Globalizing the Future

Select Project AIRSWEEE women entrepreneurs get a chance to travel to the United States to gain hands-on experience and mentoring for their ventures.

Entrepreneurs venturing into the world of business often face uncertainties and challenges that they might find difficult to navigate by themselves. In this initial phase, support and guidance from a mentor can make a huge difference to the functioning and success of the business. Women entrepreneurs from smaller cities and towns, however, rarely have access to quality support structures. It is to mentor such entrepreneurs, build their capacity and provide them exposure to global business ecosystems that Project AIRSWEEE was launched.

Project AIRSWEEE (All-India Road Show on Women’s Economic Empowerment through Entrepreneurship) is a grant program of U.S. Embassy India’s Public Affairs Section, implemented by the California-based The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) and its India chapters. It aims to empower Indian women through entrepreneurship workshops in Tier II and Tier III cities. Its impact is not limited to the women mentored directly through the program, but spreads to other businesses run by women, reached indirectly through the pay-it-forward ethos of the AIRSWEEE members, resulting in a massive multiplier effect.

Now in its third phase, the focus is on AIRSWEEE Global Fellows. The winners of the fully-funded fellowship were announced during the three-day Women Entrepreneurs Conclave 3.0, held recently in New Delhi. The global fellows are Tharakeshwari Palanisamy, founder and CEO of Ganya Agro Products; Shraddha Sinha Khare, co-founder and director, Instant Rasoi; and Zaiba Sarang, co-founder, iThink Logistics. “These three entrepreneurs were selected from a pool of 30 shortlisted candidates (AIRSWEEE Scale Up Fellows) who, in turn, were chosen from a batch of 575 entrepreneurs from over 90 cities across 20 states since the inception of the program,” says Seema Chaturvedi, chairperson of Project AIRSWEEE.

The global fellows will travel to different cities in the United States, depending on the nature of their work and the matching company where they will get hands-on experience. “I’m going to get a much bigger view, platform and peers to learn from,” says Palanisamy, whose Chennai-based start-up works to promote healthy and conscious living with cold-pressed edible oils. “I expect to take my product global and learn a lot from international entrepreneurs.”

The expectations are echoed by the other two participants. “I would definitely like to tie up with Indian stores in the United States, so that we can make Instant Rasoi products available to people,” says Khare. The dehydrated food items of her Gwalior-based start-up have become a hit with travelers craving Indian food. Sarang, whose Mumbai-headquartered iThink Logistics provides artificial intelligence-based e-commerce shipping solution, says she “will definitely get a good opportunity for enhancing [her] company’s technology” in the United States.

According to Komal Goyal, an AIRSWEEE mentor and managing partner of Colorado-based 6e Technologies, “the 10-day program will have some education piece, some shadowing piece and some one-on-one mentorship.” The opportunity to travel to the United States to shadow chief executive officers (CEOs) of global companies in aligned sectors is key. “Being able to sit with those who have been there and done that, and see their daily activities that have got them from where they were to where they are today, is an exposure that is usually not possible,” she adds. “These women will shadow the people they have dreamt of meeting, picked by the women themselves.”

Rita Aggarwal, India director of Project AIRSWEEE and a mentor, feels that it has been a “fantastic journey for them and for the mentors.” There has not only been a growth in the number of women entrepreneurs, but also “in their confidence, their knowledge base and their strategies,” she says. Harshit Desai, an AIRSWEEE mentor and head of customer experience, alliances and automation for Aditya Birla Finance Ltd., agrees. “Moving their confidence into conviction, something which they can convince other people with, I see a drastic improvement in that,” he says. “Their resilience and ability to face the adversities have changed.” He adds that many of the women entrepreneurs have developed the ability to re-envision or pivot their ventures if and when required. “All of these women have the gumption and the confidence to become global fellows, which in itself is a considerable achievement,” he says. The belief was echoed by Conrad Turner, Cultural Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy India. “Each one of you who is a part of this project is a winner,” he said after announcing the winners at the conclave.

“AIRSWEEE has become an innovation hotbed for what makes for effective interventions for women entrepreneurs,” says Chaturvedi. “We have seen a massive journey in terms of taking women who had not considered working, much less entrepreneurship, transforming them into start-ups, then scale-ups and, now, we are taking them global through our newly launched Global Fellowship program.”

Beyond the fellowship, the AIRSWEEE team hopes to strengthen the current partnerships with the United States, and build new ones. “I wish the collaboration between the U.S. Embassy and TiE continues because this program has helped a lot of women entrepreneurs,” says AIRSWEEE mentor Simran Sahni, co-founder of Keeros and Health Zone. Desai agrees, “You have so many opportunities out there and so many women entrepreneurs who are willing to take a leap of faith. If we can provide a little bit of a safety net that would make them more fearless to go ahead and do it. From a fellowship standpoint, we should aim for 300 women to be sent.”

The way forward for AIRSWEEE, according to Chaturvedi, is to position itself as the thought-leader in innovative practices of women entrepreneurship. Within the TiE ecosystem, AIRSWEEE serves as an inspiration. “We had chapters that were always helping entrepreneurs but, consciously, we never looked at women entrepreneurs as a group, says Vijay Menon, executive director, TiE Global. “We have now put a team together, which has a lot of mentors from AIRSWEEE, to create what we call TWE: TiE Women Entrepreneurs. The program will run in all 61 chapters of TiE and have elements of AIRSWEEE, in terms of workshops, mentoring, etc.”