When Sri Chahal launched SHEROES in 1999, the term “woman entrepreneur” was novel. Almost a decade later, both the scope and the number of women entrepreneurs in India have increased. On the occasion of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, Chehal talks about her long and bright journey as a founder and now a coach in an exclusive interview with Business Today. Edited excerpts:
BT: You started SHEROES almost a decade ago. How did you build and shape the community of female entrepreneurs since then?
Series 4: I never thought I would be a tech entrepreneur. My roots are in a small town in Punjab and my parents still live there. But I got a little lucky! In 1999, I was the first person on a team at a tech company to experience the entire journey, literally from an idea on a napkin to exit. My work at SHEROES is based on two core insights: first, technology is a huge enabler, and second, women don’t sit at the table. Movements like Amul, self-help groups, and cooperative microfinance institutions that have existed in India inspired me for SHEROES. This social network has always existed, it just wasn’t supported by technology. The first version of SHEROES was just a community of jobs and businesses. Literally a small community of women who care about their careers, try to get back to work, try to find flexible work and then leave. It then evolved into a community and women-only platform – a space for women to get online in a high-trust environment. The interesting hook for us was: “Women Only”. Culturally, “women only” is something in India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and maybe Latin America, and that’s the unique filter we applied. While Safe Space for Women was only an offline thing, we brought it online. Over the past decade, we’ve grown the community to 25 million strong women who’ve realized the power of the internet to take real charge of their lives and the #TakeCharge campaign. They want to communicate and are enthusiastic, creative and very entrepreneurial. In 2021, we also launched our sister company Mahila Money, a complete financial products and services platform for women in India. Mahila Money fuels the growth of women entrepreneurs by reimagining their participation as consumers of financial services.
BT: Over time, SHEROES has deepened its reach. What do you think about the increasing rise of Indian women for entrepreneurship?
Series 4: In India, women are interrogated for everything from going out with friends to choosing what to wear. But agency is multiplied for a woman with a mobile device. In an average home today, most people have one device. It also shows the strength of our network – from a few thousand members when we started to the 25 million women who now benefit from the ecosystem. When we launched our social marketplace, SHOPonSHEROES, last year, we saw women take the first step towards starting their own business, and over 12,000 women now have their own online stores on SHEROES. It did not end there. Earlier this year, we launched WomenWill, a free Google-certified business course on SHEROES for women entrepreneurs who wanted to do more and were looking for formal business training. Today, there is this huge wave of aspiration in India – the attitude of main kuch karna প্র্তাহ hoon (“I want to do something”). Across demographics, age and class divides, desire is the common binding factor in what we do. Women aspire to be recognized, independent and part of new technology. This is the hunger we have found in women who want to be entrepreneurs across India. We are still a country where only 9% of women have a formal job, meaning the rest of these women are basically looking for different ways to generate income.
BT: Lack of skills, finance and family support – were once the biggest barriers to the growth of women entrepreneurs. Have things changed over the decade?
Series 4: If we want women to be entrepreneurs, we must provide them with appropriate capital and opportunities. We need purpose-driven institutions, and we need great technology to support them. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the changes that can be made possible because women are ready to take charge with access to the right resources. For example, with WomenWill Google, the free business and skills training program at SHEROES, we saw an entrepreneur who had to close her business during the pandemic gain the confidence to restart her career in the process of completing the course. to invent He overcame depression, started a training center and started earning money again. From having no income to get Rs 10,000 a month was all he needed at that time. Another lady came to us with a request for a washing machine loan, which is under the title of consumer goods loan. When we asked her why she wanted this, she told us that she lives in a joint family and spends two hours every day doing laundry. “If I buy this washing machine, I want to use those two hours for my business.” The whole field changed with this idea – because he decided to devote two hours of his working time to running his business. A lot of our work revolves around that woman wanting to do more. And big changes are happening there.
BT: Funding your dream – Is funding still a barrier for a woman who has an idea and wants to build on it?
Series 4: Digitalization is changing the process of creating a company. There is a new breed of women entrepreneurs who are redefining MSME. These are women who run online boutiques, tailoring units, coaching centers, grocery businesses or online yoga studios. We don’t recognize such companies because they are not official, so we don’t fund them either. These women are not recognized by government schemes, so she is beyond microfinance, and not big enough for a bank, so she is stuck in the middle. Most women in India do not inherit or own property. So how do they get unsecured loans for individual small businesses? She doesn’t want to go to her husband because it would only complicate her relationship with him and put her in a lower hierarchy than she already is. I think a lot of creative solutions between technology companies and regulators can be partnered in this area. The idea is to help women get back on their feet and continue to support entrepreneurs. He may need a loan today as an individual, he will most likely employ 10 people by the end of the year.
BT: We’ve also seen a lot of women get into startups and then start soon enough – do you think a lot of women give up too soon?
Series 4: I think that’s a big enough problem statement and it’s important to understand the “why”. I have been an entrepreneur more than once. Not only do women earn less capital, but the world women entrepreneurs see is very different from what their male counterparts do. With less than 2% of funding due to widespread biases and lack of access and resources, funding for women is hard to come by. Also, there is nobody for profitable small business in the vicinity of 2-5 million rupees, this is one of the stuck sectors. It still has the same overhead and legal framework as a large business. If we want to encourage women entrepreneurs, we need to relax a little and focus on women’s entrepreneurship at the policy level. Indian women have deep aspirations for financial independence. With limited jobs available, entrepreneurship is the engine that can drive this revolution. At SHEROES, we know this and continue to do the same. Mahila Money Loans and SHEROES Capital, which provides access to angel investment and seed capital for women-led businesses, are both steps in this direction. Women’s access to capital deserves the same passion for creating unicorns, and we need to put more capital into the hands of women-led startups to fuel their success.
BT: What is your prediction for the growth of entrepreneurship among Indian women in the next decade?
Series 4: Over the past year, Mahila Money’s credit disbursements have increased 400 times, helping women entrepreneurs build their businesses and meet working capital needs. More than 60% of these women were newly employed. Entrepreneurship is definitely going mainstream and micro-entrepreneurs from rural India are the fastest growing population on the internet. We look at over 100 million entrepreneurs with a digital business footprint and access to capital, with investments made to realize their potential. The SHEROES ecosystem is designed to support these aspiring women micro-entrepreneurs through a range of resources, financial and digital skills opportunities, and community support.
BT: What are the biggest areas of opportunity for women entrepreneurs today?
Series 4: Today, the ecosystem of women entrepreneurs has grown significantly from access to capital, mentoring, etc. I encourage women to take advantage of these opportunities and continue to invest in themselves to start and grow a business. Create a playbook that will help balance your physical and mental health and your business. This is your journey to #TakeCharge and start building from what you have and wish to make something of yourself.