India @70: Revisiting Women Entrepreneurship


In the western world not long back, entrepreneurship was largely a man’s domain. But over the decades the tide shifted and there are very successful women started companies. More than 9 million American firms are owned by women, employing 8 million people and generating  a whopping $1.5 trillion in sales (that’s almost 68% of India’s GDP!), according to 2015 data from National Association of Women Business Owners.

In India, even after seven decades of freedom the situation is far from comforting. Women workers form small percentages of the total workforce and in entrepreneurship, it’s still seen as a `male domain’. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, only 14% business establishments in India are run by women and most of these are small scale industries in what’s seen as women centric enterprises – like tailoring, selling  handicrafts or making and selling confectionery.

And more surprisingly, in the last 25 years there has been only one woman founded company which was listed on the stock exchanges and that’s Kiran Mazumdar Shaw’s Biocon. This doesn’t speak well at all ‘about the ecosystem to encourage women or even steps taken to boost more women entrepreneurs.

Not surprisingly India ranks abysmally low in various global indices on women in labour force or entrepreneurship. India’s Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) for working women is 27%, just a shade better than that of Pakistan and Afghanistan. India ranks 70 out of 77 countries on the Female Entrepreneurship Index (FEI) for 2015. The UK based think tank, FEI is part of the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute (GEDI). And India ranked 49 out of 54 countries in Women Business Ownership index. Even Bangladesh, Uganda and Vietnam have higher percentage of women businesses than India has.

Can a change happen? In today’s technology driven world it’s not difficult for change to happen. There are businesses that can be done close to or at home, offer flexible hours by using technology tools smartly. Even in the hyper active startup world there are plenty of opportunities for women entrepreneurs. In fact there are a few women who are challenging stereotypes and breaking the glass ceiling to become new age business women. These early starters are doing a lot to turn the prism of scrutiny, evaluation and decision-making in the startup investing ecosystem away from gender to business.

But, there’s a long way to go to build gender parity. There are plenty of issues or should we say excuses. There are very few venture funding firms run by women and hence even fewer women are able to get funding. The male dominated investing firms are more concerned about future of businesses started by women — what will happen after marriage, kids — than about going into merit of the idea. Though there is a small change — at least the number of women entrepreneurs looking for funding has gone up. Angel networks in Delhi NCR get about 350 ideas a month seeking angel funding. In 2014 around 5-6% of these were women-led and in 2016 that’s jumped to 14-15%.

These ideas are coming from multiple areas — often what were traditionally thought as male domains —  like drug trials, water, technology, apps, and even fashion and beauty products. Most women founders are below 35 years of age. The good part is that today often it’s not the family that’s averse to the idea of their daughters or wives running businesses but the world outside – mainly investors, business collaborators and so on.

Perhaps that change will come soon. As women entrepreneurs are also battling history: since there are fewer businesses promoted by them, there are also fewer examples of businesses that have scaled up phenomenally. A growing presence of women in jobs across banking, technology, pharma companies etc augurs well for a changing ecosystem that’s looking more at ideas rather than who’s running those.

The need is to change orthodox mindsets. Make it easier for women to access seed and growth capital and build the right support network that encourages women. That includes mentoring opportunities for women to scale their ventures, access to new markets and even how to cope with failure. A lot can be accomplished and today the society should not hide behind lame excuses but encourage women to take up new roles. And stop comparing women led ventures to men led companies. At least now, 70 years after independence, making that small change in thinking will ensure that half the talent is not wasted away.

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