In early November, Falguni Nayar became India’s richest self-made female billionaire after her company Nykaa, the country’s largest online cosmetics retailer, went public. The initial public offering was oversubscribed more than 80 times, and its shares listed at a 78% premium to the offer price.
Nayar, a 58-year-old former investment banker, now has a reported net worth of around $7.7 billion. Her success is an outlier in India’s startup ecosystem — the world’s third-largest — where just five of 136 unicorn founders are women. A 2019 report by the International Finance Corporation ranked India third among 77 countries for the size of gender gaps in business, and found that only 33% of early-stage entrepreneurs in India were female.
Women working in the Indian tech sector told Rest of World that they hope Nayar will become the rare role model that young women in the country need. Nupur Hemant, an entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist, believes Nayar’s success will make women have more faith in their entrepreneurial dreams, and perhaps make investors trust female founders more than they do now. “Falguni’s success [is] nothing but a celebration of women entrepreneurs in India. Nykaa gave birth to a category, which was unheard of to wider audiences in India,” Hemant said. “I feel such stories of success will inspire more female entrepreneurs to go out there and make their dreams come true.”
There are many structural barriers for female entrepreneurs in India. Few girls in India are encouraged to pursue STEM subjects, and the gender ratio at India’s elite engineering colleges — which form the foundation of much of tech entrepreneurship in India — is heavily skewed towards men, with fewer than 10% of students at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) being female.
Even the women who manage to overcome these barriers struggle to sustain and grow their ventures. Gender bias, taboos, cultural practices, and familial expectations mean that female entrepreneurs are often unable to access financing to support their businesses, said Jyotsna Siddharth, an intersectional activist and country director at feminist knowledge network Gender at Work. In 2020, Mint reported that only three of the top 20 venture capital firms in India — India Quotient, Lightspeed India, and Kalaari Capital — have one woman partner.
“Compared to their global peers and their male peers in India, [Indian] women face tremendous difficulty in accessing finances for their business,” Sudarsana Kundu, co-executive director at Gender At Work told Rest of World. “Often, women do not have access to collateral that would provide them with the leverage to access business financing.”
Of the six women entrepreneurs interviewed for this report, three were entirely self-funded using their savings, and had adjacent revenue streams to assist their ventures; one was initially financially assisted by family.
Indian startup culture is also often exclusionary. In a 2019 research report from Observer Research Foundation, a male interviewee described the country’s startup culture as an amalgamation of “bro culture” and emotionally hostile climates, characterized by “alpha males.” The report noted that “women tend to feel alienated in this culture,” and “do not feel comfortable in prominent industry networks.”
Kundu said that Nayar’s financial success could — or should — demonstrate that there is no basis for this discrimination. “Such exponential growth among female entrepreneurs is rare in India. We hope that when younger women entrepreneurs read about her success, they are also inspired to overcome the many challenges that they face on a daily basis,” she said.
In an earlier interview, Nayar addressed this issue. “Women need to allow the spotlight of their lives to be on themselves,” she said after the company’s market debut, adding that she hoped “more women like me dare to dream for themselves.”
Besides her gender, Nayar’s achievement was also inspiring because it broke the age barrier, Chitman Kaur, founder of children’s audio learning app HeyCloudy, told Rest of World. “At the end of it, while there’s still a [gender] gap, there was a thought that you need to make it successful early on,” said Kaur. “She’s proven that age is not a barrier.”
There have been efforts to fix the gender disparity in India’s startup ecosystem. The Indian government has launched a slew of schemes under its flagship Startup India initiative that help budding and existing women entrepreneurs with training, marketing, and mentorship. The country also has several women-focused venture capital investors.
Arpita Ganesh, who launched her lingerie startup Buttercups in 2013, said such support ensured she never felt disadvantaged because of her gender. “I never felt that being a woman was a disadvantage. In fact, I think it was an advantage in a lot of places because there were so many programs and concessions [for] women entrepreneurs when I was starting out.”
But for many Indian women, even accessing such programs can be challenging. Siddharth of Gender at Work said gender is only one dimension of the discrimination women face in India’s entrepreneurship scene. “When you come from a [dominant]-caste background, you already have existing networks and resources to tap into,” said Siddharth.
Kundu, her colleague, said that this means Nayar’s success needs to be understood in its broader context, and cautioned that it shouldn’t be allowed to “camouflage the persistent gender inequities in India.”