Why women entrepreneurs are rare in India & what challenges they face – The Economic Times

When Kalpana Saroj came to Mumbai in the early 1970s, the wide roads, big buildings and the crowds terrified her. “There was just one road in my village,” recalls Saroj of her village in Akola, Vidharbha. Uneducated and poor, Saroj, like many others, had made her way to what was then the city of dreams to make a living, armed with one skill: her ability as a seamstress.
She hadn’t anticipated one hurdle. “I had never seen men and women work together.” Daunted by the prospect of goofing up in front of men, Saroj backed out of the higher paying job of operating machinery at a hosiery unit. Instead, she chose the lower paying job of snipping threads in the same unit. Her salary: a fixed amount of Rs 7 a month and Rs 2 a day extra.

But Saroj did not give up. Once the men left the factory for the day, she would sit with a few sympathetic co-workers and practise operating the machinery. A month later, she got the machine operator’s job at a salary of Rs 250.

Today, Kalpana Saroj works out of Kamani Chambers in the Ballard Estate area of Mumbai, not too far from the headquarters of Larsen & Toubro and Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. She is now the chairperson of Kamani Tubes, once a giant in the Mumbai business circles, which had fallen into hard times. Since the acquisition in 2006, she has been working to turn the company around.

Saroj also owns a big stake in a sugar mill in Ahmednagar and dabbles in real estate business. She won’t talk about her net worth, but for somebody who was mortified at the thought of working with men in the same room, Saroj has come a long way. In a man’s world, that is.

A Man’s World

And, make no mistake. That is what the world of commerce is. Not just in India, but even in the developed world. The numbers bear it out (see State of Women-Owned Business on next page). In India, women entrepreneurs are a rarity. After all, how many Kiran Mazumdar-Shaws or Shahnaz Husains do we boast as a country? And how many of them do we have in male-dominated sectors like construction, real estate and manufacturing where the rough and tumble of running a business is up close and personal?

ET Magazine spoke to a handful of entrepreneurs who have done well for themselves in such businesses to understand what it is like to succeed in the world of commerce, where men have ruled for years.

Why women entrepreneurs are rare in India & what challenges they face

Saroj says she got periodic reminders about her status as a woman. “I was once bidding for a piece of land in Nashik, when an upper caste politician heard about it. ‘How can a Dalit woman buy that land?’ he asked. You do get reminders about your jaat [caste] and the fact that you are an aurat [woman],” she says.

How did Saroj rise up if the world of male-driven commerce was so loaded against her? “I attempted suicide once because I had given up, but I survived. When I went back to my village, everybody who came to meet me was more concerned about what would have happened to my father’s [a police constable] reputation if I had succeeded in killing myself. Meri kisi ne poochi nahi [nobody even cared for me],” says Saroj. “I decided I would never give up after that,” she adds.

Saroj came back to Mumbai, toiled at the hosiery unit and got into a metals fabrication business. A few years later, she came to acquire a piece of land, dogged by litigation. She also dabbled in social work, which got her a taste of local politics. Her website lists out her positions as executive of the NCP as among her achievements. “When that land became litigation free, its value jumped from Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 50 lakh. That was my first big break,” says Saroj. A supari from the underworld followed, but Saroj was well on her way.

FIRs & Unions

Thirty-nine-year-old Priyanka Bapna’s world is very different from that of Saroj’s. She hails from an educated family and is a trained textile designer. She runs a ready-made garment manufacturing unit and counts retailers like Pantaloons, Shoppers Stop and Lifestyle among her clients. So, how is it for a woman to run a business?

The State of Women-Owned Business in the Land of the Free

In the US, the number of women-owned business has been steadily growing over the past decade or so. However, data indicates that most of these business don’t scale up. Back home, India is seeing the first generation of successful business women but women-owned businesses are still a drop in the ocean of commerce.

Why women entrepreneurs are rare in India & what challenges they face

While dealing with modern retailers is a breeze, it’s the on-ground issues like labour management that give her headaches. “As a woman, there are challenges of working in the manufacturing space. Given the socio-economic background the workers come from, most of them don’t respect women,” says Bapna. If that’s not enough, labour heads – mostly men – use tougher pressure tactics against women entrepreneurs.

“Oh, she is a woman. She won’t get tough. That’s the attitude,” says Bapna. Visiting police stations and registering FIRs have become a part of her life. A substantial portion of her workforce is made of women, many of whom face domestic violence, she adds.

Bapna says that gender bias is not the sole preserve of the labour class. The bias is very much prevalent among banks and financial institutions. “In my early days, when I would approach banks for a loan, you could see the scepticism among officials. They would wonder if you were not someone’s wife or daughter doing this business on a whim or a fancy. Today my balance sheet speaks for me,” says Bapna.

Afghanistan Better Off?

In June last year, a batch of 25 women entrepreneurs from Afghanistan arrived in Delhi to participate in the Delhi Investment Summit. They were here to find women entrepreneurs who they could partner to do business. Towards the end of their visit, the organisers had to find entrepreneurs from the opposite sex as they could not find Indian women entrepreneurs in several sectors.

Why women entrepreneurs are rare in India & what challenges they face

“Sometimes I think that when it comes to women, India could be more backward than Afghanistan,” says Shashi Singh, a woman entrepreneur and trainer with 16 years of experience. Shashi started the Consortium of Women Entrepreneurs of India (CWEI) in Delhi in 1996 and has trained women in the embattled country known for its anti-women extremist group, Taliban.

The soft-spoken lady is also a member of the national board of the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and an international consultant on enterprises development with a specialisation in gender in business. The sectors where the organisers were unable to find women entrepreneur partners for the Afghan all-woman business delegation in India include pharmaceuticals, cargo and shipping, heavy tractors, road construction and information technology.

However, in education, travel and film-making, there was a surfeit of candidates. So, how is it that a Taliban-threatened country has more women entrepreneurs in some sectors, where Indian women fear to tread? Singh, who has conducted workshops for women across India, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, has a theory.

“Sometimes desperation can work in your favour. Daily life is so hard for women in Afghanistan that many of them, especially those who have some international exposure and have returned to the country, are more determined to battle the odds.”

In India, a more peaceful country, there are more women who are entrepreneurs. But they are yet to break the glass ceiling and start businesses in sectors considered male-dominated: construction, for instance.

Singh, like her father, wanted to join the defence forces. There was a limit of eight seats for women when she wrote the Armed Forces Medical College entrance examination. “I was the ninth girl and so I decided to become an entrepreneur and did a course at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute in Gandhinagar.” She later set up Moha, a handicrafts brand that exports its products to several countries. Around the same time, she also set up CWEI and ventured into entrepreneurship training for women.
“I felt that if I have been given a chance to become an entrepreneur, then it is my responsibility to ensure that I train as many women as I can,” says Singh. Women in India mostly stick to traditional businesses such as handicraft, textiles and jewellery, she adds. “And these are the sectors where middlemen make money. We have reached a stage where a large number of women run businesses, but do not make sufficient margins due to the intermediaries. It is time we corrected this anomaly.”

Men and the Business Woman

Why is it so tough for a woman to run a business in India? For starters, till a few years ago, the very idea of doing business was frowned upon by the Indian middle class. The thought of “the protected Indian woman going out in the greasy, real world of men and getting her hands dirty was taboo”, says a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, who set up her advisory business a few months ago, but did not want to be quoted as she did not wanted to be perceived as a “flag-waving feminist by her male colleagues so early on”.

Sonal Chitroda knows all about the challenges of starting and running a business in India. The 39-year-old started working in a housekeeping company as a teenager, after the loss of her father. In 1990, she got together with a few colleagues to offer housekeeping services. “You could see it in the way men looked at you back then. If you were young, in business and a woman, you were of loose character,” she says bluntly. “Very few men looked at your calibre, what you were capable of,” she recalls.

Today, Chitroda runs All Services Global, a facility management company that employs over 15,000 people and counts the likes of Reliance, Indian Oil and Indian Railways among its clients. With close to 90% of its workforce being semi-skilled or unskilled, Chitroda used to have a tough time managing labour. But in the past few years, as the business has grown in scale, she has set up an industrial relations department, which handles these issues.

So, why do women-owned businesses struggle to grow? One major hurdle which women face is corruption. “Men start becoming worldly-wise at a much earlier age and are also more likely to give or demand bribes. For a woman, dealing with government officials who demand a bribe can be a draining experience. This is why most women entrepreneurs choose not to register their business even though this would affect their chances of scaling up,” says CWEI’s Singh.

Chitroda agrees. “It’s easier for a woman to rise in a corporate workplace. In the world of business, you are constantly interacting with men who are in places of power, as government officials, as figures of authority,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “Men can do things we can’t. For instance, they can take them out to hotels, entertain them etc,” she says.

Even everyday work-related transactions can become tricky. “I was interviewing people for a COO post a few weeks ago,” says the entrepreneur, who is starting an advisory. “I had almost chosen one when he made a request I had never heard before in all my years in corporate life: ‘When you have disagreements with me, can we discuss them behind closed doors?’ That stunned me,” she adds.

Business Women & Change

Most business women ET Magazine spoke to conceded that they had to become “tougher and harsher” to succeed in the world of commerce. One business woman said she wears a “grim face and attitude” to work, another said she dresses in denims and sports a “don’t-mess-with-me” attitude. One entrepreneur says she has learnt to “compromise” when it comes to bribing men.

Almost all of them, though, are at pains to point out that not all men carry this chauvinistic attitude. “They are our fathers, brothers and sons after all,” says Saroj. Do they think that the emergence of more such women entrepreneurs will usher larger social change? All of them reply with a resounding yes. “The women who work for me have seen me at work. They have learnt not to tolerate violence at home. There is clearly a case for societal change,” says Bapna.

But for that to happen, the first thing to change should be the mindset of men. “I am surprised every time someone speaks of being married to a strong woman. How is that Indian men want strong and capable women to look after the house but at the same time they are against these strong women emerging on their own outside the house?” asks CWEI’s Singh. And that can begin in our heads and homes, right now.