Hotel Lalit Ashok in Bengaluru saw a flurry of activity on Wednesday. It was the second day of ‘Elevate 100’, a two-day event for entrepreneurs organised by the Karnataka government’s Department of Information Technology, Biotechnology and Science &Technology.
While many sharply dressed men formed the audience, they were outnumbered by the women, eagerly waiting for the day’s first session: The Women Entrepreneur Innovation Summit.
The Summit saw eminent women entrepreneurs from Karnataka take the stage and talk about topics like 'Internet of Things', scaling and surging startups, and building a balanced tech industry.
The best parts about the Summit however, weren’t the technical or trade aspects, but the stories of struggle and empowerment. They shed light on a variety of issues women entrepreneurs face: the lack of family support, financial funding, the perception of women being risk averse, the expectation from women in male-dominated fields to be less ‘feminine’, and women’s lack of belief in themselves.
Dare to believe
The Summit opened with Shanti Mohan, the founder of Lets Venture, which connects startups to angel investors.
In a session moderated by Shaili Chopra, founder of She The People, Shanti advised that women entrepreneurs should know when to ask for help, but must be wary of interference.
“Don’t be apologetic about your success,” she urged. “You’re good, believe in yourself. Be comfortable with power and money."
Shanti’s reference to the need for women to believe in themselves found an echo several times in the subsequent panel discussions. This lack of belief, many women entrepreneurs pointed out, was a result of years of conditioning.
For instance, Nivruti Rai, Country Head at Intel India, discussed how people often talk about girls and women as being risk averse. “Girls grow up hearing this and that’s what they start believing,” she said. “If you give me a challenge, and as long as the risk is not death itself, I will dive headfirst into it,” she added to laughter and applause from the audience.
“I also have an issue when someone says that women are not mathematical. Marie Curie was the first person to win two Nobel prizes and she was a scientist,” Nivruti said.
Breaking these stereotypes can be hard. And to help promising women rise above their teething troubles, Nivruti revealed that Intel was planning on investing between $14 million to $20 million in women entrepreneurship ventures. She added that women should look beyond the naysayers, and hold on to people who support them: “Create a network, leverage your network, find people who'll support you & then, go for it!”
Passion, support and innovation
One thing that almost every woman onstage agreed on was that it was ultimately passion which helped drive their initiative to success.
Ranjana Nair, one of the creators of Raybaby, the world's first non-contact breathing and sleep tracker for babies, said, “If you have a burning passion to solve a problem, you'll find the tools and skills to solve it. There was also the desire to create an impact."
Many women who were on Ranjana’s panel – Internet of Things: Women on the next technical revolution – agreed.
Another factor which determined their success was support from their families.
While Rashi Menda, founder of Zapyle, an online fashion store, said that her family’s support was a major factor in her success, Uma Reddy, founder of Hitech Magnetics and Electronics, pitched in with an anecdote on what happened when she asked if she could use one of her parents' properties as collateral to avail a bank loan.
“My mother had a fit! She thought if they give me the property and things don’t work out, what would they do,” Uma recalled.
In a discussion on ‘Scale & Surge: Secrets to growing your startup’, Devaki Yoganand, President of Women Entrepreneurs Karnataka Association (WEKAS) and Rupa Rani of Co-We, an initiative which handholds and trains women business owners, talked about how women’s families often discourage them from setting up their own enterprises.
“This is especially true for women in rural areas. We often have to counsel the women’s families along with them,” Rupa told TNM.
“For this reason, many women also choose to go into conventional enterprises (like sewing and food). They might not get the families’ sanction. And many don’t even have 2,000 rupees to invest themselves,” Devaki said.
Panelists also spoke about breaking the stereotype that women could not innovate. They pointed out, however, that simply having an idea was not enough.
“True innovation is about being alert, iterating your idea well and using technology to create value from it,” Nivruti said.
You can be a woman in a man’s world
Many women participants at the Summit pointed out that in the corporate world, women leaders are often expected to be less feminine. They spoke about how women shouldn’t be forced to hold back if they wanted to dress up.
Nivruti for instance, recounted how during a session at a school, she was shocked to hear the girls say that they didn’t want to work at Intel.
“They said that Intel was a drab and boring place where they wouldn’t have the space to be women. That’s when I realised that I should be myself if I want people to come and work for me. Now, if I want to dress up, or wear bling and go into a meeting, I do. If it distracts someone, it is their problem,” she said.
The need for women to prove themselves is much more in male dominated professions.
Sheelika Ravishankar, who leads Team Indus’ Marketing and Outreach, talked about how in aerospace especially, it is very difficult for a woman to be respected.
“Tech and science are male dominated fields, but aerospace is even more so. I have found that it is much more likely for a mediocre man in the room to be respected than a woman. If you’re a woman, you have to be fast, you have to be brilliant to have the respect you deserve,” she said.
Shantala Bhat, the founder of Gamatics, a platform which allows athletes to create profiles to showcase their achievements, network, and get noticed, pointed out that women need not always try balancing gender norms and their passion. To explain, she said that while many girl athletes show promise when they are younger, they tend to drop out as they get older.
“We need to stop trying to be superwomen. Because that is merely for you to perform and others to spectate and judge your performance. Don’t think that just because you’re a woman athlete or an entrepreneur, you have to take care of the house also. It’s okay if you can’t. Your husband or a man in your house can also pitch in,” Shantala said.