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ET Women’s Forum: ‘She-preneurs ask for more permission, men for more forgiveness’

VC Circle
February 21, 2022

The Economic Times Women’s Forum 2019 took forward the mission that it launched last year — to collaboratively and urgently build a sustainable culture of empowering India’s half a billion women — through a scintillating day of conversations and debates about encouraging greater participation and reducing gender inequality in every sphere of life, work, and play.

The march of women into India’s entrepreneurial space is underway, but more opportunities, greater self belief and a higher number of role models are required for their growth in this sector, industry captains said at the ET Women’s Forum.

Sudhir Sethi, founder of venture capital firm Chiratae Ventures, said that 14% of the founders of companies it has invested in are women. Two years earlier it was 9%. Saloni Malhotra, vice-president of Invest India, a partly state-owned investment promotion and facilitation agency, said 65% of the workforce is women.

Anjana Reddy, CEO of Bengaluru-based fashion startup Universal Sportsbiz, said 60% of the company’s leadership team consists of women. Priyanka Gill, founder of POPxo, a digital media startup for women, said 65% of its top managers are women. Chiratae is an investor in POPxo.

While the speakers agreed the overall numbers of women leaders in the sector needed to grow, success wasn’t skewed to gender per se.

“I don’t think it’s gender but DNA, conditioning and how you are built,” said Gill.

Nor did it specifically influence funding, said Sethi. “Capital will run after competence. If there is some affirmative action required, it must be the food chain which is early on, not at this stage,” he said.

“When we set up BPOs and KPOs in small towns and villages, we used to get 100% resonance from women sometimes. Once we did it for three years, we would see men applying for the jobs, because then they considered it to be a stable, good option to work in those areas,” said Malhotra.

“Scale is important. Scale is something you have to love, enjoy and live with since this is a venture-funded game. You have lovely investors who want to back you but they also want their return on investment,” said Gill, whose platform has 39 million monthly active users. Her aim is to eventually take it up to 100 million.

But there are issues in the very prerequisites of entrepreneurial success: self belief and conditioning, said the speakers.

“The stereotype that I see: Women ask for more permission; men ask for more forgiveness. That’s what changes the game a lot,” said Malhotra, adding men and women still sometimes have different approaches to challenging tasks.

Sethi recalled a woman employee who, when offered a promotion, questioned if she was really “capable” for the post. A woman Gill had offered the post of product head, declined it because she didn’t have prior experience. The paucity of role models is an issue.

“I don’t think we have too many women role models to look up to. There are a lot of issues that women in general face that a guy in the room just doesn’t understand,” said Reddy.

“Female founders and CEOs build companies when women feel supported, encouraged and they are given space to grow. Change actually happens when male founders and CEOs do the same,” said Gill.

But that’s changing too. “For domestic and international investors, their focus on gender diversity within the firm is very high, which is good and brings the recognition to a higher level,” said Sethi.