How women find their voice and visibility in startup race – Times of India

One prevailing view in the startup ecosystem is that the bets, business and buzzy work culture are gender agnostic. But the inspiring outlook doesn’t chime with the fact that only a fraction of firms are solely founded or led by women. Various studies, from RBI’s pilot startup survey and think tank Observer Research Foundation’s comprehensive analysis to entrepreneurship rankings, suggest that an industry with a cherished tradition of upending convention and setting new standards hasn’t quite set the pace in female representation, leadership and visibility.
While the general perception is that there’s more support for women to start up — the growing ranks of female co-founders is a heartening trend — certain factors still seem to be limiting their entry or growth. TOI spoke to women entrepreneurs in different stages of the startup journey to understand their challenges and thought process. Their prescriptions, on selling an idea, conflict resolution and tackling implicit or obvious biases, may be particularly helpful to women looking to launch a business at a time when investors have tightened the cash spigot.
Dr Geetha Manjunath, founder and CEO of Niramai, a health-tech startup that uses AI to detect early-stage breast cancer, says some potential investors doubted if she and co-founder Nidhi Mathur could pull it off. “The first two investors liked our idea and signed up. We then made a pitch to several others. While no one overtly stated we were two women founders pursuing it, they noted we were taking on a huge task and they were not sure if we could change the game in three to five years. In a couple of instances, it’s possible gender came into the picture,” says Geetha.
According to studies in the US, women entrepreneurs are likely to face more queries on risks involved in running a venture than men. Geetha suggests founders should address concerns straightaway. “If it’s about the product or business plan, show commitment and explain why you think it works,” she says. “All the concerns may not be strictly valid, but investors assess various factors during the funding process. One worry, not openly expressed, could be: will a female founder maintain the intensity after marriage or a baby? So again, showing commitment is very important.”
Other useful traits: sharing accomplishments and networking. “Women tend to be modest about their achievements; they should speak up. How you respond to investors’ questions is also crucial. Put yourself in their shoes and don’t always react defensively,” she says.
Savitri Bobde, co-founder and COO of Goalwise, an investing platform, calls herself an accidental entrepreneur. She worked with Pratham, a nonprofit, before entering finance, a field, much like many others, dominated by men. She realised early on that establishing an identity as a female startup leader was going to be tough. “Some media reports following our seed funding didn’t even mention me as a co-founder. That was hard to take,” she says.
Her role demands regular interactions with digital heads of mutual fund companies. Often, they ask for Goalwise’s male co-founders, Swapnil Bhaskar and Ankur Choudhary. “I don’t know if this (preference for male managers) is specific to finance or a general thing. Swapnil and Ankur are gender-sensitised and they always tell people to get in touch with me for the matters I handle,” she says. Savitri, too, makes it clear to business representatives that she will be coordinating with them. “But a confrontational approach doesn’t always work, so I also like to handle situations differently by seeking a change in approach from the other person,” she says.
Savitri faced problematic behaviour from a few startup entrepreneurs and would-be investors: “It’s either unwanted attention or being ignored. It’s so prevalent.” Lack of visibility and a voice are among major irritants for female founders. “There were times when VCs indicated setting up a meeting with only male co-founders. In some meetings, they avoided eye contact; basically, no acknowledgement I’m there. Even a few industry figures did this at informal gatherings like a dinner party. It’s upsetting as you work as hard as your colleagues,” she says.
Veteran entrepreneur Meena Ganesh, CEO of home healthcare firm Portea Medical, believes founders must get comfortable handling all aspects of a business, from number-crunching and fundraising to sales conversations. “Investors look for commitment and it’s worthwhile for women to show it. Investors are there for the long haul and want their money spent well,” she says. “When I started up in 2000, I had 15 years of corporate experience. Investors said they were offering funding because I was there. I had a six-month-old baby at the time.”
Meena thinks social conditioning — the emphasis on so-called soft careers — might be limiting women’s entry. “The expectation is for women to have a more predictable career, while a startup journey is the most unsettling thing. This could be one reason why we have fewer women founders and role models,” she says. “If we give gender a reason not to succeed, then we’re doing a lot of disservice to the entire community.”
Meena notes that the kind of ‘cult status’ for startups seen among the young is restricted to men, though the number of women founders has increased in the past five to seven years.
Megha More, co-founder and COO of nutrition-based healthcare startup Truweight, points out that barriers outside the industry are a major factor behind low representation of women in leadership roles. “The industry is generally supportive. But there’s not enough support at the family and society level. Many women entrepreneurs don’t reach a stage where they think about startup funding,” she says. “Girls outperform boys in school. Why don’t they do it later? It’s because most don’t get continuous support to keep moving forward.”
Megha, a topper in school, literally went on a hunger strike to pursue higher studies. She has not encountered deliberate bias or struggled to be heard, but has battled assumptions. “Most of the time, the capabilities I bring to the table is what matters. Though there were a few instances when I was not taken as seriously as my male peers. There are also assumptions that if a startup is run by a man and a woman, the woman must be handling HR and the man finance,” she says.
There are several positives. “Women managers command greater respect and it’s easier for people to connect with them at a personal level. That’s because women build relationships differently than men,” she says.
Working women, however, continue to face different sets of expectations and try to accommodate a schedule that appears to largely suit men. “There’s an expectation that non-business discussions or taking things forward can happen over drinks in the evening. Not that women can’t do that. Since I’ve a young child, I don’t want to indulge in it. Women are expected to make changes, but society doesn’t expect men to make them. Men are not supposed to be home early,” Megha says.
A change in societal attitudes and upbringing can help unlock women’s true potential and encourage more to choose the path of entrepreneurship.


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