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India’s Startups: No Longer A Man’s World!

The Indian market for startups may be buzzing with youthful energy and enthusiasm, but women have been largely absent from the picture. In 2013, just 6% of startups were founded or co-founded by women, according to data from India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies.

Some experts reckon this may now be changing. “Women entrepreneurs have started to gain a foothold in the startup industry and have begun to make their presence felt,” says Sangeeta Gupta, National Association of Software & Service Companies (Nasscom) ‘s senior vice president for events, research and communications.

Yet others question whether the percentage of entrepreneurs who are women is really increasing. “The number of startups has increased in the country and so the number of women tech entrepreneurs has also gone up, but it is difficult to say if the percentage of women entrepreneurs has gone up,” says Geetha Kannan, the managing director of India operations for the Anita Borg Institute.

The organization works on increasing the participation of women in technology, and recently teamed up with the Indian government and the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum to bring six Indian female entrepreneurs to the US, where they were introduced to venture capitalists and other players in the start-up community.

What is beyond any doubt, however, is that women face unique challenges in this area. “Some of the challenges women face in this sector are pressures from within the family and society, competing roles women play within the household and a lack of childcare support systems,” says Nasscom’s Gupta. “All these factors combined with gender discrimination discourage women from exploring and initiating new ideas and following them.”

Even so, the recent success of some female entrepreneurs — including Sairee Chahal of Sheroes (a jobs site aimed at women); Ashwini Asokan of Mad Street Den (artificial intelligence); Prukalpa Sankar of SocialCops (big data); Neha Behani of Moojic (online music); and Pranshu Bhandari of CultureAlley (English language tuition) — has turned the spotlight on them. Women certainly appear to be making a mark in sectors such as ecommerce and biotechnology and in the business-to-consumer area.

Moreover, nearly 30% of engineering graduates in India are now women, and as that number grows the proportion of entrepreneurs who are female is also likely to increase.

Question of funding
Although attracting funding remains a challenge for female entrepreneurs, it seems to be getting easier. Falguni Nayyar-led Nykaa, an ecommerce portal aimed at women, recently received an undisclosed sum through angel investors. Suchi Mukherjee’s Limeroad, an online shopping site, has also raised $20 million in funding, while Pranshu Bhandari’s CultureAlley has received $345,000 from angel investors.

The fact that more women are procuring funding for their projects suggests there has been a change of attitude in the venture capital community. This is probably best exemplified by Rajan Anandan, Google India’s vice president and managing director and an angel investor. Before 2013, Anandan had funded nearly 40 startups and only six of these were led by women. But women lead another six of the ten companies he has helped to fund in 2014.

At the same time, stakeholders agree that a lot remains to be done to increase women’s representation in technology startups.

“Getting funding from VCs [venture capitalists] is not the point,” says Ashwini Asokan, the co-founder of Mad Street Den, one of the few startups in India involved in artificial intelligence. “The bigger problem is how to empower women to sit before VCs to ask for funding. We need to make it easier for women entrepreneurs throughout their journey.”

Mad Street Den certainly appears to have overcome that hurdle, having raised $1.5 million from Reservoir Investments Exfinity Fund and GrowX Ventures.

Encouragingly, a number of mentorship programs are making it easier for women to make a mark in the technology startups space. Nasscom’s 10,000 Start-ups initiative, launched to support entrepreneurship within the IT-BPM (information technology and business process management) industry in India, also provides backing to female entrepreneurs. The Girls in Technology (GIT) program, meanwhile, is aimed at boosting female representation in the industry, while global technology giant Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) recently made a commitment to invest in women-owned startups.

Female entrepreneurs believe that many Indian women still lack confidence when it comes to thinking big. This could explain why — in spite of rising numbers of women-owned businesses — there are hardly any women-led enterprises that have gone public.

“We need to work towards a place where women can be more audacious and less guilty about their dreams,” says Sairee Chahal, the founder and CEO of Sheroes and Flexi Moms, a platform enabling women to work according to their convenience.

The time may be ripe for Indian women to take an entrepreneurial leap, but more clearly needs to be done to increase their participation in the entrepreneurial space.

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