Hyderabad: While women constitute almost half of the Indian population, their share in entrepreneurship is low, despite improvements in social parameters. While COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on women all over the world, in India, which has a vast gender gap across almost all social indicators, women are even more vulnerable.
Women-owned businesses saw a sharp decline in revenue: 73 per cent reported being negatively impacted by the pandemic and almost 20 per cent were nearly wiped out.
Addressing this issue, WeHub, a start-up incubator exclusively for women entrepreneurs during the global pandemic, focused entirely on ensuring that their start-ups were able to sustain. It guided their start-ups with interventions needed in organisational management, financial remodelling, financial linkages, including debt and credit linkages, government liaising, new customer acquisition, product diversification, and ideation, including pivot on a few of our start-ups.
"With the steps being taken by the state and Central governments to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, we at WeHub are extending our support to women-led enterprises to sustain and scale and be prepared for the post-lockdown scenarios," said Deepthi Ravula, the CEO of WeHub, Telangana.
In the three years since its inception, WeHub has been working on becoming a unified physical platform bringing together the various intervention mechanisms in one place.
"We have created a fund of around Rs. 36.2 crores and incubated 148 start-ups, connected 43 partners, supported 276 start-ups across the ecosystem, and generated 305 jobs through start-ups so far. By building this conducive ecosystem, women entrepreneurs across sectors can have greater access to funding, technical support, and mentoring along with increased opportunities for growth domestically and in international markets," Deepthi added.
This year, they plan to start international start-up exchange programmes and build a stronger VC ecosystem so more women entrepreneurs can benefit from access to funding.
NewsMeter spoke to several women entrepreneurs to look at how women entrepreneurs are faring in India.
Hunar Online Courses: Nishtha Yogesh, Founder
With over 148 million literate but unemployed women in urban India, Hunar Online Courses was established in 2018 with the sole purpose of providing a unique and convenient learning platform for certified creative courses. The courses reskill Indian women, thereby enabling them to start their own businesses and earn recognition as well as financial independence.
For Nishtha Yogesh, CEO and founder of Hunar Online Courses, the pandemic had a silver lining as women had the time to take a step back and think about all that they've wanted to learn and achieve, just like so many other people who were caught up in the drudgery of daily life.
During the pandemic, Hunar focused on supporting their students in learning and making the most out of the courses and encouraged others to start building skills, too. "The outcome was amazing as a lot of our students learned garment making and started creating their supply of masks, for both commercial and charitable purposes," said Nishtha, who comes from a Chartered Accountancy and business background.
When asked about Hunar's plan for 2021, Nishtha promptly replied, "The future holds a lot of things in store for Hunar and its students. We plan to introduce numerous courses this year, enhance the learning journey of our students, and give them even more platforms and support to use their skill to start their own businesses."
Most of their students are homemakers (with some students and professionals) hailing from tier 2 and tier 3 cities. With over five lakh app downloads and thousands of students who've learned a certified skill, started their own home businesses, and gained financial independence, Nishtha learned that with the right guidance, given a choice and chance, all of these women have the potential and desire to learn and create and become whatever they wish to.
"Our dream is to be able to provide re-skilling opportunities to every homemaker in our country and help them gain financial independence," she added.
Nishtha believes women entrepreneurs should have staunch conviction in their vision and should be ready to go the extra mile to the make a difference in the world and everything else will fall into place.
Forward Parcel: Chetana Somavarapu, Co-founder
Chetana Somavarapu, the founder of www.forwardparcel.com - a parcel forwarding service from India, takes pride in being an entrepreneur (yes, just an entrepreneur and not a woman entrepreneur, as they are not two different things). Having lived most of her adult life outside India, she felt the immediate need for a service to shop and ship from India with ease without depending on anybody.
Chetana and Rajesh Gavini, a wife-husband team, moved their entire life because of a tiny twitch of an idea in Chetana's head. Founded in 2020, Chetana says, the first month of lockdown was the worst and left the couple physically and emotionally drained.
"Customer inquiries died down. The nationwide lockdown forced us to close our offices and warehouses for 45 days. The whole country was shut down. Though our problems were menial compared to the many, they were still substantial - zero business, pending salaries, costs piling up, and customer orders stuck in limbo," said Chetana, who has 15 years of experience in operations, people management, logistics, graphic design, and digital marketing.
The future was looking bleak for Forward Parcel. But, after almost two months of uncertainty, they were allowed to run conditional operations. "We had no money to spend on marketing. No new money was coming in and staff couldn't travel to work. The best we could do was cut our costs and get on with the job. Our only agenda was to fulfill the incomplete orders," she said.
They resumed shipping but with a lot of hassle. "Most of them couldn't believe that we even managed to deliver at all. Then, the inquiries started. People started calling in from all the corners of the world," she added.
Forward Parcel now cautiously walks into 2021 with a renewed confidence, as last year has been a year of enlightenment which got them into a leaner working model. This year, they plan to strive to make the platform even more user-friendly and scale-up their operations.
"I think for all entrepreneurs, challenges, and lessons of the last year will add fuel to this year's business. We live and we learn to build a stronger ecosystem," she said.
Clan Earth: Priyanka Mandal, Co-Founder
Priyanka Mandal started Clan Earth a month-and-a-half before the lockdown was imposed. As this firm makes innovative sustainable and plastic-free products, COVID-19 restrictions brought the operations to a near standstill for a week.
"Orders went down to zero. Our artisan had nothing to make. But we quickly found out our strengths and methods to keep operations going. For example, we placed a sewing machine at our master craftsman's home along with materials which ensured that he could continue working from his home," recalled Priyanka, who has experience in IT, finance domain, and has worked in the social sector in the slums of Kolkata.
Due to the pandemic, last year was slower in terms of orders and that affected their numbers. As Clan Earth is an asset-light firm and has built a community of like-minded people, apart from a good digital presence, it helped them survive and sail through the pandemic.
"During the pandemic, we strategized to bring in smaller products to keep things rolling and also came up with never-seen-before offers on our most loved products. We were also 100 per cent digital from day one and that ensured that none of our products was stuck in any offline stores for months," she said.
This year the start-up plans to collaborate with different sustainability-focused brands to introduce more ways of living sustainably. They introduced waxed canvas, cork, bamboo and upcycled coconut shells in 2020 and look forward to some novel, innovative, and sustainable fabrics this year.
"Using sustainable material to make our products, plastic-free packaging, planting five trees per product sold, working with experienced local artisans, modelling with young adults from the slums of Kolkata, and naming our products after endangered animals to raise awareness, we are strongly fulfilling our vision. Our outlook for 2021 is positive and that of growth and strong community building," she further added.
Priyanka emphasis on the importance of building a community on social media platforms for start-ups. "A tight-knit social media community will be the one that will keep your start-up afloat when things go haywire. For young women entrepreneurs today, it is important to invest in building a digital presence. It will not just save you money and time but also hedge them against future situations like COVID-19," she said.
Cydee: Monika Jha, Founder
Founded in 2017 by Monika Jha, Cydee has developed a unique, patent-pending street light fixture with higher dispersion angle to effectively reduce the number of luminaires required to illuminate a stretch of road by up to 60 per cent, saving up to 30 per cent energy consumption.
Like most start-ups, Cydee, too, was not ready to face the pandemic and had no security net to fall back on. It was mentally straining to see all their pipelines collapse and incoming funds halt. It essentially meant the death of Cydee by May 2020.
However, they were fortunate to have received a project from Selco Foundation and Social Alpha which kept them afloat for a couple of months and helped executing some meaningful projects during the pandemic till they could regenerate some leads.
"We made the best of the opportunity without diversifying drastically out of our core mission of making developing countries safer and enabling women to not fear the night. We could deploy customized solar lights in far off rural sites in the quarantine centres of Manipur and realised that sustainable lighting infrastructure will serve as a core necessity even in a pandemic. All we needed to do was identify and directly reach out to the beneficiaries and serve them," said Monika, an electrical and electronics graduate who has experience in product design and operations.
For 2021, Monika's mission for Cydee is to illuminate 10 million sq meter. of area, reduce 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emission, and save 600MW in the process using their patented technology. "We are working with MSMEs to generate employment. In the process, we will be supporting 200 MSMEs working in manufacturing and skilled individuals in the installation and servicing of these road infrastructures deployed in suburban and urban sites," she added.
As the founder of an early-stage start-up, she said it is a requirement for women entrepreneurs to be candid and open about the present and future of the firm with the teammates. "I strongly believe that start-ups can succeed faster by asking for the right resource and advice from the right people. Being candid and curious, asking more questions, and knowing your assumptions will help the entrepreneurs in learning things faster," she said.