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The awkward questions women founders face

It’s sometimes subconscious, often blatant. Gender bias takes many forms across the startup world, and women counter it with everything from anger to humour

Oxfordcaps founders Priyanka Gera and Annu Talreja have learnt to play up their strengths as women before investors ask cliched questions.
Oxfordcaps founders Priyanka Gera and Annu Talreja have learnt to play up their strengths as women before investors ask cliched questions.

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When Medha Mukherjee, founder of Feministaa Media, a media platform that supports Indian women achievers, began her journey as an entrepreneur she was prepared for challenges but not ones were based solely on her gender. The 30-year-old was surprised by the biases she faced, which her male counterparts were not subject to.

For instance, while looking for a bigger office space in New Delhi’s South Extension, the owner of the property refused to believe that Mukherjee was the founder of the company and kept asking who “actually managed” the office.

“He wanted to speak with my father or brother because he thought they were running the business. This despite the fact that I provided the financial guarantee,” she says. Soon after, Mukherjee moved to a co-working space in Gurugram, which she says was much professional and didn’t subject her to awkward questions.

Founders say they’re prepared for rejection and failure, but for women entrepreneurs, bias adds a layer and many say they’ve had to come up with strategies of their own to combat it.

A common question that many women entrepreneurs face is ‘who is the top boss of the company?’ “Clients ask who runs the company, who is the brain behind the idea, and I firmly tell them it’s my idea and that I am heading it all,” says Pune-based Sumedha Salunkhe Naik (44), founder of fintech company Syntellect.

Syntellect founder Sumedha Salunkhe Naik says many men are allies
Syntellect founder Sumedha Salunkhe Naik says many men are allies

Appetite for risk

With investors too, Naik says, that unlike men, women entrepreneurs have to prove they have an appetite for risk. She is quick to highlight that men have been allies too—from her supportive husband to the startup’s first hire of the company, the male chief technical officer (CTO).

Delhi-based Annu Talreja (37), and co-founder Priyanka Gera (36) of international student housing startup, Oxfordcaps, too found the scepticism from venture capitalists (VCs) a challenge in the early days.

“The VCs would ask how much money they are going to lose by investing in us. This would make us defensive. And once you start defending yourself, it’s a downward spiral as you are no longer in control of the situation,” says Gera. It was an “aha” moment when they realized how this bias was working against them, and riling them up. They altered their pitch to VCs and developers to play up their strengths. “We focus on how as women we bring in attention to detail and customer service,” she says.

Worldwide, women founders face bias and seldom have access to the same kind of capital, networks and opportunity as their male counterparts but they’re pulling their weight nevertheless. Of the 239 venture capital-backed startups around the world worth $1 billion or more, only 23 have a female founders, according to 2018 data from US-based Pitchbook. Nine Indian startups turned unicorn last year, the highest number in the last four years, but not one had a woman in charge. In India, the number of female founders has been crawling upwards since 2015—it went from 9% that year to 11% in 2017 to 14% last year, according to Nasscom.

Women with male co-founders don’t necessarily fare better. Real estate and fintech aggregator Square Yards co-founder and chief operating officer (COO) Kanika Gupta Shori set up the company on her own, and realized that the largely male players in the world of real estate were uncomfortable around her. Her banker husband Tanuj joined her later on, and Shori says they split tasks by gender as many prefer talking to a man.

“I have no shame in him handling the business development part, while I manage operations, HR and processes. The end objective is achieved,” says Shori.

Hiring the best person

Some women entrepreneurs say senior hires also bring their bias to the workplace. “Senior-level men don’t want to work under a young woman boss. Age and gender can both play against you,” says Neha Bagaria, founder of JobsForHer, an online platform helping women get back to work.

Then there is the issue of mansplaining, which Mukherjee has experienced firsthand. One of the new hires in her tech team began explaining domain and cloud storage to her. She cut him short saying she had been running the company for four years.

“I told him the reason I had hired him was to design a website and make the user experience better,” she says but the problems continued.

“When I asked him about a delay in a project, he responded with, ‘I can’t tell you the problem because you won’t understand it.’ As a CEO, it’s my job to find solutions; it was not his job to doubt my abilities,” she says.

Mukherjee now avoids working with people who make her uncomfortable. “You can’t give your 100% in such an environment. I choose not to indulge such people at all,” she says

Real leadership

The gender-based assumptions aren’t restricted to men. Talreja remembers interviewing an architect with a year’s experience. “She asked me if I worked there in an administrative position or as a receptionist. I was taken aback,” she says. “The bias about women functioning in certain roles in offices is so ingrained that even women carry it sometimes.”

Naik says, “People need to realise that leadership, building a product and solving problems are gender agnostic.”

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