When Blume Ventures kicked off Chai and Chatter in late 2018, we had a simple goal. We wanted to have the conversations the startup ecosystem usually doesn’t. In a space hallmarked by an oversized emphasis on efficiency and a near-chronic paucity of time, we wanted to create time and ability for larger, deeper topics.
On 29th March, 2019, the fourth edition of Chai & Chatter: ‘Build Better: Diversity and its challenges’, veered away from the previous iterations. Instead of focusing on a single sector, we decided to pivot to the people behind the scene. I moderated a panel with Mausmi Ambastha of ThreadSol, Seema Avasrala of OyeHelp, Shweta Singh of SRI Capital and Anisha Singh of Mydala and SHE Capital as panellists. There was definite selfishness to this composition. As a brand new member of the ecosystem, I had questions for women who had set the stage for people like me to enter. This was the most efficient way to ask them.
The panel discussion kicked off with the most fundamental question- what’s in a story? The panelists went through their own experiences as founders, funders, and hustlers. This lead to a larger conversation on the state of the startup ecosystem, the realities it functions under, and what, exactly, is the stakeholder’s role in changing the status quo. From Mausmi’s foray into textiles, a traditionally male-dominated industry to Seema’s work with healthcare, where she had to assert herself as a founder more vociferously than most men around her had to- one thing was clear. The conversation needs to move beyond celebrating the limited number of women in the ecosystem and needs to ask what can be done to replicate their success. Keeping this in mind, we curated the following takeaways from the evening:
All the panelists agreed to the fact that the ecosystem has become a lot more conducive to women at the helm over the years. As Seema pointed out, there were barely any women when she started her founder journey, at that has definitely changed. Shweta Singh of SRI Capital said, “While more women founders have come into the ecosystem, the funding story is still lagging behind.” According to her, the shift in the investment side of things will take another 8 to 10 years to catch up.
She pointed out that funders often lack support systems and mentorship. In her words, ‘It’s assumed that I know what to do because I’m a funder.’. She pointed out that despite enthusiasm for a fund she was previously raising, a lot of LPs were hesitant to fund two women partners. Anisha Singh of Mydala agreed. Her new fund, SHE Capital, is geared towards addressing these very gaps in funding and support for entrepreneurs working on ideas that target underserved markets of women
There was a strong pushback on buzzwords and cliched ideas of ‘correct’ entrepreneurial behaviour. All the panellists expressed displeasure against a hankering young founders display for mentorship. Both Seema and Mausmi spoke from a founder perspective and described how mentorship doesn’t emerge from a single source- it’s a culmination of perspectives. Anisha, as both a founder and funder, urged younger founders to move beyond formal mentorship. In her words, ‘bohot ho gaya!’
Although hackneyed, the process and implications of diversity and inclusion did come up multiple times during the panel, with everyone taking their own, contextual stances. While Mausmi said it didn’t matter to her if her funding was lead by a woman, Anisha pointed out the specific, targeted support she could provide founders through SHE Capital. She talked about how she, as a founder, struggled with funders undermining her because she did want to start a family, and how a woman funder would have possibly presented her with more options.
Anisha pointed out a peculiar problem- in trying to make workspaces equitable for women, policies like the maternity leave policy are acting as immense deterrents to the faith-building women entrepreneurs and funders have invested themselves in. She and Shweta both had anecdotes of the lack of trust men at the helm had in them initially, especially because they both were honest about their eventual plans to have a family. Policies, in their words, need ti be dynamic and should champion choice. If a woman doe snot want to take leave, or does want to work from home, or needs guidance to create a workplan that suits her- she should have access to tools that help her do that, not rules and belief that relegate her back to domesticity when she wants to create her own personal priorities.
At Blume, we learn from founders every day. When we asked them the one piece of advice they’d give themselves when they started off, the answers reminded us of why we do what we do. Mausmi wanted to tell herself to do it all over again, Seema wanted to tell herself that she should jump in and start much earlier than she did, while Shweta wanted to tell herself that she’s allowed to enjoy life beyond work. Anisha had nothing to say to her younger self because “I enjoyed every minute of it, the good and the bad.”
For me, personally, this panel was a reminder and a clarion call. It was an impetus for me to think beyond what I presumed being in venture capital meant, and ask questions about what it can be. It reminded me of the impact of conversations had with intention, and the way stories can shape realities far beyond numbers on an excel sheet. As this industry grows and shapes the future, it’s always good to realise that I will eventually have a hand in shaping it too. These maudlin sentiments sometimes feel out of place in what is constructed as a space that values only harsh logic, but yet again- it’s good to remember that I’m allowed to feel them.