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Empowering Women and Social Enterprise in India so Both Can Thrive During the Pandemic

social enterprise

Photo: In the Indian state of Karnataka, the social enterprise Project Defy work to create “nooks,” i.e. learning environments where learners can learn new skills and design their own education programs.

In its 72 years of independence, India has shown its unprecedented prowess in building a modern, democratic nation. It has lifted millions out of poverty, is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and has increased its global influence by becoming a member of the G20 and the BRICS. More recently, it has played a central role in providing the world with COVID-19 vaccines as it has one of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturing capacities in the world.

However, what’s so unfortunate and saddening for a country making such strides on a global scale is that its gender gap is big, and it continues to grow wider.

The 2020 Global Gender Gap report says that India is the only country in the world where the economic gender gap is larger than the political gender gap. Only 25 percent of women participate in the labor market, one of the lowest participation rates across the globe. And, female estimated earned income is a meager one-fifth of male income, which also contributes to them among the lowest wage earners in the world.

Social change in women’s status is crucial for India to continue its progress; empowering them economically can play a significant role in realizing women’s rights and narrowing the gender gap. An example of an ecosystem that is playing an increasingly important role in economically empowering women is the social enterprise space.

“Social enterprise is a really powerful force for women’s empowerment and it’s still under-utilized,” says Mark Richardson of Social Impact Consulting, who led the research of a British Council report on the role of social enterprise in supporting women’s empowerment in India.

The report found that social enterprise is playing a growing role in women’s empowerment by developing women’s skills, providing employment and giving women a voice in their community. According to the report, of women who started a social enterprise 80 percent felt an increased sense of worth, 82 percent reported increased confidence and 49 percent said it made them feel they could make their own choices.

According to Amani Institute India, nearly 25 percent of all social enterprises in India are led by women, compared to less than 10 percent of commercial small and medium enterprises that have a woman at the helm. “Women in India are often subject to discrimination from their families, communities, and investors when compared to their male peers.  This issue is even more severe for women social entrepreneurs because social entrepreneurship can be stigmatized as being unprofitable,” said Shehzia Lilani, the Country Director of Amani Institute India.

Assessing the needs of Indian women social entrepreneurs, the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai helped to launch the Women’s Global Development Prosperity initiative (WGDP). The program establishes a platform that can give women social entrepreneurs access to information, capital, mentorship and other such opportunities they lack in social and commercial enterprises.

And so was born the Women in Indian Social Entrepreneurship Network (WISEN), a platform to support female social entrepreneurs from all over India. Designed and facilitated by Amani Institute India, in collaboration with ANDE India (Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs), and with funding support from the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai, WISEN is the first of its kind formal network.

“I am a first-generation graduate from a marginalized community. I had very few opportunities for my personal and professional development. I joined this national level network to explore my potential and learn from a team of women who crossed several milestones in their life. From Amani’s capacity building sessions, I realized the importance of my wellbeing, and the energy I had,” said M. Padmavathi, a managing trustee of the nonprofit COROAT and member of WISEN.

“As the primary capacity building partner for WISEN, we designed a 6-month, online program that offered 40 women entrepreneurs a platform to access trainings, mentoring and coaching sessions, collaborative projects and community building initiatives,” said Lilani.

ANDE brought in subject matter experts who delivered masterclasses for the women entrepreneurs. “Formal peer support groups have been known to be great pillars of support in an entrepreneur’s journey, and research showed us that women entrepreneurs did not enjoy access to the same kinds of networks as their male counterparts. This made the creation of WISEN a necessary step to strengthen the ecosystem for women entrepreneurs,” elaborated Sucharita Kamath, India Chapter Manager at ANDE.

Furthermore, the pandemic added another threat to the survival of social enterprises, increasing the necessity of support networks to overcome challenges.

“With the disruptions caused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the business and organizational realities of all 40 women entrepreneurs changed. Keeping this in mind, we redesigned the WISEN program with the objective of making it relevant and immediately applicable for the selected women entrepreneurs. We wanted to create a self-sustaining network for women entrepreneurs who were leading their organizations through a pandemic,” Lilani added.

Megha Bhagat, a co-founder of the social enterprise Project Defy and another member of WISEN, said, “Networking with a purpose in an ecosystem built for men is far less cumbersome with women networking platforms like WISEN. Entrepreneurship has a gendered experience and finding groups that have women entrepreneurs holding each other up is quite a task. WISEN is an attempt to change that, to allow the gendered experience to find a brilliant circle of trailblazers,”

“We received over 215 applications from which we selected 40 entrepreneurs for the program that represented diversity in region, sector, organizational maturity and experience within the cohort. 41 percent of the entrepreneurs ran non-profit organizations, 51 percent ran for-profit organizations and the remaining had hybrid business models. Some organizations were as young as two years and some had over 10 years of existence. This led to fantastic opportunities for cross-pollination and experience sharing within the cohort. We will continue to actively recruit new members on a quarterly basis,” concludes Lilani.   

WISEN is currently looking for new partners to help carry the network forward and provide additional resources to its members.

Image credit: Project Defy

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Abha Malpani Naismith is a writer and communications professional who works towards helping businesses grow in Dubai. She is a strong believer in the triple bottom line and keen to make a difference. She is also a new mum, trying to work out a balance between thriving at work and being a mum. In her endeavor to do that, she founded the Working Mums Club, a newsletter for mums who want to build better careers and be better mums.

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