In a country where we’re gradually managing to bring equilibrium in business ecosystems, women entrepreneurs have faced a hard and long battle to not just rise to the top but also be recognised and treated equally.
While women outnumber men in educational merits and are approaching parity in professional domains, there still are severe loopholes when it comes to bridging the gap. Nonetheless, women entrepreneurs and leaders in the space are unstoppable.
As we draw curtains to 2022, we look back at moments when women in leadership positions across businesses in India told SheThePeople what it takes to be a female leader.
These women spoke about how overcoming prejudice and stereotypes have been the primary challenges they’ve overcome to reach where they are today.
Suggested reading: Digital Woman Awards 2022: How Women Entrepreneurship Can Close The Gender Gap
Women Leaders In Business
As a young girl residing in the Melkheda village of Madhya Pradesh, Neha Mujawdiya raised many questions. She wondered why she had to struggle for quality education and how girls in her village only stayed at home and never stepped out to learn, work and earn. Her questions led to self-discovery, some uncomfortable answers, and the most empowering solutions she could find – she did everything she could to study and became the first girl from her village to graduate with a degree.
Mujawdiya is now the founder and CEO of Indore-based TutorCabin, an ed-tech startup that she started in 2018. From providing door-to-door tuitions to becoming a digital entrepreneur today, Mujawdiya’s drive to start something on her own was always triggered by society’s dominance to hold women back. As someone who leads thousands of employees and runs operations in major cities across the country, Mujawadiya tells us that her leadership ability is impacted by the teacher in her.
“I was and will always be a teacher, and that innate quality in me to lead students to navigate their course of life helps me now to be a leader with the same compassion and purpose.”
Chennai-based Swetha Kochar was often told to dream small because what if she had a child and didn’t feel like returning to work? What if she could not because not many female financial consultants and advisors make it big? Kochar didn’t fall for the advice, she instead followed her instinct, tapped on her skills, and is today one of the country’s most successful Chartered Accountants who went on to gain an experience at financial firms and now serves as partner and leader at PKC, a consultant giant that deals with business advisory, tax and audit advisory, funding and business automation among other services.
The factor that impacted her growth as a leader was having a network of senior female entrepreneurs as mentors and friends. “The other thing which has helped is I recognise what I’m good at and enjoy doing versus those parts of the business that I don’t have the skills for and that drain my energy,” she says.
Kochar recalls the days when she was constantly advised to step back after she had a baby but she did what she felt was right in all aspects. “Entrepreneurship by itself is challenging, and that’s what makes it fun. I was told time and again only to expand the business once I had a child because what if I didn’t return to work? To me, that was bizarre. I returned from maternity break in 45 days full-time because that was something I wanted to do consciously. For me, it was always clear what my priorities were but for other people to understand that this could be important for a woman took a lot of time.”
“I’ve had similar experiences with clients as well – some clients outright expressed they were not comfortable working with a woman, or I had to have a male counterpart in the meeting to show them I meant serious business. That didn’t deter me from marching ahead.”
A decade ago, Shahla Ettefagh moved from the United States to Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India, with the purpose to start a school for underprivileged children. She knew the path wasn’t easy but she did it anyway. Starting with teaching just nine children in her apartment in 2002, Ettefagh completed her school’s four-story flood-free school building in April 2016, accommodating more than 600 students. With the name Mother Miracle, she today runs a fully functional educational institute in Shisham Jhari, an impoverished locality in town, that aims to help as many underprivileged communities as possible.
Ettefagh, who managed a successful commercial interior design company and an adult community art school in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1984 until 2002, put to use her degrees in Architecture and child psychology respectively in building Mother Miracle and executed her vision of constructing a 41,300-square-foot school for students. For Ettefagh, the challenge to come to a foreign land alone as a woman and start something on her own was a huge mountain to overcome. Acknowledging that patriarchy has been a huge roadblock in women’s journey across the world, Ettefagh stresses that the challenges are never-ending for women who grow in the role of leaders or mentors.
“Imagine, coming from a privileged place in America, I was rebuked when I started Mother Miracle. Few people believed in me, while the naysayers said I couldn’t take up such an unconventional responsibility because I was a woman. It’s not like it was easy to lead a company in America. Women have always been reduced to stereotypes, everywhere. But then, if you want to do it, you move forward amidst the noise,” she recalls. As an exemplary example of a fierce leader herself, she adds that women can and must play path-breaking roles as mentors, especially in entrepreneurship.
“While there will always be challenges as a woman even after you get a top leadership position, with the right opportunities and self-belief there will always be room for you to grow as a leader.”
Mansi Bagla is currently helming her production house Mini Films, under which she and her team have made a few films. She launched her Mini Music Label and is now gearing up for releases of diverse music videos.
As a business owner, she feels the Mini label is the culmination of her fondness for the entertainment world alongside her sense of leadership. “While I’m a creative mind, I also believe I’m good with business, overseeing a project right from its seed to a full production unit, I get involved in the process and that helps me learn more about business. As a woman, I need to become more aware of where I am investing and what is profiting me creatively too,” she says.
“As a woman who is navigating her share of space in the industry independently and as a filmmaker who is working hard to bring unconventional, inspiring content to the viewers, my aspirations lie in creating a future where artists are valued for their work, and gender is never the criteria to determine talent.”
Rashi Gupta was always fascinated by the sciences. Double master’s from IIT Delhi, Gupta pursued her doctorate from the University of Helsinki, Finland, and holds two decades-long professional experience. She co-founded her conversational startup, an AI-powered platform called Rezo.AI with Manish Gupta in 2017 and has been donning several hats at the company as a chief data scientist and a leader.
As someone who dons several hats at her organisation as a chief data scientist and a leader, Gupta has come a long way. Her leadership ability, she shares, is a result of always being at the forefront of things. “Managing large teams always involves a lot of uncertainty and stress, which I continue to maintain throughout my life and has also propelled my growth as a women leader,” she says.
Gupta recalls the days when she was gaining experience at other places and ascertains that it was being involved in multiple operations that helped her build skills which now assist her in leading others. She suggests for Indian markets to wholly accept women leaders, it’s important to first empower women in leadership positions by promoting workplace policies which enable areas like confidence building and leadership training, along with creating safe as well as comfortable workspaces for women.
“The Indian market can empower women in leadership positions by promoting workplace policies which support confidence building and leadership training for women.”