Towards Gender Neutral Entrepreneurship: Insights From Our Portfolio Companies!

Entrepreneurship in India is difficult for women, according to some statistics. The six economic census (2013) revealed that only 14% of Indian businesses are run by women; most of these operate on a small scale and are self financed by the entrepreneurs. Several indices also highlight the low participation of women in entrepreneurship. The Female Entrepreneurship Index (2015) places India on rank 70, out of 77 nations, in terms of the entrepreneurial environment, ecosystem support, and women’s entrepreneurial aspirations. The Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (2017) draws mainly on the percentage of business ownership in a country; India ranks 49 among 54 nations on this index.

These metrics trouble us. At CIIE, we have witnessed some exemplary stories of women who have undertaken the entrepreneurial journey. To make sense of these statistics and identify mechanims for creating stronger and more gender neutral support systems, the marketing team interviewed founders of a few stellar startups associated with CIIE. Our intention was to unravel their experiences and learnings, what it took for them to build their businesses in India, challenges faced, successes celebrated, and their take on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in India.

Disha Singh, the founder of Zouk Bags, began her entrepreneurial journey in 2016. Zouk bags is disrupting the market for traditional bags by bringing Indian handicraft designs and contemporary functionalities. Disha’s experiments with a variety of Indian textiles and modern designs are aimed at the $1 bn Indian millennials bags market. The financial and mentoring support of IIMAvericks programme helped her gain ground while she worked with prototypes. In the backdrop of Zouk Bags gaining traction, Disha believes that women do not need special concessions as entrepreneurs; rather, startups by women need to be taken as seriously as those founded by men.

Siddhi Karnani is co-founder & director of Parvata Foods. Founded in 2013, the startup aims to build a value chain in fruits, vegetables and spices from Sikkim and other states in North East (NE) and East India, thus impacting the farmers in hilly areas by integrating them with main value chain. The company also undertakes processing of produce to make it more amenable for a variety of uses. Siddhi and her co-founder, Anurag Agarwal, fondly recall her days of coaching by Prof. Sunil Handa and mentoring with CIIE team members. Sharing her experiences of working in rural environments, Siddhi highlights the difficulties of convincing farmers resistant to new ideas. This could hint at the low acceptance of women as entrepreneurs and business owners in various parts of the country.

Neha Juneja is the co-founder & CEO of Greenway Appliances that engages in designing and marketing efficient cooking solutions for rural households. Greenway was founded with the objective to serve rural consumers with high performance and affordable solutions for their energy needs. Their first product — Greenway Smart Stove — is the modern replacement for a traditional mud stove, saving 65% fuel and emitting 70% less smoke, thus enabling healthier, happier kitchens. Greenway also works to build market based distribution networks that are cost efficient and provide for high service efficacy. Neha considers India to be a pro-woman nation. While she believes that entrepreneurship gives a woman ‘the freedom to be’, she quickly adds the need for more women in positions of responsibility where they can influence work, culture and society. Reflecting on her journey, Neha asserts “Having a separate tag as a woman entrepreneur is incorrect. Entrepreneur first and gender later”.

Building on the statistics from the economic census, The Government of India has recently announced various programmes to incentise women to undertake entrepreneurship. The Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises Development Organisation (MSME-DO) are conducting various programmes like Entrepreneurship Development Programmes (EDPs) to help and encourage potential women entrepreneur. A special prize to “Outstanding Women Entrepreneur” of the year is being given to recognize achievements made by and to provide incentives to women entrepreneurs.

A common theme unraveled in our conversations with the three entrepreneurs –the need for equality or equal treatment as entrepreneurs. The research team at CIIE actively pursues the subject of gender and entrepreneurship in India. Some of their work, which highlights how entrepreneurs cleverly adopt and integrate the contradictory masculine (i.e. entrepreneur) and feminine (i.e. woman) identities, has been accepted and presented on various national and international platforms. At CIIE, we are committed to building entrepreneurship ecosystems and support mechanisms for equality amongst genders. To put it in Neha’s words, for CIIE, it is Entrepreneur first!