“For female entrepreneurs be able to work efficiently and grow meaningfully, we must learn to collaborate,” says entrepreneur NISHA BORA to The Thumb Print on the sidelines of Advantage Assam – the Assam Global Investors’ Summit held in Guwahati recently
How would you rate the growth of women entrepreneurs in the region?
Women from this region have always been entrepreneurial. I think the change now is that, with the internet, it has become possible for individuals to scale and create real micro enterprises. From what I see, the rate of emergence of producers (across crafts, food) is not commensurate with the establishment of market linkages – there are more suppliers than there are selling channels. Besides, the enterprises work in silos, so they aren’t benefiting from consolidation. For female entrepreneurs be able to work efficiently and grow meaningfully, we must learn to collaborate.
Do you think Advantage Assam could have been more gender friendly?
Yes, absolutely. The absence of any female dignitaries on the stage at the inaugural event was striking. There was a complete absence of any gender specific provisions in all the schemes and programmes that were announced. This is ironic, because we repeatedly heard that, for Assam to flourish, our rural and agri sectors must flourish. However, we all know that, for this to happen, our women folk must flourish. There was also a lot of talk about looms and weaves, but no talk of our weavers. In a universe that has such a heavy male skew, it is critical to understand that unless this disparity is recognised and factored into planning, it will not change. Given the history and heritage of strong women that we have in this region, it is remiss of the state government to be blind to it.
What does it take for women to be more visible in the field of business?
Women have a natural disadvantage when it comes to industry, because the big bucks go to the big boys. Even in teams where women play a pivotal role one often only gets to hear the male voice.
To come to the big gap though, it really is about the size of business. If a woman was heading a business with a turnover of 50 crores, she would be impossible to miss. With a turnover of 30 lakhs, she is difficult to spot. So, we must be careful about how we use the word ‘business’ and what it really means. Most micro and small businesses and stay invisible. That is the nature of money. And most women stay confined to micro and small businesses. To get women into the big businesses will require business families to commit to bringing their daughters up a particular way, like the Godrej family has just shown. Nisabai Godrej is a fantastic example. And there there is the route of starting from scratch, like Indira Nooyi has displayed. Either way, I think it is important to let women know – if you run a business with a turnover of anything less than a few crores, it is unlikely that the industry will notice you. That is okay.
It is not for the women to make themselves more visible – it is for the government and public institutions and policy influencers to reach out, be inclusive and hold up these women – take affirmative action, if they care for gender parity.
What are the takeaways from the Women Entrepreneur’s conclave?
There are two distinct sets of entrepreneurs – urban, English speaking and rural, educated in Assamese. Their access to technology (internet) and hence information varies greatly. It is very important to create different strategies to cater to each group.
There are two key places where bottleneck phases – 1) starting, when people don’t know how to even take the first few steps and don’t know where to go for information 2) Market linkages – selling what people produce. Not enough women are thinking beyond the immediate future – we need to create a culture of thinking in at least 10 year phases. There is simply not enough exposure, cross pollination of ideas and access to mentors and support services. This needs to changed urgently, because we need to seed a new culture, and we need to do it urgently. There are too many women out there wanting to do too many things on their own, feeling lonely, less than confident and not knowing whom to turn to.
Do you think women are still confined in the traditional sectors?
Please tell us about your venture and the challenges you had to face.
I run Elrhino Eco Industries, a startup certified by DIPP. We produce tree free paper from forest waste including rhino and elephant dung, and cotton waste. Our objective is to reduce the carbon footprint of paper and to contribute to an environment that is conducive to the conservation of the elephant and rhinos.
I have to admit that I cannot quite recall any gender specific challenges that I have faced in this venture. On the whole though, it is challenging running an industrial unit in an almost entirely male environment; you have to work much harder than a male peer to be taken seriously; there is always a process, a brief journey before the man I am talking looks at me with a sense of engagement. It is subtle in most cases and blatant in some, but is omnipresent. I hire more women though – they make for better craftspersons and are also more trainable and steady employees.
What are the things do you think need to change for women from the region to emerge as strong business leaders?
Pressure groups. Lobbies. Collaborations. Business families grooming their daughters. State funded training in blue chip companies/universities. A committed industry policy with specific focus on bringing women into the heavier industries. Women to start taking themselves seriously. Supportive families who can share in the child rearing role. Education. Role Models.