Key success factors of women entrepreneurs in Indian startups

Key success factors of women entrepreneurs in Indian startups
The spotlight has been on women entrepreneurs in India recently. Women-led new age startups have been the toast of the town, such as LimeRoad by Suchi Mukherjee, Sheroes by Sairee Chahal, Zivame by Richa Kar, YourStory by Shraddha Sharma, Wedmegood by Mehak Shahani and mydala by Anisha Singh to name a few. Studies have pronounced a 50 per cent growth in women entrepreneurs in just one year, and accolades have been pouring in on women entrepreneurs for their new found successes in the world of business.

Before we get carried away with this polite applause, think again! The phenomenon of women entrepreneurship in India is not new. Look around. You might not see too many in the stratosphere of Kiran Mazumdar Shaw but you will see no dearth of women entrepreneurs in lifestyle businesses like beauty, fashion, gems & jewels, education, food, logistics, social enterprises. They have just been outside the radar of the new-age definition of startup entrepreneurs.

So what’s new? The fact that women in India are ready to play a new game in business: The game of big, scalable startups funded by private investors.
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Let me be clear at the outset. I do not differentiate between the different kind of women entrepreneurs. I believe any woman in business faces the same challenges and is driven by the same entrepreneurial spirit. The difference lies in the sport they choose among the vast selection in business – and that decides the rules of the game. Here’s my Hi-5 to women preparing to grow and build in this new arena.

Pick the sport & master the rules

While local lifestyle businesses can be played as an individual sport – the neighbourhood boutique, the local beauty parlour, the customized jewelry designer – the startup business built on funding from venture capitalists is totally different. This is a competitive team sport. Played on a large playing field. And women in India are ready to break through the old boys’ network to make their mark here. They just need to be clear about the sport they are picking and be the best in it. Understand that this is a game of scale. This is a game where the VC enters only to exit – at a profit. These cannot be played like a lifestyle or family-based business.

According to The emergence of the Millipreneurs a recent report by BNP Paribas, worldwide women entrepreneurs are a little more successful today as they are more ambitious than their male counterparts. In India’s bounding startup ecosystem, women entrepreneurs could learn from this and pursue larger than life goals without fear. And to do so successfully, women must reinvent themselves and break out of the typecast accorded to them.

Get off the emotional roller-coaster
Simply put, a VC-funded business is a game played from the head, not heart. Yes, of course passion is important. But if I was to put a weightage to it, I would say building a successful business in 30% Passion and 70% hardcore numbers.

I have accompanied several women startup founders to their meetings with investors and VCs. Having witnessed the discussion as a silent observer, I truly believe we undersell ourselves, and do not do justice to our potential. My tip to them: Get over the shyness! Don’t trip over your emotional story. Be a consummate professional. It takes just a few simple steps, to achieve a metamorphosis from a timid chrysalis to a self-assured butterfly who can hold her own in the colossal arena of big business.

Project your confidence
Even the most hardened male entrepreneur admits to nervousness while pitching to investors. It’s only normal. The trick is to project an image of confidence. And this can be done by doing your homework. Just as you practice pitches to win new business, you need to perfect the pitch to investors and VCs.

In a KPMG report Women Entrepreneurs: Passion, Purpose, Perseverence, a whopping 83 percent of women entrepreneurs ranked self-confidence as a must have trait for successful leadership. Confidence goes hand in hand with risk taking, enabling the bold decisions, deemed necessary in today’s disruptive environment.

Speak the language
Big business has a certain innate and unchanging dialect. You need to master this language.

No matter what your weakness, be it finance or technology or anything else, get over with it. Get comfortable with “valuation” and “share of wallet”. Lead and participate in a smooth dialogue on cash flows, income projections, budgeting, cost efficiencies, risk analysis, financial modeling and even digital transformation. Take a colleague/advisor along if necessary to these meetings.

A Deloitte report recently pointed out that despite being more responsible borrowers, women face higher barriers in accessing capital. This disparity is the result of a complex interaction of factors, including the way private equity works, the way financial institutions operate, and the behavior of women themselves.

Yes, the financial system needs to change its bias, but women themselves need to blaze through this bias by mastering the game themselves. So, test yourself, over and over again, take feedback, make the necessary changes. And at that all important meeting, lead the discussion and break the typecast!

Learn to network
Last but definitely not the least, you need to remember that to be successful at scale, you need to go beyond your own resources. Networking can get you access to knowledge, opportunities, capital, mentorship, even other startups that you can partner with in the ecosystem. Ever wonder why all the IIT and IIM graduates seem to do so well? Is it just the magic of their curriculum or their brains? Not to undermine either, the third big factor is their ready access to a core group – a strong alumni network.

In India, women have traditionally been the window to the extended family or the neighbourhood community. Yet, in business, I have often met women entrepreneurs who confess that they find it difficult to network and think it is a waste of time. My advice to them is, weave that web of influence. Networking does not necessarily imply extending work-hours and neglecting your family. Be smart about it. Leverage your lunch-hour. Take small steps. But do not limit yourself by trying to go it alone. The power of a network can add exponentially to your strength. It is a necessary component of scaling up.

There is heartening support for women entrepreneurs coming in from various directions today. The TiE Special Interest Group for Women Entrepreneurs, TiE Stree Shakti, Girls in Tech programme by Nasscom, the funding of women ventures promised under Standup India, the special focus on women entrepreneurs at an event like The Startup Expo. And the launch of a VC fund focused exclusively on women entrepreneurs. While this is all adding to the momentum, there are miles to go.

The battle of the woman entrepreneur in the Indian startup ecosystem is still herculean as she breaks long held perceptions, cultural biases and typecasts. But it is important that she continues to push past these to chase her dreams. I believe the success factor lies in an important shift in mindset of women themselves: We need to own our destiny. At the end of the day, only we are going to write our future.

(The article is authored by Gita Dang, Founder & Director, Talent Advisory & TiE Delhi-NCR Board Member)

(Image: Thinkstock)