In the first week of March, Pooja Goel’s biggest concern was her upcoming convocation. An MBA student at the Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad, Goel was aware about Covid-19 and its accelerated spread around the world but wasn’t too worried about it impacting her life. She had a job offer with a reputable firm, starting from April, and now it was time to put her feet up. “The convocation was scheduled for mid-March and when it was cancelled, no one thought that this was just the first disruption in our lives. We were just upset that we wouldn’t have a convocation.” Just a month later, Goel’s joining date had been deferred twice and she was facing up to the reality that her immediate professional future, as she had envisaged it, was not to be.
An active member of her B-school’s entrepreneur cell, Goel, 27, decided to put to use the two years of seminars and interactions with entrepreneurs and launched Pink Collar Professionals, a consultancy for women entrepreneurs looking to go digital to scale up. “I was free, I had the knowledge and more importantly, I was confident that I will be good at it,” she tells Open. Goel started with a Facebook page, the link to which she left in several online groups. She offered her services pro bono if need be, to get noticed. From a lady who made organic soaps at home to a career counsellor looking to take her services online full-time, Goel found herself being approached by an increasingly diverse group of small-business owners, all of whom were badly hit by the pandemic. “These are women who have been running a business for a few years now but never sought to expand their reach. They were happy with word-of-mouth recommendations, local Diwali melas, etcetera. They don’t have an online presence or at the most a token one. I am here to help them bridge the gap,” she explains. Since May she has worked with more than 35 small-business owners, helping them take their businesses online. Her consultancy fees, she says, depends entirely on the financial situation of the client but she manages to stay afloat. Goel always knew that one day she would start her own business and combine making money with a cause she feels strongly about: gender equality. She had not expected it to be at the start of her career and for that she has the pandemic to thank.
Goel is not the only one. Across the country, more and more women, from varied socio-economic as well as educational backgrounds have turned entrepreneurs during the pandemic, either out of choice or compulsion. And if already a business owner, they have had to figure out ways to successfully pivot while trying not to forego responsibilities towards their teams. The world’s economy has been upended but women have been disproportionately impacted. In a country such as India where the gender gap on most indicators still remains wide, this can have farreaching consequences. According to a survey by Bain & Company, Google and AWE foundation, 73 per cent of women-owned business said they were negatively impacted while 20 per cent said they were on the brink of being wiped out.
“Overnight sales came to a standstill. I had stock which meant I couldn’t place more orders. And the artisans were calling up asking for work. That’s when the struggle for new ideas started,” says Gina Joseph, owner, Zola
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“In India, the bulk of women small-business owners are concentrated in three categories: fashion, food and education. When the lockdown was announced and all services ground to a halt, the first reaction in our community was of sheer panic,” says Ruche M Mittal, the founder of Her Entrepreneurial Network (HEN) a platform that seeks to bring together Indian women entrepreneurs. The almost decade-long network which boasts pan-India members immediately understood the need to not just pivot but also go online. “We had to let go of the idea of a physical space from which to run our businesses and take it all online. From live sessions on Instagram marketing to seeing how one could pivot, for instance, a member ran a business manufacturing cloth bags and moved on early to masks, we did it all together and are still doing it. It is a steep learning curve.” Of the women entrepreneurs surveyed by Bain & Company, 54 per cent said they had to change their business models which included new products or services and re-orient supply chains. Mittal says there is movement in the market now, starting with Eid, Durga Puja and now Diwali. “After this there is X-mas, New Year and then Valentine’s day. There are opportunities galore and now people want to spend.”
When Bengaluru-based Annie Kumar and her business partners sat down for a Zoom call with their employees towards the end of March, she knew only one thing for certain: that she will not let her team down. “It is to let people down but when you have built a business on the shoulders of your team, how do you let even one person go?” Annie and her two partners had started PoundWize Forex, a Reserve Bank of India-authorised money changer in 2004, and over the years had seen the business grow to over 14 branches across the country. In 2014, she stepped down from PoundWize to start Nafex, “India’s first aggregator for money exchange” and it seemed as if nothing could go wrong. People were only travelling more and Annie and her partners had the advantage of being well known and trusted in their field. But then came the pandemic and overnight the forex market came to a halt. “The only work that can happen right now is people looking to exchange whatever currency they may have lying around,” she says. The Zoom call at the end of March was meant to be a brainstorming session as to how Nafex could pivot. Shutting or scaling down was not even an option. “We thought why not be a service-oriented organisation that provides support to professional services that cannot be there in a city. We had a readymade team in eight cities and we overnight turned into a sort of concierge service for other businesses,” Annie tells Open. A client was sourcing PPE kits from a supplier in another city but there was no way to verify if the claims being made were correct. So a team from Bembrro, the new organisation, was dispatched. Another client needed a big consignment of marble picked up from Jaipur but quality checks were essential so the Bembrro team from Delhi went to the quarry to ensure there were no slipups. “We put the word out on social media, all of us. The office boy to the [managing directors] made calls to people we had worked with, saying this is our new service and we are happy to go where you cannot.” Annie says Bembrro has made money from the very first assignment it carried out and without compromising on the salaries or jobs of even one of their 387 employees. “Indian business owners are hybrids. We aspire to corporate-level excellence, but our value system is Indian.” She doesn’t call these difficult times but ‘different’ and is confident that if handled correctly, will get better.
OVER THE years there have been several initiatives, both from the corporate sector as well as government to support women entrepreneurs and while the atmosphere is supportive, there are always hiccups. Chennai-based Gina Joseph, 37, has been running her own jewellery label, Zola, for six years now but there are still times when she will hear a statement like, ‘Is this a hobby for you?’, ‘I have seen young inexperienced male founders being favoured whereas I will get judged at every step of the way. It is irksome but I persist.’ Her label aims to promote India’s arts and crafts such as dhokra, pattachitra and toda in the form of wearable art and over the years she has expanded her repertoire to include 10 craft forms spread across eight states. “I have exhibited internationally, and my label was retailed in 25 stores across India and countries like Singapore and the US.” In March, Joseph was expecting a 10 lakh plus-piece international order when the pandemic was declared and everything went belly up. Her label boasts a slick website today with shots of not just the pieces but histories of the craft forms and testimonials from quite a few well-known names. But back in March, all of Zola’s digital marketing was “basic” by Gina’s own admission, Zola relying more on word of mouth. Gina sat and brainstormed with her artists. “What to do? Where to look for new ideas?” Eventually they settled on one idea: board games such as ludo, snakes and ladders, bagh bakri. “These are designed on pattachitra with traditional motifs but played in the same manner. They come beautifully packaged and are 100 per cent sustainable.” The games were launched two weeks ago. This is the first time that Gina has not been in the villages with the craftsmen, designing each piece in person, but rather virtually. “Each component of the jewellery we do at Zola is carefully thought out and planned. Which is why I have repeat customers,” says Joseph who is now looking at expanding into the home decor space. Currently, there are a few orders for Diwali gifting but she is keeping her fingers crossed for a potential international order. Her profit margin from the sale is 20 per cent with 40 per cent of the earnings going back to the craftsmen. In 2018 she had some seed investment and had since invested in an office space and two staffers. The staffers left when the lockdown was announced. Joseph remains upbeat about the future though she is taking on freelance brand communication on the side to sustain the brand.
“We are getting orders right now with requests for customisation but the floods in Hyderabad added another layer of complexities to a tough year,” say Shweta and Niharika Keerthi Sethia, founders, The Sassy Studio
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In May the Government had announced a slew of measures to provide relief to small businesses across the country but few women business owners, especially in tier 2 and 3 cities were able to avail of this as they did not have the requisite paperwork or did not meet the requirements. “It is easy to say go digital but to make it flourish online is a different ballgame. Also, women in smaller cities and towns have other struggles. The lockdown completely wiped out all semblance of work-life balance, leading them to put their businesses on hold,” says Chanchal Badsiwal who is with the Karnataka Handloom Council of the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. For women entrepreneurs the pandemic, she says, has been an emotional as well as a physical struggle. “A lot of women business owners have little working capital. They don’t have deep pockets and as such their businesses were unable to survive.”
Shweta Keerthi Sethia, 33, had run a successful event management firm, Purple Martini, in Hyderabad for the past eight years. “From trunk shows to exclusive launches, we were the go-to agency in Hyderabad. Of course, the pandemic hit us first.” Sethia is under no illusion about normalcy returning to her line of work anytime soon but letting the year go by wasn’t an option either. “It is about your career, certain motivations in life, so I knew we had to do something else.” It was her younger sister, Niharika, who eventually came up with the idea of a label that specialised in ‘stay at home’ fashion. “Everyone has joked about spending their entire time in pyjamas at one point of time or the other during the lockdown. But India doesn’t have too many local brands. The few that are there are priced very high so we thought why not start something of our own?” From pyjama sets to kaftans, which, Sethia says, have a new lease of life thanks to Kareena Kapoor favouring them, their label, The Sassy Studio, specialises in affordable lounge wear. The sisters are sourcing textiles from Surat while a tailoring unit has been set up in their parents’ house in Hyderabad. Their range starts at Rs 2,000 for night-sets with loungewear being priced slightly higher. The sisters settled on a price range keeping their home city, Hyderabad, in mind, as the consumer there is more “price sensitive than in bigger cities”. The sisters plan to keep the operation small for the initial months so as to keep their overheads low but are willing to adopt a wait-and-watch attitude if the brand takes off. “We are getting orders right now with requests for customisation but the floods in Hyderabad added another layer of complexities to a tough year.”
Women entrepreneurship, if promoted and facilitated, has the potential to transform the role women play in a country’s economy. The pandemic may have put the immediate future of small-business owners at risk but it has also prompted the acceptance of certain trends such as working remotely and use of digital channels for everything, from marketing to communication. None of the women Open spoke to would put her money on when she would see a return to pre-pandemic bottomlines but as people have adjusted to the new normal, and with the festival season kicking in, the women are hopeful that the first rays of revival will begin to appear.