Kerala’s International Women’s Trade Centre, a first in India, is pitched as a safe space away from home for women entrepreneurs who are eager to leverage their entrepreneurial abilities and for those who seek global exposure to their products.
In what can be a truly transforming way of enabling the ease of doing business, especially for women, the Government of Kerala recently announced the setting up of India’s first international Women’s Trade Centre. The iWTC, as it aims to be known, draws its inspiration from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is expected to be set up in Kozhikode.
Pitched as one of the key projects under the aegis of the Department of Social Justice, the iWTC wants to be seen as a safe space away from home for women entrepreneurs who are eager to leverage their entrepreneurial abilities and for those who seek global exposure to their products.
This highly ambitious project when viewed from the lens of enabling better business opportunities and encouraging women entrepreneurs to come forward, is an interesting idea, but the emphasis on “safe space away from home” — is an aspect that needs greater focus, since it is troubling to note that even in Kerala, which in 2018 was judged as India’s best governed state, women entrepreneurs still require safe spaces to work!
Be that as it may for most of India, can Kerala be the state that can make a difference for women wanting to be entrepreneurs? A cursory glance at the start-up climate in India provides a clearer picture; the 2018 Nasscom report states that India has only around 550 women entrepreneurs — a paltry 11 per cent of the total 5,000 start-ups.
So why does India have so few women entrepreneurs? The answer can be found in more structural problems that lies somewhere in between what a woman wants and what the society wants her to do. The recent HerStory Women Entrepreneurs report states that women entrepreneurs face struggles that are vastly different from male entrepreneurs. The challenges range from lack of investor confidence to gender biases to being questioned on how will she manage her marriage, children and continue to have a “work-life balance” — aspects which men never have to deal with!
Even those women who brave such sexist bias and forge ahead often struggle for lack of strong institutional support and networks which can help provide better business opportunities. Enhancing the participation ratio of women in business needs encouragement from all quarters, especially from family and friends.
Let’s look at the typical problems that a woman entrepreneur might encounter when she starts her business.
More often than not she will most likely self-fund her business; she therefore will require future funding opportunities from VCs with whom she needs ready access to. Currently such options are pretty limited and not all have the knowledge of/ skill to know how to pitch business ideas.
However, the November 2018 Women Entrepreneurship Summit at IIM Kozhikode was a great example of providing access and space to helping women entrepreneurs engage and network. Similarly other institutions in smaller towns in Kerala can also conduct quick sessions on demystifying the start-up routes for women. These workshops could also include mentoring sessions to help build a truly supportive ecosystem for budding women entrepreneurs.
Kerala can also learn from its own successful participatory and gender equality movement — the Kutumbashree, which focussed on the community’s ability to co-work. The state can contextualise the same experiment to see how this can further be channelised to creating more women entrepreneurs at all levels.
Furthermore, Kerala also needs to push to having its own Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and industry (FICCI) Ladies Organisation-chapter, since FICCI along with NITI Aayog has set up the Women Entrepreneurship Platform as well, which was built to connect women entrepreneurs to help boost their initiatives. In southern India the other four FICCI FLO chapters are in Bengaluru, Chennai, Coimbatore and Hyderabad. In fact more recently, the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM) also included Kochi among the 12 Indian cities to have a ‘Startup Elevator Pitch Series’ platform for tech start-ups to pitch for funding. The state would do well to encourage more women entrepreneurs to come forward and participate in such forums as well. Building such synergies and creating such platforms can help create awareness and nurture entrepreneurial spirit in all such sections of the state, not just in tier one cities.
This year’s Budget focused on “Nari to Nariyani” to ensure greater engagement of women in economic activities and perhaps there can be no better state to implement the same than Kerala. For this to transpire, Kerala needs to alter current attitudes and mindsets towards the idea of having more women entrepreneurs.
While building an investor-friendly state with the aim of having more women entrepreneurs engaged in business is a great objective, it also calls for the state to be open to build the right kind of societal attitude towards women entrepreneurs.
So the bigger question to ask is, can Kerala with its better human development index (as compared to other states of India), be the game changer as far as encouraging women entrepreneurs is concerned? It can, if it is in this for the long haul, as something worth investing in, rather than just for grandiose plan announcements.Varsha Pillai is a communications professional interested in gender research. She tweets at @varshapillai.The Great Diwali Discount!
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