What makes these start-up founders innovators in their own right

When her son began school in 2015, Harini Sivakumar had a strong urge to earn her own money. Belonging to a traditional family from Chennai, Harini had been married at 22. A year later, she became mother to a child with Down’s Syndrome. The next seven years were spent as a homemaker who also created soaps in the kitchen because her son suffered from eczema and could not use regular products. Soon, the soaps were in big demand among Harini’s friends and family.

“In 2019, I took the plunge to start a business. I had panic attacks because my son is non-verbal. It was a very bold decision to get a caregiver for him and step out of the house. There was guilt that I was not being a good mother,” she says. She took an office space right next to her apartment in Gurugram, Haryana, so that she could run back to her house any time.

As a first-generation entrepreneur, Harini also had to convince her father, Sivakumar Varadarajan, about her plan. He agreed to become a partner in her start-up, Earth Rhythm, which manufactures personal-care products such as goat-milk soaps, body-butter lotions and reusable make-up removers. Today, Earth Rhythm is valued at Rs 200 crore, after it raised $9.2 million from Nykaa and Anicut Angel Fund in 2022.

Harini didn’t only build a company. The production floor is run by women, such as Moumita Matia, 26, who used to work as a maid in Harini’s condo. “I am from the Sunderbans and came to Haryana after my marriage. I could not speak Hindi or English, only Bangla. Harini Ma’am told me to come to her for training in making soaps and other products. That was in 2015. I am now a supervisor of the production room at Earth Rhythm, with 30-40 people under me. From the way I dress to how I talk, I have changed in every way,” says Matia.

There have been other changes, too; with Harini’s son, for instance. “I can’t believe that the boy who was completely dependent on me has found ways to communicate with people through sign language. It’s a big win for me because he is managing on his own,” says Harini, founder-ceo of Earth Rhythm. In the start-up ecosystem in India, an age-old, inherited social system is being gradually dismantled. Women entrepreneurs, many of them first-generation, are engaging with patriarchy at various levels, pushing it back and generating profits. In the world of start-ups, you can set out with very little money— sometimes a few thousand rupees— as long as you have an innovative idea that is saleable and scaleable. This has provided an impetus to women, many of them with no business knowledge, to identify gaps in the market, create solutions and start enterprises of their own.

Women start-up founders are a small group, though the country boasts of world’s third-largest start-up ecosystem, after the US and China. In 2022, India had 136 unicorns— companies that are valued at more than $1 billion— but only five were led by women. The gender imbalance is rooted in a tradition where girls are raised differently from boys to take up nurturing and supportive roles rather than leadership positions. So, 45 years after Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw started Biocon in a garage in Bengaluru and was faced with a storm of hostility because of her gender, a new crop of women business leaders is compelling the industry and the society to rethink these norms.

“Changing mindsets is a slow process but I see it happening,” says Minakshi Khati, 24, founder of the Ramnagar, Uttarakhand-based Minakriti: The Aipan Project. Khati started Minakriti with savings of Rs 50,000 in 2019 to make and sell coasters, cards, bags and similar items, decorated with the elaborate Aipan paintings of the region. Currently, the company generates Rs 15 lakh per annum.

Minakshi Khati of Minakriti – The Aipan Project. (Image Credits: Minakshi Khati)

Khati’s landscape is typical of modern India, and explains the conflict between upbringing and ambition that holds back women. Once a girl finishes college, her parents have to get her married quickly. She is advised to choose a safe career. Her role models — mother, grandmothers, aunts and female neighbours — are celebrated for their feats in cooking and housework. If a woman wants to start a business, travel, talk to strangers and cut deals, she is dismissed or shamed.

Khati’s first big moment came at the Matri Shakti Conclave, organised by the state government for the upliftment of women in 2019. She stood on the podium as a business delegation asked questions about her company — and was unable to speak.

What Khati would have liked to say was that Aipan was a folk art done by women on walls and ceremonial vessels during festivals. Unlike Warli and Madhubani paintings, it was little known outside the region. Many patterns were dying and Minakriti wanted to preserve the knowledge. “After the conclave, I realised that it was necessary for me to learn to communicate so that more people got to know about this artform from Uttarakhand. I needed to confront my inherent fears… I came out of the tunnel, one day at a time,” she says.

Conversation, not confrontation, is the tool used by many women entrepreneurs to bring down the barriers of tradition. Khati talked to her parents, rural women and anybody who asked, “Isko banake kya ho jayega (What is the use of making this)?” “My family’s mindset has changed. I have been working for four years and they do not pressurise me. Instead, they encourage me to learn more,” says Khati. In December 2022, President Droupadi Murmu met Khati during a tour of Uttarakhand and listened to the story of Aipan. “I want other women also to come out of their homes and see more of the world,” says Khati.

A number of organisations have started programmes to correct the global problem of missing women founders in business. Prominent among these is TiE, a 30-year-old organisation that was founded in the Silicon Valley to support enterprise. It has started the TiE Women Global Conclave, a competition that gives $100,000 as equity-free cash prize to a winning business founded by women. The conclave in December 2022 was held in Hyderabad and featured 40 women entrepreneurs from 13 countries. “With specific incentives for women, we will go a long way in creating equal opportunity. Our aim is to take women-led businesses close to 50 per cent in the country,” says Suresh Raju, co-chair, TiE Global Summit.

In traditional societies, men and women consider the former as the breadwinner and head of the household. While being upset with such unfavourable conditions is an obvious reaction, Keerthi Priya, 30, felt otherwise. She set up a business, which predominantly employs women from rural households in the manufacturing facility, in the remote village of Thonda in Telangana. Nurture Fields Industries and their brand Koh! Foods, started in 2018 and 2021, respectively, are aiming to solve the problem of the $13 billion worth of crops wasted in the farmlands of India every year. On the commerce platform kohfoods.in, the company offers dehydrated vegetable powders such as beetroot, spinach, gongura and moringa besides snacks and dehydrated vegetables.

women entrepreneur, startup, women, innovators, business, india, indian express, eye, eye 2023 Keerthi Priya of Koh! Foods. (Image Credits: Keerthi Priya)

“Initially, I felt uncomfortable working in the ecosystem. But I am an entrepreneur at heart and had to be confident to address this gender gap objectively. There was a perception that a person in a position of power needed to behave in an aggressive, masculine way. I cannot change myself to convince somebody else. I cannot be aggressive to fit a regressive idea either, but I can lead by an example. I also understood that I had to connect with people in the village at a fundamental and emotional level to take the business forward,” she says.

An otherwise sceptical village, eventually, started making their way to Keerthi when they saw her working hard. Bank officers, electricity department workers, and suppliers said they were happy that she was trying to benefit the locals.

Koh! Foods aspires to support 100 farmers by the end of 2023, including those who are unfamiliar with a young woman leading a business idea. “For the longest time, I felt invisible when people would listen to my employees but not me. I hope that the girls of the village and their parents, who witness this setup, are encouraged to dream big,” says Keerthi.

Even as they find their feet, women entrepreneurs are trying to empower others. Many of them are reaching out to the wealth of talent, usually women, which exists behind the four walls in rural and semi-urban India. Cooks, artisans and craftspeople from villages and small towns form the spine of several art-and-craft-based start-ups. The money doesn’t entirely break the patriarchal framework in feudal communities but it does allow many women artisans a measure of self-expression.

Mumbai-based Shweta Tiwary is a former art director with an advertising agency who started Chungistore.com in 2014 in her hometown, Gaya, Bihar, to employ grassroots weavers and artisans. “Two of the women tell me that they have started to buy sanitary napkins every month just because they have money. A lot of us, urban women, cannot imagine periods without sanitary napkins. The women artisans draw a salary and feel financially empowered. Some of them are earning more than their husbands,” says Tiwary.

women entrepreneur, startup, women, innovators, business, india, indian express, eye, eye 2023 Shweta Tiwary of Chungistore.com at her godown in Versova, Mumbai. (Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)

Chungistore.com manufactures home decor products, runners, coasters and table mats and apparels with fabric sourced from artisans in Bengal and Bihar. Manufacturing is a male dominion, as Tiwary discovered. “Vendors, dealers and other manufacturers have ego issues taking instructions from women. At times, instead of concentrating on business, a woman has to think about protecting herself and things go downhill from there,” says Tiwary. Her strategy: “You have to say it upfront that you are not here for fun, that you are doing serious business. You have to say it every day,” she says.

After eight years, people have got the message. Chungistore.com, a bootstrapped company, employs around 45 women, does back-to-back exhibitions during the festive seasons and fulfils large corporate orders. “I want to expand the business. I want to do more for the women artisans who are far more talented than me. Though these women can hardly work a few hours a day because of their housework, they are so productive that they deserve better opportunities,” she says. “On the other hand, the ecosystem has not kept up with the ambition of women. We need to do more to ensure a safer space for women entrepreneurs,” she adds.

A Bengaluru-based start-up leader, Zainab Raj, has been thinking along the same lines. This year, she will launch a project called Zorya — named after the goddess of dawn in Slavic folklore — to mentor women across India who are interested in starting companies.

women entrepreneur, startup, women, innovators, business, india, indian express, eye, eye 2023 Zainab Raj of RR Steel. (Image Credits: Zainab Raj)

One of the few women leaders in steel trading, Zainab started RR Steel because her father had a steel business 30 years ago that shut down. “Over the years, there would be conversations in the house starting with ‘what if?’ What if that business had been there? It was stuck in my head,” she said. A biotechnology graduate who had a basic knowledge of metallurgy, Zainab did not think that it is usually sons who carry forward the legacy of their fathers. “After my graduation, I worked in a couple of corporate jobs but was not satisfied. I was meant to be in business of my own. I did not tell anybody about my idea to enter the steel industry until I did my research. One day, I talked to my parents and husband and they were supportive,” she says.

First-generation women entrepreneurs are usually hindered by a lack of access to knowledge about business, laws, finances, fundraising and product-market fit, among others. Zainab, originally from Kota, Rajasthan, navigated all these potholes. She attended meetings with clients who “wanted to speak to her boss” and dealt with being the only woman in a factory full of men. Zainab reached out to a women entrepreneurship project, Her&Now, implemented by the German Development Cooperation organisation, GIZ, on behalf of the governments of Germany and India. The business mentoring, networking and market access opportunities helped Zainab in establishing RR Steel as a strong player in the market. “Most of the time, women need to drop the guilt, and that’s half the work done. I don’tcare if I am talking to big clients and have my crying baby in my arms,” she says.

When Her&Now published a graphic novel, WE Mean Business, in 2022, Zainab’s was one of the inspirational stories in the anthology. “Fear holds a lot of women back. If a woman’s business fails, people will tear her apart. I had this fear. I fought it. In business, you have to fight yourself first. That’s the confidence you are giving yourself as an entrepreneur,” she says.

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