Women, go to work, please!

It was this article that got me thinking. And maybe it’ll get you thinking, too.

And if you don’t read the entire article, you can read just the first two lines.

LAKSHMI, the goddess of wealth and fortune, is the closest thing Hinduism has to an economic deity. How poorly her earthly sisters in present-day India are faring. 

Not that I was unaware of the scenario, but this mainly reaffirms what the reality is. This time, with real-life examples and figures to support the claim.

Ironic, very ironic. In the land where the ardently worshipped deities of wealth, education and power are all female, India is losing out a major chunk of its talent only because so many women are at home. A loss that converts into economic deprivation in terms of becoming a significant contributor to the nation’s poverty by a staggering 27%

Whats even more ironic that the only reason isn’t just the lack of education, it’s also the never-ending social pressures that collectively surmount to keep women actively out of the workforce. In-laws demanding the their daughters-in-law stay at home despite their education and desire to earn. Organizations that don’t support working mothers forcing women with children to quit their jobs and take a hiatus, which very often means that they don’t get back to work at all. Women entrepreneurs struggling to keep their ventures afloat, with collectively only around 2% of total venture capital financing going to women.

Of course there have been game changers within the society, in terms of women among the likes of Indra Nooyi, Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Chanda Kocchar, who have risen up the corporate ladder as well as gone to create successful companies of their own. And business models that supported women employment. AMUL and Lijjat Papad. And little proliferations of self-employed women with regard to the good old Tupperware and Amway aunties, the waxing ladies, the tuition teachers and the neigbourhood ladies with their pickle and tiffin businesses. Yet, the number of women who collectively remain unemployed still outnumber them.

Growing up, I was fortunate to be born to parents who viewed education and having a career equally important for both sons and daughters. Which meant that I never thought of myself not having a full-time job, ever. Yet again, that does not mean that I am biased towards stay-at-home moms. The point I’m trying to make, is that not every woman has to have a full-time job. There are women who stay out of active employment out of choice. But that doesn’t mean that the women at the other end of the spectrum, that is women who want to work, should be held back in any form. It is the birthright of every single woman, to have access to education, economic freedom and empowerment. So that when they fo genuinely want to go out and make a living, they are not are obstructed by  financial, physical or social barriers. From more education opportunities,  self-employment and work-from-home options, to child-friendly workplaces, maternity benefits, more microfincnace options and venture capital funding. We need them all.

Maybe this could be a wake-up call, and our mantra for the years to come: Sending more women to work. Hopefully our daughters and granddaughters, shall look at boardrooms and corner office aspirations as normal, instead of glass ceiling achievements, like our generation does. And we will have a fuller, richer economy, that thrives from the collective effort of both men and women.

(The article cited appeared in The Economist : Why India needs its women to work. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/07/05/why-india-needs-women-to-work)

Small Business. Big Impact.

A typical 90s kid, I grew up in an India which wasn’t exactly free of big corporate giants. Butter meant AMUL and chocolate meant Dairy Milk and washing powder meant Nirma. Yet, as much as you became a recipient of mass commoditization as introduced by well known brands and big national and multinational businesses, a typical day in your life also involved ample integration with small businesses. The neighbourhood salon, which you visited not only for their services but also a fresh round of gossip of what was happening in your locality. The chai-wallah (tea-seller) down the road whose ginger tea pulled in everyone from the aam aadmi (common man) to the multimillionaires of the town. The kirana (grocery) shop, where the uncle behind the counter had seen me since I was a toddler, where thanks to a relationship that spanned generations (my great-grandfather knew uncle’s grandfather) we got to to buy entire months worth of grocery in advance on credit.

And if that weren’t enough, being an offspring of a first-generation entrepreneur, allowed me to gauge first hand what small businesses were, how they were established, the challenges they typically experienced, and how they had to grow strength to strength to sustain themselves in competitive environments. They struggled, and stumbled, yet managed to stay, survive and thrive.

At first glance, small businesses might seem like the Davids of the world, in comparison to the Goliaths – the multinationals. Yet, combine them together, and they’re quite a force to reckon with. There’s data to prove it too. According to reports by CII, in 2017, a staggering 95% (almost 42.5 million) of business units in India comprise small and medium scale enterprises. SMEs in the country collectively employ almost 60% of the workforce in the country.

Which means the conclusion is clear. Small businesses are big.

What is about them, though? What makes them vulnerable, yet resilient enough to withstand the forces of the big daddies? Why do small businesses manage to not just compete, but coexist with their international, mammoth counterparts?

Possibly because at heart, they are more than a mid-sized profit-making entity. Or because they offer nimble, personalized services as opposed to homogenized offerings of the faceless corporation. Or maybe even because due to limited resources as opposed to their bigger counterparts, they are forced to remain lean and cost-effective in true startup sense. And if nothing else, the fact that at heart, they remain largely relationship oriented – both within the enterprise as well as with customers. For instance, every trip to the kirana store ended with me getting complimentary candies from uncle. My chai-wallah knew exactly how strong my father liked his tea. And in a society that still thinks with a heart, like ours does, such snippets of customer delight are huge.

Small businesses are a living proof to the entrepreneurial zeal of the country, society and times we live in. In an era where foreign giants are eyeing companies in India that they can buy out, these are essentially the start-ups in true sense. Which is why it’s no coincidence that everyone, from Facebook to Amazon are working relentlessly to strengthen their relations and operations with small players, instead of dismiss them as worthless competition.

In developing, populous, heterogeneous countries like ours, small businesses are the heart of the economy. Ones that are critical to national well being, both financially and socially.  For on a slightly more romantic note,they don’t just serve the economy they’re in. They make homes, families and households run. They give an entire strata of society, economic valuation, financial freedom, and social status.

Not every small business remains small in the long-run. Every mega conglomerate was once a small business. And small businesses, make a big difference.

Women & Entrepreneurship. New best friends? Not really.

In the Bollywood movie English Vinglish, I remember a scene when everyone in the first session of a crash English course is introducing themselves. Sridevi a.k.a Shashi, mentions that she runs a tiny ladoo-making business from within the confines of her kitchen. ‘Oh, so you’re an entrepreneur,’ the English teacher exclaims. And Shashi’s eyes light up, for all of a sudden she’s now learned a new definition of her identity. One that enhances her own self-esteem in her eyes. In the blink of an eye, she’s gone from someone who thought she didn’t do anything exemplary, to an ‘en-tre-pre-neur’, a word she herself has to practice a few times before she gets it right.

As an Indian woman, there’s probably never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. As far as the glass ceiling of entrepreneurialism is concerned, the ceiling hasn’t just cracked, it’s been broken, even shattered. Repeatedly. In a nation that has traditionally seen a male-dominated entrepreneurial scenario, there is no dearth of women who’ve built and led successful ventures And that’s good news.

Yet, if I look back to my growing up years, it does strike me that female entrepreneurship is no new phenomenon. Rather one that’s been around since the last few decades. And there are several instances of this.

A prime example that comes to mind is the cooperative company structures Lijjat Papad and AMUL built. Allowing women to a taste of financial independence through employing household skills that they had anyway learned by default.  A win-win situation for these commercial ventures and for the women. Many of these business models even went on to become case studies at B-schools, for they were pathbreaking attempts at employing latent talent in women that had otherwise been traditionally ignored. And in the process allowing women, who had mostly been financially dependent on menfolk, to earn their own livelihood.

Or, another regular character in my growing up days, the women I called the Tupperware and Avon aunties. The ones who usually were female acquaintances of my mother through her personal network of friends, family and kitty party members. Ones who would come home with glossy catalogues of kitchen ware items and cosmetics, trying to make use of salesmanship trainings they had acquired through becoming representatives of these companies, almost always convincing my mother that the products advertised in the catalogues were far better than their retail counterparts. And each of these women ran her own show as a company affiliate, growing her clientele, and sales volume through her own efforts. Some of them even managed to employ other women under them, creating their own sales hierarchies. And running them profitably.

And then every neighbourhood most likely had a pickle and tiffin aunty. The ones who ran tiny ventures out from home. Making pickles and lunches for those who didn’t have the time to make their own. And becoming indispensable in most cases.

Each one of these women is an entrepreneur. Irrespective of the size of the venture they ran.

And the trend hasn’t stopped, for even today, there are several many women who run successful small-scale businesses, from within their homes. And we’d all probably agree that they are as important as are the women who build unicorns. For they contribute in many ways, to our social economy. And personally, I have an extra element of respect for them. Because even without B-school degrees, venture capital and sometimes even a basic education, they did everything that is included in the definition of an  entrepreneur. Take risks. Create value. Solve pain points. And in the process, earn identity and profit.

Business Lessons Daddy taught me

My father is a first-generation entrepreneur, drop-dead passionate about his work. He built an entire company from scratch. And he didn’t go to B-school. But I learnt some of the most invaluable lessons of entrepreneurship and business from him.
Growing up, I always wondered what it took to build a successful business, and how so many successful entrepreneurs built corporations from ideas without what may be considered as ‘business-specific knowledge’, and how the summa cum laudes at the Harvards and Whartons ended up working for them. To a slightly immature me, it seemed almost unfair, how graduates from stellar academic institutions had bosses less qualified or educated than them. Until I realized that successful business-building took more than knowledge. 
Over the years, analyzing the journeys and testimonials of successful entrepreneurs, I’ve realized that irrespective of geography, era, industry and product, there exist certain underlying qualities of every entrepreneur, including my father, that share common ground. Passion, a vision, fierce resilience and tenacity, and added to that a zeal and enthusiasm for their work, have indeed always been common ingredients of the entrepreneurial diet. The entrepreneurs are ‘dreamers’ and the ones they employ are the ‘dream-realizers’. In the end, they’re both equally important, but as the starter of the cycle, I wouldn’t shy away from giving the entrepreneur a little extra credit. 
What I learnt from my dad, are practices, principles and tenets I know I’ll take with me to the grave. 
  1. Vision. Vision. Vision. – Vision isn’t just a one-line sentence that goes down on paper, as a formal company statement. It’s that one single thing that turns ideas into corporations. A brave, daring, sometimes even seemingly unachievable vision. Dream big, work hard, do big. Like the say, well begun is half done. 
  2. Have an eye for detail – An obsession with perfection.  Always have high standards, and do everything within your might to achieve them. Never settle for sub-standardness.
  3. Solving a customer’s pain point – Treat this as your business motto, and everything in your business gets engineered towards making your customer a happier person. Exactly how it should be. Your business must always be to serve your customers first, your second, and external stakeholders, such as media and investors last.
  4. Focus on betterment – Product, process, people. Also focus on creating a better version of what you have. While there always will be eternal competition you’ll have to fight, in the end, the biggest competition will always be with yourself. 
  5. There’s no such think as too much homework – Always be prepared. You may have people running your enterprise for you, but in the end, you are who they’ll always look up to. Put in a little time regularly going beyond the fringe – whether its studying industry trends, networking with key people from the industry, or even digging deeper into your own business and identifying ways to increase internal efficiency. A little goes a long way.
  6. Leadership –  Your business is the ship, and you’re the captain. There is absolutely no substitute for good leadership.  Your people, if well led, can be your most powerful resource. 
  7. Agility – We live in disruptive times. And it isn’t difficult for redundancy to creep in. You need to stay on your toes, instead of getting too comfortable on the boss chair. Reverse engineering, and reinventing the wheel, aren’t just options, they’re necessary for your business to keep up with changing times. And if you’re still not convinced, there are enough companies as examples that went out of business because they did’t adapt their product, service or overall business model. 
  8. Relationships and people management – The core of building a successful business, according to my father. A successful business is one where every transaction creates a win-win situation for everyone in the picture – employees, customers and owners. Strong relationship management is what leads to longevity in business. 
  9. Have a sense of gratitude  – Success isn’t an island, and it doesn’t happen in isolation. You might be the one to have reached the top of the ladder, but there’ll always be innumerable people who’ll have played a role in taking you there. 
  10. Stay grounded Never, ever let failure go to your heart, and success, to your head. Success, particularly in this arena, should always be accompanied with humility, not arrogance. 
Business, particularly entrepreneurship  isn’t easy, but isn’t exactly rocket science either. And if my non-B school Daddy could you do, I’m sure you can, too!