“Gender disparity is prevalent in the entrepreneurial world. People tend to connect better with folks who are like them. The fact that there are not enough women on the entrepreneurial side means this disparity is bound to happen,” — Madhurima Agarwal, director – engineering programmes and leader – NetApp Excellerator at NetApp India.
The issue of under-representation of women entrepreneurs in the startup ecosystem is a longstanding challenge. The numbers are alarming, with female representation being as low as 26% for technical jobs and 31% for non-technical roles. This is when the unconscious bias creeps in, according to Agarwal. “If you’re a woman, you will face additional challenges about managing your family and spouse along with your business which puts you at a disadvantage,” she added.
Agarwal and others are leading efforts to improve the state of gender diversity in the startup ecosystem — women make up just around 14% of total entrepreneurs in India, according to the Sixth Economic Census of 2016. This disparity has been worsened by the economic impact of the pandemic — 73% of women entrepreneurs are said to have been negatively impacted, with nearly 20% of such business owners seeing revenue dwindle to zero in 2020, according to a survey by non-profit AWE Foundation.
In a bid to support women entrepreneurs, B2B tech accelerator programme launched NetApp ExcellerateHER. The four-month zero equity accelerator programme is designed to support women entrepreneurs across all stages. Women-led startups that work in the B2B deep tech space can apply to be a part of the programme.
The initiative is part of the company’s flagship NetApp Excellerator B2B tech accelerator programme. It has taken in multiple women entrepreneurs to provide them with support, guidance and access to various tools to run their businesses. The likes of Arintra and BrainsightAI, are part of their first cohort.
Agarwal, who heads the ExcellerateHER initiative, said the vision is to create a supportive community for women entrepreneurs who take up the startup path so that they can have a women-oriented community and supportive ecosystem. “We aim at helping women entrepreneurs grow and support them through their journey. We provide them with technical mentoring to build a world class product, give them access to business mentors, and connect them with senior women leaders so they can be a part of an encouraging community.”
Besides typical accelerator support for product development, the initiative offers various workshops run by coaches, access to global publicity and marketing experts, along with a chance of building an extensive network of mentors both inside and outside of NetApp. The program also focusses on pitch decks, presentations to investors and building networks for investing opportunities.
Women Entrepreneurs Strive Through Pandemic Challenges
The pandemic and the subsequent social distancing created a plethora of struggles for all entrepreneurs. Karishma Kunder, co-founder of Blobcity, which provides cloud infrastructure for developers and artificial intelligence projects, told Inc42, “We couldn’t travel or do on-premise meetings which meant longer sales cycles and delayed closure on projects. It affected our cash flow, distributed workforce, and that completely changed the customer and sales behavior.”
Kunder was one of the many entrepreneurs who had to adjust to the new normal. Things have been especially difficult for women-led startups. With only 9% of such startups getting funded in 2019, this was a critical time for startups to prove their models.
Rimjhim Agrawal, co-founder of BrainsightAI, a health tech startup, said it was about making the most of the opportunity despite the challenges, “The healthcare sector has been the most impacted by the pandemic. It has created a new normal for the sector by changing an extremely human contact-based industry into a remotely operated one.”
Similarly, Aditi Olemann, co-founder of Myelin Foundry, a deeptech startup focussed on solving the inconsistent bandwidth issue for OTT platforms, also leveraged the mentor network to make the most of the association with NetApp. She said, “The accelerator programme provided us with mentors from within NetApp, as well as external leaders, who provided continuous guidance and mentoring on our product and go-to-market strategies. These leaders had startup experience, so they could empathise with us and guide us in the right direction. It also gave us a lot of visibility in front of customers, investors, and potential partners from not only India but across the world.”
Work from home, in light to the social distancing regulations, brought its own set of challenges to the operations. Preeti Bhargava, co-founder of Arintra, spoke about her share of challenges faced during the pandemic. She said, “We had to incorporate regular standups and sync on zoom to keep the communication efficient. We had to encourage people to get on calls to discuss any blockers or issues.”
Promoting Gender Diversity In Entrepreneurship In India
Myelin Foundry earned INR 2.5 Cr as revenue in FY 2020, while Blobcity and Brainsight AI are in the pre-revenue stage. All three startups said that the growth in the past year is indicative of the support from the community and NetApp. It also highlights the necessity of the same in a large scale and in less exclusive spaces as well.
However, the challenges don’t end here. Women entrepreneurs face multiple difficulties from raising funds to go-to-market to customer acquisition and earning customers’ trust. The lack of a true community to back their efforts limits how far women entrepreneurs can go. While NetApp’s initiative is a positive step, it is hopefully the first of many to come, as per the women founders we spoke to.
Agarwal believes that the ExcellerateHER programme is a small but crucial step in that direction. She said, “The NetApp ExcellerateHER program was launched to strengthen our resolve to contribute to the startup ecosystem in India especially for women founders in B2B tech startups. The program’s ethos underlines inclusive growth for all program participants”.