Female entrepreneurs, experts exchange notes at Fremont conference
Does the branding of a woman-led enterprise reflect the persona of the woman running it? Should one change the business model just because the funders want it?
These and other issues facing Indian women were discussed at the Women Entrepreneur Quest, a day-long conference hosted by India’s Department of Science and Technology, the Anita Borg Institute, Global ScaleUp, Peerbuds, KloudData and Spinta on May 11, in Fremont, California. The event covered a group of 10 India-based young women entrepreneurs on a week-long visit to Silicon Valley.
Dr. Anita Gupta, director and associate head, innovation and entrepreneurship, of the DST, who led the panel spoke of how India’s business ecosystem for startups is evolving and of the government’s role in the process.
“The government can facilitate things to a certain extent, streamlining in terms of policy, ensuring regulatory ease of doing business, and so can help to certain extent. But after that it’s your journey.”
Comparing India with the Silicon Valley she said that while things were streamlined here, in India the process was still building up with a lot needed to be done. Now the government is pushing startups in a big way, she said.
“India is a young economy and we have a huge demographic advantage,” Gupta said, adding that the young talent needed to be properly leveraged to solve the many problems the country faces. “Startups can provide innovative solutions and also at the same time take care of unemployment the country faces,” she said.
Talking to indica on the sidelines of the conference, Gupta said DST has collaborated with the AnitaB.org India, a nonprofit organization focused on the advancement of women in computing and technology. This is the fourth consecutive year it has brought women entrepreneurs in technology to WEQ.
She said these women used technology to reach a large number of people across the country because through leveraging technology one can create great impact.
Asked what challenges these women to face about raising funds and how government supports them, Gupta said, “We have to tackle one problem at a time.”
She then added: “Actually, rather than focusing on big problems India needs to focus on its own people. We can solve our own problems better than people coming from outside… If a startup is nurtured properly they can be big churner of the future jobs.”
Miten Mehta, founder of Spinta Global Accelerator one of the hosts of the conference, told indica, “Frankly speaking, 24 years back when I came to the valley, somebody helped me. That is how we reached here. I don’t think anybody can claim that they have not reached where they are today without someone’s help.”
Mehta, who also is a developer and investor, focuses on the cloud, artificial intelligence and Blockchain platforms, pointed out that women entrepreneurs got only 2 percent of the entire venture capital funding last year, though a new wind is blowing now.
“In the last couple of years things have started improving and concentrated efforts are being made to include women, in senior executive management, venture capital and in startups,” he said. “Both men and the industry [at large] are realizing [the potential of] women. I think that is a start.”
Uttam Kumar Tripathi, head of global programs, DevRel Ecosystems, at Google, and a speaker at the conference, pointed out to Google’s Women Techmakers program as an example of why diversity matters.
“We don’t have enough diversity in tech, gender or racial diversity,” he said, adding that women entrepreneurs also could improve their products by making their community even more inclusive, bringing in people of other cultures and religions. He pointed out how a diverse product team could design a product that would work with far more than the 40 percent that is the norm today.
He said the downside of a monoculture is that it could turn into an echo chamber or a fan club.
“What we want to hear is what’s not working,” he said, “If you are designing a product for rural parts of India, how many times you have been there? How many times in a day are you meeting your user.?If you are not doing that then your products are not going to work.”
Tripathi said feedback was a gift and not something to react defensively to.
Amey Mashelkar, head Jio-GenNext, the startup accelerator program of Reliance Industries who spoke along with Tripathi, told indica he felt things were picking up.
“Half the people who apply to us [for funding] are women entrepreneur for our program,” he said. “We are working very closely with women-led firms, especially in the technology space, I hope it will get even better.”
The most interactive session was one in which women got advice from Silicon Valley-based Indian entrepreneurs.
June Manley, a founder of Female Founders Faster Forward, said the journey is not about winning and learning, but losing and learning.
“Your journey doesn’t end if you are not funded or even if you are getting funded. It pivots at different times,” she said. “I did not look at not getting funded as a failure but I looked at not getting funded as a different pivot and a different journey,” said the Kolkata-born Manley.
Echoing that view was Shilpi Sharma, entrepreneur and co-founder at Kvantum.
“Not all startups get funded,” she said.
Meghna Saraogi founder of StyleDotMe, a fashion app based in New Delhi, said the idea was to stay focused.
Saraogi, originally from Indore and who once was a graphic designer, started her business with $11,700. Not being an engineer or knowing how to do business was a challenge but sticking with it was important, she said.
Mumbai-based Vishakha Singh, co-founder of Vicit Infot Tech Pvt Ltd, told indica that her parents who live outside India worry more about her being in that country rather than when she travels to the West.
Singh remembers a venture capitalist who told her that if funds came in she would probably have to forgo marriage and children for five years.
“I thought that was very weird. I asked him, ‘Would you say that to a male entrepreneur and is that a problem,’” said Singh. In fact, after office hours, Singh unwinds by shutting down the computer and dancing or doing Pilates.
Besides her was Sai Viajay Gole, co-founder of the Pune-based LeanAgri. She was a student at IIT-Madras and got a highly paid job that was not satisfying and so started her own firm.
“There was a lot of money [in the job] but it was not thrilling. So, I left and started working on my idea,” she said. Gole said that leaving her job for a startup was hard, but it was even harder to find the right woman co-founder.
Kaus (Kausambi) Manjita, co-founder of Bangalore-based Storeo.io, said that challenges would always exist “but it’s up to you how you react to challenges that matter.”
“Most of the time we are so used to biases [against women] that we form our own biases [in response]. We think that if we are stopped it’s because we are women. So, we have to break our own biases,” said Manjita, who also has a small team in Sunnyvale, California.
Pallavi Bishnoi from Lucknow, founder of Real Times Renewables, says being a woman is a challenge but it also provides some leverage.
“When you are the only woman sitting across the table they also listen to you,” she said.