Women Entrepreneurs: To be niche – or not to be?

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A CNBC report in February 2017, categorically announced that the stars appear to have aligned for the onset of the ‘golden age for women entrepreneurship’. Their insight came from The CNBC’s Inaugural Upstart 25 list that had 10 ventures that were started by women, in areas as diverse as neuroscience, finance and retail.

Women own 37% of enterprise in the world. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) found that 126 million women were starting new enterprises and almost 98 million were running established businesses that had been in operation for over 3.5 years. Between them, there were 224 million women managing their own enterprises, employing people and contributing to the economy. The GEM report suggested that the women run enterprises outperformed establishments run by their male counterparts. These are compelling numbers for policy makers and economic advisors to sit up and take notice.

Despite the growing trend of women foraying into entrepreneurship, it is yet a long way before any kind of parity can be established between men and women entrepreneurship both in numbers and in eco-system support.The Global Female Entrepreneurship Index (GFEI, 2015) indicates that 61% of the 77 countries considered in their indexing, score less than 50 on 100. India stood at a global rank of 70. As in the case of gender parity at work, wherein India lags at the 113th place out of 135, only 10% of entrepreneurs in India are women. While the challenges of entrepreneurship are the same for men and women at the individual level, at the aggregate level – the numbers make a big difference to ensuring the sustainable ecosystem required to nurture the somewhat different types of businesses that are initiated by men and women.

Consider the case of Ms. Huda Jahani, a woman entrepreneur recognised by President Bush in his United Nations address as an entrepreneur to rekon with. Ms. Huda Janahi, the owner of Global Cargo Services was identified by United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) as a Leader Entrepreneur. Starting out of a tiny office in a middle-east economy and initial capital of 1000 Bahraini Dinars, Huda faced immense challenges in the non-traditional women’s business of Shipping/Cargoo that she had picked for her entrepreneurial venture. She was told that women could not receive a commercial registration to operate in the cargo industry. Post a $3 million merger with the Kuwait cargo company and years of expansion, Huda owns 8 businesses in services, retail, media and manufacturing and is worth $85 million USD. This is just onestory of challenges overcome by an entrepreneur and the pressures that seem to specially inflict women entrepreneurs. Huda’s success story has however, inspired many middle-east women to take the plunge and find resources to start and build their own venture.

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In India, we have home grown examples of stalwart entrepreneurs such as Kiran Mazumdar Shah of Biocon. We have very few examples such as Kiran Mazumdar Shah of Biocon, who have builtsuccessful entrepreneurial ventures in a male dominated traditional industry. As a consequence, successful women entrepreneur’s lists are often dominated by names such as Indira Nooyi and Chanda Kocchar. While these are women leaders of great accomplishment, Ms. Nooyi and Ms. Kocchar are not entrepreneurs in the real sense of the word, who might set the path for women who want to start ventures of their own.There is a severe lack of inspirational women entrepreneurs who can lead the way and help to groom women entrepreneurial leaders in the mainstream industries.

However, women entrepreneurs have evolved in niche sectors with their own quirky brand of unique skills and sensibilities. Some of the early examples of women entrepreneurship were India’s own version of Anita Roddik (Body Shop) that we found in Shanaz Hussain (Shahnaz Hussain’s range of beauty products) and Vandana Luthra of VLCC (the wellness and Beauty giant that operates in 11 countries across the world) whose brands came out as a niche area in an industry largely dominated by large corporations in the mainstream Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector. By not competing with the large commercial establishments head-on, they broke into the mainstream with home-grown and traditional product opportunities.

More recently, we have Suchi Mukherjee (LimeRoad), Richa Kar (Zivame), Shraddha Sharma (Yourstory), Meena Ganesh (Growth Story), Anu Acharya (Mapmygenome) and Shubra Chadda (Chumbak) – just a few names that come up when talking of women entrepreneurs today. LimeRoad, Zivame, Chumbak, Mapmygenome and YourStory are all ventures that began with ideas that could have come only from a woman with her unique sensibilities. Compared to their male counterparts such as Sachin Bansal or Kunal Bahl, women entrepreneurs get recognised only when they outperform and find an exclusive niche for themselves.

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Unique businesses are interesting to investors. However, the investment ecosystem is yet dominated by men. For women entrepreneurs to make it up the start-up cycle and raise the initial growth/risk investment from Angels and Venture Capitalists, they need to have empaths on the other side of the table. In most cases, the investment community largely made up of men who find it both hard as well as uncomfortable to make an objective assessment of unique women centric ventures.

While women have challenges in entering mainstream male dominated industries, unique and women centric businesses are harder to sell and scale as well. Women entrepreneurs hence find it a challenge to enter and grow in both mainstream as well as niche areas. It is time to recognise the need for more women entrepreneurial leaders to inspire, motivate, mentor and support aspiring and fresh women entrepreneurs.

Besides some of the macro-economic reasons for making a concerted effort in supporting women entrepreneurs, it is important to note some reasons why women make great entrepreneurs, differently from men –

  • Women control a large part of household spending and hence women entrepreneurs are likely to understand the consumer perspective quite well.

  • Women are empathetic to consumer and societal needs.

  • Women make great entrepreneurs as they have likely mastered the art of juggling multiple roles. In the context of early stage start-ups requiring nurturing with thinly spread resources, women take the job quite naturally.

  • Women are creative and good at problem solving in their own unique way.

  • Women are good at building long term relationships which is very important to build businesses over the long term.

  • Women bring in work place sensibilities to create better workplace environments for men and women.

  • Women entrepreneurs would employ more women leading to more gender parity at the workplace and improve productivity of the nation.

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Men and women are two sides of our society and any imbalance in their development would lead to lopsided development of the society. Entrepreneurship is no different as a sphere in which to aim for parity and development.

Dr. Srividya Raghavan

Chairperson (IFIM Center of Excellence – Entrepreneurship Development)

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