Over the past three years, 28-year-old Simmi has been helping girls from conservative backgrounds study further and building teacher development programmes within a community where girls are not allowed to go out and work or educate themselves beyond compulsory education levels.
She and her husband, Afaq Ullah, were running a primary school and centres for adolescent girls when Simmi was offered a changemaker fellowship with Plustrust, a NGO running acceleration programmes for rural educational entrepreneurs across the country. As a result, the native of Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh was able to identify her goals and build a sustainable plan for the activities she and her team were engaged in.
“She now works with children of labourers and migrants, with volunteer support from social work students,” says Smriti Kedia, who is Founder and Trustee at Plustrust, and also an entrepreneur in the menstrual health space. “Simmi’s example has inspired young women, and families have begun permitting their daughters and daughters-in-law to join her and work with children.”
Plustrust has offered 45 fellowships to women entrepreneurs in India’s semi-urban and rural areas since it was founded in 2009. It is among a handful of organisations working to promote social enterprises in India, closing the gap between rural and urban entrepreneurship across the country.
Women have differing levels of entrepreneurship access depending on where they are located within India, conversations with business founders and coaches across the country demonstrate. Urban privilege is apparent, and women in more developed states report no or fewer obstacles.
Nearly 2,000km away in Goa, Gautami Raiker offers online legal services for start-ups at Lawmate.in. With her colleagues Nitin Kunkolienker and Deepak Agarwal, she founded the company in 2016 to fill a vacuum for legal business support in the country, helping with company registration, taxation, advisory and IP services. “We are solving the untapped justice problem in India,” says Raiker. “The legal industry is slow to automation, and our initial steps will help us reach our mission of empowering entrepreneurs.”
We are solving the untapped justice problem in India. The legal industry is slow to automation, and our initial steps will help us reach our mission of empowering entrepreneurs.
So far, the company has registered more than 650 enterprises and supported 15,000 entrepreneurs. It is now expanding to Mumbai and Pune, with possible offices in Singapore, Canada and Dubai on the cards.
Overall, women constitute only 13.76 per cent of the entrepreneurs in India, or about 8.05 million out of the 58.5 million business founders, according to a 2016 economic census. These establishments employ about 13.45 million people. Across the country, the southern states account for the largest percentage of this number, led by Tamil Nadu at 13.51 per cent. As compared with other countries, India ranked 52nd out of 58 countries surveyed in the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, when surveyed on factors such as financial access, advancement outcomes and ease of doing business.
Entrepreneurship and economics
There’s an economic imperative to nurturing women entrepreneurs. “India needs a far greater contribution of women in GDP. Women contribute about 22 per cent of our GDP, the worldwide average is close to 44-45 per cent,” Amitabh Kant, CEO of the government think tank Niti Aayog told PTI.
“If India has to grow consistently at 9-10 per cent for three decades, the focus on women entrepreneurship has to be a key aspect of growth strategy,” he added. Improving women’s skills and simplifying its labour market regulations alone would boost India’s GDP by 6.8 per cent, a 2018 IMF study found.
“Over the past two decades, we have seen a surge in the number of women opting to become entrepreneurs and launch business ventures, especially in the 25-40 age group,” says Parvathi Menon, who has worked with 150 entrepreneurs and 60 social enterprises across India, Asia and Africa in her role as Founder and Managing Director of Innovation Alchemy, a consulting and advisory practice that she set up in 2009.
Over the past two decades, we have seen a surge in the number of women opting to become entrepreneurs and launch business ventures, especially in the 25-40 age group.
“Indian society is evolving quickly in its attitudes to women entrepreneurs. We’re still a small percentage of all entrepreneurs, but this is evolving fast and set to change a lot in this decade.”
On an institutional level, the government has launched several schemes to help women entrepreneurs. Some 138,000 projects — or about 30 per cent of the total number of projects — have been launched by women entrepreneurs under the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme Scheme in the decade since its inception in 2008. Several loans and finance initiatives are available specifically for women, and more programmes are being put in place. In 2017, Niti Aayog launched the Women Entrepreneurship Platform, a social network connecting women across the country. It has 5,000 registered entrepreneurs to whom more than $10 million (Dh36.7 million) in funds has been committed.
A lot is happening for women entrepreneurs in India. There are many government schemes, awards and mentorship programmes to support women entrepreneurs in every possible way.
“A lot is happening for women entrepreneurs in India,” says Pallavi Jain, the New Delhi-based COO and Co-founder of Instalocate, an AI-powered technology firm that helps consumers claim monetary compensation on flight delays. “There are many government schemes, awards and mentorship programmes to support women entrepreneurs in every possible way.” She says female founders meet many obstacles, from funding to infrastructure. “There are only a handful of quality funds focused on female founders. Then, with the patriarchal mindset, women-owned start-ups are not taken as seriously as the start-ups run by their male counterparts. Other challenges women face in certain parts of the country are infrastructural — lack of safety in the office at late hours, or the lack of feeding rooms at work. I have personally faced these problems after having a child.”
But as Kedia says, “Rural women’s entrepreneurship is a different territory compared to fellowship and entrepreneurs from a more privileged background. With one lens it seems highly evolved and with the other still dismal. All in all, social change takes years — we are just at the beginning.”