How the Pandemic has Impacted Women Entrepreneurs

The pandemic hasn’t been easy on most businesses and communities. COVID-19 has ravaged organisations of all stripes—from global corporations to fledgling entities—and has also spelled doom for startup founders. Crucially, one of the more complex challenges triggered by the lethal virus has been its impact on women entrepreneurs. According to a recent survey, 73 percent of women-owned businesses have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.  While a sizeable number of women solopreneurs and small business owners based in urban India faced multiple challenges, such as lack of customer orders, supply chain disruptions, and a limited workforce, they also saw a significant drop in revenue, and in extreme cases, their businesses were nearly wiped out.

In the recent years, the Indian government and the startup ecosystem have come together to provide support tools to enable women-owned enterprises to scale their startups. The disruption caused by COVID-19 has accelerated the need for recovery programs that would help women entrepreneurs to realign their businesses to the evolving business environment.  

While stories abound of women entrepreneurs across the world facing the brunt of the crisis on account of gender disparity, it’s also a fact that not all of them grappled with this challenge to survive and thrive through the pandemic. However, a bulk of them did face other challenges.

T-Hub women entrepreneurs tell it like it is

Aparna Bhogu, co-founder of MedTech startup Monitra Healthcare, recalls the multiple challenges her company faced amid the pandemic. According to her, the situation was riddled with uncertainty and Monitra’s revenues nose-dived to almost zero. It was also a trying time for the company’s workforce as their morale was at an all-time low. Monitra had to find new ways to reach its target customers viz., healthcare professionals, doctors and hospital staff as regular face-to-face interactions with them was no longer possible.  “However, these challenges were not due to any gender bias,” Aparna asserts. “Such problems affected businesses across the globe.”

Sahithi Snigdha, COO & Director, Waste Ventures India (WVI), echoes Aparna’s views on pandemic-related challenges being unrelated to gender bias. However, she does acknowledge that women in general, have got the short end of the stick during COVID-19. She observed that the female employees in her organisation, who comprise over 70 percent of the workforce, were compelled to avail of leave as they were burdened with childcare and domestic workload.

Among unique business challenges, Sahithi says the lockdown brought operations to a halt, almost leading to the startup’s closure. There was also difficulty in the movement and transportation of waste as the company’s network of suppliers and recyclers were unable to function, impacting the company’s bottomline. 

Priya Anant, Director, Life Circle Health Services, shares her perspective on how the pandemic heightened the need for women workers in her organisation to prioritise their own health and safety. “Life Circle’s female geriatric caregivers (90 percent of the workforce), who come from various parts of India, dwindled since the beginning of the pandemic,” she says. She attributes this to how the caregivers had to ensure their own safety as they were exposed to a higher risk of infection due to the nature of their work. Since they attended to elderly patients, who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, several families decided to place their services on hold. Thus, many caregivers were on bench. Priya notes that female employees were also impacted on account of their gender as our society focuses on the personal safety of girls more than boys, specifically when it comes to migration.

Among other challenges, she adds that the startup faced the challenge of many subscriptions going on hold due to the risk posed by the virus, resulting in a sudden loss of income for them. 

The funding scene

Historically, statistics show that women-owned businesses find it more difficult to raise capital as opposed to their male counterparts. According to a recent report, funding for women-founded and co-founded tech startups in India were hit with a financial crunch during COVID-19. Funding for these startups fell to $280 million in H1 2020, compared to $369 million in the same period 2019. In the US too, women-led startups received only 2.3 percent of VC funding in 2020.

Sahithi acknowledges that a disproportionate share of childcare and household chores has fallen on women during the pandemic. “While women entrepreneurs may have sufficient access to funding and resources today, I’m a little skeptical about this trend,” she says. “Having to shoulder the entire household and childcare responsibilities in addition to running a business is very difficult, and the lack of time to network could mean losing out on potential collaborations and, thus, resources.”

Not all women entrepreneurs believe that the lack of funding for women-led enterprises stems from gender biases. 

“Overall, access to resources for the service industry and people-intensive businesses is sparse. Investors want to scale rapidly, their investments to multiply,” Priya reasons. “I find it interesting that after we have pitched for funding, the potential investors are often not forthcoming, though they show interest in our caregiver services. While I am disappointed that the willingness to invest in our company is minimal, I know that this doesn’t have anything to do with my gender.”

According to Aparna, owing to better education, initiatives and awareness, today’s generation of women entrepreneurs do have better access to funding and resources than their predecessors from a decade ago. ”However, gender disparity persists in the entrepreneurship landscape and women do have to work harder to prove that the organisation can thrive under a female leader.”

Building a robust support mechanism for women entrepreneurs

Priya disagrees with the notion that institutional and policy support for women entrepreneurs should arise solely based on their gender. According to her, the government should support enterprises like hers that have a positive impact on healthcare outcomes for a vulnerable segment of the population. She adds that during a crisis like the pandemic, timely support should also be extended to those enterprises that offer employment opportunities for women to ensure their financial well-being. “Our organisation has not been able to identify many sops that we may use during the pandemic, except probably the one on the Provident Fund contribution by the Government,” she says.

Sahithi is emphatic that the government can do more to facilitate ease of doing business for women during a challenging time like this. She believes more aid can be forthcoming in the areas of scaling women-led startups, accessing subsidies, and spreading awareness about women entrepreneur-friendly policies and sops. 

Aparna, too, believes that institutional support and incentives, such as subsidies, waivers on loans and funding opportunities to help women entrepreneurs must be provided by the government. 

Resilience and gender equity will pave the way for women entrepreneurs

Interestingly, all three entrepreneurs we spoke with are convinced that they never encountered biases and business-related challenges solely on account of their gender. They are also proud that they view themselves first and foremost as entrepreneurs, without restricting themselves to boxes that label them as ‘women’ entrepreneurs.

“I have kept my gender out of the equation. I do not think of myself as a woman entrepreneur—simply an entrepreneur,” says Priya. “I think focusing on what one cannot change and any inequities resulting from gender issues take time away from identifying and working on solutions to problems that can be solved.”

Sahithi encountered barriers that had more to do with her age than her gender. “At the beginning of my career, I wasn’t taken seriously as I started quite young, and waste management and the social sector usually attract older talents,” she explains. “But eventually, that bias went away. It also helped that my seniors in the company treated me on an equal footing, instead of as a junior member of the team. I believe self-confidence, assertiveness and subject matter expertise go a long way in dispelling any kind of bias people might have about you.”

While Aparna counts herself fortunate for having a supportive family backing her entrepreneurial vision, she is aware women have it harder when it comes to straddling the work-life balance. “Ensuring that you are giving enough attention to customers at work and your children at home requires a delicate balancing act that takes time to hone,” she says. “Entrepreneurship is not a 9×5 job as you take work home as well!” She emphasises women entrepreneurs should acknowledge this challenge and plan for it through the proper delegation of work to team members.

Her advice to other women entrepreneurs who might be facing a challenging time amid the pandemic? “Keep yourself informed, keep building a strong network and do not hesitate to reach out to people. These things will help your business sail through the tough times. Remember, tough times never last but tough people do,” she says.

The pandemic is perhaps the best time to put to test an entrepreneur’s willpower and resilience to survive the crisis. 

Priya opted to remain focused on how to rise above the challenges posed by the pandemic. Life Circle trained its dispersed workforce on the virus and its lethal implications. The startup also built a support mechanism for those employees who were laid off. Priya prioritised re-organising care processes to reduce the human interface without compromising on the overall experience, safety and quality of care giving to elderly patients.

Priya’s advice to fellow women entrepreneurs? “None of us imagined we would live through a pandemic. What has worked for me is to be clear about what I want for Life Circle and my workforce and take it one day at a time,” she says. “Do not fret or panic. Be clear and honest about what is possible and not possible. Seek support from your customers and workforce as most of the times, people are supportive and understanding. It is time to unleash all the goodwill you have.”

The pandemic made Sahithi realise that women entrepreneurs should prioritise their own well-being. “I advise women to seek help and stop feeling guilty all the time,” she says. “Many a time, we tend to stretch ourselves thin and disregard our mental and physical health. But, we can pour to others only when our cup is full. So we should accept and solicit help both at the workplace and home. Let’s treat ourselves gently and with grace.”