Hyderabad “the entrepreneurship capital of India,” is all set to receive Ivanka Trump and hundreds of “emerging entrepreneurs, investors, and business leaders from around the world,” for the eighth edition of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2017 (GES 2017), this month.
“The eminent annual gathering” is expected to set the social media on fire with selfies and #hastags such as #GES2017 #IvankaTrump #WomenFirst as entrepreneurs & startup enablers mingle, network, learn and educate each other during the three-day event.
According to the organisers of the summit, GES 2017 will “create an environment that empowers innovators, particularly women, to take their ideas to the next level.”
The challenges faced by entrepreneurs, in general, is well known and documented; however, the struggle of women entrepreneurs that are either ignored or so discreet that it escapes scrutiny and debate.
Here I present experiences of two women entrepreneurs to highlight the barriers, bias, and discrimination faced by them in their entrepreneurial journey and how to navigate around it.
#Story 1- A women entrepreneur from Kabul: For many surviving in Afghanistan can be a challenge let alone doing business.
On top of it, if you are a women entrepreneur, like Afsana Rahimi, then words cannot describe the odds stacked against you.
Afsana runs a media management and production company and is the Chairperson of Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Before venturing into the world of entrepreneurship, she gained critical business knowledge while working as the marketing manager at the Killid group, a Kabul based media company.
She played a crucial role in the expansion of the Killid Kabul FM radio from one station to ten stations across Afghanistan.
Though she had to wait till 2012 to start her venture, however, the entrepreneurial streak was visible very early on.
“I remember I was four years old and in 1st grade when I did my first business deal,” says Rahimi.
She further explains, “my father’s friend owned a dry fruit store,” and he needed paper for packing.
“He asked me if I wanted to exchange used notebooks for dry fruit. Next day I gathered all used books I could find and exchanged it for dry fruits.”
# Story2 – A women entrepreneur from Jammu & Kashmir:
India as a civilization has worshiped womanhood in various forms- be it as a warrior or a symbol of wealth, education and or companion to name a few.
Though Indian customs put women at the forefront of its cultural ethos however as a society, it has confined women within rigid boundaries.
Even in today’s age, it takes a strong will to challenge some of the traditional biases, according to Damini Mahajan, a first-generation entrepreneur who hails from the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Damini cofounded WeMakeScholars, a platform that helps students find suitable programs, scholarship, and loans from across the global.
She comes from a traditional family where “girls are not expected to earn a professional degree let alone start a company.”
She not only challenged this stereotype by doing an engineering degree she went on to complete masters from the UK and upon return to India she relocated to Hyderabad to start a company.
Mahajan along with a college mate launched a beta version of their startup idea on Facebook, and in short time it attracted over one lakh users.
Enthused by the initial response a portal, supported by AI, the company was launched in 2015.
This two years old startup now has 30 lakhs active user from over 200 countries. It also received funding and grant from the government of India under the start-up program.
The two women entrepreneurs share lessons on how to remain motivated and focused while marching toward your goal.
1.Passion is the fuel for success: In the past 15 years, I have interacted with numerous women entrepreneurs, especially those working in conflict zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and South Sudan, I found one common trait that connects them all; the intense hunger to succeed against all the odds.
Though geographies and culture separate Afsana and Damini, their fierce passion binds them together.
The May 2017 suicide attack in Kabul left 400 people dead and hundreds injured.
In the massive explosion, Rahimi’s media studio was destroyed.
She and her staff escaped the blast by 20 minutes’ difference. “I told myself, God gave me a second life. I must make the most of it. If I don’t, my inside power would be in question – I told myself you need to start from zero,” says Afsana.
And with that unbreakable will, she started the rebuilding her business the very next day after the blast.
2. Winning family support is critical:“When your family is not holding you back, it is a big support,” says Rahimi.
She further adds, “even if you are capable or have money but if the family does not support you, it is of no use you cannot do work peacefully.”
According to Mahajan, her biggest challenge was convening her family to let her relocate to Hyderabad to start her venture.
Her persistence and rebel streak helped her win her family support.
3. Don’t let them cross the line: Irrespective of the geography, culture and region women entrepreneurs seem to be on the top of the pack when it comes to stereotyping.
According to Damini, investors tend to prefer male founders over female founders, and a few “also want to know your marriage plans” before they take a call on funding women-led start-ups.
Such discriminating mindset is not uncommon.
Thus, when it happens, it is essential to give a firm response so that people don’t cross the line between professional and personal life, says Mahajan.
4. Grab opportunities with both hands:“I thought even if I work for another ten years- I would still be an employee. I wanted to be my boss,” says Afsana.
After working and building Radio Killid for over eight years, Rahimi decided to venture out.
When she submitted her resignation, her employer offered her sweat equity in Shayar media services.
“I grabbed the opportunity without blinking as it was a win-win situation for both. I was getting be my boss, and the group was retaining talent,” says Afsana.
5. Connect with mentor and expand your network: According to Rahimi “networking is very important and not just with women but across the ecosystem.”
However, networking is one big grey area where most women including working women feel left out.
Local startup ecosystem and enablers could play a key role in creating a conducive networking environment for women.
Damini has three mentors who bring different skill sets, and she relies on them for guidance.
“There are times when you have to take a call or make choices at such time a mentor can bring valuable insight.”
The challenge of being an entrepreneur in conflict zones is lack of resources such as mentors and enablers. Thus, Rahimi joined an “e-mentoring program in the US’ and she continues to learn by networking with global entrepreneurs.
Women entrepreneurs, across geographies and cultures, face similar challenges –however, it is their will to succeed and rebel streak that continues to fuel their passion.