The future of India’s economic growth lies in the hands of women entrepreneurs

The percentage of working-age Indian women in the labour force has dropped by 10 per cent since 2005.

hidden February 03, 2017 14:01:23 IST
The future of India’s economic growth lies in the hands of women entrepreneurs

Ankhi Das

One would think that the number of women in the workplace in India would have improved over the last few decades. After all, more girl children are being educated, social mores are changing, it’s far more accepted that women will work and earn a living. The government has introduced various gender equality and women-friendly schemes – both at the school level and for entrepreneurs and in the workplace.

Yet, this is far from the case. According to data from the International Labour Organisation, the percentage of working-age Indian women in the labour force has dropped by 10 per cent since 2005. As a woman and advocate for gender equality, who believes that women can help economies grow, nothing could be more disconcerting for me to hear.

There are a large number of reasons why women are leaving the workforce. Women unfriendly workplace laws, inability to leave the home or children, and a need to contribute and look after housework top the list.

The question to be asked is, how to do we change or stem this?  

The answer just may lie in the Small Medium Enterprise (SME) sector, which allows women a certain flexibility and control over their career. With the Indian economy expected to emerge as one of the leading economies in the world and likely to become a $5 trillion economy by 2025, major impetus is being given to strengthen the backbone of our economy — the SME sector.

Last year, Facebook started the Future of Business Survey – a collaboration with OECD and the World Bank - to measure small business sentiment in 33 countries. The Future of Business Survey focuses on the emerging population of businesses that are online - in other words, businesses that are embracing digital.

The Future of Business survey helps us fill the gender data gap by contributing information about how women-run firms perceive their environment relative to those run by men.  In many countries disproportionately fewer women-run businesses exist – a staggeringly low 11% in India.  One of the lowest in the world which is, in part, representative of institutional barriers.  Yet, once women do enter the market, there are significant similarities between firms run by women and those run by men: they report the same levels of confidence about their present and near-term outlooks, and face the same challenges.  One significant difference, however, is that women-run businesses are more likely than men-run businesses to leverage online tools to make their business succeed.

Digital may indeed help level the playing field since businesses can reach out to customers across the world without investing significant resources or confronting restrictive cultural norms. As women around the world are increasingly becoming the providers for their families, building a digital business provides a viable path for them to engage with the broader economy.

Take Kalpana for example.  Kalpana was a new mom who couldn’t leave her child to go work a fulltime job.  Rather than dropping out of the workforce, she started an online bridal hair accessories business – Pelli Poola Jada - that allowed her to participate in the global economy on terms that worked within the context of her life.  Now she sells all over the world, and employs hundreds of other women.  

In fact, the more connected small businesses are to their own economy and to the international economy, the more success and growth they can enjoy. It was heartening to see that 18% of the small businesses surveyed in India are involved in international trade. And that those engaged in international trade are more confident than non-traders, and are more likely to increase jobs in the next 6 months, than non-traders.

Also, breaking another myth, while typically women are not seen as the main consumers of technology, they were found to be using digital more than men to run their businesses.

Digital helps equalize the playing field. We need to do more to encourage women entrepreneurs in India.

Take Devika Srimal Bappa, an animal lover and a PETA volunteer, Devika started Kanabis, a brand for fashionable, affordable, high quality and PETA-approved vegan footwear in 2015 as a substitute to leather based shoes for all animal lovers like her. Her business operates primarily on Facebook and Instagram. Or Anaka, who started Brass Tacks — a company that focuses on fabric, fit, and tailoring quality — online.  Anaka has now started retailing in Chennai and is looking for a permanent retail space in Bangaluru.

It is women such as these, who are the changemakers in the system. Able to utilise the internet and social media to open up a whole new professional playing field for themselves.  Reaching out across borders and involving themselves in international trade. There are now over 65 million small business Pages on Facebook, approximately 30% of which are women-run. But we need to ensure that this tribe of women entrepreneurs grows larger and stronger.

It has now been established that small businesses drive economic growth and are responsible for the vast majority of jobs in economies around the world. Connections – to each other and to customers around the world – can help them grow.

India is one of the two countries with the largest number of people online in the world. The other being China. Yet, barely half of India is online. And to be a global power and to empower us as global equals, connectivity is of great importance, especially to global infrastructure networks, trade flows, capital markets - and of course, the digital economy. Developing countries gain a 1-2 percent increase in GDP with every 10 percent of the population that gets online.

What is required is for policymakers, companies and organisations to continue to invest in the infrastructure to enable digital trade to thrive. This includes expanding global connectivity to the 4.3 billion people who are not online, and creating policies and products that enable smoother e-commerce and payments. While Digital India is a step in the right direction, providing and promoting 4G coverage and last-mile Internet connectivity, India still ranks 44 on Huawei’s most recent 2016 Global Connectivity Index. Which is why, ensuring digital connectivity is a must, boosted by digital trade and policy around it. A move towards digital payments to boost digital trade should (and is to a large extent) take place in tandem.

Ultimately, India will be able to gain an equal position with global powers once its trade and technological connectivity with the rest of the world is strengthened. And if we can encourage women to spearhead this movement through their involvement in not just big business but also in SMEs, more power to both the country and us.

The author is the Director of Public Policy, for Facebook India, South and Central Asia

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