India is one of the biggest consumer tech markets in the world with a flourishing gaming and e-sports ecosystem. The user base is growing like never before and while the number of women gamers is also growing, leadership positions in gaming companies are still dominated by men. The number of co-founders in the space who are women can be counted on one hand five. Saumya Singh Rathore of WinZO is one among the handful.
In a chat with Storyboard18, Singh talks about the gender gap in the industry, building a safe ecosystem for women and the challenges she faced in the early days of starting the company.
Women in gaming are no longer a rare thing to come across. What are your observations on the reducing gender gap in the consumer set?
It's a very relevant and very touchy topic especially because when we're talking about a product which is a consumer tech product, there's a notion that gaming is consumed only by the guys. Now that’s not true at all. It was true 20 years back when gaming was restricted to expensive gadgets, which were made available to boys. Thanks to changing times and easy access to affordable internet and smartphones, we have a huge women’s audience. It is not an equal representation but the ratio is getting better. We were at 70:30 when we started WinZO in 2017 but now the gap has reduced. It is easily 60:40 now.
Given that the women demographic is comparatively new to gaming products, do platforms and developers need to re-strategise when it comes to the core product?
When you have a product that is also catering to the female audience, there are a couple of things that you need to take care of. The product itself should be inclusive and the product should be catering to the inherent consumer pattern which should take care of the needs of female consumers too. In some cases, these needs could be overlapping and in some, distinct.
‘Fly into fame and burn’ kind characters are very popular in organisations led by men. Very few women-led organisations have that character. Overall sustainability becomes easier with women on top.
For example, our observation at WinZO is that the guys consume mostly first-person shooter games, but women are consuming more of strategy or social games. So if you are a platform like us, you need to have the women audience’s preferences as a part of your product and your strategy. You also have to be extremely mindful of building your product in a safe, accountable manner. You have to ensure that you are eliminating possibilities of all sorts of cyberbullying and stalking through the internet. There should be some sort of a content moderation to create an environment for women to consume what you have to offer. That way women users don't have to hide behind passive consumption.
Even with a reducing gender gap in consumption, why are leadership teams at gaming companies a boys’ club?
Representation of women in these companies is something that we are trying to solve. There are two factors why we don’t see too many women leading these companies. There's a lack of role models. You don't find many women leaders who have been able to pave the way for or attract a lot of female counterparts and resources who are able to grow within that organisation and an environment which does not feel like a boy’s club.
Guys consume mostly first-person shooter games, but women are consuming more strategy or social games. So if you are a platform like WinZO, you need to have the women audience’s preferences as a part of your product and your strategy.
While that's one reason, the other factor is the overall low presentation of women in deep tech. We see close to 28 percent women representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education but when it comes to the STEM workforce, there’s only 14 percent women, which means that while 28 percent women study science, only 14 percent actually end up opting for these jobs. Even if you look at the IITs (Indian institutes of technology), there’s only 5 percent women representation. That is very problematic. This stems from the fact that jobs in these fields are extremely demanding at times with unpredictable working hours and unfortunately, a section of society still thinks that this could interfere with the assumed social responsibility of women to run a household.
What motivated you to start a company in a field where you hardly had anyone to follow? What were the challenges you faced?
While we keep talking and hearing about the lack of women leaders in the Indian startup ecosystem, I kind of refuse to accept that this country lacks strong women leaders. We live in a country where we saw one of the first woman prime ministers the world has seen. I personally have grown up in a setup where I have seen many woman officers—my aunt was one of the first female principals of a national medical college and there were others such as my aunt who now is the first female DG (director general of police) of Rajasthan who has done very well for herself in tough government roles. Fortunately for me, I've also seen that while they were assuming these offices, they got overwhelming support from their male counterparts.
I have used all those inspirations in my journey. I am not the only one fighting stereotypes in my company. All my colleagues are fighting and defeating the stereotype every single day that they were once deeply conditioned for. There are so many who grew up in parts of the country where there is a very strong notion of the role of a woman. Every time I succeed, the company succeeds because the team won over stereotypical notions to make space and let a diverse view survive and find a way through the product to the market.
And the challenges you faced?
Now if I have to talk about the challenges and tell you if they existed or not, they were there, 100 percent.
I have not been spared from being stereotyped, in the early years, especially. There have been times when a fundraising conversation would start without my introduction. You walk into a conversation as an equal founder of the cap table (capitalisation table) and then you realise that it was assumed that you’d just be accompanying and not really contributing to the meeting. My cofounders have been extremely supportive and they’ve made sure to make it clear that this behaviour is not okay.
We want to create leaders of tomorrow both within and outside of our company.
Conversations with interviewees have been very interesting when we were starting WinZO. Early-stage startups don’t have massive leverage, especially when you want to hire the best talent for the team. There were multiple instances of interviewees asking me about how committed I was to the business and whether I was thinking long-term and would give equal time. Some even asked me about my plans of settling down. If my cofounder wasn’t being asked the same question, I shouldn’t be facing them as well.
But you have to find a way to get around it so that it does not become the biggest problem that your company is dealing with. The biggest problem to solve is still the problem for the end consumer, which is the product. You can't make it a battle about the genders. The gender gap is something that you have to be mindful of at every level and in every conversation and make it just another issue that you are solving at every step alongside, making an impact and changing the ways for the generations to come. So we strive to create an environment of inclusivity and once this is embedded in our DNA it obviously reflects in the product.
Do you have a policy at WinZO to address the gender gap?
We have a cricket match every year where there is a mandatory women's over so there is an auction to get women players on your team, otherwise your team is disqualified. Now this is just a small fun initiative but that apart, we feel that we are a consumer tech product and representation of women is a must. You need to get representation of women, not just at entry levels but throughout. We have a Women at WinZO Club where we mentor women to take up challenging roles and help them get rid of the deep conditioning that many of us have growing up. A lot of women hold back because of these deep conditionings that they have. We want to create leaders of tomorrow both within and outside of our company.
The DNA of an organisation that has women leaders at the top is very different from the DNA of an organisation that has men across all leadership roles. Women leaders are better communicators, they are more compassionate and always looking out for symptoms of burnout among employees. ‘Fly into fame and burn’ kind characters are very popular in organisations led by men. Very few women-led organisations have that character. Overall sustainability becomes easier with women on top.
Where do you think India stands in terms of addressing the gender gap at leadership levels, compared to other markets globally?
As much as I would like to say that India's right there on top, unfortunately, that’s not how it is. Often at Gamescom that happens in Germany or at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco where we end up meeting people from the industry, I see a lot of women from other countries and not so many from India. That’s ground that we definitely have to cover.
People have been sceptical about joining gaming companies in general. Why do you think they should consider roles in the space?
We are the world's largest market for consumer tech, which basically means that products that are going to be made in India will be made for the world. Every 100 kilometres, we are changing languages and dialects and everything. There is a lot of personalisation that is happening on that ground. So if somebody has solved for the Indian market, they have basically solved for scale, for monetisation and of course personalisation. If it has worked in India, it will work anywhere in the world with the right amount of tweaks to make it culturally relevant. With government regulations coming in, things will only get better. There has been no better time to join the industry.
Talking of regulations, what will be its direct impact on the industry in India? What are the big trends to watch out for in 2023?
Regulations make companies accountable. Unfortunately, between the waves of COVID, as much as gaming grew, we also saw cases where the extremes clicked in. With regulations there is going to be a lot more accountability on the company side to build a product that is safe for the end user. While a lot has already been done to get rid of offshore betting and gambling operators, with the regulations the central government will have a lot more power to actually proactively block such content.
We are the world's largest market for consumer tech, which basically means that products that are going to be made in India will be made for the world.
There's a lot of FDI (foreign direct investment) that came into the country in 2020-21 because India is one of the biggest market for gaming and it is not only the biggest market but also the fastest growing market and, simultaneously, capital was withdrawn from China so India became the obvious next market to invest in. However, 2022 saw a lot of regulatory flux and we saw some knee-jerk reactions with conversations on GST (goods and services tax) going on. I think regulatory clarity is going to bring in a lot more comfort to international investors and we are going to see more IPs (intellectual properties) coming up from India, more IPO-ready companies and great exits too.