The Heiress and The Self-Made: Women Entrepreneurs of India

By April 14, 2016 Gender of Talent

In the past few decades women across the world have taken rapid strides in every field imaginable. Women have held the highest offices in a country and have served with dignity and success. India too has many women Entrepreneurs who have proved their mettle and have taken the whole country by storm. Be it from any background they have risen and given the world a reason to relieve her of the shackles of “Glass –ceiling” and “Sexism”.

Gone are the days when women, even though accepted in the world of commerce, would be stereotyped into a few professions. Women have always been successful in the entertainment and fashion industries for a long time now. Tech is still largely a man’s world and entrepreneurship even more so. But more and more women today are coming out of their homes to play their part in the Innovation Next-Gen economy/business. They swim against the tide to become Technopreneurs like Kiran Majumdar Shaw (CEO of Biocon, India), Neelam Dhawan (MD, Microsoft, India), and Niana Lal Kidwai (head of HSBC in India).

The different types of women Entrepreneurs have interestingly been written in the book- Follow Every Rainbow: Inspiring Stories of 25 Women Entrepreneurs who’s Gentle Touch Created Strong Business by Rashmi Bansal into three types: Lakshmi (entrepreneurs who enlisted family support/heir), Durga (women who overcame hindrances and victimhood and battled hard for success) and Saraswati (educated women entrepreneurs who struck out on their own).

A few examples of women from unconventional backgrounds or family run businesses who made it big themselves are as follows-

  • Nina Lekhi, Founder of bag retail brand Baggit, launched her venture when she was a student at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai. Though she goofed off in her first year, she took design seriously in her second year, and also took up a part-time job in a rug store at the age of 18. She started off with canvas and then synthetic leather; with one shop at Kemp’s Corner and then a nationwide chain featuring innovatively designed bags and accessories.
  • Shikha Sharma, Founder of weight loss classes NutriHealth Systems, grew up in Delhi and studied medicine. She became interested in preventive healthcare and rehabilitation, a huge gap in India. Resisting family pressure to go abroad or get married, she struck out on her own and set up a weight loss clinic. It did not work out, so she tried again with a rental unit in a hospital – and this model succeeded. Eventually she could strike out again, and hired a team of nutritionists and embraced ayurvedic methods. A proud moment was to be one day invited to treat the Prime Minister.
  • Richa Kar had worked with a retailer and global technology company before starting Zivame. As part of her earlier work, she studied the Indian lingerie market and realized that most women were not comfortable shopping for lingerie in brick and mortar stores. She conceptualized Zivame as a lingerie store where women could understand their lingerie needs, browse through styles, order for the right size, and get the goods delivered to their doorstep without any embarrassment.
  • Valerie Wagoner founded ZipDial, a consumer engagement tool for brands, along with Sanjay Swamy and Amiya Pathak in 2010. Her startup capitalized on the missed call phenomenon in India, where phone users give each other missed calls to convey anything from ‘I miss you’ to ‘call me back.’ ZipDial has tie-ups with Facebook and Twitter, and works with over 500 brands.
  • Shubhra Chadda a pretty young lady, who founded an online retail store focused on India themed souvenirs is one of the innovators, who follow their instincts. She founded Chumbak in 2010, although the thought had cropped up even earlier. Shubhra had to travel a lot in her past job and whenever she used to travel different cities, she would return with a fridge magnet. From there began the idea of creating Chumbak, although it took 4-5 years after that too, to get materialized completely.  It was her husband, who finally suggested her in 2010, to grow her idea of fridge magnets into business.

Now let us focus on the “Lakshmi” category of the female entrepreneurs. There is an interesting story there too cause of the increasing trend of family-owned firms being occupied by daughters. While the earlier generation of women from business families got into business mainly due to the lack of male heirs, the newer generation is undeterred by the presence of male siblings. They are passionate to carry forward the legacy while keeping the essence of womanhood alive.

  • Shruti Shibulal’s personal wealth soars above $250 million. And that’s just the published wealth for the 0.64% stake she holds in Infosys, the company from which her father SD Shibulal recently stepped down as CEO and MD. Despite that, the 30-year old has, over the years, created an enviable space for herself in her family office, Innovations Investment Management Ltd, which has interests in hospitality, education, plantations, construction, retail and a wealth of real estate assets in the US and Germany. Her aim is to expand her hospitality brand with projects in Kodaikanal and Alappuzha. She is also planning to set up a city-centric hospitality brand, Lilac based in Bengaluru. A keen foodie, Shruti teamed up with acclaimed chef Abhijit Saha to open two upmarket restaurants in Bengaluru – Fava and Caperberry.
  • Isha Ambani, the only daughter of energy mogul Mukesh Ambani, plunged into the telecom and retail businesses of Reliance Industries Group in October 2014. At 23, it might seem like an intimidating task to take on but those who have observed her at close quarters say Isha is a fast learner. Before joining the boards of Reliance Jio Infocomm and Reliance Retail Ventures, Isha, the spitting image of her father, worked briefly as a business analyst with McKinsey in New York. Both the businesses she has taken charge of are seen as promising bets for the future. A trained pianist, the third-generation Ambani is a Yale University undergrad with double majors in psychology and South Asian studies. Isha first made headlines when at age 16, Forbes ranked her No 2 in the global youngest billionaire heiresses’ list.
  • Lakshmi Venu, 32, is being groomed to helm Sundaram Clayton. They have both been involved in their family businesses, holding critical positions, for just over five years now. Lakshmi was already Director- Strategy, in the rank of MD in Sundaram Clayton before her elevation. The siblings, the company said, would function ‘under the advice and guidance of Venu Srinivasan, chairman and MD, Sundaram Clayton’. A Yale University graduate, Lakshmi also holds a doctorate in engineering management from the University of Warwick.
  • Ananyashree Birla, 21, the daughter of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, took a different path. She had decided in school that she would be a social entrepreneur, a dream she confided in her mother, Neerja Birla.Today she divides her time between Oxford University, where she is studying economics and management, and the Dadar office of Svatantra. Backed by Ananya’s billionaire father, Svatantra has over 20 branches in several districts of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and more than 100 employees. Ananya, the eldest of Birla’s three children, now wants to take Svatantra national and there is no pressure on Ananya to join the clan’s $40 billion carbon black maker-to-cellular operator group.

While a corporate career gives women the financial independence and growth to substantiate her abilities, being an Entrepreneur takes her beyond that and into a world where not only does she get an opportunity to carve a notch for herself but also make a difference. However despite the number slowly growing it still has a long way to go before more and more Indian women can be convinced about the potential that can exploited in having their own start up. What stops them from taking on that journey? Why is it that despite the change in numbers we do not see as many women on the Entrepreneurial map? And whether we like it or not, why do most perceive potential failures for women who do take the plunge? From the Heiress to the Self made all the women face these issues:

  • Traditional Mindsets of family and friends
  • Aggression and assertiveness that is required to get their need across has not been a known characteristic in women.
  • Networking within the Entrepreneurial network to build contacts and win customers is critical, but very few Indian women step out of their comfort zones to do so. If they do socialize, it is limited to the work they need to get done and not to build relationships.
  • Societal expectations that whatever a woman does, she should always prioritize her family over everything else can prove to be a big deterrent for those running their own show.
  • Unfortunately most women lack the shrewdness that is required while dealing with their stakeholders. What also contributes to this absence of behavior is the lack of the ability to say no. Traditionally Indian women have learned to adjust and adapt instead of putting their foot down when necessary and saying NO.
  • In today’s times, probably this is the biggest obstacle for women in India. The security blanket is at its thinnest thus making women hesitate to take on roles that demand long hours and interactions with a world of strangers. The rise of social crime and the need for safety pushes everything down the priority list when there is a demand to spend late hours at getting work going.

The silver lining is that women are so adaptive that they might eventually learn all the dynamics that men possess to run a business successfully. But will men be able to learn the following from this?

  • Perceptive communication: The ability to communicate in any language—verbal or not —is one of women’s most dynamic talents. Women are natural communicators—it’s not just their ability to talk; they are also aware of what others are thinking. In fact, this innate gift applies to all of women’s senses; touch, smell, taste, vision and hearing.
  • Inclusiveness: Women run their companies like a loosely defined “family unit.” They interact with every person in their organization and their suppliers and customers as well.
  • Resourcefulness: Women have the ability to think 360 degrees, not just “outside the box.” They are not held back by conventional rules and management theories which give them an advantage when it involves serious problems.
  • Improvisation: Women improvise all the time, and business is no exception.  By using unconventional methods and thinking up original ideas, they often are able to surprise the competition.

Like Margaret Thatcher said – “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” Some of the startup heroes mentioned in this article do not like to be called “women entrepreneurs”. They find shades of sexism in the gender prefix. But then there are others who wear it with a pride in having carved out a strong base in a man’s world. Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in this world, be it Indian or American, Rich or Poor, Educated or Illiterate. Let’s celebrate her and let her be whatsoever and whosoever she wants to be!!!

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