3 Ways to Support Indian Women Entrepreneurs for the Future


Shehzia Lilani

3 Ways to Support Indian Women Entrepreneurs for the Future


6 min read

Let’s start with the statistics: India is home to close to 18% of the world’s population and 50% of it is female. Currently, only 39% of Indian women are formally employed, compared to 81% of Indian men. Less than 20% of women are entrepreneurs and of those that are, only 9% sit at the helm of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the social sector.

Why is the percentage of women who engage in entrepreneurship, much less those in a leadership position, so low? Unfortunately, the reasons are all too obvious: scrutiny from family, judgement from the community, and lack of funding from investors. With India consistently ranked painfully low on various gender equality studies, securing the 108th position out of 149 countries surveyed for the 2018 gender gap index, addressing this disparity calls for new approaches in gender-lens investing and support.

On top of this, the global pandemic disproportionately affected Indian women. Between March and April 2020, 15.4 million women lost their jobs, or 37% of the female workforce, versus 28% of men. Moreover, women-owned small businesses will be the slowest to revive as many operate in consumer-facing sectors such as textiles, food processing and handicrafts which faced a drastic demand dissipation.

Determining a Format for Support Amidst a Global Crisis

To empower women entrepreneurs with the agility to adapt to constantly shifting realities, we need to provide them with the tools necessary not just to lead their business, but to also guide it through unprecedented challenges. The Amani Institute designed a six-month programme – and later established a formal network, Women in Indian Social Entrepreneurship Network (WISEN), to build the capacity for women social entrepreneurs for the long term. Centered around five fundamentals, Amani focused on: Wellbeing and Personal Leadership Development, Fundraising Essentials, Business Models, Scaling Strategies and Leading Teams.

After running these initiatives, I have identified three approaches to inspire fellow capacity builders to support women entrepreneurs around their communities more effectively.

Look Inward: Strategies to Strengthen Wellbeing and Personal Leadership

Who you are is how you lead. With most companies around the world transitioning to remote working conditions, different ways of working are emerging, and they are posing as new challenges for leaders.

Entrepreneurs need tools and frameworks to understand how to best manage their energy and strengthen the wellbeing of their team members. Padmavathi Vasanthan, the managing trustee of Community Renovation and Organization Trust (COROAT), a grassroot level organisation that empowers women and children from marginalised communities, decided to embark on a self-reflective journey through the programme. She spent time understanding her core values and how they shaped her decisions and actions as a leader. Her coaching conversations revealed that courage, accountability and risk-taking were important values for her, but in a year marked by funding rejections and limited sociability within her team, building her own confidence was a top priority. Now, Padmavathi is taking small risks through alternative consulting services and trialing new virtual training methods, which have helped her regain the momentum and confidence that she was missing.

Move Forward: Fundraising and Scaling Solutions for Effective Growth

Can my business survive using either current or new offerings? In what ways can my business contribute towards current relief efforts? Particularly during the Covid-19 crisis, fundraising essentials, business modelling and scaling strategies are key elements for entrepreneurs to master. Exploring and practicing new storytelling skills to help refine and craft fundraising pitches will allow them to reach new types of donors. It can also help identify new ways to generate revenue based on current market needs and limitations.

Suhani Mohan, co-founder and CEO of Saral Designs, a Mumbai-based start-up providing access to quality affordable menstrual hygiene products to low-income women in India, had her team remodel their machines to make 3-ply surgical masks instead. They, then, partnered with The Mahindra Group who invested capital, resources and leveraged their supply chain to meet the urgent needs of their community. This is a prime example of how effective a partnership between an agile and innovative startup and an established corporation can scale their impact.

Extend Outward: Building a Community and Circle of Trust

Breaking the silos for women entrepreneurs in India is key to providing them with access to information, opportunities and community. A network like WISEN can provide them with something that a lot of people were missing during the pandemic – a cohort, tribe, family, peer network, support group. Members can find solace in one another by sharing ideas, hacks and resources and seeking comfort in the feeling that has become quite familiar to all of us now: we’re all in this together! Communicating transparently with extended networks and internal teams through regular check-ins, global updates, country updates, motivation checks, etc. is almost always met with the gift of team members rising up to the occasion in ways not imagined before.

As a core member of WISEN and founder of Krishi Janani, Usha Devi Venkatachalam explains that she was able to learn about new sales and distribution channels from fellow member Geeta Solanki, founder of Unipads in Gujarat. She then launched the ‘Annalakshmi program’ for women sales agents using her learnings through Geeta. She also partnered with another member, Anju Bist, Co-Director of Amrita SeRVe in Kerala, who was looking to scale their impact across other states. Their conversation resulted in a product partnership where Annalakshmis (the trained female sales agents) are now selling Unipad’s reusable pads in Tamil Nadu. This is the magic of WISEN’s connection and collaboration possibilities,” says Usha. “[It brings] a lesson learned in Gujarat to a social enterprise in Tamil Nadu while offering a scaling opportunity to an entity in Kerala.”

The Future of WISEN and the Breadth of its Reach

This is what women entrepreneurs need to thrive: access to a platform that can provide a professional community of practice where entrepreneurs across sectors and regions can come together, harness collective intelligence and resources, and find ways to solve shared challenges effectively. In order to create a dent in the impact ecosystem in a country as large as India, this is a journey that cannot be journeyed alone. We need to create an ecosystem strengthened by collaboration rather than competition.

While the program itself culminated in December 2020, the long-term impact will be seen with the growth of the Women in Indian Social Entrepreneurship Network (WISEN) itself. We are monitoring the number of women who have joined the network and benefited by its offerings, the collaborations that have led to increased impact, and so on.

More about WISEN

WISEN is run by Amani Institute in partnership with Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) India, and sponsored by the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai. More insights and stories from the 40 founding members of WISEN that can be found in Shaping Entrepreneurship in Disruptive Times.


A. Environmental Stewardship
To protect the environment, we organize programmes like mangrove nursery and Reforestation, Coastal and River Clean-Up, Community Based Environmental Solid Waste Management, Environmental IEC Campaign and Eco-Academy

B. Food Security and Sustainable Livelihood
To ensure a sustainable livelihood for the community, eco-tourism include Buhatan River Cruise Visitor Center Buhatan River Mangrove Boardwalk are run by the community. Others include Organic Vegetable and Root crops Farming, Vegetable and Root crops Chips and by-products Processing and establishing a Zero waste store.

C. Empowered Communities
To empower the community, we provide product and Agri-Enterprise Development Training, Immersion and Learnings Exchange Program, Earth Warrior Training and Community Based Social Entrepreneurship Training


Shehzia Lilani

As one of the founding team members and currently Country Director of Amani Institute in India, Shehzia is responsible for leading Amani?s work in India, their base for supporting changemakers across Asia. She manages their flagship Certificate in Social Innovation Management program, has been an integral member of Amani?s custom-design programs team and has led trainings with The Rockefeller Foundation, the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai, University of Chicago, CRY, Upaya Social Ventures, Melton Foundation and Nilekani Philanthropies. In the first ten years of her career, Shehzia has predominantly spent time designing and delivering learning and development interventions in the corporate world. She has worked with leading financial services companies like Barclays and Société Générale, where she has led their behavioral learning, leadership development and talent management initiatives. She has designed and implemented large-scale leadership development interventions and also facilitated programmes to address transitioning into management roles. She is a passionate Learning and Development professional with experience in the areas of coaching and mentoring, leadership development, change management and talent management. While pursuing her graduate degree, she joined AIESEC ? the largest youth-run organization in the world and took on a leadership position in her third year with them. Soon after graduating from college, Shehzia decided to push herself out of her comfort zone and take an AIESEC internship in the city of Wroclaw, Poland where she worked with a corporate training and consulting firm and thereafter began her career journey in the function of L&D. She holds a Bachelor?s Degree in Psychology from Fergusson College (Pune University) and a Diploma in training & development from ISTD (Indian Society for Training & Development, New Delhi). Passionate about the study of human behavior, Shehzia is also MBTI certified and accredited on Harrison Assessments. When she is not at work, she enjoys traveling and taking road trips, watching movies/binge-watching TV shows, exploring new eateries and coffee conversations with friends.

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