Women entrepreneurs are shaping India’s future, but there is still a long way to go


India’s female labor force participation is just over 25%, which although lower than the global figure of 47%, is gradually increasing in both urban and rural areas. Out of 432 million women of working age in India, more than 15 million own their own businesses in the country. Following in the footsteps of former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and Biocon founder Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, around 15% of India’s unicorns have Indian CEOs.

Forward-looking decision making

Speaking of female entrepreneurship in India, Roshni Nadar Malhotra has become the first woman to lead a listed company in the country, after taking control of HCL from her father. Led by her in the post-pandemic era, HCL recorded the fastest revenue growth in more than a decade earlier this year. It also has expansion plans so HCL can make the most of cloud transformation and seeks to lead the company to net-zero emissions status by 2040.

Nadar Malhotra is just one of many women preparing India’s economy for the future by exploring untapped markets. Among them, Sharmistha Dubey, 51, is the CEO of Match Group, a $40 billion group that is driving India’s online dating revolution by leveraging apps such as Hinge, Tinder and OkCupid. As Century Tech CEO Priya Lakhani leads the development of AI-powered education solutions, edtech platform Byju co-founder Divya Gokulnath has stepped up to champion the company’s valuation.

Challenging odds and discrimination

But the ultimate rags-to-riches story is that of Kalpana Saroj, who defied multiple layers of discrimination in society to set up a Rs 750 crore metal engineering business, Kanmani Tubes. Born into a Dalit family, Saroj was doubly disadvantaged and was forced into marriage at the age of 12, but left her husband at 16. Ostracized by society, she moved to Mumbai and started a tailoring business with a government loan, which she soon paid off by also opening a furniture store.

She then opened an NGO, which was approached by the bankrupt Kanmani Tubes workers union, seeking help to overcome a 116 crore debt. With his courage and experience, Saroj turned around the fortunes of the ailing company and even received the Padma Shri in 2013 for his inspirational achievements. As a woman from a socially disadvantaged background, her achievement stands out as one of the closest to reality on the ground in India.

Shine on the world stage

As the country celebrates the appointment of Indian men as CEOs of Microsoft, Alphabet and Starbucks, among other global companies, women entrepreneurs have not received their due. The list is long and includes the likes of Leena Nair, who has been named CEO of global luxury brand Chanel, and Devika Bulchandani, who now leads advertising firm Ogilvy as global CEO. Immigrant-born Anjali Sud reinvented Vimeo into a video platform to compete with YouTube after becoming CEO in 2017, while Mumbai’s Amrapali Gan now heads content creation platform Only Fans.

Strengthening the startup ecosystem

Speaking of media exposure, Mamaearth founder Ghazal Alagh reached out to Indian audiences with her appearance as a judge on Shark Tank India, while her company sells 80 personal care products to households across the country. She is joined by Upasana Taku, who created digital payment startup Mobikwik which is set for its stock market debut this year. Women investors also play a major role in the startup ecosystem, with Priyanka Gill supporting platforms such as Miss Malini and ScoopWhoop through the Good Glamm group.

But these successes are only the beginning and India still has a long way to go to close the gender gap. Currently, only five of the Fortune 100 companies in India are led by female CEOs and only 15% of startups that have achieved unicorn status were founded by women.

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