Seema Chaturvedi of Project AIRSWEEE helps young women entrepreneurs in India achieve success.
In recent years, the number of successful women entrepreneurs has been growing at a steady rate. For all the strides that women have made in starting businesses, they still face challenges like gender bias and lack of access to resources. A number of organizations are working to address these challenges. One such organization is the California-based The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE).
TiE recognizes the “significant opportunity for value creation and the associated multiplier effect that can be unleashed by empowering women.” Thus, its TiE Women platform provides knowledge and resources to empower women. One of its major projects is Project AIRSWEEE (All-India Road Show on Women’s Economic Empowerment through Entrepreneurship). The project, now in its second phase, is funded and supported by the U.S. State Department, with the aim to empower Indian women through entrepreneurship workshops in Tier II and Tier III cities.
Seema Chaturvedi, chairperson of Project AIRSWEEE, has over 17 years of capital markets and financial management experience as an investment banker and corporate finance advisor. She is the founder and managing director of Accelerator Group, an investment banking advisory services and knowledge services firm, with offices in Florida, Michigan and New Delhi.
Excerpts from an interview.
In your opinion, what are some of the major advantages for women entrepreneurs in India?
I think, women, in general, tend to be very detail-oriented. That comes in handy when you are handling complex projects and you want to make sure that all parts jive.
The other big thing I have noticed about women globally is that they are natural problem-solvers. They see a problem, they go about a systematic way of finding a solution.
The advantage that women have in India is the fact that they are typically very well-trained to work with resource constraints. The second interesting thing is that, oftentimes, they operate from within the matrix of a connected family, which requires some level of people skills, to be able to manage multiple relationships. That is, in my mind, one of the most important qualities of being a leader—to take the whole team with you while managing everybody’s egos, etc.
How do you think U.S.-India collaborations can help resolve some of the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in India?
U.S.-India collaborations can be huge because there are certain best practices which can be shared. There is a common denominator in terms of gender bias; there may be varying degrees of it, but it definitely exists. Best practices related to gender bias can definitely be shared. Equally importantly, business best practices, to an extent, can be customized and made relevant for India.
It is heartening for us at Project AIRSWEEE to note that women who would not step out of their homes without a male counterpart now claim they have the confidence to travel across the country, and some have even gone outside of India. There is one company that was not selling outside of their local community, but now, they are getting clients from the U.S.
How does your decades-long capital markets and financial management experience help guide young entrepreneurs, especially women?
I would like to think it adds value to their businesses, their enterprises and their lives. I have, kind of, seen the movie before, so I can tell them what to expect in their own cycles of business growth.
Accelerator Group, just for perspective, is an investment banking and knowledge services firm. In investment banking, we do mergers and acquisitions, and also help with private placement of growth capital for our clients. So, we understand the nuances of what it takes to grow a company at a strategy level. I would like to bring that level of experience, knowledge, interaction and contacts to some of the women that we are mentoring through Project AIRSWEEE.
There was one big challenge in the market—lack of access to funding for women-owned and -led enterprises. We have, as Accelerator Group, announced a $25 million [Rs. 1.6 billion approximately] early-stage equity fund, focused on investing in only women-owned and women-led businesses in India.
Could you tell us more about Project AIRSWEEE and how it helped Indian women entrepreneurs?
Project AIRSWEEE’s mission was economic empowerment through entrepreneurship. We conducted this in two phases. Phase one was five workshops in five cities. We had women travel from 27 cities to those five cities of workshops, so it was very impactful.
We talked to the participants about everything about business—law, financial accounting, how to read a P&L [profit and loss statement], what a balance sheet is, how to differentiate your product, marketing strategy and sales strategy.
After that, from the 125 women participants, we chose 25 women for additional mentoring from remote mentors, both in India and the U.S. These mentees got a greater hand-holding for sharpening their business focus, looking at business plans, developing business model canvases, sharpening their pitches, etc.
Interestingly, these women are not keeping the learning to themselves. Two mentees in Coimbatore, for example, spoke to 300 women in local schools and colleges, and shared their stories, just the way we shared ours. I call it the pay-it-forward phenomenon. In our phase two, we actually made it a requirement for every mentee that we select, 150 mentees, to at least touch the lives of two more. Everything we have learned, we will pay it forward, so that the multiplier effect is huge. A lot of these women are now talking to their sons and daughters about what they have learnt, and there is a sea change in the respect they get from their families. The children are looking at their mothers as strong women and role models.
What were some of the major challenges you faced during Project AIRSWEEE and how did you overcome them?
There were three buckets of major challenges. The first one was recognition that something we were not explicitly recognizing as a challenge was actually a challenge—gender bias. We shared our experiences [of facing gender bias] and we helped sensitize the entrepreneurs who came as participants of Project AIRSWEEE that they were being exposed to some of those experiences more because they were women, as opposed to them being just entrepreneurs.
The second challenge was the lack of access to capital, especially equity capital. While the government does have a lot of schemes for loans from banks, access to capital from equity remains pretty much extremely male dominated. Therefore, the solution we found was the launch of the $25 million fund.
The third challenge was the lack of capacity building. It’s again a reflection of how families raise their daughters versus sons. I am not just talking about the legal, financial and accounting aspects of running a business, but also about the softer skills, such as how to sell and network effectively.
You spoke about the stories of change. Could you share some?
There were a few that stood out for me. I would not name names. There was one woman who talked to us about how she was being subjected to a lot of family pressure to stay at home and not work. She had a business and got selected by AIRSWEEE. She told me, “Now, I have so much confidence that I can handle this on my own. I am looking at it from a business standpoint—it’s a problem that needs to be given a solution.” So, it is interesting how they are taking their learning and applying it to their family situations.
One woman had a tech company. Our mentors took a look at it and said there could be a product idea, as opposed to just services. Now, it has developed a very cool product idea. It is in deep discussions about the potential first site where it would deploy its product. Another said, “I never used to step out of my house and, now, I’m traveling to Delhi on my own, and my kids are amazed.”
One young mother brought her baby to the workshop, a baby girl of 7 or 8 months, and her mother-in-law. She came from a very remote village outside of Coimbatore and was in the business of mobile beauty salons, jewelry making, etc. All other 24 women took care of the baby just so that she could participate in some sessions. The bond of sisterhood that has developed is so incredible.
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