In depth: How can India’s women-led startups beat gender funding gap?
W hen Indian businesswoman Aditi Bhutia Madan recalls her childhood in Darjeeling, she remembers pine forests, Himalayan sunrises and her grandmother’s momos – the savoury dumplings that years later inspired her to launch her own company.
When Indian businesswoman Aditi Bhutia Madan recalls her childhood in Darjeeling, she remembers pine forests, Himalayan sunrises and her grandmother’s momos – the savoury dumplings that years later inspired her to launch her own company.
A former MasterChef India contestant, Madan was confident of her cooking skills but she did not know how to access formal financing to grow her Yangkiez By MomoMami brand – a major hurdle for many female entrepreneurs in India.
For years, Madan ran the gauntlet of loan sharks demanding exorbitant interest rates or demanding a stake in her business.
“There were a lot of challenges … First, because you’re a woman,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
That changed when Madan, who is in her mid-40s, joined thousands of women entrepreneurs in the Women StartUp Programme (WSP) at NSRCEL, a business incubator at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, which gives participants training in business skills including the art of pitching for financing.
After presenting her first pitch on the reality show Shark Tank India, she secured 7.5 million Indian rupees ($91,000) from investors for capacity building and infrastructure development at her company’s production units.
“I didn’t know anything about pitching before going to WSP,” she said.
India ranks 57 out of 65 on the MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, which gauges how women in business are progressing globally, and only one in five of the country’s businesses are led by women, according to government data.
Unequal access to capital is a key barrier. When women entrepreneurs do approach potential investors for financing, they are more likely to be rejected.
“We are still finding it difficult to project (women) as investment-ready,” said Ankita Pegu from the WSP, which has helped more than 400 women-led startups.
Women-led businesses face an unmet credit gap of more than $11.4 billion and female entrepreneurs received only 5.2% of the outstanding credit granted to enterprises by Indian public sector banks, according to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank.
Many small Indian enterprises are either self-financed or financed with family support – both of which are more difficult for women entrepreneurs. In a Bain & Company and Google survey, 43% women said their families and spouses did not support their businesses.
“This is the first hurdle many women face, their families are not willing to back them with finance,” says Bengaluru-based Sucharita Eashwar, founder of the nonprofit Catalyst for Women Entrepreneurship.
Much of the financing gap stems from widespread gender discrimination and persistent conservative thinking about women’s role in the country of 1.3 billion people.
Preksha Kaparwan, 33, taught herself design, coding and website development, going on to co-found artificial intelligence data analytics startups, Delhi-based AlphaaAI in 2019 and San Francisco-based Super AI in 2022.
Even then, she said investors treated her differently to her male counterparts during pitching meetings. Some did not ask her any questions at all while others switched to talking about the weather.
“As an investor, you have to be neutral to the gender that’s in front of you,” she said.
Potential investors are more likely to consider a woman’s age and marital status before making a decision on financing, said Jibin Mathew, assistant manager at the WSP.
“(They think) maybe another two years from now she gets married, and the investors feel that it may hurt their investment. And if she’s married, then there are questions about family,” Mathew said.
“Male entrepreneurs are never asked these questions.”
Research in the United States has shown investors are more likely to ask men “promotion” questions related to their ambitions and achievements, which tend to yield positive responses – and more funding.
Women are more often asked “prevention” questions focused on safety, losses and potential risks, hindering “the entrepreneur’s ability to raise capital”, a 2018 study published in the Academy of Management Journal found.
Just 0.3% of India’s venture capital funding went to women-led startups in 2021.
Anxious to address the imbalance, entrepreneur-turned-investor Anisha Singh set up the She Capital fund to help women business founders five years ago.
Listing her fund’s success stories, she said she did not expect to find that “making a case for females, and female founders would be so tough”.
Studies have found that startups founded and co-founded by women generate more revenue and create more jobs.
Despite that, banks too are hesitant to fund female entrepreneurs and have concerns about their success, says Nidhi Gupta, executive director of Dhriiti, a Delhi-based nonprofit working with entrepreneurs.
Sometimes women participating in her programmes have been asked by bank staff to provide the signature of a male relative when making a loan application.
Over 85% women entrepreneurs faced challenges in availing loan services from public sector banks, as per a 2022 survey by nonprofit Bharatiya Yuva Shakti Trust (BYST), an initiative mentoring entrepreneurs from underprivileged communities.
And while the Indian government has financial support schemes for female-led enterprises, only 3.4% of all women entrepreneurs have benefited from them, according to a study by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWAAGE), a nonprofit.
Faced by such practical problems, it can be “a lonely journey” for female business founders, said Pegu, adding that programmes such as the WSP can provide a women-focused sense of community to counter the male-dominated world of business.
Poor access to professional communities and networks results in gaps in information about sources of funding and market information, experts say.
Training – for example on the art of a good pitch to investors – is also key to helping women realise their full potential, said Singh.
“I know you know your business,” she said. “(So) why do you hand that over to somebody else to speak about it?” ($1 = 82.0130 Indian rupees)
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