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Idli Amma to Falguni Nayar: The state of women’s entrepreneurship

By Sanjay Shah

The story of ‘Idli Amma’ from Coimbatore is well known. For 30 years, this humble octogenarian has used a wood-fired stove to cook idlis for poor daily wage workers. She made the steaming hot idlis in a tiny shop and sold them for just Re 1. In 2019, her Idli Amma’s story went viral, and industrialist Anand Mahindra, struck by her entrepreneurial nature, undertook to build a new home-cum-workspace for her with an LPG connection. Idli Amma, whose real name is Kamalathal, now runs a proper business, inspiring thousands of women across India to take to entrepreneurship. When a strong sense of purpose and a long-term commitment combined with a skill that has value, support often follows.

Theoretically, this should make it easier for women entrepreneurs to find support because they are, more often than not, driven by a mission that has the power to override the odds.

The good news is that women entrepreneurs are making headlines. Falguni Nayar, who built Nykaa, India’s biggest cosmetic e-tailer, recently went public with a highly successful IPO.

After listing, Nayar has become one of the wealthiest self-made women in India, with a net worth of $7.4 billion. Nayar started her business at the age of 50 with no experience and waited almost a decade to become the legend she now is. India has produced several notable women entrepreneurs: Shahnaz Hussian of Shahnaz Herbals, Vandana Luthra of VLCC, Menaka Bhandary of Blown, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw of Biocon, Upasana Taku of Mobikwik, Aditi Gupta of Menstrupedia, Divya Gokulnath of Byju’s, and Patricia Narayan, who sold cutlets and samosas on Chennai’s Marina Beach and went on to become the director of the Sandeepha Chain of restaurants.

The bad news is that women entrepreneurs aren’t emerging fast enough. India ranked 70 on the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute’s Female Entrepreneurship Index (of 77 countries on the index). Here is another perspective of where India stands vis-à-vis women’s entrepreneurship: Today (2021), just 20 percent 1 of India’s 63.3 million micro, small and medium businesses 2 are owned by women. Of these, 62 percent are in rural areas 3 , running businesses that make dairy products, snacks, pickles, extract fruit pulp, etc.

By comparison, according to figures from the World Bank, one in three small, medium and large businesses globally are owned by women 4 . India has a reasonable distance to go before it meets or exceeds the world average.

The challenge women entrepreneurs in India face are twofold. One, finance is not easily available to them. Not every entrepreneur can hope to benefit from the benevolence of an Anand Mahindra. When women entrepreneurs apply for loans, their applications are delayed or rejected. Although the Prime Minister launched the 59-minute loan portal to enable access to credit for MSMEs in 2018 5 , women do not have the collateral or have inadequate knowledge of these schemes to take advantage of them. Additionally, many women-owned MSMEs are unregistered, forcing them to use personal savings to grow or sustain their businesses. Two, there are psychological, cultural and gender biases that place barriers in the way of business. For example, something as simple as renting office space is difficult for women.

A third factor that is often ignored but needs attention is the availability of guidance and mentorship. There is an urgent need to ensure that women entrepreneurs understand the various government-based schemes aimed at MSMEs and have access to expertise in areas such as business planning, human resource management, legal affairs, accounting and taxation, technology, negotiation skills and marketing. Having a mentor provides women with the opportunity to access larger industry-specific networks, gain visibility and add to their confidence of being successful. There is adequate evidence to suggest that formal workshops, boot camps, and training programs to accelerate women’s entrepreneurship are required aside from government incentives and support.

Women entrepreneurs hold the key to creating an estimated 150 to 170 million jobs in India by 2030 6 . They could propel the percentage of women in India’s labor force, positively and substantially impacting GDP. And there is the invisible factor related to women’s entrepreneurship that cannot be measured or quantified: They demonstrate better collaboration, creativity and empathy. These are qualities that improve the business and employment environment across the nation.

Idli Amma and Falguni Nayar constitute the entire spectrum of women entrepreneurs in India, and the potential women hold to impact society at every level. They are role models who can power a million entrepreneurial dreams. The responsibility of fast-tracking these dreams falls upon the government and the business and investors eco-system.

Source: Times of India

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