Business Today

Flying solo

Women are taking to the entrepreneurial world with gusto.

Shalini S. Dagar        Print Edition: Nov 28, 2010

Shailja Dutt is not yet 40. In the fiercely-competitive world of executive search, she runs, perhaps, the only independent boutique firm, Stellar Search. At over Rs 10 crore in billings and with 20 people, Dutt spends a fair share of her time keeping prospective investors at bay. "I often think why would I want to sell? We do not need the money. If there is one reason, it is, perhaps, because sometimes it becomes very lonely," says Dutt. Indeed, an entrepreneur often ploughs a lonely furrow - and a woman entrepreneur in India even more so.

Dutt set up Stellar Search in 1998. A few years later, she saw the company almost disintegrate during her second pregnancy. "I had to ensure that even if I am not physically there, the company will survive. So as a first measure, I hired an HR head and then invested heavily in technology," adds Dutt.

Saloni Malhotra
Saloni Malhotra
Today most of that struggle is behind her. Her 20-strong team seamlessly manages Stellar Search's 50-60 clients even when Dutt makes her monthly visit to her family in Singapore for a week.

That is a snapshot of a successful new-age Indian woman entrepreneur for you - who builds an enterprise from scratch; who scales it up to a level from where it cannot fail; who encounters plenty of agony and tribulation on that journey; and who still finds the time to play the role of the perfect wife and mother. Phew. It is tough but it is also exhilarating, as a clutch of women like Dutt who are flying solo in the turbulence of business will agree.

Meet Nidhi Saxena, 34, who runs a roughly $2-million clinical research organisation, Karmic Lifesciences. Saxena set up the company in 2005, raised $1 million in venture funding, and has commitments for another $2 million. Her aim: to make Karmic a $30-40 million company in the next three to four years. "We are looking at an acquisition in the United States," she adds. That is not an isolated instance of female ambition. Consider, for instance, Saloni Malhotra, Founder of rural BPO DesiCrew Solutions. The company has over 250 employees and Malhotra is aiming for 1,000 in the next three years.

Common threads
Setting up a business calls for a giant leap of faith, and there are many women taking those leaps. Yet, overall, the numbers are still few, especially for those who have been able to scale up into double-digit crores in revenues. Chhaya Balachandran Aiyer, founder of digital advertising agency BC Web Wise, points out it is the balancing between home and work that can result in a slackening of the growth momentum. "The pressure of managing both ends means that your pursuit for scale can have its limitations. Most women do tread with more caution when it comes to how much time they can give their pursuits without affecting their home life," she says.

Why women make better entrepreneurs

  • They do not chase funding with just a business plan. "Women put more meat on the table," says Padmaja Ruparel, President of Indian Angel Network
  • They are better at knitting teams together
  • They have a natural flair for multitasking without losing focus

... And why there are so few of them

  • Have to manage a family along with the business
  • Marriage and children are perceived to be business wreckers
  • Attitudes toward women entrepreneurs are still primitive and immature
Most of the women entrepreneurs this writer met either have an extremely supportive spouse - or, like Saxena and Malhotra, have no spouse at all. Saxena is candid when she says that if she had a family she would not have been able to travel the amount that she does.

"One big disadvantage Indian women face is that they need to take on the burden of families more than American women do. Even when couples work together, the women end up having to take responsibility for the kids and to do all the chores," observes Vivek Wadhwa, Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization, and executive-inresidence at Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University.

Wadhwa recently stirred up a controversy in an online debate on the reason for the small number of female tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. He railed against one of the prevalent opinions that women would rather create babies than businesses. His subsequent collaborative research showed that there was almost no difference between men and women company founders. Both had an equally strong desire to create wealth; both were attracted to the culture of start-ups; and both had a long-standing desire to own a company.

Yet, the perception that women are better off rearing children is rampant, and is one of the biggest roadblocks they encounter in the world of business. Aiyer recounts her experience with "a client who refused to work with us because we had mostly women in our top team and the fact that the company was led by a woman". She adds candidly enough: "I have often felt that men do doubt a woman's capability at one level, and at another, they are insecure about themselves, too." DesiCrew's Malhotra, who is getting married next year, has had clients ask her: what will happen to the company after her wedding?

Nidhi Saxena
Nidhi Saxena
Anybody who believes that women can make babies but not businesses should meet Romira Roy. She has done both pretty well, and pretty much simultaneously. Roy is a co-founder and director of SEED, a social entrepreneurship venture started four years ago when Roy had a baby at home. SEED, which also has two associate firms - one for financial services and another for infrastructure creation - has some 2,500 employees. And, yes, Roy's husband has joined the venture.

To be sure, women entrepreneurs do get noticed. For a solid reason. Padmaja Ruparel, President of Indian Angel Network, or IAN, says women entrepreneurs attract a huge amount of respect because very few women come to IAN with just a business plan or a concept. "Women put more meat on the table. For example, one approached us for funding only when she had revenues of Rs 1.6 crore.

Another came to us after working out and proving the model over 12 months," she says. Women are also better at knitting teams together, adds Ruparel. And that is a skill that comes handy in a start-up phase.

For a woman-founded enterprise to thrive calls for an extra dash of all the regular ingredients you read about in success manuals: focus, grit, passion - and discipline to manage time not just for the business but for the family as well. That discipline may also be that extra something successful women entrepreneurs possess and what separates them from the boys as well as the men.

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