Striding their way to create social impact – insights from women entrepreneurs

BY SUKRITI SOMVANSHI

Women entrepreneurs, for decades, have had a significant role to play in the development of local economies, which further fed into the overall development paradigm. The contemporary startup-led ecosystem has also witnessed a surge in women entrepreneurs who have successfully carved a niche for themselves. Around 14 percent of the businesses in India are currently owned by women. Several of these businesses not only showcase tremendous growth potential but are also excellent examples of innovative social welfare solutions.

Despite such developments, much like everywhere else, the incremental growth of women-led businesses in India is often hindered by persisting gender biases and preconceived notions. Fighting all odds, the stories of their startup journeys, especially as women, are powerful and inspiring.

Gina – promoting artisans from rural hearts of India
Gina Joseph has always had an eye for appreciating art and the history it entails. This ‘accidental entrepreneur’ took a break from her corporate career and decided to pursue her passion in arts through Zola India.

Zola India was born in 2014 out of its founder’s pure love and admiration for Indian art, culture, and heritage. An online jewellery platform, it sources designs and products from the rural heart of India, providing a necessary link between the artisans and modern-day marketplaces.

Working closely with rural artisans, Gina realized that the absence of the right market connects often pushes the rural youth away from their traditional art. For instance, the Pattachitra (palm leaf etching) artisans of Odisha end up selling their hand-painted/etched scrolls to middlemen at extremely low prices, earning just about the money to survive on a day-to-day basis. In order the revive the art form, Zola India is currently working with about 10 Pattachitra artists and 20 women Dhokra (bronze casting technique) artisans in Odisha. Dealing with the artisans directly, the involvement of middlemen has been reduced to a large extent, helping artisans get better prices for their products.

Since its inception, the organization has been able to impact the lives of rural artisans in more ways than one. “It was such a moment of joy for me when one of my artisans from Odisha proudly told me that she could now afford better education for her two children, while another artisan from Andhra was able to pay part of her home loan through her earnings from Zola India,” says Gina.

More so, designs at Zola India are always a collaborative effort of technique and insights from the artisans. As a brand, it allows rural and folk artisans to express themselves through wearable art, thereby allowing them to realize sustained economic empowerment by conducting regular design intervention and innovation workshops across rural India. Zola India has been working with Dhokra and Pattachitra artists from Orissa, Toda embroidery artists from Tamil Nadu, Wall Mural art and Aranmula mirror artists from Kerala, Leather puppetry and Lac Turnery from Andhra Pradesh, and Bidri from Karnataka.

Anuradha – bridging the ‘English medium’ gap
Coming from a traditional Baniya background in Rajasthan, Anuradha broke all barriers and stereotypes when she decided to set up her own startup. “While pursuing higher studies was still encouraged, the idea of ‘working women’ was quite alien to my culture when I started off,” recalls Anuradha.

Visiting her hometown in 2015, she realised that there was a growing insecurity among women her age, mostly housewives, due to the lack of English education. This often led to low self-esteem even while coping with the most mundane day-to-day situations. “I could relate to the women at so many levels and their stories often reminded me of my struggle to find a footing,” says Anuradha.

Realising the need, Anuradha started posting interactive video modules on her Facebook page which generated a lot of traction from eager English learners. Seeing the response, she decided to take a plunge into entrepreneurship and launched an Android app to learn English through Hindi and Bengali in Dec 2016. This is how Multibhashi was born.

With an aim to build capacities of its users, Villgro- and Startup Oasis-supported Multibhashi focuses on early-stage English learners who want to learn communicative English. Since inception, the Multibhashi app has modelled English learning through 10 Indian languages and has been downloaded by close to a million users.

Going beyond its userbase, Multibhashi also employs a large number of women and provides them with an opportunity to earn a living. “All our women employees have been able to hone their skills in the process, and have become more confident,” beams the proud Founder of Multibhashi.

Ekta – going organic all the way
Aiming to build a sustainable, organic, and resilient community, Ekta Jaju started working with small farmers in Nadia districts of West Bengal and converted them to organic farming in 2012. “I started working on a business model that was financially sustainable and scalable in the organic space, where my main aim was to keep farmers’ interest in mind,” says Ekta.

ONganic Foods is an agri-organic social enterprise which works across the value chain – farming, processing, R&D, and domestic sales – and connects small organic farmers to markets by supporting them to convert back to organic farming and growing indigenous varieties.

Recalling the challenges in her startup journey, Ekta emphasizes that failure is just not an option, especially for social entrepreneurs. “If you face a certain challenge, or find a certain blockage in your path, you need to find an alternate route to reach your goal. We have to constantly remind ourselves of the many hopes and opportunities of our beneficiaries. It’s a big responsibility,” explains this committed entrepreneur.

Currently, ONganic works with 300+ farmers and aims to impact 10,000 farmers by 2025. In the last two years of operations, ONganic has supported farmers to increase their profitability through organic cultivation and value addition.

Ambika – ensuring farm fresh produce from Western Odisha
“My decision to move to Bhawanipatna in Kalahandi district of Odisha and ditch a corporate career to start my own venture was questioned by many,” recalls the Co-founder of ZooFresh.

ZooFresh Foods is an agri-tech startup, creating post-harvest management technologies and retailing platforms for meat products (chicken, fish, and eggs) in Eastern India, especially in economically backward zones like Western Odisha.

Working in such backward regions was a major lifestyle change for Ambika. Despite being constantly overworked and underpaid, it took a while to see any tangible impact of all her hard work. Coupled with this was the frustration of coping with a plethora of challenges associated with stereotyping women entrepreneurs.

To deal with this, Ambika quickly learnt the skill of leveraging all the advantages one gets in lieu of being a woman entrepreneur like government-sponsored programmes and schemes as well as the benefits of the general inclination towards women-run businesses in the private sector ecosystem. “I have lately come to realise all my advantages as a woman entrepreneur. We, as a group, are a micro-minority, and when we speak, everyone listens! You will be able to network better (since there are so few of us, we get remembered easily), and you will get ample invites for critical events which you should leverage,” explains Ambika.

Besides promoting fresh farm produce, Ambika envisions ZooFresh as having a significant impact on women as well. ZooFresh now works with a large number of tribal women, who are the company’s micro-entrepreneurs and distributors in remote tribal communities.

For women entrepreneurship to truly thrive in India, we need to look for more investment support for gender-diverse founding teams through discovery programmes like iPitch.

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