Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?

Women remain a minority in India's private equity and venture capital sectors. But the ones in the game are ensuring opportunities and access to others

Pooja Sarkar
Published: Nov 17, 2021 12:51:54 PM IST
Updated: Nov 29, 2021 03:30:00 PM IST

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?[Clockwise] Harsha Kumar, partner, Lightspeed India; Nupur Garg, founder of WinPE; Anjali Sosale, partner, WaterBridge Ventures; Roshini Bakshi, managing director, PE, Everstone Capital; Alka Goel, founding partner, Alkemi Growth Capital; Lavanya Ashok, partner, Trifecta Capital

How many women can you think of in Indian private equity (PE) and venture capital (VC)? Not the obvious ones like Vani Kola, Renuka Ramnath or Bala Deshpande. We aren’t taking away anything from them; they are the ones who dared long ago. But who’s next? Who are the new ones chasing unicorns, buying real estate or making investments?

Despite reaching out to dozens of funds, only a handful responded. Among them was Abhay Pandey, managing partner at A91 partners, where Ruchi Khajanchi is chief financial officer (CFO); A91 also boasts of 50-50 gender equity. Although there is no denying that women are thriving in India’s PE and VC ecosystem, there is still a long way to go to have an equal ratio—such as A91’s—across the segment.

As one woman fund manager says, “We have a WhatsApp group for women in VC, where we support each other, sometimes share leads to quickly come on board to close deals with us or when we are looking for new hires. But it is just one group, we don’t have a second set yet.” What she means is WhatsApp limits a group to 260 members, and India definitely needs more than those many women in the PE and VC segment.

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?Harsha Kumar, partner, Lightspeed India; Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India

In 2011, Harsha Kumar was in Paris studying at INSEAD and she wanted to pursue product management; VC was not on her radar. She joined Zynga, a gaming company, where she managed global revenues for two of its flagship games. And then she came across ride-hailing company Ola, which was looking for someone who could build products from scratch.

Kumar joined Ola and delivered results. But after a few years, she says, “I realised that I was getting very myopic and I wanted to understand businesses better. I wanted to have a 30,000 feet view of a business and not just the product. How do I do that?” And that’s when Kumar started the journey to find something new. She toggled with the idea of starting up, and met a lot of funds, including Lightspeed Venture Partners India in 2016.

“I remember talking to Bejul [Bejul Somaiya, MD of the fund]. He said, you sound like an investor. That’s when I thought it is the perfect combination and it would allow me to move away from my comfort zone and take risks and give me access to a broader view of businesses,” says Kumar. After all she had worked for companies from their seed stage to becoming fit for public listing. She joined Lightspeed in 2016 as partner.

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?

Within two months, she was working on the B2B ecommerce platform Udaan’s $10 million Series A deal, which was being led by Somaiya. Today Udaan is one of the 72 unicorn in India. Soon, she started leading deals on her own, including Lightspeed’s seed investment of $3.5 million in Setu, a financial infrastructure startup, in April 2019. According to Entracker, a year later, the fund invested nearly $14.5 million in a Series A round of the company. Kumar’s other major investments include GlobalBees, Pocket FM, Endowus, FreshMenu and Teachmint.

In 2020, Lightspeed India raised a $275 million fund, its third dedicated India fund. Kumar is the only woman among its six partners; the firm has 36 employees in India and Southeast Asia, of which 17 are women, making it a rarity among VCs in India with a nearly equal gender ratio.

When asked if she felt discriminated against in a male-dominated industry, Kumar says, “There are barriers, but it’s in my head rather than anywhere else.” She is quick to explain: “In an operating world, if you work well, you will get ahead. But in the world of investing, it takes several years for your investments to prove themselves. Coming to terms with that is what took me time, but I didn’t feel that acceptance was an issue.” There are instances when founders don’t look at women investors and speak to the men sitting next to them. Kumar believes as more women enter the tech space, things will change. “It might sound clichéd, but just being on the job and doing your work well is already a lot, and it demonstrates that you can do it your way in what was traditionally a male-dominated industry,” she adds.

In March, Preqin, a financial data information provider for alternative assets, released a report called ‘Women in Alternative Assets’, which says that globally 20.3 percent of people working in alternative assets are women; with 21.8 percent of VC employees being women, the highest across such classes. But India does not make the cut for women senior employees at VC firms in the top 10 locations as a proportion of total senior employees. They represent nearly 12 percent when it comes to the institutional investment category, and although ranked ninth globally, it is better than other categories. At 23 percent, North America leads the way for female employment in the VC industry.

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?Nupur Garg, founder of WinPE

“Gender diversity is a complex and nuanced challenge that has been precipitated through decades of practices and beliefs, which we also know as gender stereotypes and unconscious bias,” says Nupur Garg, founder of WinPE, a not-for-profit initiative to enhance gender diversity in the investing ecosystem. PE/VC started as an all-male industry, much like many others, but while other industries have seen change, Garg reasons that PE/VC has been held back by notions like men are better at managing finance and the cause-effect cycle of having fewer women in the ecosystem, which leads to fewer women in leadership roles.

Among the reasons that have traditionally been ascribed for lower participation of women in PE/VC are the long working hours and frequent travel. But Lavanya Ashok does not fall into that bucket. While she has spent 16 years in finance and investing, her journey began when she went to Wharton to study economics. She started at Goldman Sachs as an analyst, where she executed multiple transactions spanning equity financing, and mergers and acquisitions. After Goldman she joined in an investing role at SPO Partners, a Silicon Valley hedge fund, where Ashok claims, “I started to fall in love with the process of investing, taking disparate data points, crafting a narrative and building conviction around what makes a great investment.”

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?Lavanya Ashok, partner, Trifecta Capital

She then went to Stanford Graduate School of Business to get an MBA and rejoined Goldman as employee number three in the growth equity investing team in Mumbai. Over the decade, Ashok became managing director for PE. She focussed on investments across sectors, including technology, financial services, consumer, health care and logistics, was responsible for multiple investments and executed over $1 billion in completed exits.

Last October, she joined Trifecta Capital as a general partner. Trifecta Capital is one of the early venture debt funds in India, and last year it started an equity growth fund alongside its existing debt fund. Ashok is responsible for all aspects of its business, which includes working with founding partners Nilesh Kothari and Rahul Khanna on team building, capital formation, investing and portfolio construction, monitoring portfolio companies and delivering returns. During the pandemic, she was part of the lead team that raised nearly ₹1,300 crore for its growth equity fund and officially announced four deals, and is soon signing two or three more.

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?

“My time studying at Stanford and working in Silicon Valley cemented my belief that technology has the power to drive transformation at scale. In a rapidly developing market like India, it can truly democratise access, so I was very keen to contribute to this ecosystem,” she says. While it does get a little better at the top, what about the early days? “In India, I started working with promoter-led companies where, as a woman in my 30s, I was sharing the boardroom mostly with men over two decades my senior. I had to work hard at new ways to be effective, eventually leading our most successful India investment in a family-owned business in South India, and breaking glass ceilings by becoming the youngest MD at Goldman Sachs in Mumbai, a year after the birth of my twin boys.”

The second-order impact of her work has been her ability to attract and retain high quality female talent. Gender gaps persist in VC, says Ashok, with just one in five alternative investment professionals being a woman, and women-led businesses receiving less than 3 percent of global VC investments. “In my current role as partner of a VC fund where I joined as the first woman, I am in a position to effect change and am focussed on multiple aspects, including building diverse teams—my team is 50 percent female—and driving impact through our investee companies, and focusing on advocating for women entrepreneurs to gain access to resources in partnership with multiple organisations,” she says.

While Kumar and Ashok joined existing funds, Alka Goel, who was a partner at McKinsey & Co for over 17 years in New York, decided it was time to return to India and launch an early growth stage fund on her own. While the idea was in her mind since 2008-09, she took the call to return in January 2018.

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?Alka Goel, founding partner, Alkemi Growth Capital; Image: Madhu Kapparath

Goel, who graduated from IIM-Ahmedabad in 2000, joined McKinsey and by 2003-04 moved to its New York office. “And pretty much fell in love with health care,” she says, having launched Alkemi Growth Capital in 2018, a $40 million health care and consumption dedicated fund. “I started some of my projects in health care, and saw the huge impact it has on everyone’s life. I built on the PE background at McKinsey itself, and became a partner quite early at McKinsey.” She also worked on emerging markets like Latin America, India, Southeast Asia, Russia and Turkey. But she always kept track of what was happening in India, and as more data kept surfacing about the buoyancy of Indian markets, she knew she had to move.

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?

She returned to Delhi and started pitching to investors. Some of her early commitments came from clients and people with whom she had interacted with during her McKinsey days. “It was very difficult to raise the fund. And I didn’t imagine it was going to be easy. So I was prepared for it. You really have to go out and cut the noise. Because with all good intent, a lot of people will advise you this is going to be difficult. But you have to get up and share your story every single time without any fear,” says Goel, remembering the rejections that came her way.

To those who are trying to raise money, Goel says, “I think as women, sometimes we take rejection personally. And I was just as excited about every meeting. Despite having been rejected and torn to pieces before, I would just go into another meeting full of confidence.” By the end of it, Goel had met some 1,000 people in nine months to find money for her fund and raised $40 million. Her partner in crime, as she calls it, is Dr Mansi Aggarwal, who is a partner in the firm, and she has a team of investment professionals.

Goel says sourcing deals has not been a problem, as the fund focuses on early-stage investments with a cheque size of $3 million. Its portfolio of companies include women-hygiene-focussed Pee Safe, where it invested $4.2 million in Series A, Meddo Labs, Docquity and HealthCube.

It has been a big learning curve for Goel. “Initially, your first investment, second investment, and the first three months are going very well. And there’s a challenge, and then you get all worried. So it’s really about self-emotion management. Like any other founder, that’s been the biggest challenge I think.”

Nearly 15 months into her investments, Goel is now in the process of launching the second fund of nearly $70-100 million. “It is your story to share. Some people will believe it and some people won’t.”

Data shows that there is direct corelation between women investors leading to investments in more women-led firms. As Garg says, “There are two aspects here. First is the impact on deal sourcing. According to research, 75 percent of investors source through their networks. So diversity in investors means that the deal sourcing becomes more inclusive and broad-based. Some of the more visibly inclusive VC funds claim that their deal pipelines are the broadest and deepest because of their ability to attract a diverse set of entrepreneurs. The second benefit of a gender-balanced team is the ability to not fall victim to a set of gender stereotypes and unconscious biases.”

While gender pay gap exists in every ecosystem, a senior person in the industry says there are firms where the male managing partner takes home most of the carry [performance compensation a fund gets if it exceeds a specific threshold] while the women leaders take home significantly less. Especially with the level of variability that goes into calculating overall compensation. Also, there is a lot of research on how women do not negotiate well when it comes to compensations, increments and promotions.

Agreeing on gender pay gaps, Garg says, “In one of the first workshops we had at WinPE, we focussed on this topic and we had so many registrations that we ended up scheduling three sessions instead of one. In each session, consistently, women noted how they have ignored the importance of asking for their dues.”

While women are breaking into leadership roles in VC, in PE firms the action is far less and sometimes restricted to a few funds.

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?Roshini Bakshi, managing director, PE, Everstone Capital

Roshini Bakshi, managing director for PE at Everstone Capital and one of the rare lateral hires in the ecosystem, ended up at the firm because she evaluated a job closer to her partner’s workplace. When her husband moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, Bakshi, who was then the CEO and managing director of The Walt Disney Co in India, decided to move with him. She ended up receiving a call from Everstone and flew to Singapore to meet Sameer Sain, founder of the firm.

Bakshi, who now calls Singapore her home, joined Everstone in April 2015. She looks after the investing business, and till before the pandemic she used to be in India every six weeks. Most of Everstone’s investments are based in India and the fund has an AUM of $6 billion.

“When I went to meet Sameer, I was honest about the fact that I was based in Jakarta and I was willing to travel. And although I would not be able to base myself in Singapore, but willing to spend more than adequate time there, and he was not fazed at all. To him, it was I think, more important to bring onboard capable people who could get the job done, as opposed to believing they have to be based in a particular location,” says Bakshi. “And I found that visionary.”

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?

The second thing she recalls is how each and every member of the leadership team took time to met her and explained a little about the ethos of the fund and how they build businesses through their platforms and not just invest. And third was, “I had always assumed that PE means you join as an investment banker and you climb the ranks, and it’s very difficult for people from the outside to come in. I was very surprised that Everstone was looking at people outside the industry and willing to bet on them.”

When Bakshi joined, Everstone was in the process of acquiring Modern Foods, the bakery business that was carved out of HUL. As it was a 100 percent acquisition, Bakshi says, “the ability to make something out of it was really in our hands and it was a very complex carve-out”.

Modern Food was part of HUL’s portfolio and what Everstone got were factories and employees, and had to put in place the management to run it as a standalone business. By 2017, it came up with a unified packaging system, branding and common production standards.

“We had to create an all-new product architecture, and define core products, create new segments, including health and wellness, and refine and reduce the 500 SKUs (stock keeping units) to less than 150 initially. So the whole product strategy was redefined,” explains Bakshi. That wasn’t all. When Everstone acquired the brand, nearly 88 percent of the portfolio was just bread, mostly white bread. They had to diversify into healthier alternatives, and change the product mix to muffins, cakes and rusks.

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?

In February 2021, Everstone finally sold Modern Food to Grupo Bimbo and its Indian subsidiary Ready Roti India; Groupo Bimbo is the largest baking company in the world. The financial details of the transaction are not available publicly. For Bakshi it means she has seen a deal’s lifecycle in its entirety.

“I have deep experience in the consumer sector and work on diligence along with colleagues who lead investments, when we look at consumer deals. This is in addition to the work on talent transformation.committee... and I am part of the core ESG committee as well,” explains Bakshi.

When asked about the fact that PE is dominated by the alumni of the IIMs or Ivy League colleges, like her, she says, “I think smart women, talented women—it doesn’t matter what their backgrounds are—are welcome here.” Some of Everstone’s key people are women, as it counts Bhavna Thakur as managing director and head of capital markets, Anahita Medhora as executive director, and Pratibha Jain as its legal head.

While most women in the profession believe they are there due to their merit, there is also the concern that gender equality should not be seen as tokenism. But the questions that crop up often are: Are women doing enough for their own community? What are they doing to enable the system?

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?Anjali Sosale, partner, WaterBridge Ventures; Image: Balaji Gangadharan for Forbes India​

As a partner at WaterBridge Ventures, last year Anjali Sosale introduced Fast Forward, intended to bring speed to seed rounds. The programme promises that all applications for seed funding will receive a response within a week and if they are approved, a term sheet will follow immediately. Fast Forward also brings together 15 VCs from various funds such as Ankur Capital, Enzia, Eximius, Inflection Point, Multiply and Spiral Ventures. While WaterBridge Ventures will be the lead investor with up to $500,000 other VCs pooling in more capital to enable the founders to raise larger and faster scale rounds.

Ankur Capital was founded in 2014 by Rema Subramanian and Ritu Verma to raise a homegrown early-stage VC fund to invest in tech deals focussed on Bharat. This March, Economic Times reported that the fund had raised ₹330 crore ahead of the interim close of the second fund. It had raised its first fund of ₹50 crore in 2017, and has backed 14 companies from its vintage fund. Another fund on the list, Eximius Ventures, a micro VC fund, is founded by Pearl Agarwal, who raised $10 million this March as the first close of its maiden fund. Prior to launching Eximius, Agarwal has worked with investment companies in the UK and the US. She is an active angel investor, with 10 companies in her personal portfolio, including Trell, BluSmart, GroMo and Infeedo.

Forbes India study: Where are the women in Indian PE/VC?

For women founders, Fast Forward gives 100 percent access to a direct partner pitch. “I’ve made sure that what’s in my control is the ability to give opportunity. And that’s something that we’ve done for the ecosystem,” says Sosale, who joined WaterBridge in early 2020. The programme has funded seven women founders.

Sosale joined the investment banking team of EY in 2006. Those were early days for firms like Sequoia, Matrix Partners and Y Combinator in India. She worked in the firm for 10 years, doing growth stage PE deals as well as cross border mergers and acquisitions. During the initial five years she was sector generalist, but since 2012 she was based in Bengaluru and started leading the retail and consumer tech practice. Since Bengaluru began to see the rise of Flipkart, Myntra and Jabong, she quickly put her finger on the ecommerce play and started following the retail and consumer sectors.  

“I spent about three-four years doing that bottom-up. And what that meant was to start meeting Series A and super-early-stage founders, like founders who were looking to raise their first institutional cheque. I literally went from doing $70-500 million deals to doing like five, seven or $10 million deals. And then very organically, in the end of 2016, I got this opportunity to move into the Flipkart group,” says Sosale about her journey. She joined the finance team at Myntra, where her job was to take the accelerator programme of creating brands to 1,617 brands by the end of her journey.

“The idea for the accelerator programme came up from the fact that India didn’t have brands back then. Today we have the word DTC [direct to consumer]. But in 2017, the word DTC wasn’t even coined. And there were no digital-first, ecommerce-friendly brands in the country. That’s the reason we thought we might have to incubate brands, and encourage and educate founders on what a DTC brand is, and that’s the charter I drove for three years at Myntra,” she adds.

Sosale joined WaterBridge as the fund raised its second fund. It has made 16 investments from its first fund of $40 million. The firm invests $250,000 seed money to up to $3 million pre-Series or Series A money. Headquartered in Delhi, it was set up by Manish Khetrapal, who was earlier heading Providence PE in India. In 2009, Sosale had first met Khetrapal while doing an education transaction. Over the years, they crossed paths and did a few more transactions. So when WaterBridge decided in 2019 that it want to open an office in Bengaluru, since half their portfolio was based in the city, Sosale was the perfect choice.

“I think it’s absolutely one of the best times to be part of the early-stage investing ecosystem. And the ambition and vision that we’ve set for ourselves at WaterBridge is what I am excited about,” she says. “I am an absolute newbie in the funds space. But, to be honest, it is important to find the right mentors to guide you through the system, and getting access to them is very important early on. Also, it is the business of learning, so you have to keep learning every day.”

Sosale adds that there is an emerging sisterhood, which doesn’t just support one another, but actively works together and collaborates on deals. “And more of us are coming together. It is still kind of embarrassing that we all still fit into a WhatsApp group.”