Entrepreneurship in India today takes many forms. It ranges from entrepreneurs running neighborhood stores, to those establishing businesses in emerging cutting-edge areas such as information technology, media and entertainment, and life sciences, to start-up operations related to new national initiatives such as Make in India.
One of the things that those successful entrepreneurial ventures have in common is that they address an unsatisfied need. This is written to call attention to what I believe is the most critical under-addressed need in India today.
It is the lack of female empowerment. That absence, if not confronted, can deal a crippling blow to India’s future economically, socially and democratically.
There are three critical dimensions of India’s female empowerment gap: education, employment and entrepreneurship.
The 2011 census revealed that the literacy rate nationally for men was 82.14 percent compared to a mere 65.46 percent for women. It gets even worse. The rate for Muslim women was not quite 52 percent. And, the rates in rural areas and in various Indian states across the country were also much lower than the national figure.
Things look a bit brighter for those women who make it up the educational ladder. Recent research showed that women constituted 46 percent of the total enrollment in higher education for those in the 18-23 age group.
Securing the necessary education at the appropriate point on the educational continuum is pivotal for Indian women. This is so because education itself is empowering. It builds self-esteem. It enables women to educate others. It prepares women to enter the workforce to ensure the financial security of the family and to help grow the Indian economy.
The bad news is that, while female literacy and education rates have increased significantly over the past decade or so, female employment has dropped dramatically. It has fallen from 35 percent in 2005 to a disastrously low 26 percent today.
This female labor force participation rate has a serious retarding effect on the Indian economy. The IMF calculates that India would be 27 percent richer if the female employment rate equaled that of males.
The McKinsey Global Institute projects that if Indian males assumed a few of the household chores which are done now nearly exclusively by women, it would result in a 10 percent increase in female labor force participation. According to McKinsey, this would increase India’s GDP by more than $500 billion annually.
There are a variety of reasons for the decrease in female employment including Indian values and attitudes regarding women’s role and proper place in society. Those beliefs are not very malleable.
A reason that can be addressed, however, is the mechanization of jobs traditionally done by Indian women such as farming. Many other poorer countries have replaced these disappearing jobs and manual tasks with entry-level manufacturing and service level positions. India has made slow progress in this regard.
It has made even slower progress creating women entrepreneurs. A recent study by the National Sample Survey Organization disclosed that only 14 percent of Indian business establishments were run by females. That same study found that nearly 80 percent of those women-owned businesses were self-financed.
In 2017, Mastercard issued its Index of Women Entrepreneurs ranking countries in terms of factors related to supporting female entrepreneurs. India ranked 49th out of 54 countries. The Mastercard report observed “…there is a significant potential to harness the untapped potential of women’s entrepreneurship in India.”
There is indeed “untapped potential” in women entrepreneurship. That potential is enormous. It is rivalled by the potential of female employment and female education.
This is where existing entrepreneurs come into the picture. They can and must play a role in tapping and unleashing that potential.
Over the past ten to twenty years, the government, the public sector and non-profits have made improvements and launched many programs focused on female literacy, employment, and entrepreneurship. But, the need is much greater than these groups can address. It demands the full participation and interventions by the private sector.
The opportunities in the female empowerment space are virtually endless. To name just a few: The educational opportunities include, primary schools in rural and other underserved areas; vocational and technical schools; and new courses delivered on-line and in the classroom. The employment opportunities include: light manufacturing and assembly operations; service occupations such as cleaning of commercial buildings; and healthcare and homecare support services. The entrepreneurship opportunities include: entrepreneurship educational materials; developing and providing financial packages and assistance; and, mentoring programs.
Entrepreneurs can define what product or service to bring to market based upon their assessment of the needs and opportunities in this space. They can then develop and implement their business plans for making a difference for themselves, India’s females and the country of India. By committing to play a role in the empowerment of India’s females, these entrepreneurs will do well by doing good.
[Frank Islam is an IT entrepreneur and chair of the FI Investment Group. He is also active in Democratic politics and is on the board of, among others, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the US Institute of Peace. The views expressed in this piece are his own.]