Pallavi Shrivastava, Co-founder and CEO, Progcap
Image: Madhu Kapparath
Pallavi Shrivastava starts the conversation by narrating the ‘untold’ and the ‘other side’ of the story. “If you’re a man, I think you too would have faced some kind of bias,” reckons the co-founder of Progcap, a Google-backed fintech startup that provides working capital to small and medium-sized businesses. The MBA grad from XLRI Jamshedpur continues to underline her take on gender, bias and discrimination. Everybody, she maintains, irrespective of the gender, face some kind of direct or indirect biases. Underlining the omnipresent nature of the problem, Shrivastava tells us how to deal with it. “Realise that you have a choice. You have the power to change the narrative,” she says, adding that merely talking about the bias and ranting are not going to move the needle.
Change happens when one changes the filter, and stays focussed. “After a point, your gender stops to matter,” says the first-generation entrepreneur who was born in Kanpur and brought up across multiple cities due to the transferable nature of her banker father’s job. “I always wanted to run my own venture. This clarity was always there,” says the computer science engineer who reckons her first failure in life was not making it to the IIT. Later on, though, she realised that engineering was not her calling. Shrivastava joined Infy in 2003, and over the next decade dotted her CV with multiple job stints, including ones at Hinduja, World Bank and IFC. With every job, she knew she was preparing herself for the role of a founder.
The roads kept changing, but two things remained constant. First was the intense desire to do what she wanted to do. “I wanted to have a sense of freedom,” she says. The second was to be driven by a mission and a vision. “I wanted to create an impact,” she adds. Making a shift from the corporate sector to the development sector by taking a 60 percent pay cut made it clear that Shrivastava was walking the talk. “In many situations, I’ve been the only woman in a leadership role,” she says, adding that she has never encountered direct biases. “I’ve been very fortunate to have good mentors and bosses,” she underlines. When you’re passionate, and good at your work, the founder reckons, respect comes automatically. Also read: Blissclub: Born out of founder Minu Margeret's passion
Back in 2017, respect somehow got brazenly violated. Shrivastava recounts. She was preparing for her first round of funding, and went to meet a woman VC. “How do you guys know each other?” the funder asked, alluding to the male co-founder. “We are married,” Shrivastava replied. The contours of the meeting changed. “Take my word,” the VC offered her feedback, “you guys will find it hard to get funded.” She explained the reason for rejection. In husband-wife founded startups, the chances of failure are high as the couple can split.
Shrivastava felt devastated. “Nothing shattered us as badly as that conversation,” she recounts. Does having a spouse as co-founder take away the merit of two people coming together and building something, she wondered. “It was very hard hitting,” she recalls. In fact, she did her homework, armed herself with data, went back to the VC and shattered her notion and perception about the failure and divorce rates of couple-led ventures. From the next meeting, Shrivastava started using a disclaimer. “This is how we are related. If you have issues funding a couple, let us know now,” was how she entered into the conversation.
Coming back to ‘gender’ conversations, Shrivastava reckons why women founders must not get distracted. “Right now, there is a larger thing at stake, which is your company and customers,” she says. “You can’t be harping on gender every day now. It’s done. It’s over,” she says. Though she might have encountered some random cases of biases, she never realised it because she was too busy with work. At Progcap, she adds, she has left roles where she only hires women. “Ninety percent of people directly reporting to me are women,” she says. “If I don’t change, then who will,” she adds.
Progcap’s backers, for their part, reckon that Shrivastava and her team have done a commendable job so far. “The founders’ bold and encouraging vision and the unique business model were the triggers to invest,” underlines Manu Rikhye, partner at GrowX Ventures. With the widening of the credit gap over the last few decades, there are various businesses that are focussed on bringing access to formal credit to the underserved. It’s a very interesting opportunity. Progcap, the VC underlines, is seizing this opportunity in a cost-efficient manner, leveraging technology and making the business scalable. Also read: Community capital: Tamanna Dhamija's double engine of Baby Destination and Convosight is running on full steam
Challenges, though, remain. The first one is adapting to an ever-evolving regulatory landscape. Progcap will need to ensure that it’s not only complying with the regulation, but also anticipating the changes in the future. “Operating at a scale would be another challenge, especially now that they are a mid-sized company and has a large asset under management,” points out Rikhye.
Shrivastava talks about the bigger challenge, and opportunity, for budding women entrepreneurs.
“We have immense power, but most of us don’t tap into it,” she says.
“Live in the question rather than always hunting for answers,” she says. The discomfort of being in a question and having the belief that the answer will come helps, she adds. “There will be chaos, there’ll be messiness, but in the end the beauty of what you can do will come out,” she says.
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(This story appears in the 24 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)