Women entrepreneurs in India face challenges of cultural bias and lack of public safety, in addition to pressures of balancing work, home and family. The book Follow Every Rainbow: Inspiring Stories of 25 Women Entrepreneurs whose Gentle Touch Created Strong Business narrates stories about enterprising women who raised a family as well as a company, with love, laugher and patience. They never gave in or gave up, and carried on to build valuable companies while also giving back to society.
Author and researcher Rashmi Bansal classifies women entrepreneurs into three types, reflected in the structure of the book: Lakshmi (entrepreneurs who enlisted family support), Durga (women who overcame hindrances and victimhood and battled hard for success) and Saraswati (educated women entrepreneurs who struck out on their own).
Rashmi Bansal is the author of a number of books on startups and social entrepreneurship; see my reviews of her other books Poor Little Rich Slum: What We Saw in Dharavi, and Why it Matters and Take Me Home: The Inspiring Stories of 20 Entrepreneurs from Small Town India with Big-Time Dreams. She graduated from Sophia College in Mumbai and IIM Ahmedabad.
The early-stage entrepreneurs and veteran leaders in the book range in age from 20s to 80s, in fields such as IT, textiles, pharmaceuticals, finance, art and civil society. Three are from overseas (China, South Africa, Sri Lanka). The writing style is crisp and direct, with each chapter ending in a page of recommendations for aspiring entrepreneurs.
The book provides financial as well as personal details of each narrative, and ends with a list of useful courses (eg. at IIM Bangalore, IIM Udaipur, ISB, SP Jain) and support organisations (TiE Stree Shakti, WEConnect, Fleximoms) for women entrepreneurs.
Meena Bindra, Founder of India’s largest readymade ethnic-wear brand Biba, grew up in Delhi but lost her father at a young age. She married a naval officer as a result of which she moved around across India, and got into the garments business only after her children grew up. She started off with a local block printer, initial sales to Mumbai stores, and then her own company-owned outlets. Her sons joined the company for a while as trusted managers, then struck out on their own.
Manju Bhatia, Founder of loan recovery company Vasuli, was born in a business family in Indore. She started off as a receptionist in a pharma company, then moved into the account recovery business from bank defaulters. Though in a male-dominated industry, she used her patience and diplomacy to learn the tricks of the trade and build a successful pan-India company.
Rajni Bector, Founder of food empire Cremica, was born in Karachi and then moved to Delhi with her family. After her children went to boarding school, she noticed that there was huge demand for her desserts, which led her to launch food company Cremica in Ludhiana. Despite setbacks such as the violence in Punjab in the 1980s, she persevered and eventually got contracts from the likes of MacDonald’s for bread and ‘vegetarian’ mayonnaise.
Nirmala Kandalgaonkar, Founder of vermi-composting tool provider Vivam AgroTech, grew up in small-town Maharashtra and decided to launch a rural venture after her children reached school age. She applied her science degree to develop controlled-environment products for soil engineering using earthworms. She had to travel extensively for promotion and training activities, and eventually got government support after a Pragati Maidan exhibition as well as a TiE award. The company now works with large corporate and self-help groups for bio-gas projects.
Ranjana Naik, Founder of Swan Suites, grew up in a family of engineers, doctors and teachers, but became more interested in PR and telemarketing. Along with the IT boom, she leveraged her contacts to get into the serviced accommodation business, and aims to become the ‘Taj’ of serviced apartments. She connected with fellow entrepreneurs via online forums, and an ISB course taught her the importance of continuous market research; her husband also joined the company.
Leela Bordia, Founder of pottery art firm Neerja International, grew up in Calcutta in a family which strongly supported social work. She decided to launch a social enterprise to help pottery artisans from her native Rajasthan. Exposure to buyers from France as well as a visit to artisan communities in Mexico revealed the importance of quality and process. She branched out into furniture, mural and accessories, and now promotes her work internationally. Her three sons also work in the enterprise.
Han Qui Hua founded label accessories firm Guangzhou Guanyi Garments in China. Even as a teenager she would ride her bike to sell cakes in villages, and not stop till she sold the whole stock. She got into the label business along with her husband during the textile boom years, and doesn’t really plan to ‘retire.’
Premlata Agarwal from Jamshedpur became a mountaineer and climbed Mt. Everest at the age of 48 – the oldest Indian woman to have achieved this feat. She joined a gym while taking her daughters for tennis classes; she won a prize in a hiking competition and was mentored by mountaineer Bachendri Pal. Despite tough weather conditions, she scaled the peak and now wants to scale mountains in other ranges.
Paru Jaykrishna, Founder of chemical giant Asahi Songwon, grew up in a Jain family in Ahmedabad. She lost her parents at a young age, and married the Patel son of a textile firm. She later moved into travel and construction, and then switched to chemicals. She expanded her dye business (resisting challenges of bribery and corruption), and struck good deals with Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese companies and investors.
Patricia Narayan got into a love marriage at the age of 19, but her husband turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. Though she was a college dropout, she tapped her skills as a cook to become a caterer in Chennai. She got contracts from government offices in and around the city. “Once you start liking your work you don’t easily feel tired,” she says. Success came from a deal at National Institute of Port Management (NIPM). Despite a divorce and the sorrow of losing her daughter in a car accident, she expanded to run four brands of catering, and won a FICCI award.
Sudeshma Banerjee began her career as a teacher in Calcutta but one day discovered that her husband was having an affair with her own friend. She moved out of the marriage and joined an AutoCAD training company, which she eventually took over to form DigiTech HR. She faced challenges in getting a flat as a single woman, and from male managers who did not treat her as an equal. Still, she moved on to get projects from Sri Lanka, Dubai and Australia.
Jasu Shilpi, one of the few women sculptors in India, grew up in an entrepreneurial family in Ahmedabad, and had an artistic flair right from school. One day, she was inspired by a statue of the Rani of Jhansi in Gwalior. She fell in love with and married a Muslim artist, but her family disowned her. She pursued government tenders for statues, and after a good order she began to receive deals from all over Gujarat. Proud moments were completing statues of Shivaji and then Hanuman, as well as completing a tour of the US.
Dipali Sikand, Founder of Les Concierges, grew up in Calcutta. She was active in politics, but then moved into HR. Her marriage unfortunately fell apart and she was left with a baby and no financial resources. Still she carried on with HR assignments in cities like Bangalore, and then discovered a need for personalised ‘concierge’ services for busy managers in IT companies. Customers such as Wipro and IBM paid well for these services, and Dipali also branched out to start music and dining venue Kyra in Indiranagar. The next stop for Les Concierges is Cairo.
Binapani Talukdar, Founder of Assam handicraft trader Pansy Exports, grew up in Assam. She herself began to make decorative handicrafts, then studied garment design. She started an art and craft school also which she shut down later because of pressure from her husband to focus more on their kids. But she carried on with the handicrafts export company, learning the skills of quality standards and international pricing for clients in countries such as South Africa and Brazil.
Ela Bhatt, Founder of SEWA which now has 1.7 million self-employed women, grew up in Surat and joined the Textile Labour Association (TLA). She married a textile worker’s son, which her family initially opposed. She organised networks for self-employed women in the informal sector, and was inspired by the international dimensions of these labour issues after overseas visits. She turned adversity into opportunity when political controversy over Dalit reservation led SEWA to leave TLA. SEWA regrouped and set up cooperatives and microfinance support. Ela Bhatt went on to win the Magsaysay Award, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan.
Shona McDonald, Founder of wheelchair company Shonaquip, grew up in South Africa. She unfortunately had a disabled child, which led her to design and develop special wheelchairs as a social enterprise. She had to struggle on the job to learn how to raise funds, run a business, and balance profit with social purpose.
Nina Lekhi, Founder of bag retail brand Baggit, launched her venture when she was a student at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai. Though she goofed off in her first year, she took design seriously in her second year, and also took up a part-time job in a rug store at the age of 18. ‘Baggit’ was meant to be ‘bags with attitude,’ also inspired by Michael Jackson’s Beat It! She started off with canvas and then synthetic leather; with one shop at Kemp’s Corner and then a nationwide chain featuring innovatively designed bags and accessories.
Sangeeta Patni grew up in Nagpur, graduated from BITS Pilani, worked with HLL and Eicher, and then launched Extension Software, building on her engineering background and IT skills in ERP software. She blended design with enterprise tools, and cultivated a developer network. She moved to Bangalore, and finally found a way to balance children in the mix.
Satya Vadlamani, Founder of Murti Krishan Pharma, grew up on the IIT Bombay campus, and started off in international chemicals marketing. Her father-in-law initially opposed the move, but later relented and supported her a great deal. Lack of family time led her to drop her job at Biochem Synergy, and she started her own venture. Painful lessons were learnt about the long regulatory process, corporate control issues from potential investors, and the upheavals of the 2008 recession.
Shikha Sharma, Founder of weight loss classes NutriHealth Systems, grew up in Delhi and studied medicine. She became interested in preventive healthcare and rehabilitation, a huge gap in India. Resisting family pressure to go abroad or get married, she struck out on her own and set up a weight loss clinic. It did not work out, so she tried again with a rental unit in a hospital – and this model succeeded. Eventually she could strike out again, and hired a team of nutritionists and embraced ayurvedic methods. A proud moment was to be one day invited to treat the Prime Minister.
Deepa Soman, Founder of Lumiere Business Solutions, started her career with Hindustan Lever in Mumbai. Her father was in the media, which gave her lots of exposure to reading, analysis and research. She worked in HLL, and then moved to Jamaica with her husband on account of his IT job. She then launched a market research company, which she continued on her return to India – this time powered largely by women working from home. Her husband later joined, bringing best practices from the IT world.
Otara Gunewardene, Founder of Sri Lanka’s most famous department store chain Odel, grew up in Colombo and ultimately became the first woman entrepreneur in her country to take her company public. She was athletic, went to the US for a biology programme and returned to do some modelling. One day, a friend asked her to help get rid of excess garment stock from her factory – and this set her on the path to selling clothing, designing her own T-shirts and eventually launching Odel with her husband.
Namrata Sharma, Founder of 3D animation studio Krayon Pictures, grew up in Pune. She was artistic and also became an engineering graduate, and learnt to blend both disciplines. She began with interface design, and then digital media when based in Hong Kong with her husband. She joined Megasoft as a business developer, but quit when she found her kids were missing her too much. Looking to strike out on her own, she came across Alok Kejriwal, CEO of Contests2Win, who helped set her on the path to 3D animation and launching Krayon in 2007, with titles such as Delhi Safari, Kamlu and Auli.
Neeti Tah, Founder of social enterprise 36 Rang focusing on traditional tribal arts of Chattisgarh, grew up in Delhi. Though she became art director at J.Walter Thompson, she was restless and took a few months off. Travels across her home state of Chattisgarh led her to discover opportunities in promoting local art and handicrafts to urban markets in India and overseas. She roped in papier mache trainers and later even prison labour from a government scheme. The firm now makes saris, embroideries and gunmetal art.
A. Ameena, Founder of industrial sawdust provider PJP Industries, grew up in Pondicherry. She was married at the age of 17, with her husband at a Gulf job. As her children were growing up, she joined the family chemicals business. Despite scepticism from those who thought a ‘burqa clad woman’ could not succeed in this domain, she entered the world of industrial sawdust, finding local suppliers as well as customers like Godrej for mosquito coil products.
These are just brief vignettes of the entrepreneur stories; each chapter provides more details and insights. The featured women leaders also offer useful advice, tips and recommendations to aspiring women entrepreneurs, as described below.
Do something you love and are passionate about and good at; if you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like ‘work.’ Emotional drive will sustain your enterprise. Treat learning as lifelong. Learn from successful people also. Keep a diary to chronicle your personal and professional growth.
Don’t just sit at home and be confined to the four walls, take on a job no matter how small. Don’t let house work consume you, and don’t get stuck in micro-management. Use gadgets and home helpers to simplify things.
Getting support and advice from family and in-laws helps, especially in looking after kids; the Indian joint family system has some advantages here. Align family members with your dreams and objectives, bond with them, and show how they can also benefit.
Some women entrepreneurs recommend starting ventures only after kids are sufficiently grown up; others believe there is no need to wait. Children may also learn from watching their mother at work and may even want to help or contribute where possible; don’t get into situations where you feel you are neglecting them. Society puts pressure on women to feel guilty if they succeed, as if success has come by overlooking family.
It is certainly possible to strike out on your own, but family support helps greatly. Love from your spouse can sustain you even after their demise. But even if you don’t get this support or get abused instead, don’t just be a victim, don’t be defenceless – overcome obstacles, empower yourself and move on. Never feel useless, hopeless or purposeless.
Many women entrepreneurs are naturally attracted to women-oriented product lines. Women leaders are good in people skills, multi-tasking, creativity and communication, but business success calls for attention to finance, legal and operations as well. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or hire other experts, because as an entrepreneur you have to learn about all these things and know to how manage them. Reach out to mentors, coaches and fellow women entrepreneurs.
Treat your work and profession very seriously, or you will bring a bad name to women in general. Take pride in what you do, don’t slip on quality. Build your own sense of instinct and gut feel, which will take you from something ordinary to something else extraordinary.
Work hard and be patient, even those who initially oppose you may support you later. Keep a positive mind, and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Don’t be deterred by failure. Don’t believe that women are ‘less’ than a man: a woman is a womb plus a man!
Value your integrity, and be honest to your customers and employees. Make ‘clean’ money rather than ‘tainted’ money. Honesty will give you good sleep. Stay healthy and fit. Be friendly, but being ‘too friendly’ is easily mis-interpreted by unscrupulous men. Give back to society, there is more to life than money.
Work on your relationship with yourself. Keep mental and physical space for yourself to regularly think, plan, mediate and dream. Learn how to have different kinds of dreams – near term and long term. At the end of the day, keep your sense of humour!