India’s women entrepreneurs are reaping the rewards of chilling out together after work

By Sumati Nagrath

In the soft, red light of one of Delhi’s finest bars, nearly two dozen women entrepreneurs sip red wine, as mellifluous music plays in the background. India’s new band of businesswomen are not clinking glasses to chat away the evening. These impeccably dressed women are, in fact, holding an informal business session – exchanging ideas on tax breaks, labour laws, et al. Welcome to the cool new idea now floating among women entrepreneurs in India: network to grow.

As these venturesome women exchange business cards along with the nibbles, Meena Kapoor, a member of the Delhi-based Women in Business Network and a co-organiser of the session, sits content watching it all. “For long, I had wished to get away from the old boys’ teams and cultivate a network where I could find my own comfort level,” says Kapoor, CEO of astroyogi.com, an astrology portal that also supplies content to mobile services providers.

A Place Of My Own
India’s women entrepreneurs are increasingly integrating into these same-gender networking sessions. Being part of such networks allows them to access rewarding business information and support systems that strengthen them as entrepreneurs and professionals. “Women entrepreneurs face issues such as managing priorities between family and work, deciding whether to scale up or not, etc.,” says Shilpi Kedia, a steering committee member of Delhi-based The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) Women, another businesswomen’s network. “Our primary aim is to create a platform of belongingness and sharing for entrepreneurs and also to connect with the larger ecosystem,” adds Kedia.

These networks provide opportunities and alternative learning spaces for women who, for various reasons, find themselves excluded from several of the mixed forums. “While being a woman has not stopped me from running my business, I definitely missed out on the benefits of networking after office hours,” says Kapoor. Staying back after work for a round of drinks and looking out for tips is not an option for many women who are either uncomfortable in such meets or have familial commitments. This exclusion often translates into missed opportunities. Members such as Kapoor say they benefit tremendously from being part of the network. “I was preparing to apply for VC funding and didn’t have a clue about where to start. But other members in the group pitched in with advice and mentorship.”

In the early 1990s, the Press Club in Delhi opened its doors to non-journalists and soon become a watering hole of liberal size. “But a large number of women felt uncomfortable and began to stay away, thus missing out on a number of networking opportunities,” says Sushma Ramachandran, president of Indian Women Press Corps (IWPC). Thus was formed the IWPC with the explicit purpose of assisting women in their professional pursuits – offering a place to hang out, meet, network and develop strong personal as well as professional relationships. “We try to inculcate a sense of camaraderie so that these women can share experiences, offer advice, seek guidance and learn from each other,” says Gita Dang, one of the main forces behind Women in Business. To get around familial and other constraints women face, the network’s 55-odd members meet once a month.

Some women tend to be ill at ease at after-hours gatherings as males outnumber females by far in these spaces. According to a 2005 CII-IMRB survey, ‘Understanding the levels of women empowerment at the workplace,’ while women comprise 16 per cent of the junior management levels across the corporate world, they form just 4 per cent at the senior management positions. The percentage of women in the topmost levels in private companies comes to a dismal 1 per cent. “Men have a natural tendency to network,” says Dang, a senior client partner and head of the global technology markets for Korn/Ferry International. “I’ve seen men strike an immediate rapport after establishing that they belong to the same alma mater, such as an IIT or IIM.”

The Women in Business Network is supported by TiE, which has evolved as the world’s largest not-for-profit organisation for entrepreneurs. At the national level, TiE runs a special interest group called TiE Women, which encourages women entrepreneurship and focuses on key socio-economic challenges and opportunities for these entrepreneurs.

Evidently, the trend is global. Organisations such as the US-based Women’s Leadership Exchange and the UK-based Women Business Network aim to connect and provide support for women who own or run growth companies. In India, there are organisations such as the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) that work to achieve similar goals. “Set up 25 years ago with the aim to promote women’s entrepreneurship, FLO today holds regular workshops, runs a business consultancy cell and facilitates networking through periodic meetings,” says Shipra Chatterjee, FLO’s executive director. What sets networks such as Women in Business apart from FLO is that the former is exclusively focused on promoting networking and providing mentorship for urban women. FLO has a broader agenda, which includes supporting self-help groups in rural India.

“Traditionally, Indian businesswomen were daughters or daughters-in-law of the nation’s plush business families,” says Kapoor. “For them, the access to mentoring, advisory boards and funding came at a snap.” Today, more and more educated, middle-class women are opting to become entrepreneurs in the traditionally male domains. And they do so all on their own steam.

Integrate, Not Segregate
As in other entrepreneurial matters, even such trends raise opposing views. While some argue strongly for women-only networks, others remain ambivalent about them. Kedia of TiE is one among them. Although Kedia is part of the steering committee of TiE Women, she believes there should be a larger camaraderie that does not exclude men. “I don’t think we need a separate women entrepreneurs’ network,” says Kedia. “Instead, we need a stronger and more congenial network or an ecosystem for entrepreneurs per se, where men and women alike are encouraged to proactively engage, collaborate and grow.”
Nevertheless, the same gender network enthusiasts beg to differ. “A woman-only network provides something specific that a mixed forum can never offer and that is a sense of empathy,” says Dang. The empathy factor, she says, prompts a large number of women to grow into mentors and help other women with guidance regarding the most basic financial matters to more complicated legal issues.

In an age that flowers wikis and social networks, it seems India’s women entrepreneurs have just found where to start their journey to their idea of business 2.0.

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