Over the past two decades, India has been celebrated for its steep growth and booming economy. Thus, there is something that needs to be highlighted… India is certainly a land of big numbers: the second largest workforce, the third largest economy-in terms of purchasing power, an overall growth of 5%, the largest democracy, and the list goes on… We got it: India is big on numbers. However, India has achieved these impressive results with shockingly low economic participation by women. As I started my journey in this overwhelming country, I would never have thought that investing in the case of women’s entrepreneurship would leave me with disappointing results. It is true: Indian women are active in political life, whether you find them as ministers or members of Parliament or the Panchayat system, they are indeed taking part in the discussions pertaining to the public welfare and promoting the constitutional spirit. But women are not only missing at virtually every level of professional life, they are also missing from the entrepreneurial landscape.
Surrender to the leak or take the leap
« Once a woman is married, she has to quit her job, it is the way it is in India…although working part-time is fine I guess » says a hotel owner in Jaipur, Rajasthan. In fact, the female indian workforce is known to drop out of professional life earlier than their regional counterparts in Asia, 48 percent is the “big number” in this case. The “leak” happens between the junior and middle level as women find it easier to remain at a junior level or to leave the workforce altogether, under the pressure of family customs and cultural norms. The fear of reprehension from their families is also an important factor preventing the Indian women to start their journey as entrepreneurs. The other two being capital and awareness. Therefore, every aspiring entrepreneur in India, and not only women, finds the leap to entrepreneurship a hard ambition to undertake and fulfill. The dependency syndrome is also to be highlighted, working for someone instead of creating jobs is the most natural pathway to follow, even the students in colleges are taught to become employees and never employers. “We create managers and not leaders, and it is due to our selection process” declares Anil Gupta, professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and founder of the Honey Bee Network. Despite all of this, more and more women are taking up entrepreneurial activity especially in medium and small scale enterprises. Also, and in the case of unemployment, self employment is regarded as a cure to generate income. Women’s entrepreneurship is regarded as an effective strategy to solve the problems of rural and urban poverty and the Indian government recognizes the need for women to be part of the mainstream of economic development. In nations where women have advanced, economic growth has usually been steady. By contrast, in countries where women have been restricted, the economy has been stagnant. Until Indians fully embrace the economic benefits that flow from female empowerment, the country will remain in a state of arrested development.
The fear of failure
The Gender-GEDI Female Entrepreneurship Index announced at the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network annual event in Istanbul on the 4th of June places India 16th out of 17 nations, behind top ranking nations like the US (1), France (4) and other developing countries such as Mexico (5), Morocco (13) and Egypt (15), the last place given to Uganda. The index is based on individual aspirations, business environments and entrepreneurial ecosystems. One of the reasons India ranked so far behind may be the fact that the index didn’t take into account the informal sector where many women entrepreneurs are engaged in small and medium scale businesses.
But according to Pr. Anil Gupta, founder of the Honey Bee Network, one important factor participating in the hinderance of women’s entrepreneurship in India is how the women see themselves and how in society a woman’s failure is somehow regarded as shameful compared to her male counterpart for whom failure is just a normal stage of the process. Indeed, when it comes to failure and risk, there is a fundamental difference in the attitudes of male and female entrepreneurs. Failure has proved itself to be a valuable tool in setting up a new venture, but being scared of it will definitely prevent any burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit that may arise in a woman’s mind. When asked about how many women are entrepreneurs at Bombay Connect, a co-working space for social-business innovators in Mumbai, Preeti Dawane co-founder stated “We have 5 women leading their enterprises here…That’s actually very sad when I think about it”. Also, when it comes to taking risks in their investments, women will less likely choose high risk or high return investments. While this cautious approach may minimize the danger of these actions, it can also imply women entrepreneurs may miss opportunities or even lose out to competitors who are more willing to take a leap of faith.
Indian women constitute nearly 50% of the country’s population, thus enabling the “other half”, in times of economic backwardness and in which many countries are facing the prospect of slower growth, is more than ever an obligation. There is an urging need for new inventive business ideas to kick-start economic growth and foster social change. Maybe the Indian female entrepreneurs are not a worldwide inspiration for their massive number nor impact but they certainly are an inspiration for overcoming the societal barriers. The entrepreneurial process seems to be the same for men and women (same motivations, same access to funds from the same sources, similar challenges, etc), but in practice most of the women entrepreneurs in India are facing problems that are of different dimensions and magnitude than those faced by their male counterparts, therefore preventing them from realizing their potential as entrepreneurs and strategic leaders. Instead of being untapped, the “other half” must be counted in and the entrepreneurial female spirit must break-free.
Image source: GEDI