It is well known that India has one of the lowest female workforces in the world. It ranks 108 on the Gender Gap Index, mostly due to the very low economic empowerment of women. At UNDP India and IKEA Foundation, we believe that, if we economically empower women, they will bring money to their homes and become part of the decision-making process. This benefits not just the women, but also their children. By providing women with an opportunity to have a job or start their own business, we believe we can create a tremendous impact.
In 2015, we carried out a survey to assess the needs and aspirations of women and girls. We found that that many educated and unmarried young girls prefer to work, while married women with children and low levels of education couldn’t participate in the job market. Because of India's social norms, most women are engaged in unpaid care work and so, starting their own business is the only option that provides them the required flexibility in timings. We converted that necessity to work into an opportunity and started convincing rural women that if they started their own business, they would empower themselves, not just economically but also socially.
Our value adds
What we are adding to the existing entrepreneurship development programmes in the country is the idea of not only enabling women to access finance and the market but also providing them with psychological and emotional support. Thus, the idea for creating a network of mentors was born. These mentors are called Biz-Sakhis, or business friends. They help women in their communities and provide a set of services that includes developing their skills, so they can set up the business and access financial networks and markets to scale up their businesses. Most importantly, they imbue confidence in women that they’ll be able to start, and run, a business.
Biz-Sakhis are able to do this because they, too, are women entrepreneurs from the community, which enables them to create a more sustainable and long-term relationship, built on already established trust.
We also provide Biz-Sakhis with trainings on entrepreneurship development. What we discovered is that most of them want to support others, and on a voluntary basis. The idea of the community is very strong in India - more so in rural places. More than anything, it is about the pride to be able to help others.
The Biz-Sakhi curriculum and training is developed with the support of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE), Government of India, the National Institute for Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development (NIESBUD), and the Tata Institute of Social Science. This is among the many schemes developed by the MSDE to encourage women and youth to enter the workforce and find jobs.
We aim to create a platform for all stakeholders that could work as a solution exchange where entrepreneurs, policymakers, mentors, academic institutions, financial and market experts, etc., can join to promote women's entrepreneurship in India.
However, there are always challenges in implementation. We learnt that women who had to travel far for work faced mobility issues. Age-old social conventions prevent women from taking up training or work at areas away from home. Women, specially in rural areas, are still considered to be solely responsible for the household and family care. However, I have had many heartwarming interactions with women whose husbands and families support their dreams of starting their businesses and are proud of them.
My biggest learning has been that we need to reduce the gap in information and connect the dots between the private sector, beneficiaries, government and job seekers. I absolutely believe that, ‘’Educate a man and you educate an individual. Educate a woman and you educate a family.’’
The Biz-Sakhi model and micro-entrepeneurship is working in Karnataka, Haryana, and Maharashtra currently.
The writer is Chief of Skills and Business Development at UNDP India