2018: The Year of “I Too”?

Sachi Shenoy and Bulbul Gupta

Looking back on 2017 – dubbed “The Unexpected (and Inspiring) Year of the Woman” by the mainstream media – makes us, as women, hopeful about 2018 and what lies ahead. We are optimistic that the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, and the surging wave of women running for office are all feeding a trend that will soon assure women equal access to opportunities in all industries, and seats at the head of the table.

The year also served up some revelations about the gender dynamics at work in our own portfolio at Upaya Social Ventures. What was unfolding on a global stage, with women leading the charge and setting new standards, was mirrored in our day-to-day professional reality. Remarkably, as of 2017, over half of Upaya’s active portfolio of investments is comprised of women-led ventures.

Wilma Rodrigues, Founder and CEO of  Saahas Zero Waste

Wilma Rodrigues, Founder and CEO of Saahas Zero Waste

For the past six years, we at Upaya have been supporting early-stage entrepreneurs who are creating jobs for the poorest of the poor in India. We are often the first providers of capital, and we also offer capacity-building support in the areas of financial management and investment readiness. Having accelerated 20 businesses, and selected 14 for equity investments to date, we have thought long and hard about entrepreneurs’ most critical needs in the early stages, and what factors best correlate with longer-term success.

We have been impressed and intrigued by the sheer staying power and relative success exhibited by the women entrepreneurs in our portfolio. Now, being female founders ourselves we have long held certain convictions regarding the strengths that women bring to entrepreneurship. We, however, have refrained from issuing a women-only investment mandate. Upaya’s mission is to create dignified jobs for the poorest of the poor, and entrepreneurship is a vehicle for that job creation. We wanted to be open to supporting the best entrepreneurs to help us achieve that goal and not exclude half the population, having a challenging enough investment mandate already.

Despite holding all our entrepreneurs to the same high standards, and without making special concessions (we get these questions frequently), our women-led businesses stand out. We have seen more and more women take the entrepreneurial plunge over the years, and they are more than ready to tackle the most challenging issues in the most high-risk environments. In fact, the women-led businesses in our portfolio are, for the most part, steadily meeting or exceeding their quarterly growth targets, and out-performing their male counterparts with regards to follow-on investment raised. None of the business closures or write-offs in our portfolio involve the women-led ventures – they all are meeting their milestones, creating thousands of jobs and bringing a unique dimension of stability and impact to the portfolio.

Nisha Bora, Co-Founder of  Elrhino Dung Paper

Nisha Bora, Co-Founder of Elrhino Dung Paper

Our friend, Ross Baird (Co-founder and President of Village Capital) has come to the same conclusion, describing in his recent book, The Innovation Blind Spot, a study his team conducted across more than 500 entrepreneurs:

“The trait most strongly correlated with [entrepreneurial] success was self-awareness … The second trait most correlated with success is whether a firm has a female cofounder. Based on the data, here’s my top piece of advice to any guy starting a company: be more self-aware, and get a woman as a cofounder!”

Reading Ross’s advice, and reflecting on our own experiences, we have a few ideas as to why women naturally are assets especially for early-stage venture teams:

  1. They are consensus builders: When we observe our female investees at work, we see that they naturally prefer to establish a flatter, more collaborative work environment rather than build hierarchies. This approach tends to work well for early-stage companies, where a small team is juggling a large number of responsibilities, but everyone needs to work together to get the job done.

    This type of work environment is more attractive for the female workforce, and indeed, we see  that our women entrepreneurs hire and retain many more women employees. Wilma Rodrigues, Founder and CEO of Saahas Zero Waste, is a great example. 89% of her 100+ full-time jobholders are women, and when the Upaya team interacted with a handful of them, they expressed gratitude for Wilma’s accessibility, her guidance, and mentorship. She is a role model for them, and even those women for whom Saahas was their first job felt comfortable and supported as they learned the ropes. Most importantly, all the Saahas employees we spoke to felt they were instrumental in shaping the company and contributing to its success. Wilma has built a remarkably collaborative culture even as her workforce grows.
  2. They are natural multi-taskers: Much research has been done about women’s ability to multi-task better than their male counterparts, but we will attest to witnessing this phenomenon first-hand. Our women entrepreneurs seem less anxious about the many different moving pieces inherent in an early-stage venture. They expect to multi-task. They see it as part and parcel of their professional lives; they plan for it, and they take it in stride. Some of our women entrepreneurs have joked that the office is a tad less chaotic than their homes, where they are responsible for managing their husbands, children, other family members, and many different duties!

    Apoorva Kamat and Sruthi Kande, Co-founders of Karmantik, are the ultimate multi-taskers. This hard-working pair oversees every function at the young company – from product design, sales, marketing, to human resources, finance, and accounting. They are humble and quick to ask for support when they run up against gaps in their own skills. Sruthi, for example, diligently worked with a member of the Upaya team across several days to learn Quickbooks, and is now confidently managing the company’s accounts
  3. They have a healthy take on risk: We have heard investors on several occasions say that women who have pitched them were not thinking big enough, or were not being aggressive in their projections. In our experience as first-in investors, however, we also see that women maintain a balance between a pragmatic view and entrepreneurial ambition. As a result, they are more likely to build a stable foundation for a business. In other words, their businesses are less volatile and are almost always steeped in good sense and grounded in market realities.

    One of our investees, Maitri Livelihood Services, headed by Founder Gitali Thakur, found itself in a difficult position last year. After having initial success with operations in Guwahati, Assam, the Maitri team decided to expand into Kolkata, West Bengal. Despite conducting market research and having a thoughtful roll-out plan, Maitri found it difficult to maintain its premium pricing for a higher quality service in the hyper-competitive Kolkata market. Gitali consulted with her stakeholders and made the difficult decision to close the Kolkata operation, and instead double down on Guwahati. We supported Gitali’s decision, and Maitri is once again financially stable. We can’t help but feel that another entrepreneur in the same situation may have opted to keep pushing on Kolkata, trying until the company reached a financial precipice. Gitali wisely assessed her risk and decided the expansion was not worth jeopardizing the strong foundation she had already built. The Maitri team is now examining its learnings from this experience and planning for expansion into a different market.
  4. They are problem solvers: Women tend to have a “get work done” mentality, as they juggle professional and personal obligations, and for female entrepreneurs this translates into a problem-solving ethos that is innovative in finding solutions. All our women entrepreneurs have a tactical plan to back up their future projections; if they commit to a goal, there is almost always a well-thought-out roadmap, and a Plan B, to get them there.
Gitali Thakur, Founder of  Maitri Livelihood Services

Gitali Thakur, Founder of Maitri Livelihood Services

Armed now with these observations and learnings, we at Upaya are operating with a renewed intent to maintain and improve upon the gender balance in our portfolio. This does not mean simply filling a quota; it means we must examine every facet of our operating model and ask if it is designed to be as inclusive as possible. Are we scouting for pipeline in the right venues or forums? Are we addressing the critical pain points of both female and male entrepreneurs when we design our curriculum, make network connections, and line up mentors? Are we actively encouraging the men in our portfolio to recruit women as co-founders, board members, and senior leaders for their organizations?

If we can answer all of these with a resounding ‘yes!’ then we will be part of a larger global movement for gender equity and also help to alleviate extreme poverty. The more we demonstrate women’s success in entrepreneurship, the more likely we are to kick-off a chain reaction of women-led ventures, job creation, angel investors who support the ecosystem, and growing prosperity overall.

The voices of the women jobholders in our portfolio are fresh in our minds as we push forward. The women at Saahas, for instance, were so proud and hopeful, brimming with a newfound ambition. One of them had commented, “If Wilma can build something like this, then maybe I too can do something in the future.” There is something to that sentiment, to think “I too can …” or “I too will …” These words convey agency and action and empowerment. And we at Upaya will do our best to propagate a new, positive global movement of #IToo!