Be it founders of startups with handsome turnovers or owners of small and medium enterprises, women face common inflection points in their careers, underlining the importance of creating a robust support system.
Seen at the Bangalore warehouse of NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Services Companies), which is home to an ambitious tech startup programme called 10,000 startups: techies glued to their laptops, furiously typing away or reflecting deeply on their organisational problems. What stands out is the number of women, which is dismal, compared to the number of men on the floor.
“We have about four to five women founders. We also have a programme called Girls in Tech, which focuses on getting more women into startups and technology. We hold hackathons and workshops as part of the programme and get them to become more aware of the opportunities in the tech world,” says Ashok Madaravally, Senior Manager, 10,000 startups.
A look at men and women engineering graduates shows that the mix is almost 50-50 but it is not so when one reviews the startup environment or the tech ecosystem. As they go up in their careers, there are two or three inflection points that move them in another direction, it could be marriage or having kids, he concedes.
The role is wanting in terms of time and the ecosystem doesn’t provide that flexibility. “For example, if you want to work late in the night, there are safety concerns. If you are a new mother, you don’t have facilities to take care of your child. There are several such complexities. Also, it’s got a lot to do with society and how women are brought up. Being part of a startup or the tech community may not seem appealing to many women who would prefer stable corporate jobs,” explains Ashok.
KS Viswanathan, Vice-President of Industry Initiatives, NASSCOM, dismisses societal pressure as a probable reason for the minimal presence of women in the startup environment. Cautious about demeaning what is a natural process, he says, “Women tend to take a break for family reasons, between the ages of 25 and 35.They want to come back and join the technology field at 35 or 40 but the return journey is very tough. Those are the challenges we are facing. It is not societal challenges, not at all,” he says, adding that it is not that the entrepreneurial drive is amiss in women. “Coming back to the mainstream is what they need help with. And lack of help is holding back women entrepreneurs,” he says.
Two or three decades ago, when there were joint families and plenty of support systems, there was not enough entrepreneurship. The need for support systems hasn’t been greater in this day and age, when there are nuclear families and entrepreneurship is growing. “It’s just that men took the lead to be entrepreneurs during the transition, whereas womenfolk are catching up now and we are encouraging them to join in,” says Viswanathan.
Shikha Kapoor, founder of Bangalore-based startup Mysahay, which provides listings for blue collar service providers like drivers and plumbers, says workplaces should also play their part in supporting women in terms of providing child care support. “I have a lot of female friends who have worked with many technology companies, got married, had kids and were very family dependent. Not all families support you. There’s also the question of self-confidence of whether we should leave our jobs and take this risk of building a startup. Women are more naturally entrepreneurial, if they are given the right guidance,” she adds.
Another working mother, Maheima Kapur, Founder CEO of Talking Street, says, “It’s really tough, there are days when I have to manage the home, the kid and work. It would make a lot of difference if workplaces had a creche. My son is three. Earlier, I used to think only about my baby in my spare time. Now I think about my startup. It’s 70:30 or 60:40 division of time. I am constantly figuring out what to do.” The Bangalore-based startup provides an online street food discovery platform.
Parul Gupta, co-founder of one-and-a-half-year-old Slide Rule, an online education startup that helps college and school students learn skills that are in demand, heads one of the fastest growing startups in the city which, in her own words, has a ‘handsome’ turnover. She says the gender gap scenario is not specific to India. “The number of women entrepreneurs in India is comparable to those in the US or the UK. Even in the West, there are fewer women in top ranks in companies and technology,” she says and points out that there is much greater entrepreneurial spirit here, in the form of microenterprises run by women like bakeries, speciality goods in houses produced by women and the workforce in tailoring shops, among other places.
“There are two stages in a woman’s life where support systems are needed the most. First, when she gets married and second, when she goes on maternity leave,” she says. Parul, a mother of a four-year-old, explains that when men and women graduate from college, women are free agents. The resources available to succeed are pretty much equal. But because of societal stereotypes and the roles that she is required to fit into, it becomes tougher to have entrepreneurial pursuits. These resources are much needed at later stages of life because she should be able to handle work away from the workplace.
“I had a lot of friends who had brilliant jobs but had to leave and couldn’t really get back to those positions because they had to relocate to where their husbands were post marriage. I also had a lot of girl cousins who were given an education just to make them confident and not to create a niche for themselves professionally. It is ingrained in them that their primary responsibility is to take care of kids, the household and that family comes first. Your passion is just a side job,” she laments. According to her, the way they choose to measure themselves is also troubling — on whether they are good party hosts or tiger moms, always trying to juggle everything.
When asked why women increasingly choose to do business on the creative side, which are supposedly ‘soft’ while men concentrate on STEM sectors, Parul says, being judgmental or stereotyping them is no answer to the question.“In the apartment I live in, a woman in every third house has left a job that she was excellent at and is craving to do something now. Areas like home decor, handicrafts or other creative areas probably give them the flexibility to do what they want to. There’s nothing wrong with that. But things like startups are cut throat, it’s a do or die affair. It’s far more demanding,” she points out.
Lending support: Mompreneurs India
Chetana Misra, CEO and co-founder of Mompreneurs India, a networking platform for mothers who are entrepreneurs, says she quit her job in 2011 after 13 years in the IT field to take care of her son, Aayaan Misra, now six years old. In 2012, she started her company Logic Sutra, which is into web development and digital marketing. “I was struggling to manage business and family, and was wondering if there are other women who are finding it tough like me, that is when I founded Mompreneurs. A free online network for like-minded Moms, the aim is to create sustainable business for each other,” says Chetana.
Started in 2013, it has 5,000 members in its Facebook group and 5,000 more in another related group called Indian Women’s Club. “We have roughly around 10,000 followers. We organise talks, training sessions and workshops for members in Mumbai and Bangalore. The recent ones were on strategic networking and styling — how to present themselves as an entrepreneur,” she says. One of her immediate goals is to set up a curriculum that will be guided by and cater to the needs of mompreneurs, like, teaching product photography or tools to scale up businesses from small to medium enterprises.
Amrutha Yuvaraj, 34, a Coimbatore-based Mompreneur, is an interior designer by profession, She, along with four other mothers started Belleart furniture. “We design customised furniture, for example, handcrafted teakwood furniture, which is colourful and lively as opposed to delivering ‘templatised’ designs which is what we see in the industry today,” she says.
A mother of two, Sidharth Yuvaraj (6) and Riddhima Yuvaraj (3), Amrutha had taken a break of two years for her first child and decided not to take one for her second child. “Our workshop and studio is in Mumbai. I handle the marketing, sales, client networking and social media connect,” she says, adding that Mompreneurs helped her expand her client base. In a recent exhibition in a Mumbai mall, Belleart exhibited their line of furniture with the help of Mompreneurs and reached out to many a customer.
“I got clients from Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, places which I could not reach out to before. E-commerce firms started calling me up and even Amazon wanted to put up our products on their website,” she says, adding that whenever she has problems with her business, she has a ready reference in the form of this community. “Let’s say I have a problem with logistics, I put it out on the network and people who have been there, done that, help me out with it,” she says.
Asked if men have an advantage over women in taking up entrepreneurship easily, despite being fathers, she says, “For a man, it is a given that he has to earn. He has a singular role of a bread winner. It is acceptable. For a woman, entrepreneurship is seen as more of a hobby and a passion. She needs to prove herself again and again, and justify why she needs to create an identity for herself. At the same time, she has to play multiple roles and be there at all places.”
Perhaps it is the drive to prove themselves that keeps them going day after day. A common thread in their lives is the significance of support systems. A little help from spouses, families and the workplace goes a long way in making women’s entrepreneurial dreams a reality.