Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

This is me: Indian women founders are taking up space by being unapologetic

An army of new-age founders is scripting a bold story, moving away from the clichéd gender narrative. What's helping them is their valuable higher education, a sizeable corporate stint, and the courage to be unapologetic

Rajiv Singh
Published: Mar 13, 2023 12:58:13 PM IST
Updated: Mar 13, 2023 01:30:27 PM IST

This is me: Indian women founders are taking up space by being unapologetic

New York, December 2017

“When the sharpest words wanna cut me down,
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown ‘em out,
I am brave, I am bruised,
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me…”

When the American musical drama film The Greatest Showman opened in theatres, it garnered lacklustre reviews and a lukewarm response from audiences. Loosely based on the life of PT Barnum, the American showman who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1870s, the movie reportedly had a less than modest collection in the first weekend—$8.8 million. But the aggressive numbers notched up in the subsequent weekend—$15 million—stunned all. In Hollywood, it’s rare for a movie to gather steam after an almost insipid opening. The Greatest Showman, however, was turning out to be an exception. But there was something that had been exceptional from day one: The rousing lyrics of the song ‘This is me’. A work by song-writing and composing duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, ‘This is me’ took the world by storm.

Meanwhile, a year later in India, a young woman from Bharatpur, Rajasthan, was just being who she was. In one of the investment pitches for her maiden entrepreneurial venture in 2018, Ahana Gautam oozed loads of confidence about the business plan and the future of Open Secret, a platform for healthy foods and beverages. The funder, though, didn’t like the swag of the founder. “You are too confident. It’s not good,” was his feedback. The IITian, who went on to complete her MBA from Harvard Business School (HBS), remained unapologetic. “Mushkil se toh confidence sikha hai. Kya problem hai sir (I have learnt it the hard way. What’s your problem)?” she asked.

Ten years before that, in 2008, Shruti, who was studying at an IIT, was furious. She had a problem with one of the popular catchphrases in the hostel: In IIT, there are males, and then there are non-males. Shruti, who goes by her first name, was definitely not okay with the ‘non-male’ bucket. She was a woman, and was angry with the subtle (and not-so subtle) gender biases and innocuous (and insulting) taunts that she encountered.  

And the young woman didn’t hide her anger. She expressed it. At one of the college debate championships that she won, her opponent started acting like a sore loser. He screamed, violently banged his fists on the table, and hurled abuses. Shruti boldly walked up to him and gave him a piece of her mind. “Hey, you’re so hysterical. Maybe it’s your period,” she said with a smile. “If we scream, we get unwanted labels,” she opens her heart out in a candid interview with Forbes India. “People are uncomfortable with angry women,” smiles Shruti, who used her mercurial anger as an escape velocity. “It helped me race ahead and prove others wrong,” reckons the young woman who co-founded a B2B wholesale platform for FMCG—ApnaKlub—in 2020, and went on to add a long list of backers, including Tiger Global, TrueScale Capital, ICMG Partners, Flourish Ventures, Sequoia India’s Surge, Blume Ventures and Whiteboard Capital.

Anger alone, though, didn’t help Shruti fly. Other powerful sentiments too played their part. “Mission, vision, passion, impact, freedom, empathy, power, confidence, conviction…” are some of the emotions, and words, that not only propelled Shruti to be fearless in the pursuit of her dream but are also shaping the destiny of an increasingly large number of new-age women founders who are starting up and scripting a story.

Also read: Delve into how 11 women founders are breaking the barriers of capital, mentors and a supportive ecosystem

Interestingly, the story doesn’t follow a clichéd gender narrative. That’s why all the women founders that Forbes India interacted with for this special edition don’t want to be addressed as ‘women founders’. They are born with gender, but all want to be known by what they have achieved. Another common trait among all these entrepreneurs, especially the co-founders, is that they also happen to be the CEO. “I am CEO and co-founder,” said Fitbudd’s Saumya Mittal when she introduced herself to this writer. “I proudly wear the CEO badge,” she added.

So is being co-founder and CEO a big deal? Yes, especially when one puts a context to it. Five or seven years ago, most of the women co-founders had something ‘extra’ in the form of COO, CMO, CFO, CTO, CPO, CRO…but it was rarest of rare to find a co-founder and CEO. But now things are changing. Tamanna Dhamija, who co-founded Baby Destination and Convosight with her husband, epitomises the shift. During the formative years of her entrepreneurial journey—Baby Destination started towards the end of 2016—she used to introduce herself as a co-founder. “Now I am CEO and co-founder,” she says, adding that she always unofficially played the role of CEO. “But there’s one captain, and it has to be the CEO,” she says, adding that women have to be confident in their own skin.    

  Forbes India brings you 11 inspiring tales of founders who are boldly charting their own course. Now, will they end up putting up a great or one the greatest shows is an open-ended question. But what matters most is the fact that the founders are proudly putting up a show that has caught the attention of everybody—VCs, consumers, naysayers, critics, analysts and believers. What unites the founders is the passion to succeed and the mission, which can be summed up by the chartbuster ‘This is me…’
“Look out ‘cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.”

(This story appears in the 24 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)