April 20, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Priya Ganapati

The Other Woman

Ten years ago, Smita Samant was working as a private secretary in a multinational company in Bombay. She came from an upper middle-class Brahmin family and was happily married to her MBA-engineer husband. Yet, there was a sense of dissatisfaction. Smita disliked her job, which did not give her any kind of creative satisfaction. Besides, she hated taking dictations from her boss. Eventually, she tossed her job and went back to an old hobby: fashion designing. Today, Smita runs a successful exports business from home. She has six employees and an annual turnover of Rs 10 lakhs.

A few years later, in another corner of the same city, Asha Tapare chucked her job to start a travel services agency. Asha wanted to be her own boss. She wanted the thrill of running her own outfit.

Entrepreneurship, unfortunately, has become a highly misused word in recent times. As a result, tales like those of Smita Sawant and Asha Tapare pale in comparison to legendary technology start-ups that have become folklore in the last two years.

True, the tech boom did bring a certain snob value to the word 'entrepreneur,' but it also ended up making it synonymous with technology and venture capitalists, geeks, dotcoms and all other assorted evil. And, among all the talk of valuations, revenue models and VC funding, the true spirit of entrepreneurship was forgotten. The spirit that compells women like Smita and Asha to battle odds and build successful businesses. To operate from their own homes, which double up as corporate headquarters for their business ventures.

Such women are remarkable because they go beyond being mere entrepreneurs. At any given time, they are playing many different roles. They are chief executive officer, chief financial officer, marketing and sales manager, human resource development executive and brand manager all rolled into one. And, at almost at the same time, they are also mother, wife, sister and daughter.

It is women like these who fascinate Vaijayanti Pandit, the deputy secretary of the Indian Merchants Chambers, a Bombay-based industry organisation.

Pandit's introduction to the world of home-based women entrepreneurs began when she was working with the women's wing of the IMC. As she interacted with hundreds of successful home-based women entrepreneurs, her fascination grew. She began to wonder what made them tick, how their businesses are different, what were the problems they faced and, more importantly, what kept them going.

After years of watching them, organising exhibitions for them and interacting with them, she finally signed up for a doctorate from the University of Bombay in 1995. The five years of research into the dreams, disappointments, problems and passions of the home-based woman entrepreneur yielded a thesis titled 'Home based women entrepreneurs in Bombay' a few weeks ago. The thesis was based on over 160 personal interviews and discussions with nearly 20 women's organisations in the city.

"When I started, this was an completely unexplored area. There was no empirical data to fall back on. I approached women's organisations and collected data from them. I registered for my thesis in 1995 and spent one year just doing test research. I read up to see if similar studies had been conducted elsewhere, what their findings were and the methodology behind the research," Pandit recalls.

Though it meant hard, gruelling work, Pandit was clear her research and findings would never be questioned on its veracity or methodology. So she drew up a 22-page questionnaire and worked on a preliminary sample size of 2,000 home-based women entrepreneurs across Bombay. This sample size was divided to cover three main sectors: manufacturing, trading and the services segment.

The results of her five year long quest were on very expected lines; they revealed carefully hidden biases and expectations that bog down women who want to step out of their gender-fostered responsibilities.

"One of my hypothesis was that these women would have had sufficient family support in their ventures. But I discovered that, in many cases, families have been more of a hindrance to a woman's success in business. If the woman came from a lower income group, the family wanted her to take up a job with a more stable income. In middle-class families, the woman's success became a reason for insecurity. There was also a high amount of selfishness involved, where it was felt that, if the woman was successful in business, she would neglect the family. So, many times, they would hope she was not successful," says Pandit.

It is typically these kind of subtle biases that Pandit's study has unveiled. Bombay has always prided itself on its cosmopolitan leanings. Women in this city have been relatively more independent and have had a greater orientation towards careers than their counterparts in other Indian cities. Bombay, probably, has the largest concentration of working women in India.

But the results of Pandit's research have revealed these to be just superficials. It has shown that, despite being successful and capable, despite having proven their competency, they still have to deal with the worst burden of them all -- that of being a woman. This tends to weigh most of them down.

The lack of exposure to corporate culture, the lack of professional training and family responsibilities are other problems these home-based women entrepreneurs have to reckon with. For instance, one of the biggest problem faced by women entrepreneurs across all income groups is human resource management. Irrespective of the business that they are in, or the gender of their employees, these entrepreneurial women stumble when it comes to dealing with their staff.

"The reason is their lack of exposure to corporate culture. They just don't know how to keep their employees happy. They do not understand professional pitfalls. For instance, some of the women I spoke to were very upset when one of their employees left for better prospects or started something on his/her own. They were unable to reconcile themselves to the fact and tended to take it personally. Others had to constantly deal with employees taking days off for domestic pujas or visits to native places -- all of which affected their businesses," Pandit explains.

So what does a successful business venture really mean when it comes to home-based women entrepreneuers? Is it only entrepreneurial success or does success here mean the perfect balance between home and work?

"The making of profits," says Pandit, "is the intrinsic dimension of success in any business. The extrinsic factor is the generation of employment. These are how I have defined successful businesses for my research. But I have also examined other factors like managerial capability with respect to finance, HRD and marketing."

Getting over 160 of these women to open up has been a difficult task. Pandit laughs when she recalls the reluctance with which these women talked about profits and other quantifiable measures of business success. "As long as I talked of products, they would be excited. But when it came to discussing their revenues and profits, it was not easy. I could never get an exact figure from them. so I drew up ranges and slowly coaxed them into revealing which group they fell into."

Pandit's effort has been worthwhile. Her study has shed light on many of the issues faced by women entrepreneurs, including why they have chosen to start a business and what the problems they face are.

Money remains the motivating factor. While the need is more pronounced, and talked about, among lower and middle-income groups, women from the upper income strata only admit to it tacitly. For them, business is more an outlet for their creative juices and a chance to establish an identity of their own.

Predictably, the businesses these women nurture are also polarised along the various income groups. While women from lower income groups concentrate on mass production, those from the upper strata of society worked on exclusive and fashionably upmarket ventures. "In fact, the kind of businesses the latter run are perceived to be largely women's areas like garments, beauty parlours, interior designing and food production. They sort of revolve round the roti, kapda, makaan theme," says Pandit.

At times, though, it is the women themselves who are to blame. In many of the cases covered by Pandit, they try not grow too big because they do not want to hurt the delicate balance of power in their family. Most of these women have drawn the lines for themselves and are reconciled to ensuring they are always one step behind their husbands.

Paradoxically, it is this domestic bliss that has ensured that these home-based women entrepreneurs are successful at work. A startling finding of Pandit's research has been the fact that the most successful group of women are those who have been married and have two children. In contrast, single or divorced women do not seem to do as well in their ventures.

"Single women do not want to concentrate too much on their businesses because they are worried that, if they get married, they might have to move to a different place. Divorcees or widows are so psychologically affected that they are unable to give everything to their business. So it is the women who are married, with children, who are able to best devote their time to their business," Pandit explains.

All this, of course, leads to the inevitable question: Is there scope for change? After all, biases and stereotyped expectations cannot be broken overnight.

Pandit agrees, "What we require is an attitudinal change. There are so many governmental support schemes that women are not aware of or don't have confidence in. What the government can do to help is build on these schemes and publicise them. Also, some kind of formal training for such women can be organised."

In the end, she concedes, "It is these women themselves who need to think big and not keep their businesses unstructured. On the one hand, it is praiseworthy that they manage their households and run their business simultaneously. But whether one wants to give so much attention to the family is the question that needs to be addressed. Subservience to the family is not always essential. At the end of the day, a woman's commitment to her family need not be judged on the basis of whether she is there to make hot rotis every night when her husband comes home."

But then, societal conditioning is hard to get over. For almost all of the 160 women interviewed, their identity as a wife, mother or daughter takes precedence over their identity as successful businesswomen. "They want to be small," says Pandit. "They have the vision, but they do not want to expand their businesses. They live with the identity that they are related to someone. They have been taught to look after the home, the children and their family. They have always been taught to be a woman first."

Illustration, page design: Dominic Xavier

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