East or West, women-headed startups face obstacles in a man’s world
Women entrepreneurs face different challenges and more obstacles than their male counterparts, when breaking into the world of business a webinar that brought together three women, who head startups in India and Germany heard.
Yet, the three panelists were in agreement that being resilient and pushing against those obstacles is the way to go about making a dent in what is predominantly a man’s world.
It is about adopting a two-way system explained Shika Shah, Founder and CEO of ALTMAT, India. One is the ‘structure and mechanism to weaken the glass ceiling, and the other is giving more power to the women trying to break it. Either way, it will make a change.’
Elly Oldenburg, Manager of DEI in Germany while stating that women entrepreneurs in her country have better access to capital and expert advice, pointed out that even so, ‘women get more questions about how they can manage risk.’ This is why there should be more stories about successful women, she added.
The webinar held on November 9 and titled ‘Women Startups: Breaking the Glass Ceiling’ to mark India Week Hamburg, was organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) South Asia along with the German Indian startup Exchange program (GINSEP) and the German Asia-Pacific Business Association.
The speakers at the session were Shah, Oldenburg and, Sowmya Thyagarajan, Co-Founder/CEO of Foviatech GmbH, who straddles both countries. Julian Zix, Project Lead GINSEP at German Startups Association, Berlin, Germany, moderated the session.
Women entrepreneurs prefer businesses in the Health and Green economies, Zix said. In both India and Germany women branching out into their businesses face similar obstacles, particularly when seeking funding, he added “It is with the Angel funders that women face issues with less than 5.2 percent of them getting funding.”
He said there were around 35,000 startups headed by women in India and around 9,000 in Germany. “In both countries, the percentage of women entrepreneurs is less than 20 percent compared to men with 15 percent in India and 17.7 percent in Germany.”
Delivering the opening remarks at the webinar, Consul General for India in Hamburg John H Roulngul said his country was working on creating funds and a conducive ecosystem for startups. “Startup India” is the third-largest such ecosystem in the world with an estimated value of Euro 1.5 billion.
He pointed out that men remain dominant in the start-up area and there has been only a 1 percentage increase in the number of women entering this field in the past decade. “Women also tend to go into Social Entrepreneurship or ventures which are science-based,” he said.
Despite their lower numbers, there were notable successes. He pointed to Anisha Singh who created and heads Mydala which is one of the biggest companies doing local transactions in India. The company has 38 million registered users.
Thyagarajan, whose company is engaged in transforming healthcare and transportation through smart automation and digitization programs explained that she meets the challenges by using her “Indian brain and Indian genes and my German training and I try to balance the two.
I don’t think of people as men or women, I go with my own judgment of the situation.” Quoting Friedrich Naumann, she added ‘“if we want to be truly Liberal then we must free ourselves.”
Asked whether she has faced bias when dealing with investors she says there is no gender bias as such.
“It all depends on our product. There are so many other products out there and it all depends on the product I am selling.” But, she acknowledges male investors do direct more difficult questions to women.
Thyagarajan’s family was not into business. Her father was a banker her mother was self-employed and a homemaker. It is the latter she credits for both inspiring her and providing the seed money for her enterprise.
Being in Germany, she also has support from organizations such as the German Asia-PacificBusiness Association (OAV) as well as friends and family. “There’s one investor who is in his ‘seventies and is in a wheelchair.”
Oldenburg who switched from working full-time at Google to a part-time position to pursue her dream of running a business is a co-founder of ‘encourageventures’ that supports a network of 59 women find funding and business opportunities. Through her other business DEI, she trains those who want to become entrepreneurs.
Her decision to be less involved in the safe corporate world was met with queries she says. She spent three years trying out different options- coaching, mentoring, and as a consultant to startups, when she decided to move out of being fully engaged in the corporate world, Oldenburg explained.
But that gave the opportunity to shake things up a bit from within and outside the corporate world, she added.
There must, she said be more women in leadership roles, adding that the challenges faced by women and other marginalized groups are the same. When women make a pitch for a startup the questions posed are different from those asked of the men.
It is an ‘ unconscious bias’ Oldenburg claims, pointing out that women are asked about the risks involved and about managing costs, men are asked about the market for their products. Therefore, it is necessary to have more objectivity when deciding who should receive funding.
Investors will listen to a presentation by a woman entrepreneur and then ask if they are sure, says Shah, who points out that even if the first questions are weird, women need to be firm and unfazed when responding.
Though hailing from a business family, Shah says she was the first woman in her extended family to become an entrepreneur. Her family is in the recycling business.
It is trying, Shah, says to be asked whether she is the sole owner of her company and whether the actual owner is her father. But she uses such instances to sharpen her negotiating skills and turn the situation to her advantage.
It is best to avoid ranting about the unfairness of it all and not let it distract from the purpose. If the first attempt at obtaining funding fails, women must go back and show their achievements she explains. When the investor is shown that a, b and c have been achieved, that is displaying “soft power, because the other side would not expect you to achieve that.
Shah, whose enterprise is engaged in producing a cotton-like material out of plant waste for clothes, upholstery for vehicles, shoes, etc. also says that depending on the culture, women entrepreneurs face different challenges. In developing countries, a woman’s success is measured by her ability to be a ‘good wife and mother.’
Describing why she chose this particular field, Shah says during her undergraduate studies in India, she realized that the textile supply chain is an extremely polluted industry.
Studying for her Master’s in the United States, she had been assigned a project involving agriculture, prompting her to consider using agricultural waste to produce textiles. Most are unaware she says that clothes contain plastic and polyester. Her company uses stems and leaves of agricultural crops to produce the cotton-like substance to be used in the textile and other industries.
Thyagarajan advises women venturing into the business world to change their mindset and to move away from being low-risk-takers, while Shah believes that to succeed, it is best to decide which battles should be fought. Getting distracted by the unfair practices of society will not help therefore, women must pick which battles they must fight.
The passion to change the world requires courage and support from all quarters says Oldenburg; ‘It takes a village to raise a child, and it is the same with a startup- a network of women supporting women to change structures, mindsets and to break the ceiling.