Minding their own business: Women entrepreneurs in India and their start-up journey

Minding their own business: Women entrepreneurs in India and their start-up journey
In the last couple of years India has seen a massive surge in the number of women starting their own businesses and contributing to the huge economic wave that the country is seeing. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, 14% of business establishments in India are being run by women entrepreneurs. While it’s still a small number, it certainly brings a fresh wind of change where there are many women entrepreneurs starting their own business and building products not just for India but for the world. The data also reveals that most of the women-run companies are small-scale and about 79% of them are self-financed which clearly indicates the amount of challenges and struggles women entrepreneurs face in order to kick start their own company. But there are women, strong women, who are ready to take on any challenge head on, we chatted with a few of them to know what it took for them to build their own business in India.

Bhargavi Rishub from Bangalore started her company Fundamentor five years back. It’s an aptitude development program for kids between 8-15yrs. It uses tools like engaging content, analytics, gamification to help children learn faster. Not only was quitting a cushy, well paying corporate job was the hardest thing to do for Bhargavi but being a women entrepreneur bought on its own challenges, she says, “The biggest challenge that women entrepreneurs face is doubt. The ecosystem doubts their ambition more than their capabilities and that translates into self-doubt for the woman entrepreneur.”

This is where a women’s journey to starting up her business in India starts, doubt. In India, women have to balance between household work and business work. Even more so in the smaller cities, women are often shackled back due to their responsibilities towards their family. Maheima Kapur started her business from the comfort of her home, a startup called Talking street, it helps travellers and foodies experience local food culture by helping them discover the most popular eateries that are frequented by local foodies. As the business grew Maheima realised balancing here work and family became tougher, she says, “one of the biggest challenges that I have faced (and continue to face) has been managing between work and home. In most societies, women are the primary care givers and given that, it has been a tough balance to manage to do justice to my family and my startup. I’m an over-involved mom and I like to be around my babies. But I’m just as passionate about Talking Street. There’s a constant tug-of-war that I deal with between the two.” It’s not just Maheima, most of the women entrepreneur we spoke to listed managing work and home together as their biggest challenge. For most women, roadblock of starting a business starts at home. For Sridevi Arunprakash from Chennai, the biggest challenge was to convince her family about her business, “I am the primary caregiver in the family, so I need the support of my whole family to make this journey more pleasant.” Belonging to a conservative family, it wasn’t easy for Sridevi to get her first set of approvals from within her home. This is where many women in India end their start up journey as they are not able to gain the trust of their own family. Sridevi says “I come from a middle class family I was never allowed to brag and always made to believe whatever I do is not that great.” This level of doubt right from the start makes women susceptible to self doubt, it took so much more power for Sridevi in order to break all the initial inhibitions to start Guvi, an online tech skill accelerator in vernacular languages that helps users to acquire new language skills and learn in their native language.

Once they convince their families and themselves about their new business, they have to start all over again with investors, employees and customers. One of the biggest concerns that was common amongst all the women entrepreneurs we spoke to was how it was so difficult for investors or partners to take them seriously. Amruta Desai, built her social networking site for universities/colleges called Campus Time, a private social network that enables students to connect with everyone at campus and get access to part-time jobs & internships opportunities. It was a tough job for Amruta to convince the investors that she is fully committed and serious about her startup, “Nobody is ready to believe that women have the ability to build a billion dollar tech business. There is this inherent prejudice that women are meant to own tailoring shops, bakeries, eateries, family businesses etc. but not successful tech startups.”

Just like Amruta, many women entrepreneurs feel the same way


The biggest challenge that women face is of not being heard and taken seriously. They have to work much harder than their contemporary men to establish their prominence in the organization. -Bhavjot Kaur, Clinikk Healthcare

Building startup is much more difficult as a woman entrepreneur because it's a long term play and you need investors to believe in you throughout the journey. - Swathi Bavanaka, Evibe Technologies

The biggest challenge that they face is doubt. The ecosystem doubts their ambition more than their capabilities and that translates into self-doubt for the woman entrepreneur. - Bhargavi Risbud, Fundamentor

So why is there a bias against women entrepreneur? Most of the women entrepreneurs think it’s because of the lack of diversity in the ecosystem. Majority of the investment partners in global VCs and angel networks are men, women constitute only about 5%, and these women believe this disparity leads to unconditional bias towards the male entrepreneurs. Tanvi Bhardwaj had to fight hard against the prevalent unsaid bias against women when she started Mishipay, a self checkout technology for retail which allows anyone in the store to pick up an item, scan the barcode on their phone, pay on the phone and just walk out of the door with it. She says “In a country like ours, where the society has been patriarchal for centuries, it is a challenge for women to fight against the very mindset which has clearly defined a woman's role to be confined to the household. The unsaid bais is reflective in the number of women who reach leadership positions as opposed to the number that enter a workplace with a qualified education.”
For Sivareena Sarika founder of PregBuddy, a health monitoring & concierge platform that provides personalised care for women, it was an even bigger challenge convincing the male investors about her business as women’s healthcare has always been a taboo. Sivareena believes encouraging more women partners in VCs and angel networks will help in removing the biggest roadblock for women entrepreneurs, “Investor community is a male-dominant domain, right from the first person who is analyzing your business to the person finalizing the fund, is a male. So investors have an unconditional bias to invest in their own “kind”. Even though women led businesses have shown 12% greater revenue as compared to male led, this unconditional bias still remains among the investors community.”

All of these women entrepreneurs believe diversity in investor community can help women entrepreneurs in a big way. Even though there are multiple challenges for women in starting their own business in India but these women believe there has been a mark change in the start up scene for women in the country in the past 5years. In terms of what India needs to do in order to help women build for the society, almost all the women we spoke to trace it back to education of the girl child.

Kabandi Saikia started her start up journey about four years ago. Her company Omnify is a scheduling and e-commerce platform that provides schedule based services for small businesses. She believes that there has been a positive change in the startup ecosystem of India in the past five years but there is still a long way to go. Kabandi says, “The change needs to come at the grassroots level. We as a society should encourage women for entrepreneurship. I am a big believer of teaching tech (programming) in school so that women can at least have a choice.”

Most of the women also talked about lack of mentors in the startup industry for women entrepreneurs or even big women led start up success stories that can inspire them. Amruta of CampusTime says, “There is a need to create more role models so that it can inspire younger women to take the jump to startup. Cultivate entrepreneurial mindset right from 5th grade.”

Mishipay’s Tanvi too feels “we need to create more awareness about entrepreneurship and existing women entrepreneurs who have achieved success in their fields. There already is some awareness in the big cities, but it is imperative that these success stories reach households in smaller cities and villages as well. Other women should feel inspired and thereby have the courage to step out of the ordinary and do something different.”