Talking about the hardships women entrepreneurs across the world face in this startup ecosystem, Reinu Shah, Founder of STEP, spoke to BW Businessworld and shared some of her experiences during her journey. Shah also shared some of her learnings as a female entrepreneur. Here is an excerpt from the conversation we had with her:
What are some of the challenges you faced early in your journey as an entrepreneur?
One of the biggest challenges I faced as an entrepreneur was the feeling of isolation and a lack of community. It’s not easy being a woman in the entrepreneurship space, and it’s even harder when you’re trying to make a positive impact on society. I craved a community of like-minded women who could understand and support me in my endeavours.
Another challenge was striking a balance between my multiple roles as a woman. We are expected to juggle many responsibilities, and it’s not always easy to find time for everything. Men, on the other hand, don’t face the same expectations, and this can create a significant barrier for women in the entrepreneurship space.
The situation has led to an abysmal picture of women in the entrepreneurship space in the country. Only 14 per cent of entrepreneurs in India are women and just 16 per cent of the total funding in India goes to women-led businesses. This is unacceptable, and it’s time for a change.
Brief us about your concept of STEP. How did the idea come to you in the first place and how does it work?
I realised that there was a need for a supportive community for women in the entrepreneurship space, and I decided to take action. I started working on building a network of women who were challenging socio-cultural barriers to bring about positive change in society and enter the field of entrepreneurship. And that is how STEP: Shakti – The Empathy Project was born.
STEP is a unique incubation program that empowers women entrepreneurs to succeed. The STEP incubation program is designed especially for women, and mentorship lies at the heart of it. All mentors are either entrepreneurs or leaders of their respective organisations with an average experience of over 20 years and a majority of them are women.
How’s STEP creating an impact on women entrepreneurs across India? How many women entrepreneurs have you impacted to date?
STEP is not about what we achieve alone but what we achieve collectively as a community of women entrepreneurs. The biggest impact of the program is an empowered, committed, and vibrant community of women social entrepreneurs. So far, STEP has incubated 87 women-led social startups that have collectively raised over Rs 25 crore. The program has touched more than 15,00,000 lives.
What is the funding status? Are you supported by the government or any other company/investor?
STEP is recognised as an incubator by the Government of India’s Startup India Seed Fund Scheme
(SISFS) which provides financial assistance to startups for proof of concept, prototype development, product trials, market entry and commercialization. We are supported by various organisations like Nudge, Meta, and individual donors.
What are the key challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in setting up their businesses?
One of the major challenges women entrepreneurs often face is in accessing funding to start or grow their businesses. This can be due to various reasons, such as gender bias in the investment industry or a lack of collateral or credit history. Moreover, women entrepreneurs often have to juggle their business responsibilities with their family responsibilities, which can be challenging and time-consuming.
Gender bias and stereotyping are some of the major challenges women entrepreneurs face, which can lead to discrimination in the workplace and limit their opportunities for success. They might also face challenges in building networks and finding mentors who can provide guidance and support. This can also lead to limited access to resources and information, such as training, education, and technology, etc. And lastly, societal and cultural norms may limit the opportunities available to women entrepreneurs, such as limited access to certain industries or professions.
What is your biggest learning?
I feel that the challenges women face have been persistent throughout history, and though progress has been made on the surface, it has not yet completely eradicated the systemic inequalities that continue to exist. Women still face discrimination and obstacles in various aspects of their lives.
Women need to encourage and uplift each other, to collaborate, to help each other grow, and to amplify each other’s voices. Building a strong community of women supporting women can be transformative, both on a personal and societal level. When women feel supported and validated by their peers, they are more likely to take risks, pursue their passions, and challenge the status quo. They can tap into their own potential and develop their strengths and skills, leading to more fulfilling and successful lives.
What is your vision for the next 3-5 years?
We envision a thriving ecosystem of women innovators and entrepreneurs, where they can succeed and flourish in their businesses. Our goal is to foster an environment of growth and innovation that encourages women to explore entrepreneurship as a viable career option. We believe that empowering women entrepreneurs is essential not only for gender equality but also for economic growth and development. In the next five years, we aim to touch 10 million lives through our work.