The female Indian entrepreneurs who have overcome gender barriers
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Women in business news every morning.
As a young graduate in the late 1970s, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw aspired to follow in the footsteps of her father — the head brewmaster for one of India’s largest beer companies. But though she had trained as a brewmaster in Australia, India’s breweries felt it was too risky to induct a young woman into a managerial role in their male-dominated industry.
Some potential employers expressed concerns about her security if she was required at the brewery for a late-night emergency. Others doubted she could effectively lead the unionised working-class men that made up the bulk of the staff.
“I was being politely told, ‘we are very impressed with your qualifications, but this is not a woman’s job’,” Mazumdar-Shaw recalls. “They were very risk-averse to hiring a woman, and very concerned about my ability to handle these trade unions.”
Pushed out of a chosen career that others deemed unsuitable for a woman, Mazumdar-Shaw confronted another traditionally male bastion: entrepreneurship, as she set out, almost accidentally, to build her own business from scratch. Her gut feeling had been that India was “a hostile country for women in business”. But an Irish biotech entrepreneur looking for an Indian partner with knowledge of biology persuaded her to overcome her reservations. In 1978, she set up Biocon to make and export enzymes for food processing and industrial use.
Today, Biocon is one of India’s largest biotech companies, with a market capitalisation of nearly $7bn on the Bombay Stock Exchange. Mazumdar-Shaw herself is India’s first self-made Indian female billionaire, owning with her Scottish husband John Shaw about 65 per cent of Biocon.
Since 1991 — when New Delhi began liberalising its state-controlled economy, many outstanding women have ascended to the top of India’s traditionally male-dominated business world, shining in fields ranging from banking to fast-moving consumer goods.
The country’s largest lender, State Bank of India, was led for four years by a woman, Arundhati Bhattacharya, and several other major banks, including ICICI Bank and Axis Bank, have had women at the helm, as did the Indian units of foreign banks such as JPMorgan and HSBC.
Women like Vinita Bali, former managing director of Indian food company Britannia Industries, and Indra Nooyi, former global chief executive of PepsiCo, have also risen to the highest echelons of the corporate world both at home and abroad.
Even traditionally conservative family businesses are seeing women emerge among a new generation of leaders in companies founded by men and previously run by a succession of male heirs. In June, Nisaba Godrej, who holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, took charge as managing director and chief executive of Godrej Consumer Products, an arm of the 123-year-old Godrej Group.
In July, Roshni Nadar, the 38-year-old daughter of IT entrepreneur Shiv Nadar, became the first Indian woman to head a listed Indian IT group, replacing her father as chairman of HCL, the company he founded. But when it comes to entrepreneurship — and building big businesses from scratch, few Indian women have been able to follow the trail blazed by Mazumdar-Shaw.
Moreover, if India failed to produce many female entrepreneurs over the last two decades — a golden age of economic liberalism and openness — the chances of more appearing now may be even lower, as India and the global economy are hit by the coronavirus crisis. India’s gross domestic product is projected to contract significantly in the current financial year to March, the first fall since 1979.
Younger female entrepreneurs say traditional expectations about women’s roles and likely life trajectories still weigh heavily on career choices, as becoming an entrepreneur usually means seeking finance and support from others.
“In India, the entrepreneurial world is very much an old boys’ club,” says Ameera Shah, the 40-year-old managing director of Metropolis Healthcare, a diagnostics company valued at $1bn on the Bombay Stock Exchange. “People take chances on who they are comfortable with, and who they believe in, and gender has a very strong role. Women do not get taken a chance on.”
Shah says India’s family-oriented culture also valorises women who are cautious and accommodating and prioritise others’ needs over their own ambitions — qualities that don’t sit well with the gutsy determination needed for entrepreneurship. “The women considered heroes in Indian stories are usually self-sacrificing mothers, who sacrifice everything for their children,” says Shah. “Women in general in India are brought up to be meek, good girls . . . adjusting and compromising. You need to be told ‘take risks. Take a punt on yourself’. These things are not taught to women at all — or are seen as negative. I have been seen as too bold, and too aggressive.”
The lack of support for aspiring female entrepreneurs stands in sharp contrast to Asia’s other giant economy, China, where women have been far more successful in setting up businesses and building up to a large scale.
According to a recent report by Hurun, the Shanghai-based research company, China has 61 self-made women billionaires. The wealthiest is Zhong Huijuan, a former high-school chemistry teacher, who in 1995 founded the now-listed Hansoh Pharmaceutical Group.
India, by contrast, has just two self-made female billionaires — Mazumdar-Shaw, and the low-profile Radha Vembu, a graduate of the prestigious IIT-Madras technology school, who joined an IT start-up founded a year earlier by her brother.
The relative paucity of successful female entrepreneurs in India reflects deeper disparities between the two giant Asian neighbours in the relative involvement of women in the workforce. With just 23 per cent of India’s working-age women either having a job or looking for one, the South Asian country has one of the world’s lowest levels of workforce participation. In China, by contrast, 60 per cent of working-age women have jobs, or are looking for one — one of the highest female labour force participation rates in the world.
Mazumdar-Shaw believes women are still held back by entrenched expectations about their primary role as wives, mothers and homemakers. Though not unique to South Asia, such pressures still exert a particularly strong hold in the subcontinent, where women are often expected or forced by their extended family to drop out of the workforce after marriage — or childbirth.
In such a milieu, ambitious women feel safer opting for the conventional choice of a salaried job, rather than take the risks of trying to build a business. “You find a lot of women who have to play the dual role — a domestic role and a professional role,” says Mazumdar-Shaw. “They do have a challenge. A career path is a very structured, protected kind of environment. To be an entrepreneur takes a lot more. Women do get daunted by these challenges.”
Such attitudes also influence venture capital funds, which Mazumdar-Shaw feels are “gender-biased” and less likely to support start-ups led by women compared with those led by men. “Women have a certain perceptions hurdle to overcome,” she says. “I know that VCs feel that we don’t take risk; we are not ambitious; we are not aggressive. Women also have to bust those myths.”
The Biocon founder’s own career trajectory certainly defies all such stereotypes, though she too had to overcome plenty of such biases when she set up her business in a Bangalore garage. “I had huge credibility challenges,” she recalls. “I was 25 years old, I had Rs10,000 (then equivalent to about $1200) in a bank account, and I was trying to start a strange business called biotechnology. The banks thought it was high risk in every way.” Another big challenge was hiring, as many potential recruits were reluctant to join a female-led start-up. “Nobody wanted to work for a woman,” she recalls. “They thought I was a huge risk from a job security point of view.”
It was only in male-dominated government offices that she felt she had some edge over men. “Seeing a woman running a business was a rare sight — they would feel almost sorry for me and I would take advantage of that,” she said. She also received crucial support from her husband at a key moment in 1998, when he financed her buyback of a stake in Biocon then owned by Unilever, which was exiting the business. Once Biocon established a reputation, the focus on Mazumdar-Shaw’s gender receded. “I realised very quickly it mattered very little whether I was a woman or a man in the business world,” she said.
Yet younger women starting up companies of their own say they have still confronted many of the entrenched biases and hurdles that Mazumdar-Shaw faced in setting up Biocon decades earlier. Shah, the daughter of a well-known pathologist in Mumbai, says she was met with intense scepticism about her abilities back in 2001, when she set out to build her diagnostics business by bringing together prominent independent pathology labs in different Indian cities under a single brand.
Rather than doubting her proposed business model, many potential partners — and investors — doubted her, due to both her youth and her gender. “I had an idea and a vision of what I wanted to do,” Shah says. “But when I was sitting across the table talking to pathologists who were my father’s age . . . they’d say ‘what do you know about healthcare in India? You might get married and have children soon. Are you serious about this? Or is it a temporary thing?’”
As a young female entrepreneur, she believes “you are guilty until proven innocent. The assumption was that I was not capable or I did not deserve their trust or respect until I’d proven it.” Bankers were also wary when she was starting out. “I got asked the same question: ‘how old are you, when are you thinking of getting married, will you continue to do this tomorrow if you get married and have children?” she recalls.
Shah did benefit from her father’s prominence and unstinting support, which helped give credibility to her endeavour. His once eponymous lab — then Dr Sushil Shah’s Lab — was the first to take on the Metropolis brand, setting a precedent for others. “My father had built a very good reputation quality-wise for himself and the team, and it was the best platform for building something,” she says.
As Shah sees it, entrepreneurship in India has traditionally revolved around informal family and social networks, in which educated, ambitious young men with big ideas persuaded friends and relatives to support them, as investors or early customers.
Women, however, were typically excluded from such backing and seen as dilettantes.
“Entrepreneurship globally is a very informal network and system of building businesses — and your first customer is your uncle’s best friend or someone,” Shah says. “But the informal network of entrepreneurship doesn’t support women at all. There are no uncles and best friends willing to give a shot to you. The usual mindset is that ‘this is a hobby and I won’t give money’.”
But Shah does believe things are starting to change, with young Indian women becoming ever more ambitious, and a greater range of resources to support women pursuing entrepreneurial dreams, including more formal funding structures that are more receptive to women.
Women’s enrolment at India’s top business schools has been slowly rising, and now accounts for 39 per cent of students at the prestigious Indian School of Business, up from 30 per cent in 2015, while they are 23 per cent of the students at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, up from just 15 per cent in 2015.
Shah has also set up her own non-profit platform called Empoweress, which helps women develop the confidence, skills and network to set up and scale up businesses. “I see more ambition and aspiration in young women today than in my age group,” she says.
“We will see more women entrepreneurs, but the question is will we see more entrepreneurs that have the ability to scale? The ability to build a business is the ability to give your whole self to it. Most women don’t get all these things.”
Meanwhile, with the pandemic plunging India into recession, the challenge of securing financial backing for a business has got dramatically harder. Banks face a fresh onslaught of bad loans, which the central bank has warned could rise as high as 15 per cent of assets.
Women may struggle to persuade banks to take a chance on fresh start-ups, and that may remain a barrier at least until the broader macroeconomic conditions improve.
But gender should not be an excuse, argues Mazumdar-Shaw. “It’s the bankers who need to view women differently,” she says. “They need to look at women and say ‘these are worth investing in’ and ‘these are investable people’ and not view you through your gender.”
This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment.
Get alerts on Women in business when a new story is published