The startup scene is exploding in India. Three or four startups are born each day, and an equal number are funded. The first three quarters of the year saw US$6.4 billion in funding for Indian startups. It’s not just the unicorns like Ola which raised half a billion dollars yesterday. Seed funding in new startups saw a six-fold jump this year compared to 2014.
In all this euphoria, a teensy weensy statistic put out last month by software industry body Nasscom passed almost unnoticed. Only nine percent of the startup founders in India are women.
The reasons are many for this skewed scenario, and we looked at them in detail in this article on sexism in tech. But today’s a day for inspiration and not cribbing. So let’s be inspired by women who defied such steep odds to make it as tech entrepreneurs in India. As the saying goes, be the change you want to see. The nine women profiled below exemplify that adage.
Anisha Singh, MyDala
She turned her daily deals startup MyDala around from the brink of failure in 2011, when the coupon model was unravelling with the troubles at Groupon. “It was tough. My second child was a few weeks old, and my older one, a toddler. But I wasn’t ready to give up on my company,” she told Tech in Asia in an earlier interview. Pushed into a corner, she made a bold turn towards mobile – back when smartphone penetration in India was a mere five percent. Today MyDala has a presence in over 200 Indian cities and 200 million registered users.
Anisha began her career in the US after graduating from American University. She worked with the Clinton administration, helping women entrepreneurs raise funding. That inspired her to return to India in 2009 and start up her own venture.
Sairee Chahal, Sheroes
Sairee, CEO and founder of Sheroes, is not just an inspiration for women, she’s also making a direct impact by finding jobs for them. “The idea for Sheroes came from the observation that I was surrounded by so many women who had left their career options behind for social responsibilities [such as raising a family]. I just want to show them that this doesn’t need to be the end of the road,” Sairee told Tech in Asia in a recent interview.
This former journalist is currently holding a “Sheroes summit” in major Indian cities to connect women professionals with businesses. “The push toward a Digital India is a watershed moment for all educated women in the country. Digital access is a boon to those who cannot engage in a typical 9-to-5 job yet wish to continue their careers,” says Sairee.
Nidhi Agarwal, Kaaryah
Nidhi is a solo founder. That makes entrepreneurship twice as tough, or so some say. Her trigger to start women’s apparel brand Kaaryah was a rather exasperating morning she spent hunting for a smart shirt and jacket. She spilt coffee on her clothes while waiting to board a plane to Bangalore from Delhi. She was heading for an important meeting and wanted to dress sharp. So she dashed to the mall nearby, scouted for a good fit in vain. That got her thinking and also talking to a lot of others like her. They all shared her crib – no brand focused on the workwear needs of young, urban, working women.
“The idea was a winner right from the beginning: there was a clear need, the market was ready, and our unit economics was positive from the start. But despite all that, raising funds for growth capital was next to impossible. I had to face 113 rejections,” Nidhi tells me. Kaaryah went on to raise its first round of funding – an undisclosed amount – from India’s top business tycoon Ratan Tata.
Before starting Kaaryah, Nidhi was a director at Honeywell. She is also a chartered accountant with over 15 years of experience in strategic consulting and auditing.
Falguni Nayar, Nykaa
Falguni Nayar was an investment banker for about 27 years before she turned entrepreneur three years ago. She founded Nykaa, a beauty and wellness estore. “When I was starting with ecommerce, I carefully chose beauty and wellness because there was not too much competition. The other spaces like electronics and fashion had too many players trying to address them. I consciously chose an area that was small but expected to grow and a bit difficult to do,” says Falguni. A few months ago, her startup bagged a series B round of US$9.5 million.
Despite her credentials, Falguni struggled to find and retain talent. She recalls in an earlier interview with Tech in Asia that just a few months after she found a top-notch CTO, he wanted to move to the US. “I was a bit disappointed and in some ways even scared. I didn’t know how to find the next best person to build the business which is so important to me. Similarly, we gave the designation of a COO to a person who wasn’t deserving. He was not able to scale,” says Falguni.
Pranshu Bhandari, CultureAlley
Pranshu, who founded language learning platform CultureAlley along with Nishant Patni two years ago, is making a fundamental social impact in India with a HelloEnglish app. “In India, folks who do not speak proper English are not able to get better jobs. Some of them are not even able to get their first job. We realized that English was that really fundamental need that was a must-have for people,” she told Tech in Asia in a recent conversation.
That wasn’t how CultureAlley began, however. “We actually started CultureAlley as a platform for people to learn foreign languages like Spanish, Mandarin, Portuguese, and so on. But while we were doing that, we realized that English was a much, much larger market,” says Pranshu.
Swati Bhargava, CashKaro
This two-year-old cashback site, which raised a series A funding round of US$3.8 million earlier this week, has over 1,000 partner retailer sites. Customers who access any of these through CashKaro get a cashback in their wallet or account, which they can use on their next purchase. This is useful for retailers because it generates a repeat purchase and engagement, rather than just a sale.
Swati, who is a London School of Economics grad, did something similar in the UK where she was co-founder of Pouring Pounds. “I think cashback is exciting because it’s the model that gives the most options to customers,” Swati told Tech in Asia earlier this week.
Richa Kar, Zivame
Being a woman working with Spencer’s retail store, Richa Kar understood the problem shy Indian women faced while buying lingerie. That prompted the BITS, Pilani grad to launch India’s first online lingerie marketplace for women. “The Indian woman, who is more confident than ever before, is indulging herself in lingerie to express her individuality. She wants to look and feel good and has the economic independence to splurge on lingerie she never had access to before. Zivame is the catalyst of this change; using technology to understand her better,” Richa says.
Suchi Mukherjee, LimeRoad
A post-grad from the London School of Economics, Suchi Mukherjee was the MD of Gumtree, an eBay company. She was on maternity leave when she decided to become an entrepreneur. She gave birth to both her second child and her startup in 2012.
Today the startup she founded, LimeRoad, is one of the leading marketplaces for women’s fashion in India. It sets itself apart by combining fashion ecommerce with social discovery, leveraging Suchi’s insights on engaging with women shoppers. It raised US$30 million in funding in March, making it only the second startup founded by a woman in our list of 15 top-funded ecommerce startups this year.
Valerie Wagoner, Zipdial
Stanford University grad Valerie Wagoner had a successful career in the US, with companies such as eBay, before she had an epiphany. She noticed the “missed call” phenomenon in India, where people make a call only to hang up before it’s answered. This can signal “I’m thinking of you” or “Call me back” – and it saves the call charges for those who can’t afford a fat phone bill.
Valerie built a business around this called ZipDial, which allowed people to engage with brands through toll-free “missed calls.” Valerie’s mobile marketing platform became Twitter’s first acquisition in India this year.
Caveat: This list is in no particular order and there are many other cool women entrepreneurs in India who don’t figure here. The ones featured here are those who spoke to us in recent times to give insights into their thinking as women entrepreneurs – although in Valerie’s case, she feels the very description of “woman entrepreneur” is sexist. Ever heard of “man entrepreneur”?
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