In India, as in many parts of the world, a woman is considered to be a homemaker first. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2014, Indian women spent an average of 352 minutes per day on unpaid work (men spent 52).
Even in agrarian sections of the country, where women work as hard in the fields as men, they are also expected to manage the home. Women seeking and finding employment in paid jobs outside the home is far from the norm. According to the same WEF report, India’s women make up slightly over a third of the workforce, get paid just over half of what men get for similar work and, on average, earn a quarter of what men do.
Bharati Jacob, co-founder and managing partner of early-stage VC firm Seedfund, believes it’s only a matter of time before we see more women entrepreneurs. “Since the contemporary version of entrepreneurship has a shorter history, it also has fewer women entrepreneurs. For years, we had fewer women engineers than we see now. For years, we had fewer women in businesses than we see today. I have already seen this change over the past 15 years. In the beginning, there were no women entrepreneurs, then we saw a few emerging but with their husbands as business partners and, now, we see women forming partnerships with whoever they think is right for the business.”
As some of these women succeed, they will fill the gap that Jacob sees as the biggest barrier: A lack of role models. “The rise of male entrepreneurship has been due to the role models created by founders of several successful companies; as we see more and more women creating successful enterprises, we will have a greater participation of women. We need to have more women being recognised and felicitated, especially women who overcome many odds to create companies. And these women don’t necessarily have to be leading stock exchange-listed companies.”
Bala Deshpande, senior managing director of venture capital company New Enterprise Associates, puts the problem a little differently. “The issue in India is not so much of discrimination or lack of a conducive environment, but that of lack of a large funnel. If you look at the current lot of entrepreneurs, a number of them are professionals-turned-entrepreneurs. I believe that as the number of women professionals swells so will the number of entrepreneurs.”
Vishakha Mulye, managing director and CEO of specialist alternative assets management company ICICI Venture, believes that change is in progress. “I find changes in the mindset of family-owned business groups wherein the families are encouraging their nextgen female members to join the business. Social perspectives—especially in large urban centres—are also changing. Availability of financing through new initiatives of the Narendra Modi government, such as the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, the proposed SME fund, also has a strong signalling effect.”
Mulye, however, agrees that change is more pronounced at the upper levels of the society, not so much at the middle and lower levels. What gets in the way? “Given India’s strong family-oriented values, it was historically difficult to rebel against your parents’ wishes and walk the unbeaten path. That has changed significantly in many parts, but that has to be the biggest change that has to happen in other parts. Creating the right environment and infrastructure for the education of the girl child will be the most important thing to do in this context.”
Does she see a difference in the way women approach entrepreneurship nowadays? “My perception is that financial services, IT/ITES/ecommerce, life sciences and small- and large-format retail are definitely seeing a surge in women entrepreneurs. I see much younger women than before taking the leap.”
One of the issues women who go to VCs for funding face is that that field is male-dominated.
Jacob, Deshpande and Mulye are among the very women to be reckoned with in the investor community. Mulye says their paltry numbers could increase at a faster pace in a few years “when the talent pool of women managers and entrepreneurs grows from its historically low levels”.
Jacob of Seedfund is more blunt. The gender gap in the VC world, she says, is “partly because of the nascency of the industry, partly because it is not a well-understood industry and substantially because, men feel more comfortable hiring people like themselves”. She adds, “It is very critical to have diversity in the investment decision-making body. A group that has greater diversity of experience—made up of men and women, rural and urban, engineers and non-engineers—will make far better decisions.”
As India grows and affordable technology reduces human labour in agriculture, there will be more migration to towns and cities. PM Narendra Modi’s 100 smart cities plan will give people from rural areas a place to go.
But they need a chance to start business, work hard and make better lives. Any entrepreneurial ecosystem just can’t afford to ignore half the potential entrepreneurs in the country.
Jacob sums it up well. “As our society matures, I hope we create an environment that encourages women to be themselves, to follow their dreams and have a strong belief in their ability. And that we create a more level-playing field for women across all fields. And that we won’t need to celebrate Women’s Day in March or have special articles about women.”
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(This story appears in the 21 August, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)