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Building a Sisterhood in India’s Investing Boys’ Club

India’s startup and venture capital sectors are still relatively young, but already dominated by men. Meet the women overcoming old-fashioned attitudes to make their names in investing and helping other women turn their ideas into businesses.

Written by Joanna Lobo Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Paula Mariwala, one of the top women in investing in India, remembers every woman who’s ever pitched to her. But she admits even she has fallen prey to knee-jerk prejudices against women entrepreneurs. Joanna Lobo

MUMBAI, India  Paula Mariwala clearly remembers the day she almost treated another woman with the same prejudice many women endure from male colleagues throughout their careers. The executive director of Seedfund, an early-stage venture capital fund, was discussing a term sheet with a young entrepreneur.

“She said she was going to take time off for her wedding and I nearly pulled the sheet back! I was concerned about how she would manage as a married woman,” she says. Only an hour earlier, Mariwala had congratulated a male entrepreneur on his upcoming wedding. “I never thought of asking him if his marriage would change his commitment,” she says.

“There’s a difference to the way people, even women, look at women entrepreneurs.”

The cofounder and president of Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs India and a big name in angel investing and venture capitalism, Mariwala, 51, is one of India’s most senior investment professionals. She joined Seedfund as an early-stage investor in 2006, at a time when India’s venture capital industry was nascent. Considered a role model to many, she remembers every female entrepreneur who has ever pitched to her. “They are so few,” she says.

The field of investing has long been crowded with men, and in 2016, TechCrunch published a study that put a figure on just how few women work in the field. Its “First Comprehensive Study on Women in Venture Capital” found that only 7 percent of investing partners at the top 100 venture firms globally were women.

India’s startup and venture capital sectors are still at the fledgling stage, but they follow the same pattern. There are exceptions. Women like Mariwala and Bharti Jacob of Seedfund, Vani Kola of Kalaari Capital and Ankita Vashistha, founder of Saha Fund, India’s first venture fund for women-centric businesses, all of whom have overcome all sorts of obstacles to make their names in the sector.

The problem, say many women investors, is an often nuanced discrimination that dissuades women from joining the sector and keeps those already working in investing from moving to the top levels of their firms. News Deeply spoke to several women in the industry who said they or their peers had faced questions about how they would balance their families with their jobs and whether they were too emotional, not tough enough, for the job.

Mariwala says she has walked into meetings and noticed a sudden tension in the air. The entrepreneurs and investors she met with “were not used to having a woman in the room and they were uncomfortable,” she says. “It meant they did not give me the same status, make eye contact or use the same language” as they would with men.

Culture and Coffee

“I’ve noticed that the bias is mostly from limited partners [silent investors] and wealth advisers, who still have old-school images of only-male fund managers,” says Aditi Gupta, 32, principal at Contrarian Drishti, a venture capital firm specializing in early-stage investments. At the outset of her career, she was asked if she was capable of working the long hours that the job demands. “Now I find the men around me struggle to keep up with my pace,” she says. “I’ve never had to answer that question again.”

Women also find themselves at a major disadvantage when it comes to networking, a vital part of the startup world. In the male-dominated sector, men have a wider network to reach out to, and they endorse each other more openly, says Suhani Chhaparwal, a former venture capitalist at InnoVen Capital. The dearth of women investors makes it harder for women to make the essential connections they need to do their jobs.

“You don’t have so many women at the top, so women cannot pull other women up,” says Chhaparwal, who went on to found the social initiative CJD Care India.

“Men have access to support systems that we don’t.”

Sexual assault and harassment by senior and noted investors make the process even tougher. In one of the more recent high-profile cases, angel investor Mahesh Murthy, the cofounder of Seedfund and one of the most popular names in the venture capital world, was arrested on charges of molestation and stalking earlier this year. After he was released on bail, another woman came forward and filed a sexual harassment case against him. Newspapers report that the National Commission for Women has written to the Maharashtra Police about complaints it had received from several women against the angel investor.

Suhani Chhaparwal is using her success as an investor to help women entrepreneurs access the market and pitch with confidence. (Joanna Lobo)

Cultural concepts about how women should behave force women investors to think twice before setting up meetings with male colleagues or entrepreneurs over coffee or drinks. “This means double checking yourself each time you make a social request. Women don’t want to appear too open or too friendly,” Chhaparwal says.

Vicious Cycle

Gupta calls it a vicious cycle: The predominance of men in investing prevents women from aspiring to enter the field, but whenever women do apply for jobs in the sector, hiring investment funds just “look for more of the same” instead of trying to diversify their teams. “As humans, we are wired to find comfort in homogeneity,” she says.

“Not having enough women around you does sometimes make you feel out of your depth. But most women I know, including myself, use this fear to fuel their ability to work harder.”

Some also use it to find ways to help other women. Angel investor Meeta Malhotra says she doesn’t seek out women entrepreneurs specifically, but she will “[work] harder to accommodate a women entrepreneur who comes to me for advice.” The goal, she says, is to create an enabling environment for women.

And we will know we’ve reached that goal, says Gupta, when investors can ignore the fact that women entrepreneurs are women at all. “The greatest service we can do for a women founder is to make sure she is evaluated on her business and capability, not her gender,” she says.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Paula Mariwala’s title at Seedfund.

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