April 20, 2024




It’s true that there’s no dearth of successful women entrepreneurs and corporate leaders in India. Look at our banks and you’ll see that more than 50 percent of the sector is controlled by women. After all, who are the people heading the largest, most visible banks of India? There’s Ms. Arundhati Bhattacharya at the top of SBI. Ms. Chanda Kochhar is the MD & CEO of ICICI Bank while Ms. Shikha Sharma is at the helm of Axis Bank. Away from the banks, Biocon India Ltd. is among the most successful companies in the pharma sector. It was started by Ms. Kiran Majumdar Shaw who continues to lead it today with great success. The multinational technology giant IBM has a huge operation in India employing more than a lakh, and its India operations are headed by Ms. Vanitha Narayanan.

Another encouraging trend is that women are increasingly taking over the reins of family run enterprises too. Dr. Pratap Reddy established Apollo Hospitals, India’s leading corporate hospital chain but today the business is managed by his four daughters, of whom Ms. Preetha Reddy is the most visible face. The Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) is headed by Dr. Jyotsna Suri who also manages the hotel chain founded by her late husband Lalit Suri. The Godrej group is a reputed business house where media reports say, Nisaba Godrej, an MBA from Harvard, is more likely to take over than her elder sister Tanya or her younger brother Pirojsha.  Shiv Nadar set up HCL but the baton is set to pass to his daughter, Roshni.

On the other side, we have statistics that don’t look good. Of the 190 heads of state only nine are women, of all the people in parliament in the world only 13 percent are women, and of all the top positions in the corporate world, only 16 percent are women. In Kerala, women have 33 percent of Panchayat seats reserved for them but when it comes to the state legislature, hardly 5 percent are women. Besides, the state cabinet has just one woman minister today. Therefore, even as we recognize that women make significant contributions to the economy, the fact remains, they are underrepresented and under-appreciated. The gender gap in the workplace is undeniable.

According to a recent study by the OECD, female entrepreneurship in India is rising but mostly at the lowest level, i.e. among entrepreneurs without workers. The number of female entrepreneurs has doubled over the past ten years to about 10 million outside the agricultural sector, mostly due to the rise in enterprises without hired workers. Women now account nearly half of total entrepreneurs without workers in manufacturing.

But why are women entrepreneurs getting stuck at the lowest levels? Why is it so difficult for them to scale up?

One reason is that access to finance remains a hurdle for female entrepreneurs. This is true not just for countries where financial markets are less developed but also for countries with more sophisticated entrepreneurial systems. From 2011–13, just 15percent of US companies receiving venture capital funding had a woman on the executive team. This is up 10 percentage points since 1999, but all-men teams in 2013 are still more than four times more likely to receive funding from venture capital investors. I have no doubt that a gender-wise break up bank borrowings in India would reveal men outnumbering women by far. An ILO report on women entrepreneurship points out that  traditional sources of finance like banks are reluctant to lend to women entrepreneurs especially if they do not have any male or family backing, and this is especially true of lower income females. The report identifies three other problem areas for women entrepreneurs.

First, there’s the lack of family support which may make women feel guilty of neglecting household duties while pursuing business obligations. Further, cultural traditions, especially in patriarchal societies, may hold back women from venturing into their own business. Second is the lack of confidence and faith. A lack of role models undermines the self confidence of women entrepreneurs and the activity of selling is considered alien or distasteful to the female gender. The third factor is the lack of right public and private institutions. Most public and private incentives are misused and do not reach the beneficiary unless she is backed by a man. Also, many trade associations like chambers of commerce do not cater to women expecting that women’s organizations will take care.

Notwithstanding the many challenges they face, I believe women have natural advantages in entrepreneurship compared to men.  Success for an entrepreneur is essentially about persistence, and women possess these qualities in greater measure than men. Perhaps it has to do with their unique experience with child rearing, which instills perseverance. And yet, if the reality today is that women entrepreneurs have fallen behind despite natural advantages, we must look objectively at the reasons. Even in the advanced countries where gender inequality is less severe, women continue to be behind in practically all walks of life. For example, in a field like gynaecology and obstetrics, which is all about and all for women, the leading practitioners are men. Teaching is a profession with a high representation of women and yet the teachers who win awards and recognition are disproportionately men. Why this disparity continues is a topic for another day.

What can women entrepreneurs do to help them overcome the odds and succeed in the game? Here is a suggestion that won’t cost much and should be within their reach and capabilities. Women entrepreneurs should take to self-branding in a much bigger way.

All entrepreneurs go to a lot of trouble to craft a unique, marketable brand for their company. While this is a necessary step, it is equally important to develop another brand, one’s own personal brand. Katie Bressack, health coach and corporate wellness consultant, says entrepreneurs must not only become experts in a particular field or subject; they must also be able to sell themselves by creating their own unique value and want to take things to the next level. The branding process should involve unearthing essential information about ‘you’ and what is unique about ‘your’ brand.

Kerala’s textile powerhouse, Seematti, was always a great outlet for fashionable sarees. But its real success started when Beena Kannan took things to a higher level becoming the widely recognised face of the brand, even more so than the models who showcased her designs and creations. Many of the most successful women in business are recognised much beyond the organization they represent, e.g., Kiran Majumdar, Chanda Kochhar or Shikha Sharma.

Creating an authentic personal brand is a good way for women entrepreneurs to cement their success. The fact is, public recognition is essential for scaling up success. But, as Bressack points out, many women have trouble with this because self-promotion is not part of their upbringing as women. We teach girls to be nice and not to brag, whereas men are complimented for self-promotion. This has to change. Women entrepreneurs must go out of their way to promote themselves. They must feel comfortable praising themselves.

In this context, Katie Bressack and Janet Kraus, a serial entrepreneur, offer the following tips to help female entrepreneurs define their brand and learn to love being the face of their business. –

  1. Identify what sets you apart. Ask yourself how you want to be viewed by your employees, customers, investors and partners, both as a person and as the leader of your company. You should create a list of the things you do well and know a lot about, which can be used to position yourself as an expert in your field.
  2. Be Authentic. It’s easy to say, but what this requires is a clear understanding of your personal values and what this means for your business identity.   In a few words, answer the question “what do I stand for?”
  3. Be difficult to copy because your identity needs to be differentiated in some way from others.
  4. Be consistent. This means your brand needs to be the same across social media, print media and all of your communication.  The goal is to build trust across audiences and the key to this is consistency of message.

Fortunately, developing one’s own personal brand is easier today because of the instant visibility through blogs and social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linked-In etc. But this route can be demanding and time consuming because you must continually update and manage your communications and ensure that it remains strategically focused. As the momentum gathers, it is likely that one outlet may be found more effective than others. In that case, have more of your efforts and resources go into this area but without neglecting the others. What works for you today may not work for you tomorrow.

Lastly, the good news is that once a strong personal brand is established, it will follow you wherever you go.  It will help you in your future ventures as well, allowing you to enter into negotiations from a position of greater strength.


 (V.P. Nandakumar is MD & CEO of Manappuram Finance Ltd. Views are personal.)


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