely, the world needs to know about them. “We need to highlight more women entrepreneurs running small businesses. I do not know if I want a Rs 100-crore company. But I want to make CloudKrate sustainable, help the community and take care of my child. I want to run my business on a small scale and be happy. That is something the business community needs to celebrate,” says Shambhavi.
To those women who aspire to be an entrepreneur, but are held back by barriers, Srishti says, “Whenever in doubt, just take that first step. And once you do, you will find an ocean of opportunities before you.”