Mumbai: Women constitute roughly 11% of the employed workforce but 52% of the jobs lost because of COVID-19 were those of women, according to data from the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy.

"India has a large missing middle of opportunity-driven entrepreneurs who can go on to create five to 20 jobs each and we believe that is one of the levers for the growth of the economy as well as local jobs," said Madan Padaki, CEO of One Bridge and co-founder of the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME), which is trying to create 10 million entrepreneurs, half of them women, by 2030.

We talk to Padaki on how these jobs could come back and whether they can be restored and rejuvenated through entrepreneurship and alliances of entrepreneurship.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about the work that you are doing, particularly in the context of gender.

Our idea and mission at GAME is how do we galvanise an ecosystem to be able to create a lot of entrepreneurs who can create jobs. The whole idea of GAME emanated from the fact that India has a large missing middle of opportunity-driven entrepreneurs who can go on to create five to 20 jobs each and we believe that is one of the levers for the growth of the economy as well as local jobs. And clearly, from a gender lens, we said 50% of those entrepreneurs have to be women.

We are doing a lot of work with women on the ground through partners. Specifically, from a COVID angle, we've done a variety of research with various organisations, and we found three things that are coming up as civic challenges during COVID. Whether you can call it a silver lining or a dark cloud, I don't know, but many of the women entrepreneurs whom [we] spoke to said: "You know, COVID has not had that much of an impact because our lives were anyway difficult." So piling on a little bit more difficulty on an already-difficult existence, maybe they didn't feel the 'hit' so badly. But having said that, one of the things we understood was that their workload at home went up.

With the kids at home, the return of the migrant workforce to the village… we saw an increase in the number of hours that women were putting in at home, which also means it impacted their ability to earn an income through entrepreneurial activities. The third thing that we understood from the conversations was that women have been forced to dip into their personal savings [for the family] and not just for their overall work, [more] than the male member of the house or borrowing from personal family and friends. So the women also had to take a disproportionate share of the financial burden of the family to make both ends meet. So, it's a double whammy in that sense.

When this alliance was created, was the idea that women as entrepreneurs would be more effective and efficient in creating jobs, not just for themselves, but for other women as well?

You are absolutely right. The thesis for women entrepreneurs is how do you get them to scale their enterprises? So one of the approaches we are taking is to create a cohort-based approach where we bring together a group of women who will be able to learn from one another, to get structured inputs with which they can show demonstrable growth.

For example, in Bangalore, we are launching in a couple of days' time a cohort of 20 women entrepreneurs who run fairly sizeable businesses--Rs 60 lakh and above--and we are putting them through a six-month boot camp which has elements of: how do you manage customers, how do you create your own capacity, how do you manage cash and so forth and this experiment will see whether these women entrepreneurs can grow disproportionately over the next six months. We believe that by celebrating such growth stories and by bringing in all ecosystem actors--governments, financial institutions, market linkage partners, academic institutions--we should be able to spur more economic activity for women entrepreneurs to thrive. So the approach is to take a local-ecosystem-building approach where we showcase success stories of women entrepreneurs and inspire others to follow the same path.

Are there some industries where this approach is more conducive and it plays out much better, like food and education?

In our research, we've seen the following industry verticals -- food and beverages, healthcare, beauty and wellness, education -- these are the three sectors that we have been focusing on. In our cohort of the first 20, we have folks from manufacturing, from floriculture and so on and so forth, but we believe that these are the sectors where women already exist as entrepreneurs. How can we build up their capabilities to grow in these?

What do you find in your conversations with potential entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs who may be taking the first, perhaps most critical steps? What has held them back or what is holding them back? And what is the key thing that would propel them?

A few things play out: One is the expectations from the woman in the family and the society around her. So when we meet a lot of women entrepreneurs, they say 'I want to do it but you know, somebody needs to talk to my husband/parents/parents-in-law.' So first, we have to create a lot more noise in the society [so] that there are several success stories of women becoming entrepreneurs, spending not just for themselves, but creating jobs for 20-30 other people around them.

The second thing is that there is a lack of self-confidence and self-belief, in that 'it's very hard and I have to fight a lot of battles' so on and so forth. We are seeing that by just unlocking the self-confidence in them, they start to flower. In our experience, in the deepest and the remotest set of villages, maybe encourage these women to form entrepreneurial collectives. We see that this is one big lever but acts well when you unlock the confidence and say 'hey, if others have done it, why can't you do it?'

And the third thing that is coming about is some sort of a peer-learning, peer-support network. How can we bring a group of women together, who are together through thick and thin? If a woman entrepreneur is facing a challenge at work [or] at home, can she talk to somebody in confidence and say, 'hey, I'm facing this challenge, what's the suggestion you have'. We think that peer-learning networks form a very strong role there.

These are some of the things that we are working on as we build out the whole concept of an accelerator at the local level.

How do you incentivise yourself to do this, Madan? When I say you, I mean your organisation, so people also understand that you will be there when they need you maybe later or down the line?

From a GAME standpoint, our mission and our idea is to build local capabilities in local capacities. We clearly realise that GAME will succeed only if we operate as an alliance. So our model is to bring all the local partners together. Get them to own this piece so that eventually we don't have to be there forever and they all become a part of this larger learning-collaboration-action network. What we are seeing at GAME is that we need to create a platform where organisations will learn together. For example, there are fantastic things happening in Kerala but somebody is trying to reinvent the same wheel in Uttar Pradesh. So we see a lot of wastage of resources, time and money happening. Secondly, how do we bring the best of organisations to collaborate? One organisation need not be good at doing everything but can one organisation focus on the training and capacity building? Can one organisation focus on financing, so on and so forth?

And thirdly, as a mission-driven organisation, we want to be able to shout from the rooftops to all the people listening there saying 'hey, this will take a lot of shoulders at the wheel to make this happen.' It's not one stakeholder or one ecosystem actor's responsibility. All of us have to come together to make this happen and GAME's objective is to be there as the platform for all of these entities to come together.

When you work or when you build and work with these networks of women entrepreneurs in creating those peer-to-peer groups, is India distinctive in any way or are these challenges similar to cohorts in other countries, particularly when it comes to gender?

From our conversations and research, of course, there are cultural nuances not just in the country but within the country itself. Each state would have a changed set of challenges. But what we are realising is that India is no different when it comes to the challenges faced by women globally. And we are learning from some of the best experts in the world who have done this in Africa and Latin America and we are trying to adapt these solutions to the Indian context.

You talked about the social gaps or the social challenges, particularly when it comes to self-confidence. Tell us what we need to do from a policy perspective to enable and drive this ecosystem much further or better?

We've been having some conversations with a few policy folks as well. One is of course that we need to be able to make a lot of progress in the ease of doing business, especially for small businesses.

See, the moment you ask a woman entrepreneur or an entrepreneur to start formalising their business and then they look at the huge set of hurdles that come along the path, not to talk of just compliances, but also the variety of harassments that come along with it, that's a big deterrent. In fact, I met a husband of a woman entrepreneur who runs an F&B business out of her home and I was having a chat with the family and the husband was saying, 'you know what, I would rather have my wife just do hundred chapattis a day at home rather than she aspiring to do thousands of chapattis because then I have to think of the Shops and Establishments Act, I have to think of the Labor Act, if I have to hire 10 people'. He went on to say this is all a nightmare for me and I don't want my wife to get caught in this jungle. So, clearly the ease of doing business is one.

The second thing is that in our research we found that, all things being equal, women were two times more likely to get rejected for a bank loan than a man. And that anomaly we have to fix. It also means that for a banker who is sanctioning the loans what kind of perspective must we bring for him or her to be much more in tune with the challenges that women entrepreneurs face and factor that in the loan process.

The third point [is that] we need to be celebrating success stories far more. We need to be talking about all that is possible. Somehow in the minds of the world around us, the entrepreneur is usually associated with somebody who is so good and so high that it is not reachable, but nobody looks at the local beauty salon as an entrepreneur. Nobody looks at this lady who is running a restaurant as an entrepreneur, right? I think we need to change the role models and definition of entrepreneurship itself and celebrate them much more.

What's changed with COVID-19? Are there newer opportunities or are the same opportunities being viewed differently or could they be viewed differently?

Across the board we are exploring that, you know, of course there are some sectors that got hit very badly. Take tourism, take F&B. And a lot of women who depended on producing stuff for these industries itself, they have all got really hammered.

On the other hand, the work I do with One Bridge and rural India, we're seeing a massive consumption growth happening there. We are seeing a large demand for logistics services. We're seeing a large demand for digital access. So I think what COVID will eventually do is rearrange the equations in terms of digital access in terms of businesses that can grow faster and businesses that have to adapt to the new normal.

I think as this dust settles, we need to be able to pick those sectors and say which needs to be supported, which needs to be strengthened and which needs to be given a vitamin boost to kind of make it grow much faster and I think that's the opportunity we see today.

Are there any differences that you see and are there any myths that you would want to bust when it comes to women and entrepreneurship--or differences in the workforce--in urban and rural India?

One of the most positive things we have seen in rural India, at least in southern and western India, is the emergence of and the strength of self-help groups [SHGs]. I think SHGs and the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, the whole microfinance institutions-led approach, has made women come together and realise that we're all in it together and we can succeed. I think the community that has been built through the SHG networks is a great strength to build on.

The second myth that got busted for me is that, every woman in the household in a rural enterprise is far more entrepreneurial than a similar woman in an urban enterprise because the adversities they face at home and the rural context is much higher than [in] urban [areas]. So there is a strong entrepreneurial energy already existing in the women of the household. How do we leverage them to provide opportunities to monetise that strength? [This] is the second part that always fascinates me.

You've been an entrepreneur, you sold a company and you are now focused more on building these alliances and working with entrepreneurs. In your journey, what are the one or two things that you would want to empower your work and your mission in the task that you have set out on?

I am a firm believer, from all the experience I have had in the last 10-12 years in the space, that there is infinite potential in every human being. It comes from self-belief, so one of my favourite all-time movies is the Kung Fu Panda and I believe that for every 'Po' there is a 'Dragon Warrior' lurking somewhere within. A lot of us die without knowing what treasures lie within, so a lot of our work is unlocking that confidence.

Secondly, an entrepreneurial mindset, how do you develop that opportunity and growth mindset to say 'yes, here are opportunities that I can leverage on and start growing'.

And thirdly, how do you leverage that entrepreneurial energy into things that can benefit the community? I have also seen that out of the 6,000 entrepreneurs that we work with at One Bridge, a large percentage of them say, 'you know what, I will make money, lose money, that's fine, but help me to do something that benefits my village and my community'. So I think if you can bring me this whole transformation of the mindset, this unleashing of entrepreneurial energy and channelising this entrepreneur energy towards a social good, I think that is a mission worth spending your entire life on.

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