Celebrating Women Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow
Highly talented and passionate, the ten CBFW-NEN Fellows are using entrepreneurship as a tool to change their communities, their academic institutes, and their own lives.
In a room of successful people, all eyes were on ten young women, most of them just out of their teens. Not because they looked out of place; but because they were exceptional. These were the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women-National Entrepreneurship Network Fellows, selected for demonstrating extraordinary entrepreneurial leadership on their campuses.
At the ‘Women Mean Business’ conference held in Mumbai in December 2009, 350 delegates and 36 accomplished speakers discussed bottlenecks and opportunities for women entrepreneurs. But in the spotlight was this bunch of unknown young leaders. Why? Is it because people are waking up to the cost of not having women in the top rungs of organizations? Because they are concerned that women represent only three percent of senior positions, whether managerial, official or legislative, in our country? Because they cannot imagine putting their money in a company that lacks diversity in its core team?
Women constitute half the human capital in our country, and more than half its customer base. Organizations can no longer afford to exclude women from the boardrooms – their aptitude and perspective is essential to succeed in today’s extremely competitive business environment.
It is the same reason that brought the National Entrepreneurship Network and Cherie Blair Foundation for Women together to launch the CBFW-NEN Fellowship program. It was to recognize and nurture entrepreneurial leadership by bringing remarkable young women together with extraordinary role models, fostering a peer network, and providing access to skill development workshops.
Unity in diversity
The ten Fellows stood out for their diversity: Pooja is a rock star; Harini has just released a Carnatic music album. Anusha founded an IT company when she was 19; while Ritika, at 20, was running a social enterprise educating children of domestic maids. Meanwhile, Sonali not only turned around her institute’s loss-making chalk company to step up production by 200%.
What brought these girls together was their extraordinary commitment to developing entrepreneurship on their campuses, and beyond. The ten CBFW-NEN Fellows were chosen from across 500 NEN member institutes in the country. They were selected for demonstrating leadership in building entrepreneurship clubs, or designing and executing key programs and activities on campus, or founding and managing ventures.
As CBFW-NEN Fellows, the young women leaders were felicitated at the conference by Cherie Blair and Kiran Mazundar Shaw, and had hour-long one-on-one interactions with Ms Shaw, Ms Bedi, Stargate Capital Co-Founder Gita Patel and Mindtree founder Subroto Bagchi.
Winning against all odds
It was recognition well deserved. Success didn’t come easy for any of the girls. For example, in Chennai, Divya had to overcome an environment where girls feared to speak in public and networking with strangers was frowned upon. It was her determination that gave her an opportunity to lead her E Cell.
On the other hand at Bangalore’s Mount Carmel College, Sonali took on a job that nobody wanted: Managing a loss-making chalk company. Production was below target, customers were leaving in droves, team members lacked direction and profit was an alien word. But Sonali didn’t give up. She interviewed her key customers, responded to feedback and invested in production quality. She ultimately succeeded in turning the company around and posted healthy profits within a quarter.
For Ritika, convincing poor domestic maids in her neighbourhood to send their children for education was tough. The parents either thought it was inconvenient or were doubtful of her intentions. It took three months of effort before her venture took off. Today, her school has 23 students.
The CBFW-NEN Fellows achievements stand starkly in a country where women business leaders are few. Even in the free-wheeling younger world of Indian startups, women leaders remain scarce: of the almost 600 startups that competed for the 2008 Tata NEN Hottest Startups Awards, only eight percent were headed by women.
Admits Anusha: “For the longest time, I felt like a lone ranger championing the cause of entrepreneurship. I wondered if I was the only one who saw a huge opportunity for women in entrepreneurship.”
However, her views changed when she met other Fellows and leading women entrepreneurs during the conference. “The Fellowship exposed me to other like-minded girls who were tackling similar challenges in their own institutes, and learn from them. Personal interaction with successful role models like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Kiran Bedi inspired me,” she shares. The recognition helped too. “It has strengthened my belief in myself – both as a leader and an entrepreneur.” she says.
It is experiences like these that the Fellowship program seeks to facilitate, points out Laura Parkin, Executive Director, National Entrepreneurship Network. “The overarching goal is to equip and enable new and future women entrepreneurs to capitalize on the vast opportunities of today. India can achieve its goals of economic growth and social stability only if its women leaders are recognized and empowered,” she adds.
- Anusha Saxena, ICFAI Business School, Hyderabad Founded an IT company at 19. As Vice-President of her institute’s E Cell, Anusha’s strategic marketing has increased participation in its activities by 1,000%.
- Bhawna Anjaly, Birla Institute of Management Technology, Delhi A founder of her institute’s E Cell, Bhawna helped spike E Cell membership from nine to 315 members, more than half the students on campus.
- Divya Sornaraja, Vellamal Engineering College, Chennai Divya’s Markey savvy and operations skills helped her revived her institute’s defunct E Cell and increase membership to 300.
- Harini Ramaswamy, Alagappa College of Technology, Chennai
- Multi-talented Harini is driving entrepreneurship activities not only at her own institute but at three more colleges in Anna University.
- Neha Rambhia, IIT-Bombay, Mumbai
- As a leader in India’s most mature E Cells, Neha launched the “Entrepreneurship Garage” at IIT Bombay, aiming to make it a brainstorming hub for innovators and entrepreneurs.
- Niyanta Gupta, D Y Patil Institute of Technology, Pune
- Niyanta Gupta launched a newsletter that resulted in a tenfold increase in membership for her E Cell.
- Pooja Sunder, College Of Engineering, Pune
- Rock-star, editor, snooker player and a chess champion, Pooja Sunder is also the force behind the newly–launched E Cell at her institute.
- Ritika Arya, Jai Hind College, Mumbai
- Ritika Arya’s social enterprise Empower India has helped put 23 poor children to school.
- Saranya B, Saveetha Engineering College, Chennai
- Saranya launched the institute’s first campus company, a vermi-composting unit, and is giving fellow students their first experience of working in a startup.
- Sonali Gaddam, Mount Carmel College, Bangalore
- A turn-around artist, Sonali Gaddam took over the loss-making chalk company at her institute and in one quarter stepped up production by 200% and recorded a profit of 37%.