The #MeToo wake-up call for Indian startups
The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, spearheaded by fearless women and some men, has rocked many workplaces across the world. Mint takes a look at what it means for the Indian startup ecosystem
Bengaluru: The #MeToo movement caused many high-profile investors and chief executive to resign. The list of disgraced men, globally, include Justin Caldbeck, Dave McClure, Mike Cagney, Chris Sacca, Marc Canter, Shervin Pishevar, Andy Rubin, Amit Singhal, Steve Jurvetson. The wave of the movement finally engulfed India, prompting calls for change.
Mint put together a roundtable in Bengaluru to discuss if our workplaces have failed women, and also to come up with best practices to deal with such issues. Participants included Meena Ganesh, CEO and managing director, Portea Medical, and a partner at Growth Story; Lakshmi Pratury, founder and CEO, INK; Zainab Bawa, co-founder and CEO, HasGeek; Nandini Vishwanath, director (customer experience), Urban Ladder; and Srinivas Katta, partner, IndusLaw. The discussion was moderated by Mint’s national deals editor Shrija Agrawal. Edited excerpts:
According to a recent survey by venture firm First Capital, more than 50% of the 869 founders surveyed revealed that either they have been or know someone who’s been sexually harassed at the workplace. Could you give us a sense of how inclusive the start-up ecosystem is?
Ganesh: There is no doubt that in India the diversity quotient is quite low. I strongly believe it’s important to create the right culture upfront, set certain standards on what is right behaviour and what is not. In a start-up, where you have very small teams, if you find that something is going wrong with one of the team members, it can be extraordinarily challenging to call it out and take action. It could be challenging for the business itself and threaten its survival. But we’ve had to do that in a number of cases and I’ve never regretted any of those decisions because they were right. We’ve at times had to let go of senior people whose behaviour was not acceptable.
You brought TED to India in 2009 and then went on to curate the INK Conferences a year later. How have you dealt with revelations?
Pratury: We have 500 talks online and if there’s any allegation against any one of the speakers, people come to us and ask: “Are you going to take the talk down?” For something we put three years ago, when we didn’t know anything about the speaker, our first reaction was not to take down the talk. But it’s not just our company, but the entire ecosystem, the fellows, the speakers, the attendees, if they misbehave, what do we do? We are responsible for it. So we think of what kind of announcements we can make before the conferences start, what is the code of conduct, and what is zero tolerance.
Start-ups thrive on co-working spaces and this “contract” or the so-called invisible workforce. As one of the initial set of employees at Urban Ladder, how have you dealt with some of the revelations?
Vishwanath: Most start-ups, including us, didn’t account for those things. It is only in the last four years that we’ve moved beyond the law. We had a situation in our organization, wherein a guy had asked a girl out and she said no and he didn’t take it well. Through the conversations during the investigation, we realized that it could have gone beyond this if the girl had not spoken up. Holding open discussions about it regularly as a practice had led to the girl speaking up about it. During the investigation we found out that the entire team was a little sexist compared with other teams. After that one of our founders took charge and, since then, we have been holding these closed-door sensitization conversations.
You co-founded HasGeek. How easy or challenging has it been as you have been deconstructing this whole “women in tech” paradigm?
Bawa: Very often I have said that my co-founder, who’s a man, is far more gender sensitive than I am. I don’t necessarily believe that women are the only solution to women’s problems. The question we need to ask ourselves is why is “me too” suddenly coming up. It’s because there is no safe space to go and report it. Many a time, the HR that deals with these issues, they don’t want to confront these problems. It is very clear that the systems at organizations are broken and there is no safe space to report such incidents, which is why “me too” is getting so amplified. Currently it is just a collection of people coming up and saying I also got harassed.
If you were to give the good, bad and the ugly emerging out of the MeToo movement, what would that be?
Katta: The really nice part is that a lot of the allegations that are coming out do not appear to be motivated by money or settlement. If one’s motivation is money or settlement, one would have done it privately and not made it public. The moment you make it public, the scope of a settlement is gone and it is important that these matters are taken to their logical conclusion—proven innocent or guilty. Some guilty guys must go to jail, of course where there is a criminal offence committed. If these matters are not taken to their logical conclusion, this movement might cause more harm than good. The worst outcome in my view is organizations hesitating to hire women.
Start-ups are assessed on valuations, funding, burn-rate and so on. Why shouldn’t they be judged on the basis of values–inclusion, diversity and non-toxic work culture.
Ganesh: I do not know if there is a measure that you can put in place, I do not know what measure that would be. There are things like employee satisfaction scores and great place to work. Those will never bring out these kind of matters which might be simmering. People may still say it’s a great place to work because many other things are okay, but underneath there are a lot of women who are uncomfortable, unhappy and they do not want to open their mouth for the fear of being labelled as troublemakers. More so, because if they lose their job, they may face many consequences—not only monetary, but they may as well be recalled by their families. As a part of board meetings and conversations as founders, these are things that I always ask about. I would see that are there enough women in the senior leadership team, are you making an effort to bring more women there, what is the kind of attrition that you see in the women population. Those are the metrics that you keep looking at which gives you a sense of what it is. As you go and interact with the team, you also get a sense of how they behave with each other and with the women around. There are things that you can sense, which you then talk about in the board meetings.
Katta: I have a disagreement with you (Meena). It is good to develop frameworks that measure organizations on these counts. There should be legislation that makes us think in this direction. Second, flow of money can be controlled. Investors and funds should start measuring companies on various counts, not just on financial metrics. MeToo is one of the important metrics, but there will be others such as employee satisfaction, number of female workers, how many from rural areas, and how much employment you are creating. Tax breaks based on performance on metrics is also a good way to think about it. The time has come. Maybe it will take us six months to develop sound metrics, maybe two years, but we need to start. I want to go back to the definition of a company that I read a long time back. A company is social organization existing for social good and, incidentally, to make money for its stakeholders.
Netflix’s unique culture document denounces “bro-culture” and says “no brilliant jerks allowed”. If you were to suggest best practises on how you are redefining workspaces, what would they be?
Pratury: In everything we do, we have 50:50 representation. But the funnel for women is not large enough. Second, I want the audience to be 50:50, but it is nearly impossible as women would not spend on themselves for knowledge. Another thing we are looking at is personal development. What does being a leader mean? What is integrity? How do you need to talk to people? One of the biggest shifts for us as an organization is the work on the personal development of the people. Beyond venture capital, we need community capital.
Ganesh: Two levels of changes are required. One, how does the investment community actively ensure that there are more women coming in? The number of women partners in venture capital firms are very few. I see more women in the mid-level. So how do you push that so that women don’t drop out along the way? The second is women founders themselves need a lot more support in getting the confidence that it is possible to be a promoter, to have a voice, to stand up in front of a venture capitalist and negotiate terms.
Vishwanath: When we started off, we did not have a gender sensitization culture or orientation. Now we talk about everything—disability, homosexuality, all kinds of stuff. We need to have power structures essentially including women in power. We have noticed many of the incidents happen during parties, where there is alcohol. So now, before a party starts, we send out a code of conduct. Post the party, for instance, we have encouraged women to get together in smaller groups and have very informal conversations. That has brought out stories. Those open conversations have helped us quell the discomfort and stigma around this topic. We are also forcing that in every (physical) store that we have a 50:50 men to women ratio and supply chain activities do not happen after 9pm.
Bawa: The two solutions that have worked for us is, one, having a peer-to-peer culture. One of the things we do regularly is to have as many women and men review each other’s proposals, that empowers each other in terms of authority. That has worked. So, effectively, having a peer-to-peer culture as a consequence of it enabling people to develop a sense of authority. The final thing is you empower the community.
Katta: To me, the answer is culture. There is no easy solution here. There should be proper sensitization, lots of conversations and education. It is difficult to achieve the culture in short order, but we need to work towards it. If we try to achieve quick solutions, we will fail miserably. We must also understand that we cannot have a culture within start-ups that is very different from the society. Culture has to be developed at all levels, including with an appropriate emphasis in our education system.
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