Minding her business

Minding her business

Women entrepreneurs fight two parallel battles – one against competition in business and another against the shackles of sexism. Despite this, they are making progress, albeit gradually, finds out Deepika Nidige.

You can love a woman unconditionally, but it is very hard for you to entrust her with responsibility. Why, because it is extremely convenient to confine women to the putrid snugness of gender stereotypes. 

Remember this proverbial conversation between boss Jack Donaghy and employee Liz Lemon from 30 Rock?

Jack: Lemon, I’m impressed! You're beginning to think like a businessman.Liz Lemon: A businesswoman.Jack: I don’t think that’s a word. 

A succinct, yet fitting dose of black humour to highlight repression of women. Women should not take on authoritative positions, they must stick to ‘soft jobs’, like interior decoration, teaching and baking. Haven’t we all heard such baseless clichés ad nauseam?Well, so had a bunch of enterprising people, as a result of which WEConnect India was conceived in 2012. A global organisation that aids the growth of women-owned businesses, the idea is to inspire more women to foray into the business world. “Entrepreneurship lends itself naturally to women,” says, Sucharita Eashwar, head of  WEConnect India.

Women often give up promising jobs and careers, to tend to their families - a particularly disheartening trend in India. And this is where WEConnect comes in. The idea behind encouraging entrepreneurship among women is to suit their lifestyles, where there are no fixed office hours, erratic travel schedules or late night deadlines. This ensures much flexibility, in that, they can work from anywhere, in split hours and take leaves when needed.

It was precisely this line of thought that led to the inception of the Think Big Forum, a two-day event that took place in Bangalore earlier this month. Its purpose was to bring under one umbrella, women entrepreneurs from different walks of life and help them network better. One other agenda was to bring to fore various women’s business ventures, which have not been given a suitable platform for either growth or publicity.

Sure, a group of women getting together has always been interpreted as a commingling of gossip, banter and frivolous merrymaking. However, cynics would have been forced to eat their words, for the business-like demeanor and perspectives of the women at the event defied all such mis-conceptions. Hailing from diverse fields, such as technology, finance, pharmaceuticals, fashion, food industry, social sector, education management, they were eager to make their voices heard and business known. It was a treat to watch these self-taught enthusiasts hobnob with peers professionally.

Anasuya Gupta, a panelist at the forum, who is in the construction business, enumerates a particularly bad experience: “I had gone on business to a big office in Delhi. I was not keeping very well that day and had to use the restroom. When I asked someone, they told me that there were no washrooms for women. I was so shocked that I almost burst into tears. I was really unwell and I felt terrible,” she recounts. So, in a ‘man’s world’, where it is taken for granted that women cannot perform certain kinds of tasks, even the basic needs of women seem to have been excluded. One often wonders why there is an intrinsic stigma attached to women who like to break out of conventional images and establish themselves.
Is this a worrisome trend, or just an oppressive norm of life? Your mother takes care of your bank statement and credit history, but the CEO of the bank you work at is male. Your wife cooks for you at home, but the chef at the fine dining restaurant you eat is male. You will shower your daughter with money when she wants to throw a kitty party, but you will hesitate when she asks you to invest in her small-time business. Some things are ironical and saddening at the same time.

So, who is a tough woman? The one with cropped hair, stiff trousers, minimal makeup and a stoic countenance. The one who can ‘man up’ in board meetings and not take personal calls while at work. What a load of tosh! 

Farzana Haque, who is the Global Head for Strategic Group Account at TCS, debunks this misbelief. To say that entering a technological industry with a non-technical background in the 90s in the occidental world was a daunting prospect, would be an immense understatement. But Farzana did it. It meant sacrifices, compromises, hard work and sustained determination. “If you really want to succeed, stop trying to be a man; be yourself, because you can achieve big by being a woman,” she advised.

 Gone are those days when a woman had to be humourless and dominating to get things done. You can be a mother and a managing director at the same time, a sister and a COO; more importantly, an entrepreneur and a woman. It is hard, but not impossible. “It is difficult to find investors for women-founded startups. It is a real uphill task trying to make voices of businesswomen heard,” says Salma Moosa, who runs an organisation that is involved in popularising startups. She points towards Vidhi, a jewellery designer with a startup called Damaak. The store is a fruit of Vidhi and her mother’s efforts. It hasn’t been easy though. Many odds were braved and battles fought before the dream could be realised.

This is becoming the story of every woman entrepreneur. How can they be taken seriously, they ask? It is hard to find banks that will give them huge amounts of loan. They are being limited by lack of finance and resources. There are two parallel battles to fight – one against competition in business and another against the shackles of sexism. It is commendable that despite this, they are making progress, albeit gradually, in various fields. As Sujata, a delegate at the Think Big forum, and an entrepreneur in the catering business, puts it, matter-of-factly, “We now have to ‘make in India,’ don’t we? That is what I am trying.” 

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