Gender diversity is a hotly-debated subject in the technology industry epicenter, Silicon Valley. Concurrently in India, which is in the thick of a historic entrepreneurship surge, a booming market and investor interest is making rock stars out of technology industry entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are clicking selfies with the prime minister, and VCs are dispensing billions of dollars to fund startups.
But amidst the rapture, there is a noticeable dearth of women entrepreneurs. Now, trade bodies and influential groups are rooting for gender diversity and supporting a mini-wave of women-led tech startups.
India is witnessing an unprecedented rush towards entrepreneurship and innovation, which is spawning startups at an average of two new ones daily, said Kumud Srinivasan, president, Intel India. Populous India's overwhelmingly young demographic is challenging traditional ways of doing things. The costs for experimenting are lower than in the Silicon Valley or elsewhere. With technology, physical infrastructure is not of paramount importance as it was a decade ago.
The country is home to over 3,000 startups, making it among the top startup hubs in the world said Srinivasan. "An amalgamation of the growing role of women in the technology industry and the soaring entrepreneurship presents an inflection point for women-led startups," she said.
Six years ago when she co-founded mobile payments startup Zaakpay, whose MobiKwik is now India's second-largest mobile wallet with 15 million users, female founders were extremely rare in the technology ecosystem, said CEO Upasana Taku. "But with each passing year, I see more and more women jumping in and taking risks," said Taku. Funding, incubation, and mentoring support are becoming more gender-inclusive as the ecosystem wakes up to diversity, she said.
Even two years ago, things looked vastly different on the diversity front. When India's IT industry trade body, Nasscom, announced a plan to incubate 10,000 technology startups, it found that there were hardly any women-led startups applying for funding. "We were appalled that as little as 6% of all startups had women either as a founder or a co-founder," said Rajat Tandon, senior director of the 10,000 Start-ups program. At its ideathons, women entrepreneurs' startup ideas were desultorily similar, revolving around lifestyle startups, Tandon said. That set Nasscom thinking about what it could do to improve the numbers and quality of companies.
Over a year ago, Nasscom kicked off a Girls in Tech initiative, which is a platform to catalyze high-achieving women in the technology industry to turn entrepreneurs. The Be My ValenTech event, which was held on Valentine's Day this year, connected founders with co-founders. At the five events held at cafes across five large cities, 60-70 women founders turned up. The change is slow, and this is just the beginning, said Tandon of Nasscom, who has also launched a series of events including hackathons for women entrepreneurs.
Technology is a great leveller and is enabling more and more women to overcome barriers such as location, ability to scale, time management, and more, said Srinivasan. Intel India's unity is actively backing the diversity movement in entrepreneurship, including investing in women-led startups.
The ecosystem is ready for a change. Today, 30% of engineering school graduates in the country is women, and these engineers are thronging into the workplace. "As the male-female ratio changes in schools and in the workforce, the numbers are changing in entrepreneurship too," said Taku of Zaakpay.
Taku said she encounters younger and younger women entrepreneurs these days where, earlier, women in their 20s would have otherwise headed for safe jobs and stayed there. "Women are jumping in and taking risks because their families are supportive, the ecosystem is kinder, and funding is easier to come by."
In the field of ecommerce, there is an uptick in the number of women entrepreneurs, said Sharad Sharma, of iSPIRT, a Bangalore-based forum for the software products industry. "The opening up of the domestic ecommerce market has been a big driver," said Sharma. "Proximity to the market democratizes entrepreneurship, and women are also benefitting," said Sharma.
Sharma predicted that the next wave of women entrepreneurs would serve digital consumers in India's smaller cities and towns. But he added a note of caution: "We have to be patient."
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Saritha Rai is an India-based journalist and commentator who covers technology, business and society from her ringside seat in Bangalore.