Take charge! SHEROES founder inspires women entrepreneurs

When Sairee Chahal started SHEROES in 1999, the term female entrepreneur was a novel one. Almost a decade later, the range and number of women entrepreneurs in India has increased. On the occasion of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, Chahal talks about her long and vivid journey as a founder and now a teacher in an exclusive interview with Business Today. Edited quotes:

BT: You started SHEROES almost a decade ago. How have you built and shaped the community of female entrepreneurs since then?

Sairee Chahal: I never thought of becoming a tech entrepreneur. I am from a small town in Punjab, and my parents still live there. But I was a little lucky! In 1999, I was the first person on a team in a technology company, who experienced the whole journey, literally from an idea on a paper napkin to the exit. My work at SHEROES is built on two core insights: first, technology is a huge enabler and second, women don’t get seats at the table. Movements like Amul, self-help groups, and cooperative microfinance institutions that exist in India are my inspiration for SHEROES. This social network has always existed, it is not supported by technology. The first version of SHEROES was only a jobs and career community; literally a small community of women who care about their careers, trying to get back to work, trying to find flexible work, and then going from there. Then it became a platform just for communities and for women – a space for women to go online in an environment of high trust. The interesting hook for us is: “women only”. Culturally, “women only” is a thing in India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and maybe Latin America, and that’s the unique filter we apply; while the safe space for women was only an offline thing, we brought it online. Over the past decade, we have grown the community to a strong 25 million women who have discovered the power of the internet to truly manage their lives and the #TakeCharge campaign platforms that. They want to connect and are passionate, creative, and highly entrepreneurial. In 2021, we also launched our sister company Mahila Money, a full-stack financial products and services platform for women in India. Mahila Money encourages the growth of women entrepreneurs by envisioning their engagement as consumers of financial services.

BT: Over time, SHEROES has deepened its outreach. What is your observation about women in India making the most progress for entrepreneurship?

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Sairee Chahal: In India, women are questioned about everything from going out with friends to their choice of clothing. But the agency has grown many folds for a woman with a mobile device. In the average home today, most people have one device. This also shows the strength of our network – from a few thousand members when we started to 25 million women today who benefit from the ecosystem. When we launched our community marketplace, SHOPonSHEROES last year, we saw women take the opportunity to take that first step towards starting their own business and over 12 thousand women have online shop at SHEROES. It didn’t stop there. Earlier this year, we launched WomenWill, a Google-certified free SHEROES business training course for female entrepreneurs who want to do more and are looking for formal business training. Nowadays, there’s this big wave of aspiration in India – माइन कुच करना फुल्टी हुन (“I want to do something”) attitude. Cutting across demographics, age, and class divides, aspiration is the common driving force behind the work we do. Women have this desire, to be recognized, to be independent, and to be a part of new technology. That is the hunger we find among women who want to be entrepreneurs across India. We are still a country where only 9 percent of women have a formal job, which means that some of these women are basically looking for different ways to generate income.

BT: Lack of skills, finances, and family support – were once the biggest barriers to the development of female entrepreneurs. Have things changed in the past decade?

Sairee Chahal: If we want women to become entrepreneurs, we need to make capital and the right opportunities available to them. We need purpose-focused institutions, and we need more technology to support them. In the past decade, we have seen the changes that become possible because women are willing to manage access to the right resources. With Google’s WomenWill, SHEROES’ free business and skills training program, for example, we saw an entrepreneur who had to close her business during the pandemic, found the confidence to reinvent her career in course completion process. He overcame depression, started a tuition center, and started earning again. From no income earning Rs 10,000 a month was the only motivation he needed at that time. Another woman came to us with a request for a Washing Machine Loan, which is under the Consumer Goods Loan. When we asked him why he wanted this, he told us that he lives with a family and spends two hours a day doing laundry. “If I buy this washing machine, I want to use two hours for my business.” The whole context changed with this idea – as he decided to channel two hours of his work to run his business. A lot of our work is around the woman who wants to do more. And there are big shifts happening there.

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BT: Funding your dream – is finance still a barrier for a woman who has an idea and wants to build it?

Sairee Chahal: Digitalization is changing the process of doing business. There is a new class of women entrepreneurs who are revolutionizing MSMEs. These are women who run online boutiques, tailoring units, coaching centers, food businesses, or online yoga studios. We don’t recognize these businesses because they are informal, so we don’t fund them either. These women are not recognized by government schemes, so she is more than microfinance, and not enough for a bank and thus stuck in the middle. Most women in India do not have inheritances or assets. So how do they get collateral-free loans for micro solopreneur businesses? She does not want to go to her husband because it only complicates her relationship with him and puts her in a lower hierarchy than before. I think a lot of creative solutions between the technology companies and the regulators around them can come together. The idea is to help women stand up and continue to support entrepreneurs. He can apply for a loan now as a solopreneur, he will probably employ 10 people by the end of the year.

BT: We also see a lot of women who dare to start the route and then wind up too soon – do you think a lot of women give up too soon?

Sairee Chahal: I think that is a great statement of the problem and it is important to understand the ‘why’. I have been an entrepreneur more than once. Not only do women get less capital but the world’s female entrepreneurs witness is also different from what their male counterparts do. With less than 2 percent of funding due to widespread discrimination, and lack of access and resources, capital for women is hard to come by. Also, no one is fighting for a small profitable business in the neighborhood of Rs 2-5 million, this is one of the most restricted segments. It still has overheads and the same regulatory framework that a large enterprise has. If we want to encourage women entrepreneurs, we need to slow down and focus on women entrepreneurship at the policy level. Indian women have deep aspirations for financial independence. With limited jobs available, entrepreneurship is the engine that can drive this revolution. At SHEROES, we know this and continue to do more of the same. Mahila Money loan and SHEROES Capital offering access to angel investing and seed funding for businesses led by women are both steps in that direction. Women’s access to capital deserves the same enthusiasm as the creation of unicorns, and we need to put more capital in the hands of women-led startups to fuel their success.

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BT: What is your prediction for the growth of women entrepreneurship in India over the next decade?

Sairee Chahal: Last year, Mahila Money credit disbursals grew 400-fold, helping women entrepreneurs build their businesses and meet working capital needs. More than 60 percent of these women are new to credit. Entrepreneurship is definitely at the forefront and micro-entrepreneurs from rural India are the fastest growing demographic on the internet. With the investments made to tap their potential, we are looking at over 100 million entrepreneurs with a digital business step and access to capital. The SHEROES ecosystem is aimed at supporting these women micro-entrepreneurs and aspirants, through various resources, financial and digital skills opportunities, and community support.

BT: What are the biggest areas of opportunity for women entrepreneurs today?

Sairee Chahal: The ecosystem for women entrepreneurs today has improved greatly, from access to capital, mentoring, and more. I encourage women to take advantage of these opportunities and continue to invest in themselves to start and grow a business. Create a playbook that works for you to balance your physical and mental health along with your business. This is your journey to #TakeCharge and start building from what you have and aim to build something of your own.


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