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I raise my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. …We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back," Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai once said.

This is an exciting time to be in the field of technology as our economy undergoes a digital transformation. Venture capital funding in India is at an all-time high this year, with startups raising over $12.1 billion in the first six months alone. Despite the challenges of the second wave of covid, we saw as many as 16 startups funded to unicorn status this year, bringing India’s current total to 52 tech unicorns since 2011.

It is also a good time to ask this question: How many of these unicorn startups are led by a woman chief executive officer (CEO)?

The answer? Only one. Nykaa, led by its founder-CEO Falguni Nayar.

We are in 2021, but gender inclusiveness, both globally and domestically, still needs much work. While India holds the distinction of hosting the world’s third-largest startup ecosystem, only five of the 52 current tech unicorns have female co-founders. The country’s startup landscape does not have adequate women’s representation and we have a long way to go before we reach a level playing field.

Consider the funding bias. It is now well established that women entrepreneurs struggle to raise funds for their ventures. According to a study by Kauffman Fellows in the US, the funds raised in 2018 alone by all-male founding teams exceeded the amount raised by female founding teams over the past 19 years combined. Nothing much has changed to close this gap.

When it comes to funding, women face extra scrutiny, often beyond what their business plans would justify. There is an unconscious bias that female founders are typically subjected to, especially if they are the venture’s prime mover or CEO. Between January 2018 and June 2020, female CEO-led startups received less than 1.5% of the total money raised by startups in India. Social and cultural biases also make it harder for women to embrace the rigours of entrepreneurship.

While we can debate and create policies for conscious discrimination and biases, our real challenge is to remove the embedded, unconscious biases that we tend to exercise without a thought. These play out in significant ways when it comes to funding. As an outcome, women need to work harder to make investors believe in their vision and goals. For the few who manage to get early-stage funding, the challenge is not over. Growth funding, with its dependency on capital networks and access, apart from performance, is often a ‘valley of death’ for female founders.

Then, there’s a problem of lack of support and role models. Entrepreneurship is lonely at its best, but for female founders, it is much worse. Our ecosystem tends to exclude women entrepreneurs from networks of learning, mentorship and access to growth enablers. Inherently, women are pressured into guilt about prioritizing their careers over personal lives. They feel anxious about failing, are ridden with self-doubt, and often find themselves pushing harder to meet their goals. Moreover, most women must succeed at work while being responsible for high standards of family care-giving.

A part-reason for that exclusion is the absence of women leadership networks and adequate role models who have paved the way for others. Women entrepreneurs have fewer success stories to draw inspiration from, fewer networks to tap, and usually lack a positive support system that can nurture and encourage them.

It is time to do something. Even small steps and small victories can create strong ripple effects.

Spark the conversation: Change starts small. It starts by questioning our everyday unconscious biases and creating a dialogue. Let’s ask uncomfortable questions. To make a difference, we need to create awareness, fuel this conversation and start a fire, so to speak.

Create inclusive spaces: We need to create spaces for women where we learn from one another, explore opportunities and tap pools of potential. We need a vibrant community that will support, encourage and champion women entrepreneurs.

Lead by example: Women mentors must play their role well for a sustainable and inclusive future for more women. The pathmakers who have survived the challenges need to set standards for leadership that will make it easier for the next generation of businesswomen to follow.

The emergence of women entrepreneurs might have been slow, but the phenomenon is on a steady rise and we can do more to accelerate it. The pandemic also witnessed a surge of women entrepreneurs in rural India. Equipped with innovative solutions and a drive to be financially independent, they adopted digital solutions.

Encouraging and supporting women entrepreneurs will do the country a better turn than is often assumed. It will have a significant impact on the Indian economy and our society as a whole. Gender inclusivity is about financial independence, and we must enable women not just to earn money, but also generate jobs for others.

In general, too, we need more women at the top for India to benefit from diverse insights and ideas. Our women entrepreneurs today are confident, digitally savvy and determined to succeed. They can be drivers of India’s journey of digital transformation towards a $5 trillion economy.

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