Women’s History Month is celebrated every year in March. It embodies the outstanding accomplishments of women in our society. This year is no different and marks the 34th anniversary of the celebration. To commemorate this year’s Women’s History Month, I talked to women leaders from India. They explain the difficulties they have faced, and the opportunities and risks they took to overcome them and become successful entrepreneurs.
Among Shaili Chopra’s greatest strengths is her ability to empower women by telling their stories of perseverance to the world. Though she never imagined she would be an entrepreneur, today, Chopra leads her organisation, SheThePeople.TV, India’s largest digital news platform that caters to women.
Her journey started when she was 10 years old. As a young girl, she did not see any female journalists in India. There was a wide gap that existed in the industry and she saw the opportunity to fill it. After working for prominent news platforms for 18 years, Chopra said she wanted to focus on giving women a stronger voice in the media.
Her journey began as a young journalist in organisations such as ET Now and NDTV Profit, India’s prominent news platforms. By 2012, she won the Ram Nath Goenka Award for Excellence in Business Journalism. It was uncommon for women to win that award since business to date is a male-centric industry.
In 2015, she started SheThePeople.TV (STP). “I wanted to work for women who were under-represented by the media,” Chopra said. “The idea of STP was to tell stories from a female’s perspective, and normalise the needs and voices of women,” she added.
She went on to say that being from a working family, she never thought about starting something her own. “I never thought I would have my own organisations. I was sold on the idea of working for somebody else. I was also raised like that,” she said. She added that people with non-entrepreneurial parents do not know how to take risks like starting their own business. “You’re shaped and molded to be a person who is very happy getting her salary check at the end of the year,” Chopra said. She said that it was a considerable risk for her, starting from ground zero. And along came many challenges as well. But, by then, it was not uncommon for her to face these obstacles.
In addition to the normal risks that come with becoming an entrepreneur, she faced additional challenges as a woman. “If you’re a woman, the challenges grow in number, and they get severe,” Chopra said. “They also get highly complicated.” She said that there were several questions by both men and women since day one, asking her why one needed a women’s channel. Thankfully, she said that a lot of people have changed since then. “I think the inability of men and women to see that they are part of the stereotype we live with is mind-boggling,” Chopra said.
She faced many hurdles even as she was started out as a journalist. She said, “I primarily worked with channels. I grew up in an era where it was widespread for women to not go out there and get pregnant because they had a career to keep or the channel needed them.” She said that her male colleagues would scuttle her ambition, “I had male colleagues who would try to scuttle my ambition by saying that the editorial head office’s cabin is only meant for men. I was extremely manipulated by them.”
She also said that journalism is relatively egalitarian at the bottom in a male-dominated leadership space, but it gets gender unequal at the top. She is not wrong. The UN Women’s report titled, ‘Gender Inequality in Indian Media,’ presents that TV channels employed 20.9 percent and magazines employed 13.6% women in leadership positions.
But she persevered. “I was not bothered by the power of bureaucracy.”
For her, success has been highly subjective. She says that success for her was not money but the extent of her platform’s reach got and the number of stories highlighting women’s voices. “It is a platform that has reached without promoting vanities, such as make-up or fashion,” Chopra said. “People come to STP not for fashion, but if they want to have a conversation,” she said.
Having working in the journalism industry for so long, she said that journalists need not be the same as everyone and can try something different. “You need to figure out the audience you want to impact, and then go for it,” she suggested. While her advice for young women entrepreneurs is no different, she says that one needs thick skin and a cause in mind, and the rest comes naturally. But one will learn it the hard way.
Sucharita Eashwar changed her career multiple times. From working in a profit-oriented world, she transformed into the world of non-profits, and since then, she has only gone up the ladder. She started her own business, Catalyst for Women Entrepreneurs (CWE) in 2015.
The CWE fosters women’s new businesses. It is a platform that offers women entrepreneurs access to various business skills, finance, technology, mentorship and information about government schemes. In 2018, CWE, along with the Government of Karnataka, set up the first incubator and co-working space for women entrepreneurs in Bengaluru.
“As a woman, your personal and professional lives intersect,” Eashwar said. She said that when she had her first child when she started in the advertising industry. Eventually, she found out she had no time for her daughter.
She wondered why she had a baby if she couldn’t spend time with her, and that is when a thought arrived to find alternatives or else she’d have to miss seeing her baby growing up.
The alternative came knocking at her door, “I got an offer I could not refuse. It was to set up a social research organisation. And the offer came with an apartment that would have an office.”
She said it was an ideal situation where she could be with her baby and work, which would be rewarding to both a mother and a career-oriented woman. She then had her second daughter. “By that time, I had two daughters, and I was a single mother. I realised I had to look at something that would give me more income,” she said.
She added that as a single mother, she faced an umpteen number of challenges. She had to be both a father and a mother to her child, “I had both the responsibility of taking care of the children as well as financially supporting them.”
So, she got an opportunity because by that time, India was liberalising its economy and the idea to set up her own non-profit came into play. “A lot was happening in the field of technology and the communication sector, and I did not want to lose out,” she said.
Along the way, she faced many challenges. They CWE started with four founders. They all had come in very enthusiastically. “But at one point, they dropped out. They never thought it’s going to be a long time before they got profits,” said Eashwar. She was the only founder left who had the dream and mission to empower other women entrepreneurs like her. Today, she has thousands of women on her platform.
She said that she has women from all backgrounds and ages whom she helps to grow. One of her success stories is a woman whose husband, the sole family earning member, lost his job due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This led her to start her own business selling her grandma’s home-cooked recipes and the food she made for her baby. Eashwar said the woman has now been able to sustain her own family by doing so.
Eashwar’s dream to nurture other women had also come when she was able to help set up a biotech firm for Shridesi Raju. Her firm has been able to sell a range of food and medicines in Europe, Asia and the US.
Raised in a conservative South Indian family, Jyotsna Pattabiraman entered Silicon Valley after being a Stanford University graduate. Once this part of her life ended, she brought a lot of tit his back to India and started her organisation called GrowFit. GrowFit works to promote the health and wellness of individuals. It is a healthcare app that uses artificial intelligence to guide you towards your fitness goals. Founded in 2015, the best aspect of this application is that it has two separate physical and mental health platforms.
She recalls that there were many instances of microaggressions where she felt discriminated against. “One does not get the same salary for the same work you do as your male colleague,” she said.
She adds that in terms of developing a relationship with your boss, small ways to build companionships like going to the washroom together or going late at night to bars and clubs do not happen as a woman. “There is an inbuilt culture of going out for drinks afterward in the Silicon Valley.” She further retells her story, saying that it’s a boys club with lots of yelling and profanity that forms the work culture. “It was very unusual for me. Coming from a South Asian family, hearing the F-bomb a lot was something no woman should face,” she said.
Moreover, she said that the access to mentorship as a woman does not exist. These are just some examples. She said that California is not a very parent-friendly place. “Once, the companies’ management got all the women together to talk about raising families and everyone was a version of Sheryl Sandberg. They leaned into not acknowledging the difficulties. One of them said I had trained my children to sleep at a particular time.”
She came back to India with an idea to open her own company. “Coming back from Silicon Valley, I saw a lot of disparity in the logistics and infrastructure of medical services here. This motivated me to start my own company,” she said. She says she started this after seeing the health problems her own family was facing, more so, because there was a casual culture of popping medicines on your own without seeking consultation from the doctor: “Indian people promote a stigma of mental health that we wanted to reduce.”
She says that her advice to young women entrepreneurs is just one — start somewhere, be it starting your blog or your application. “Women often feel restricted and never start. Incubators can help women establish their businesses and it’s worth it. Looking back 10-15 years down the line, a woman entrepreneur will realise the legacy she has left behind with her work.”
From being a hairdresser in Australia to starting her own restaurants, Radhika Khandelwal has done it all. Her two restaurants in New Delhi are named Ivy Bean and Fig & Maple in New Delhi.
Her journey started as a hairdresser and student. “Being in Australia as a student and hairdresser meant being able to experience an array of flavours from across the globe.”
Her true calling was to become a chef. She got the right opportunity in Delhi, but it was a journey full of hurdles, more so as a female chef in a male-dominated industry.
She said that the kitchen is not kinder to any gender, be it male or female. “I do not like being referred to as a female chef. We’re indeed in a male-dominated society, so you constantly feel the need to do more and more to prove yourself.”
But she took up the challenge.
She said she faced many rebukes from her male colleagues at first. “You find yourself amidst colleagues who would set aside so-called ‘dainty’ tasks for you because they’d assume, ‘Hey you’re a girl and you most likely cannot make 10kgs of mashed potatoes by yourself’ or ‘You can’t clean the kitchen exhaust’ because they don’t think you’re going to scrub hard enough.”
She recalls this and says it was very annoying at that time, but today she could laugh at these absurdities. She went on to highlight her unique concept called Zero Waste, an attempt to decrease food wastage. “A major problem in our food system is that a large chunk of the food produced goes to waste. As I developed an understanding of the issue, I realised that this could be addressed by creating awareness. Zero Waste is a humble attempt to thwart traditional notions of food waste and encourage people to consume all edible parts of produce.”
She added that locally sourced ingredients procured directly from farmers are an integral part of her cooking, “These ingredients are not only much more robust in terms of flavours, but they also enable me to put forth a biodiverse menu.” She said that the inspiration to use locally sourced ingredients came from closely observing Indian culinary traditions. “The sheer abundance that regional recipes celebrate has a lot that one can learn from,” she said.
All this hard work takes well-earned rest and she enjoys cooking for herself. She says that her favourite go-to meal after a day’s work is a quick stir-fry with chicken, bok choy and mushrooms, “It’s quite a no-fuss meal.”
Her dream is to work at the ground level in creating a community of chefs, farmers and policymakers to develop a healthy food system. Laughingly, she said, “I probably see myself washing down some paella with a good wine somewhere by the beach in Spain.”