She Speaks is an original Shenomics’ series of dialogues between leading women from various disciplines on relevant issues pertaining to professional women in India.
As of August 2016, 670 funding deals worth $2 billion had been closed in the year, according to a report by YourStory. However, a mere three percent of this were for companies founded by women entrepreneurs. Approximately 14 percent went into startups with male and female co-founders, while the remaining 83 percent went to those founded by men. Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes and Anshulika Dubey, cofounder of Wishberry, share their fundraising experiences as women entrepreneurs and discuss whether the start-up ecosystem is stacked against women entrepreneurs in a tete-a-tete, moderated by Shonali Advani.
Shonali Advani: Did you come across any biases when you were fundraising?
Anshulika Dubey: Wishberry started four years back, and in 2015 we raised our first seed investment when we had just proven our business model. I wouldn’t say we had to prove ourselves more than male entrepreneurs. However, I do remember once we were interviewed by a female Partner at a Social Impact Fund. After she went through the entire presentation, she said, “It’s great what you have achieved by bootstrapping in the last three years, but what are your plans in life and when will you get married?”
I wanted to walk out when I heard that but I ended up saying that if a man can run a business after marriage, then why can’t I? But if you think this will deter our business I’m happy to sign a bond saying I won’t marry for five years! She started laughing, and said much as we say we can do this and that, women have responsibilities. She then admitted had this business model been presented by a man these questions wouldn’t have arisen. No male investor asked me this. Maybe men can’t voice such concerns because it would be taken against them, but as a woman she could ask because she has been through all of this herself.
But, given the fact we were able to get 44 investors in our angel round, of which 42 were men, maybe this is something very few people have as a bias.
Sairee Chahal: We bring a lot of stereotypes: single founder, near 40, has kids, a business for women. People considered us to be an NGO, and so the big upgrade for us was to be considered a business. We were looked at as a ‘Mahila Business.’ They would think of us as a papad-making kind of a business.
I had a few people tell me to move to the Valley, and find a tech cofounder. With most investors it was a case of “we can’t slot you.” So, for us, it was really a case of finding the right fit. Maybe if we had stuck to traditional VCs, we wouldn’t have gotten this far. We had to carve out our own little niche.
What worked for us is the fact that I’ve been around. Typically women who’ve been in the corporate world and never been in the startup ecosystem are the ones who face a problem. That becomes their first barrier to entry. They are not part of the IIT, venture capital, or the digital entrepreneur club. There is an invisible wall there.
Is there an imbalance in the way women are getting funded in terms of size and frequency?
Sairee: Women are undercapitalized and the rounds are smaller. Let’s say we are kind of a first generation. There aren’t any which are in the unicorn series or many that have made their mark. The ecosystem is learning to do this for the first time. The numbers on a graph point to an upward graph, but in absolute numbers it’s miniscule. Less than 10% of a portfolio’s investment goes to women entrepreneurs. I find we need to stop comparing ourselves to the U.S.; it’s not a good indicator of anything. Why not China, Taiwan, or Russia? They are more comparable to us for macro and cultural reasons.
If I was a 24 year-old woman today from a small town, and I had an idea, I would feel alienated here. There is nothing that says, “welcome”. Everything is alienating. At many conferences – women get one panel, and they talk of women while everyone talks business. Women can talk business too! It gets typified further and further.
Anshulika: I’ve always been confused about this entire issue, whether women don’t get enough opportunities or they don’t push themselves enough. How many women are there like Sairee who are going where she wants to go. I know many women who prioritize family before themselves. The view that I have and the way I’ve grown up is that everything is in your hands.
If you have an investable idea and you have proven your model with a product-market fit, then why won’t an investor not invest? I’ve not seen many women moving towards ideas that are investable. We can count people who are working on cool things, like MapMyGenome by Anu Acharya or MadRat Games with Madhumita Halder and lots of other such women. When someone comes up with an idea that is different, people will take notice. If you keep copying an e-commerce business into different formats, whether you’re from BITs or IITs, man or woman, you won’t be given any attention.
Having said that, take the example of my cofounder, Priyanka, who has been brought up in a typical Mumbai-based Marwari family. All the women on her side of the community have a simple agenda. Go to university and get married. Priyanka didn’t want that for herself so she had to make her position known. How many women end up doing that? I’ve not seen many women standing up for themselves. Women are part of the problem and the solution.
It’s in women’s hands to push their own boundaries. Also this notion of being the perfect wife, mother, daughter – it’s time that we say I want to focus on one thing that I really want to do well and I’ll be less good with the other things. It gives confidence to investors that they won’t bounce just because they are married or have a family.
Are women not coming up with investable ideas or do they not pitch themselves confidently to investors?
Sairee: At a macro level, yes, a lot of women are micro entrepreneurs. But that’s a set of people that is not really out there in the startup ecosystem. They have a different zone to network in; these are not VC investable businesses. But then there’s this genre of first generation entrepreneurs who have quit corporate jobs, and I see a lot of investable ideas. I do see a disconnect between where VCs are, where money is and where these women are. They are not from the ecosystem. They don’t dive in right there and there’s a lack of a network. Even with senior women, unless she has a direct connect with a VC, she can’t raise a big round. An average guy from an IIT or IIM has a better chance. So, between a young founder with less experience, but better pedigree, versus an experienced woman but with less of a network – chances are the woman won’t get funded. The last two years I have seen this happening a lot.
Anshulika: When you spoke of IIT/ IIM guys getting funded, it just struck me, men have a way from college time of making groups and communities that women don’t. So, when men get out of college they already know someone from an IIT or an IIM who can fund them, or is in a VC fund.
Sairee: Networking starts at school. It starts when women have to get married and men have to go to college. It is true these are old boys networks. There is a subtle sexism in place.
Anshulika: Even if boys have a way of networking, who is stopping them from opening the network to women. Probably they don’t see women as those who will stick around.
What is an investable startup? How do you define it today? Because 90% of startups are failing. If that is the case, most copy-paste ideas are being run by men, so it’s not like men have figured out some success formula! Unfortunately, people are not seeing that. That has to shift at some level.
Do we need women investors? Is that a solution to the problem?
Sairee: Having more women across the ecosystem would help, but I think it’s also a question of access. An investor is an investor. In investing, objectivity kicks in. Things are subjective till you are outside the system, till you’re not part of the fraternity. Once you’re in the room, it’s the same play for anyone.
Anshulika: If you show numbers, product-market fit, a growth trajectory, it doesn’t matter.
Do investors understand women-centric businesses?
Sairee: We are one such business. So, for investors to recognize us as a business was good recognition. I guess now that we have cracked certain levels in our society, there are real problems to solve and a market there for things like house-help, day-care etc. These market segments, however, are not traditional in terms of how investment cycles work, unless one can demonstrate more success than an average idea. There is lesser understanding of these categories. How many VCs understand women in the workforce, or the menstrual market? At the same time, I do see some cool investors investing in women-centric ideas, like mobile app Maya (Prime Ventures).
Anshulika: I see all kinds of gender biases. I don’t think we’ve achieved any sort of equality. It’s not just about raising money. It’s about running a company. Employees expect women bosses to be less strict than men. I can see how they deal with a male versus a female boss. If a man puts his point across he is strong headed, but if a woman does it, she is bitchy or has an ego. I have a friend who runs a startup and he doesn’t hire women at all. He says they are a big distraction. I’m saying this living in the most forward city – that is Mumbai.
I had one senior person who left because he felt I couldn’t understand his personal issues. His dad was undergoing some treatment and he couldn’t deliver a report. So, I said you should have told me. He was upset that I did not see he was in the hospital and put in his papers. Was he expecting me to be extremely understanding because I am a woman? Had he had a male boss, this would not have been a discussion.
Sairee: The impression that men are not emotional is untrue. There are many women I meet who are badasses. They are out there, taking charge, they are rolling with the punches. Men are the real softies, and because they are so, they will not admit it. Maybe some do want to put their heart out there but the expectation is so much of a certain kind of role they have to play that they also suffer.
Anshulika: Role expectation in society is as bad for men as it is for women. Women have the option of sitting at home. I can decide whenever I don’t want to work and I’ll have my husband to bank upon.
Is the ecosystem not designed and geared towards women?
Sairee: Leave aside childcare, in most places you won’t have a place to dispose a sanitary towel or have clean bathrooms. Hygiene issues and other such issues don’t get talked about in policy circles. There are also logistical issues; at Hackathons, I see men sprawled across mattresses. I don’t see myself working in such an environment.
What are the few things an ecosystem needs to get women out there?
Sairee: It needs to be more gentle and open. It needs newer engagement formats. Don’t expect people to fit into the template that has always worked. At pitching competitions– don’t be like — “Let’s get shit done, with a bro ninja hacker attitude.” For women who don’t grow up in such environments, it is tough to navigate this bro culture.
Anshulika: Yes, we need different ways to engage and be more gender-sensitized to what a woman needs in a particular forum. Women also have to be smart about going about things. They can’t expect things to work around them, so if the situation does require change they have to act. Be more adaptable and pushy.
It has to happen from both ends – flexibility and adjustment. I think this entire problem cannot be solved at the top level but has to be solved at a family level. All problems start at home in India – mothers cuddling the son and making the daughter work the entire house. The concept of a mamma’s boy has to go out. Women have to stop treating their kids as though they have to protect them forever. It has to start at home also.
Three things women need to change?
Sairee: Amplify efforts. Especially for the ones who are out there and found their roles. Our way of building the other network. Second, think more business. A good business is a good business, and thirdly, think big. That comes from many places. It’s ok to be a badass and fail. The sky won’t fall.
Anshulika: Sairee, how has your journey been? How do you handle house and family?
Sairee: I’ve been married for 15 years. I have a nine-year old daughter, a dog and a father-in-law who doesn’t keep very well. The great thing I did is I set very low expectations of myself with other people. Before we got married I actually sat my husband down and said: “I will always work, I will never cook and three, you don’t need to do anything for my relatives and I won’t for yours.” It was smartest thing I have done and set the bar low on what I was expected to do. It took away the pressure.
Two, I’m a big believer in investing in a support system. I have a driver and a care-taker, and my caretaker has two maids. I’d rather give up a European holiday than pay my staff less. I’d rather not buy any jewelry as I need to have my team with me.
About the Authors
Bhavna Toor is the Founder and CEO of Shenomics, a Mindful Leadership platform for aspiring women. She helps women realize their highest professional aspirations, and believes in daring greatly, leading boldly and living mindfully.
Shonali Advani is a trained journalist, having worked previously with leading publications such as the Economic Times and the Entrepreneur magazine. She is now a freelance writer and startup consultant. When not working, she is dreaming up her next travel destination.