Making Way in the Male-dominated Entrepreneurial Landscape: Women Entrepreneurs Share Challenges

As the number of women entrepreneurs continues to grow in India, does the business environment ensure a smooth journey for them? Women entrepreneurs in Tier 1 cities shared stories of harassment, bias, judgment, and societal pressure.

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Women entrepreneurs share challenges

Geeta Singh was shocked to witness the behavior of her employees, who locked her in her cabin from the inside and intimidatingly sat in front of her, demanding higher designations in the company and the authority to manage an event to be organized in Delhi. What was even more shocking for this founder and director, who runs a PR agency named The Yellow Coin Communications in the national capital, is the fact that these were the same employees she had hired to solve their financial problems. 'Since I was pregnant, they opined that I should delegate my work and even threatened me for that in my own cabin,' Singh says. What came to her rescue was a stick that she always kept under her table, which she threatened to use on the employees if they did not stop harassing her.

The low level of participation of women in the entrepreneurial infrastructure of the Indian economy, and the causes contributing to it, is not a new talking point. While the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report highlights how the number of female founders has grown in the country by 2.68x between 2016 and 2021, women entrepreneurs across industries continue to face various constraints from stakeholders of businesses, often mixed with sociocultural hindrances in the form of crimes like harassment and morally unethical practices like biases and judgments. Surprisingly, these elements do not only exist for women in the MSME sector – counted as the largest share for women entrepreneurs in India – but also for those working in the service sector with strong educational, professional, and family backgrounds.


Geeta Singh, the founder and director of The Yellow Coin Communications

A big player in the healthcare domain once rejected Geeta Singh’s ideas under the pretext that 'males understand the healthcare industry better,' however, they later used her ideas on several occasions without paying her a fair share for the same. 'A lot of clients ask me if I will be able to manage an event late at night being a woman or if I could also 'supply girls' to the event, while many also try to make advances through texts and calls,' the 36-year-old says, adding that many clients do not even pay the full amount, leading to her fighting court cases. Operating the office from her housing society in the initial days, Singh says she was often questioned and judged by her neighbors as male clients would often visit until late in the evening. Many times, she also had to hear comments like, 'Girls do not do such businesses.'

As a matter of fact, the NSSO counts 10 industries that account for just over 90 percent of women-led firms in urban India, including apparel, retail, textile, personal services, education, miscellaneous manufacturing, restaurants, food, and health. But biases do not cease to stop for women even in these industries. Ananya Kapur, the founder of Type Beauty Inc., who comes from a well-established family with a business background, says that her grandparents—also entrepreneurs—would question her for coming home late from work. While she has been supported by her family, oftentimes, she has encountered people calling her business a 'little cosmetic stall' or making comments like, 'You are a girl. Of course, you run a make-up brand,' reinforcing the idea that women can only handle businesses related to beauty.


Ananya Kapur, the founder of Type Beauty INC

Kapur, a 25-year-old from Delhi, has noticed bias mainly while dealing with manufacturers for her brand. 'Manufacturing is highly dominated by men, and they are not accustomed to dealing with women. I have seen them not taking me seriously,' she says. Kapur recounts an incident when a manufacturer only sent the products intended for a launch after a male employee from Kapur’s brand took the lead in communication with them. 'When I spoke to him on the phone to arrange the products, he didn't take me seriously, implying that I was getting 'emotional' about the delivery of the products for no reason,' the founder says.


Harshita Rai, the founder of The Skin Diet Company. 

In a similar incident, Harshita Rai, the founder of Mumbai-based The Skin Diet Company, had to send a male employee to a factory in Thane to ensure timely product delivery. Reflecting on her experiences dealing with vendors and suppliers from Gujarat, Rai notes, 'They do not speak to me properly. When I am accompanied by male employees, they receive more respect than I do, even though I am the founder,' the 27-year-old says, adding that many vendors would only negotiate with her male employees, not her directly, which was unsettling at the beginning. Rai also mentions instances where she would wait for hours to meet with manufacturers, only for men arriving later than her to be seen first and have their work prioritized. 'Vendors often inquire about backing from fathers or husbands before engaging with us,' Rai adds.


Devanshi Tripathi, the founder of North Star Cafe. 

When Devanshi Tripathi, now the founder of North Star Cafe in Bengaluru, was searching for a space to start the outlet, she was once denied the opportunity to see the property by a landowner. 'They could not comprehend a woman starting a cafe by herself,' Tripathi says. Even years after the cafe's inception, people in her hometown of Lucknow still wonder whether Tripathi has established her work alone or with the support of her husband.

Tripathi candidly admits to sending male employees to government departments and police stations for permits related to the cafe, and even to meet with locals. 'The work is easily done when they handle these interactions,' the 33-year-old says, adding that while such a system needs to end, what matters most to her is getting the work done smoothly.

Bengaluru-based Sneha Choudhry, the co-founder and CEO of Zolostays, often deals with real estate developers and prefers to bring a male colleague along. 'Real estate is dominated by men, and developers connect better with my male colleagues than with me,' she says. Although Choudhry mentions that they still close deals with her, she believes that establishing personal connections like this helps in future business dealings.


Sneha Choudhry, the co-founder and the CEO of Zolostays

While Sneha Choudhry finds such an arrangement acceptable, she believes that societal pressure cannot be ignored. 'We are expected to prove ourselves in every role and with perfection,' she says. The 38-year-old mother of two took a one-year break from work during the initial phase of motherhood and experienced a dilemma about returning to work. 'I would often worry about meal schedules and the well-being of my kids, believing that my friends’ kids were treated better with more attention,' Choudhry says, adding that it took a toll on her mental health and led her to question her ability to return to work.


Shouger Merchant Doshi, the founder and CEO of Rainmaker Consults. 

Shouger Merchant Doshi, the founder and CEO of Rainmaker Consults, a Mumbai-based PR agency, also faced similar societal pressure when she decided to return to work five months after giving birth. 'I was questioned a lot about my decision to return and why I couldn't wait longer, as the child was still small,' the 40-year-old says. Doshi observes that women are always asked how they will manage a household alongside their work, while men are exempt from such questions.


Leshna Shah, the founder of Irasva Fine Jewellery

Leshna Shah, the founder of Irasva Fine Jewellery, was previously associated with her husband’s company, Renaissance Global Limited, before starting her own brand, which is also a subsidiary of the same company. However, she says that she made more sacrifices than her husband to maintain the family. 'I could have been more successful had I not given up my job,' the 45-year-old says. While Shah mentions that her husband has been her backbone throughout her journey, she also admits to experiencing situations where she was not taken seriously in the parent company by others, despite being the wife of the owner.


Sonica Malhotra Khandhari, the current MD at MDB Group. 

Similarly, when Sonica Malhotra Khandhari ventured into the hospitality segment of her renowned family company, MDB Group, despite belonging to a well-established family that had entrusted her with the responsibility to lead the hospitality project, she faced questions about her dedication to the business. "People would think that I was pursuing it as a hobby and was not serious about the business because I was a girl," the Delhi-based entrepreneur says, adding that people also questioned what a girl could do in finance, despite her MBA in Finance from Management Institute (IMI), Delhi. As a finance major, she now handles corporate finance, taxation, legal matters, and audits for the entire MDB Group.


Eesha Sukhi, the founder of The BlueBop cafe. 

Eesha Sukhi, the founder of The BlueBop cafe, who has held top positions in popular MNCs in India for the last 15 years, has observed that men often resist taking orders from women in leadership roles. 'They take everything as a challenge to their ego,' she says. Recounting a common behavior, she adds, 'Some male entrepreneurs behave as if they are unaware of my brand at events, solely due to their 'male egos,' even though I know they are familiar with it.' Sukhi also faces questions about her choice of running a business, with some suggesting she could opt for a more comfortable, well-paying job instead.

Sukhi identifies investors as a major challenge. 'Investors are often reluctant to invest in women-led brands due to the assumption that they may not yield returns. Many believe that women will prioritize their family life over the business, leading them to withdraw their support,' she explains. She attributes this thinking to the perception that women are not seen as primary providers for their families but rather as 'complementary' to the main providers.


Harlin Sachdeva, the founder and the CEO of House of Makeup. 

Harlin Sachdeva, the founder and CEO of House of Makeup, has noticed that investors often prefer to discuss business matters with her male colleagues and employees under the assumption that 'men understand numbers better.' The Mumbai-based founder also mentions that investors tend to negotiate more rigorously with her simply because of her gender. In the retail industry, distributors sometimes underestimate Sachdeva's negotiation skills, assuming that 'a woman may not negotiate as effectively.' 'People often perceive women entrepreneurs as pursuing a business as a hobby and therefore do not take them seriously,' Sachdeva adds.


Rinku Suchanti, the founder of FIKAA. 

Even for Rinku Suchanti, who runs the investment application FIKAA, biases arise due to her involvement in a finance-related business. 'My friends often suggest that my business would fare better if I used my husband’s face as the brand,' says the 52-year-old from Mumbai. Suchanti believes that this perception can only change if more women take prominent roles in the finance sector, as she did. After spending many years as a homemaker, she realized her dependence on her husband for finance-related matters and decided to start her own business.

While biases are common for women in finance, a field with low female participation, women also face challenges in areas traditionally considered suitable for them, such as education. Alka Kapur, the current Principal of Modern Public School, Shalimar Bagh, Delhi, was discouraged from pursuing further education by her father-in-law, who was then the owner and principal of the school. 'He made the decision for me, and I respected it,' says the 55-year-old. Despite this setback, she persisted in her pursuit of education and is now on the verge of completing her PhD.


Alka Kapur, the Principal of Modern Public School

On the other hand, like any woman entrepreneur, she was expected to balance both work and family responsibilities. This included handling court cases related to property and electricity disputes for her school when she assumed the role of principal back in 2000, all while ensuring that her family life remained intact. Reflecting on this, she says, 'As women, we have to choose our battles, and I chose both.'

The 51-year-old Kaveri Lalchand, now the founder of the clothing label KAVERI, often encountered skepticism about what a 'girl could do in a factory environment' when she joined her family's garment business. 'You have to prove yourself every time. People can only doubt you as long as you allow them to,' Lalchand says. While the Chennai entrepreneur exudes confidence in her conversations, she also acknowledges her strength in navigating male-dominated environments such as factories.


Kaveri Lalchand, the founder of KAVERI

In discussing the key to success for young women entrepreneurs, Lalchand, who has also been conferred with the Outstanding Women Entrepreneur Award by FICCI FLO's Women Achievers Awards, says, 'Conviction and clarity of purpose become the armor of women in the entrepreneurial world. These are the only things that can shield you.

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