Earlier this month, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi trained the spotlight on entrepreneurship among women. At the annual general meeting of the Ficci Ladies Organization (FLO) on 8 April in New Delhi, Modi extolled the virtues of women setting up businesses. His argument: When women begin contributing to the household income, their participation in the decision-making process at home goes up. And that, he explained, is a good thing—both for our gross domestic product and for us to return to our cultural roots, where we honoured women.

But do women have a harder time setting up businesses in India?

Author Rashmi Bansal says there is definitely a bias. “Society now allows a woman to get the best education, but we still do not actively encourage and support women as innovators and entrepreneurs. To innovate, you have to think ‘out of the box’, you have to question what exists. Women are taught to never question the status quo, to be submissive, to maintain harmony in the family. Even the most elite and educated families convey this message in unspoken and unwritten ways." Her latest book, Follow Every Rainbow, tells the stories of how 25 women entrepreneurs built their businesses.

Malvika Rai, FLO president, says a questionnaire-based study conducted by the organization earlier this year found that among the top hurdles women entrepreneurs face are arrangement of finances, shortage of raw materials, lack of technical know-how and education, and family problems.

There are things women looking to set up ventures can and need to do. We spoke to entrepreneurs and mentors for some ideas on how to get started.

Set your house in order

Rohini Dey

“Get a good sense of financial literacy. It’s simple," Sanjeev Asthana, founder and managing partner of Gurgaon-headquartered I-Farms Venture Advisors Pvt. Ltd, said at the meet.

US-based restaurateur Rohini Dey too feels that training yourself in “financial literacy 101" is a must: “Invest in yourself. If you can’t read cash flow and P&L (profit and loss) statements, you don’t belong in that space. You could have an accountant, a lawyer, but unless you understand the basics, sooner or later someone will dupe you."

Piyul Mukherjee, co-founder and director, Quipper Research Pvt. Ltd, feels that in her case gender weighed in on only one decision while setting up the Mumbai-based qualitative market research firm—raising capital. “Perhaps here our gender does play a role. We were reluctant to get seed funding from outside, where the control moves out from our own hands to being answerable to someone else."

Dey, who runs two restaurants called Vermilion in Chicago and New York in the US, adds that if you can speak the language of bankers and investors, it lends credibility when you approach them for funds. “Show them that you’re a solid bet, and people will be happy to bet on you," she says.

Lean in

When Kaku Nakhate first came to the stock market floor in Mumbai in the 1990s, she was one of just seven women in an exchange peopled with hundreds of male brokers. Now, the Bank of America Merrill Lynch India president and country head recalls that she was determined to go from being in a research space to a front-facing, broking role. Her persistence paid off. “People were worried because there weren’t so many women in the stock exchanges then. But eventually everyone supported my decision," says Nakhate.

It is exactly this sort of go-getter attitude that the Bank of America’s Global Ambassadors Program for mentoring women entrepreneurs seeks to develop. “Every time I have wanted something, I have raised my hand for it," Nakhate says.

Bank of America Merril Lynch India president and country head Kaku Nakhate. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

What’s more, there are resources and help out there for the taking. Programmes such as the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women entrepreneurs programme, the Global Ambassadors Program, ASCENT (Accelerating the Scaling-up of Enterprises), Bharti Walmart’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, Google’s Women Entrepreneurs on the Web and organizations such as the Ladies’ Wing of the Indian Merchants’ Chamber and FLO are designed specifically for women.

Arti Singh, senior vice-president, corporate affairs, Bharti Walmart Pvt. Ltd, says, “Bharti Walmart has made it a business imperative to include women entrepreneurs in its supply chain." It even provides structured “on-boarding" and training to women entrepreneurs to initiate them into the company’s processes and systems, so that they become an integral part of the business, she explains.

Believe it, live it

Manisha Rathore of Popup Technologies, Mumbai, had 15 years’ experience in the telecommunications industry when she co-founded the mobile-app developer along with Poornima Phaltankar. It was a risky undertaking, though they had the skill set for the business, and it required very little investment in terms of money and infrastructure.

“App development was a male-centric world. Also, when you develop an app, you have to do it across platforms (Android, iOS, etc.)," says Rathore. Add to that the fact that it is a cut-throat arena where one’s competitors are not just other local developers, but app businesses the world over. “For one and a half years, nothing happened," says Rathore. And then, slowly, they began to get downloads and reviews. Today, they have around 400,000 downloads of their yoga app on Nokia Store alone.

Rathore and Phaltankar used the time when business was slow to understand areas like corporate law. “We were signing these legal documents (without fully understanding them). Then we signed up for a workshop with corporate lawyers that was of great help," says Rathore.

Embrace social media

Food blogger Nisha Madhulika loves to cook Indian vegetarian food. So much so that she would have continued to share her recipes for no monetary compensation. After all, she was blogging and posting cookery videos online way before YouTube offered to partner with her in August 2011.

An accidental entrepreneur, Madhulika was asked to join the YouTube Partner Program when the around 150 videos she had put up till then got more than 15,000 viewers on the free video-hosting platform. She now gets a cut in the ad revenue from her channel on the social networking site.

Technology and social media have lowered the barrier for some to enter business. “The Internet has opened up new opportunities.... We have many examples of how housewives and students are using the Internet to test the waters and follow their passion online—some of them have succeeded to make a business out of it," says David Macdonald, Asia-Pacific head of YouTube content operations. He adds that the Women Entrepreneurs on the Web programme is geared towards helping businesswomen build their online presence, collaborate effectively, connect with customers, promote their organization, and track and optimize their efforts on the Web.

Get your hands dirty

Anita Dongre.
Anita Dongre.

Dongre had help from her siblings, Meena Sehra and Mukesh Sawlani, in the business but chose not to farm out the important decision to find an office space.

She explains: “It’s not about being on the business end of a desk doling out sketches. I (typically) spend 6 hours with the team on the shop floor, doing production, sampling.... I think this is the last time we move office now."

Don’t give up

“It (success) has not come too easily. There were times when I did not get what I wanted, but I was not shy of raising my hand," says Nakhate. She adds that people are now looking for diversity in industry, “more than when we first began our careers". She feels women should take heart, and most importantly, never stop trying.

Samantha Kochhar, managing director, Blossom Kochhar Beauty Products Pvt. Ltd, agrees. “Personally it has been a long and arduous walk to prove to the men that I am equally a businesswoman like them.... (But) once you have proved yourself, the task becomes easier and you are accepted as an equal partner. Today, I discuss business with men with élan and confidence and they accept my viewpoint like they would do for any other person," she says.

“Women in leadership positions do face challenges," says Zarina Mehta, co-founder of UTV Software Communications Ltd. “We are a patriarchal society. For me that makes it more exciting. I love a good challenge."

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