“Women Need To Push Through Their Self-doubt” Says Somdutta Singh, of Unspun Group
Born to surgeon parents in Kolkata, Dr Somdutta Singh moved to Bangalore to pursue her dreams of entrepreneurship. Currently she is Co-chair Nasscom Product Council, a start-up advisor and the Co-trustee and Director at Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence (CEE), along with being the founder of Unspun Consulting Group. She also dabbles hands in an exclusive designer collection brand for women, IRA- House of Designers
Taking up the plunge:
Like anyone else, it was anticipated that I will follow my parents’ footsteps when it came to choosing a career. So I remember the day I’d conveyed my decision to my parents of moving to Bangalore, they’d severed all ties with me. However, I moved out, stayed as a paying guest, helped a boutique owner with marketing strategies, wrote data sheets and started receiving my first earnings with which I could start college. Post my graduation, I followed up my grad degree with a PhD in management. At the time, I definitely knew I wanted to do something different, something that made me happy no matter how many times I failed. Investing and becoming a start-up mentor happened along the way once I’d set up Unspun Consulting Group.
Founding two entrepreneurial ventures that set different nature — was it inspired from any personal space?
In my earlier jobs, though I was successful and added value to the company, I wasn’t really contended. I wanted to make enough money, to save for my future, to constantly keep learning and gaining knowledge and finally to be happy with what I do. Thus, I became an entrepreneur.
I realised when it comes to flourishing, entrepreneurs lacked basic support from policy makers and the government in general. This is the sole reason why Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence came into being. CEE bridges the gap between entrepreneurs and policy makers and raises awareness on both fronts. It’s a platform that opens channels for entrepreneurs to voice their opinion on a certain policy or requirements and it’s my aim to ensure that they’re heard!
My inspiration has been my grandmother who was a fighter and my challenge was that nobody had thought of building a marketing business based on tech products. I was going to show that women can run businesses and can manage them well.
Explain why the trust you founded is so efficient when it comes to educating many aspirants and providing employment?
I envisaged the idea of CEE, as a not for profit foundation to help bridge the gap between policy makers and entrepreneurs. My dictum for entrepreneurs was simple – ‘be heard.’ CEE enables entrepreneurs across India to set up their business, lead self-sustainable lives and help their voices reach the legislative and executive bodies. CEE also conducts events to raise funds and apply them to develop the technology platform.
CEE drives 3 initiatives: Funding Connect, Skills Development Programs, and Voice It.
Coming to Unspun Consulting Group…it was born as India’s first technology driven, research-based marketing consultant firm for startups.
Oh yes, I definitely get to mentor more and more women entrepreneurs with each passing day. But, women really need to push through their self-doubt in order to rise. They must recognise and grab the opportunities the industry offers.
My journey has made me tougher, more creative and sharper and forced me to rise to the challenge.
Why is the startup ecosystem unfriendly towards women?
Entrepreneurship was once considered a man’s domain. Today, while the tide has shifted, the road ahead is still long and marred with impediments. Accessing venture capital has been especially difficult for women. If we deny women the opportunity to fulfil their economic potential – which essentially means that we exclude half the world’s population – the global economy will continue to suffer. It is vital to foster supportive ecosystems that embrace and capitalise on the economic potential of women. I firmly believe that both men and women are essential to cultivating such an environment.
When I attend networking events, I walk into a crowded seminar and can count the number of women there on one hand. So, do I really need to adopt a stereotypically “male” attitude? Being competitive, aggressive and overly harsh? I don’t think so. Be yourself and have confidence in who you are. I don’t conform myself to a man’s idea of what I should look like.
Do you think it’s hard for women to reach out to mentors and supporters?
The economy is rebounding with women entrepreneurs at the forefront, yet they need to find mentors, coaches and even sponsors to propel them to greater success.
When investors are approached by women entrepreneurs, there is an unconscious bias that they will not be as reliable as their male counterparts, and therefore not as fundable.
While not all women founders look for investors, those who do know how tough pitching and raising capital is. Women looking for investors should build confidence through a great team and solid business plan for investors typically look for businesses that can grow their valuation manifold. Finally, make sure your product is a good market fit and you have your head in place.
Do you believe the startup ecosystem will take a long time to transform to becoming gender balanced and female friendly?
The male-female disparity may not come as a surprise to many, as women entrepreneurs are definitely less in India. Women entrepreneurs in India hesitate to enter untested waters. They need to break barriers and enter the finance and technology sector thus building confidence amongst investors to back them up.
Funny but true, there’s always this fear among investors that women are more likely to prioritise their personal life when the need arises.
Do you think women-centric investment funds are key to helping women entrepreneurs?
When we look at businesses with women at the helm, the number is rather small and when we talk about the ones who have received funding, the statistics dwindle. A large section of our best entrepreneurs – women – are underrepresented. Women-centric investment funds will bring resources and expertise to help womenpreneurs reach their true potential.
The most rewarding components of my journey have been the mistakes I’ve made and how they been huge lessons for me.
Your take on sexual harassment and discrimination in startups.
It’s sad, but hundreds of women come forward each year with complaints of toxic work environments. Under the guise of “disruption” and “innovation”, startups foster an easy-going culture where women are vulnerable to all kinds of abuse, ranging from lewd comments to unwanted propositions. However, the problem is under-reported.
Every organisation by law should have a sexual harassment policy in place and follow certain guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment.
Of the many women who come to seek investment from you – what’s their reason? Comfort with a woman? Or do they feel less empowered talking to bossy and overpowering male investors?
While there are differences in how VCs look at startups, I don’t think women are really nervous or belittled by the fact that they’re asking funds from a man. If they’d been fearful, they wouldn’t have headed out on their journey in the first place. There is definitely a marked difference in the traction companies get depending on the gender of its founders and we have to change the balance of how people think about starting companies. I mean, how difficult is it to have female co-founders? They’re brimming with ideas!
Do you think digital media has shaped up women entrepreneurs’ passion at a high level?
Gradually, women entrepreneurs in India and across the world are harnessing the digital advantage to maximise their potential and realise the goal of going digital. Digital media is breaking barriers and building bridges to support greater education, better health, career advancement and stronger community, not just amongst women entrepreneurs but women at large.
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