She’s 27 and the co-founder of a South-East Asia focused fashion startup that’s within touching distance of becoming a unicorn, or a company privately valued at $1 billion or more. Ankiti Bose is indeed rare. Not just because of her age or the fact that she chose to look outwards rather than at the 1-billion-plus opportunity of an Indian market. It’s also her gender. Women founders seldom have access to that kind of capital and opportunity. In general, across the startup world, women founders are few and far between. Of the 239 venture capital-backed startups around the world worth $1 billion or more, only 23 have a woman founder, according to 2018 data from US-based research firm PitchBook. In India, nine startups turned unicorn last year, but not one had a woman in charge. India is the world’s third-largest startup ecosystem after the US and China, but there is no data on how much of the billions raised in funding went to women-led startups. In the US, just 2.2% of venture capital went to women-led startups, say reports.
Unicorns capture headlines, but most Indian founders are building medium-sized businesses, thirsty for capital to scale. It’s even harder for women to raise funding and excel, especially if they don’t come from a place of privilege. Proven capability and competence are the basis of building investor confidence, but the barriers are higher for women—apart from family opposition and social environment, women rarely have assets in their name to fund their ideas. It is harder for women in areas such as deep tech or infrastructure, outside of “traditionally feminine" areas such as fashion and children’s products.
However, investors don’t really have anything against women founders. They’re just conditioned to back men. On average, a woman founder with a comparable idea raises about a quarter of the funding a male founder does despite studies showing that women founders outperform male peers by more than 60% in creating value for investors. It doesn’t help that venture capital firms are overwhelmingly male. As Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a community platform for women, puts it: “Male founders are funded on potential, women founders on reality."
The rise in the number of women founders is encouraging, but the growth isn’t necessarily a sign of venture capitalists backing them. The lack of opportunity for women often turns them into entrepreneurs: fewer jobs, unsafe or inflexible workplaces, or hitting the “glass ceiling" force women to set up boutique businesses or startups to fix their own terms of work. In the past two years, inclusivity and diversity have been discussed, and the #MeToo movement has been a conversation starter. In the US, a group of women venture capitalists, tired of status quo, have started Femalefounder.org to back women in business. There are similar efforts in India. One solution could be the government’s startup policies that encourage investment in women-led firms. Communities of women founders and funders who support and guide each other are essential, but there is the danger of getting hemmed in as a “woman founder" or “woman investor." Events to promote female entrepreneurship tend to be all-women affairs—a sort of grouping of the converted addressing the converted. This isn’t entirely a women’s movement. To create a system that is welcoming of businesses led by women, men have to be allies.