In the entrepreneurship ecosystem, only a few intrepid women have managed to overcome the multitude of challenges steeped against them.

A picture of Valli Arunachalam
Voices Opinion Friday, July 01, 2022 - 15:17

Over the past four years, I have been fighting against gender discrimination in my family’s multi-billion dollar business, The Murugappa Group. For generations, the management of the Murugappa family business has been a sons-only bastion. After my father’s passing in 2017, for the first time in the family’s history, a family branch had only female heirs. But despite having a PhD in Nuclear Engineering, work experience of 23 years in Fortune 500 companies, and numerous patents to my credit, I was denied a board seat on the holding company of the Murugappa Group, Ambadi Investments Ltd, a testament to the systemic injustices and biases that women continue to face in corporate India.

In patriarchal families, daughters are often overlooked when it comes to educational and career opportunities, despite their capabilities. They bear the uneven burden of household responsibilities, childcare and eldercare, and are financially dependent on the family. They are groomed to accept the ways of the patriarchy and are ostracised if they dare to be different. For the courageous few that have been able to break these shackles, the road ahead is littered with challenges ranging from public perceptions of women entrepreneurs, to inadequate support structures for juggling family and the enormous pressures that come with entrepreneurship. Again, many of these challenges stem from patriarchal mindsets. This is, indeed, a vicious cycle.

In fact, data from a 2021 study by EMA Partners, a global executive search and leadership advisory firm, revealed a significant gender gap in the leadership ranks of Indian startups. As per the 2020/21 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Study, India has the biggest gender gap amongst the countries analysed in Central and East Asia regions. Only five out of a total of 136 unicorns in the country were founded by women. Furthermore, from 2018 to 2020, India also had the largest increase in this gap, due to very high rates of closures in women-led businesses. So, why is the gender gap so wide, and what can be done to fix it?

An overview of the funding ecosystem shows that there is no dearth of funding schemes, government and non-governmental, available for women entrepreneurs. These schemes cover every sector imaginable, from rural to urban, small businesses to manufacturing enterprises, and agri-business to IT. The loan amounts range anywhere from Rs 50,000 to Rs 20 crore and beyond. However, navigating this funding maze can be daunting for many women, especially for those who need it the most. Often, these women don’t have the support system and the know-how to help them secure the loan.

The Women Entrepreneurship Platform (WEP), a Government of India initiative, and the Consortium of Women Entrepreneurs of India (CWEI), a non-governmental organisation that partners with UN Women and the MSME and rural development ministries, help provide comprehensive support for women entrepreneurs. They are a one-stop shop, covering everything from skills development, problem solving and navigating the funding maze to providing technical, business and research expertise. But despite all this, the statistics on women entrepreneurs remains abysmal.

The underlying reason is that not enough has been done to tackle the elephant in the room, namely, outdated patriarchal mindsets and the consequential social stigmas and practices that stem from it. This is the major impediment that prevents women entrepreneurs from achieving their full potential.

In the entrepreneurship ecosystem, only a few intrepid women have managed to overcome the multitude of challenges steeped against women. Falguni Nayar and Kalpana Saroj are two shining stars that took starkly different pathways to the pinnacle of entrepreneurship. Equipped with educational qualifications from India’s premier management school, IIM Ahmedabad, Falguni Nayar rose to become the managing director of Kotak Investment Banking, and later quit her job to realise her dream of setting up a multi-brand e-commerce platform. The rest is history. She went on to become the first women CEO of an Indian unicorn, Nykaa. The company’s 2021 net worth is a staggering USD 13 billion.

Meanwhile, Kalpana Saroj had no formal education, grew up in the slums, and was married off at the tender age of 12. As a Dalit, she overcame incredible social prejudices, but found a way out of poverty to become India’s first female entrepreneur. In 2006, she took over the reins of Kamani tubes, a Mumbai-based company on the verge of liquidation, and deftly restructured it and brought it back to profit. She engineered her way out from the slums to the millionaire club, and is often described as the ‘original slumdog millionaire’. The stories of both these women are remarkable, and are an attestation of the power of perseverance, hard work and dogged determination.

Building a stronger and more supportive infrastructure that promotes the growth of women business leaders requires long-term commitments to change by the leadership in corporate India and by the government. These commitments must be etched in corporate mission statements, form an integral part of roadmaps, and translate into measurable goals to bring about meaningful change. Corporate changes must be supplemented by legislative changes that fix the systemic socio-economic problems plaguing women entrepreneurs. Existing programs must be re-evaluated periodically, and tweaked to ensure maximum efficacy.

The missing links in outreach programs, especially those to the most marginalised sections of society, must be fixed and monitored by partnering with local panchayats and NGOs. Without these changes and follow-throughs, even the best schemes and business incubators will fall short. Budget 2022 has proposed to set up a panel for venture capital (VC) and private equity firms to frame strategies and suggest appropriate measures to facilitate healthy growth of women’s startups. These initiatives are a good starting point for paving the way forward for millions of women entrepreneurs.

In tandem, the educational curriculum must be periodically updated to include material on gender-sensitivity and female role models. Forums such as inter-school and collegiate invention conventions in partnership with the industry will foster innovative thinking and jumpstart future generations of entrepreneurs.

By flattening these road bumps and paving the road to women’s entrepreneurship, India has tremendous benefits to reap. Numerous studies by internationally reputed firms have highlighted the unique strengths and significant economic benefits that women entrepreneurs bring to the startup ecosystem. According to a 2020 joint report by Bain & Company and Google titled ‘Powering the Economy with Her: Women Entrepreneurship in India’, accelerating the quality and quantity of entrepreneurship among Indian women can generate 150-170 million jobs by 2030, which is more than 25% of the new jobs required for the entire working-age population by then. A more expansive study found that companies led by women CEOs have 14% more female board members than those run by male CEOs. Interestingly, Nykaa, the only Indian unicorn solely started and led by a female founder, has 40% of the board composed of women.

Let’s not forget that a majority of household spending is managed by women. Leveraging their innate understanding of consumer needs and preferences can open up new markets in established businesses as well as in the entrepreneurial landscape. According to a 2018 McKinsey study titled ‘The Power of Parity’, India has the largest opportunity to boost its GDP (USD 770 billion by 2025) by advancing women’s equality. Additionally, a critical mass of women entrepreneurs has the potential to set off a chain reaction that will result in an exponential growth of women in business and women leaders, more inclusive and diverse workforces, happier and more productive work environments, and healthier balance sheets.

There will no doubt be numerous challenges along the way. But governmental and non-governmental organisations, public and private businesses, educators and social workers must all join forces and do it for India’s half a billion women, because they deserve better. In the words of Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the biggest and brightest star in the Indian entrepreneurship highway, “entrepreneurship is about being able to face failure, manage failure and succeed after failing”.

Dr Valli Arunachalam is the daughter of Late MV Murugappan, and is a scion of the multi-billion-dollar family-owned Murugappa Group. She obtained a Ph.D. degree in nuclear engineering from Texas A&M University, went on to have a very rewarding and successful career in Semiconductor Technology, and has numerous patents and research papers to her credit. She is currently a technology consultant. She is very passionate and committed to empowering women, and she is striving to create an ecosystem that nurtures education, opportunities, training & mentorship for girls and women.

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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