"I wanted funds for my start-up, a rural BPO idea is what I had in mind. They told me 'Why don't you sell soap instead?'" Saloni Malhotra eventually did do exactly what she wanted. Looking back, the founder of Desi Crew (a start up that selects, trains and employs rural youth, largely women in data processing centres), says the experience did nothing like shattering either her or making her change tracks. "I said OK, I will now get more power out of proving you wrong." That is precisely what she went on to do.
It's an experience many women share. The start-up space is said to be young, buzzing, full of new ideas and a burning desire to find a problem and fix it - so how come nobody spots the elephant in the room?
All over the world, this is just another of the areas struggling to integrate women better, and no surprise then that India fares more poorly than most. We ranked in the bottom three of the 32 countries surveyed for the Global Women Entrepreneur Leaders Scorecard 2015 with an overall score of 17 out of 100.
Nidhi Agarwal, the founder of Kaaryah.com, a fashion portal for women, has a feeling that her gender was held against her in pitch after pitch to investors. She was turned down a staggering 113, yes, you got that right - a hundred and thirteen times - before money came her way. "If you are asking me if I was asked what if I start a family tomorrow, yes I was. I was absolutely asked that question, and my only response was they have to guarantee me that a male co-founder would not ever have any health issues which would expect him to take two months, three weeks or even 10 days off." And then Ratan Tata put his faith and money into her venture, and the rest as they famously say, is history.
Nidhi's experience resonates with many women - having a family, raising kids and managing a demanding new business is often tough to convince investors about. Anisha Singh, the founder of Mydala.com, a local service marketing platform, couldn't agree more. "I started raising money almost six years ago, and I was very pregnant then. I met somebody who said "You know, you can't do this. You don't know what it is like to have a kid, so I said 'Well, do you?' Here was a man telling me - not asking, but telling me - I cannot do this."
Start-ups tend to be very reliant on tech, and historically, this is one of the areas women aren't dominating yet. Take for instance, our top institutions and now a global brand, the IITs. Women here are often described as an endangered species. Girls are barely a 10% minority here. NASSCOM Vice President Sangeeta Gupta says, "The percentage of women at the IITs was really low - 5-6% at times and that's why probably we don't see that many women Tech CEOs today. But now more women are finally entering the technology world."
The head of Facebook in India, Kirthiga Reddy, speaks for many when she says "I think there's no such thing as work-life balance. Let's think work-life integration instead. Right now, I am a full-time mom and a full-time professional and all the other roles I perform."
And it's not just Indian women struggling for a level playing field. As COO of Facebook and one of the most powerful business women in the world, Sheryl Sandberg's best-seller "Lean In" has been described as compelling insight into why men still hold overwhelming majority of leadership positions in industry and government despite women comprising 50% of college graduates. A conversation with a group of founders and investors from the start-up world on this very topic had everyone agreeing one thought from the book - "If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat! Just get on."
But we are a country where women are missing from the work force, denied opportunities, very often beginning with the right to live. So how different can any ecosystem in such a society be? "We are a highly patriarchal society and for women there is little financial independence. Raising money is tough, where are the collaterals in women's names?" questions Padmaja Ruparel of Indian Angel Network, a group of investors mentoring and putting their money into young start ups.
"I want to create more gender parity on the investor table. The evolution of women entrepreneurs building big companies to becoming investors is yet to happen, but is key and will make a big difference," she told me.
As Swati Bharhgava, the co-founder of Cashkaro.com, a cash-back and coupons website says, "My advice to women entrepreneurs would be to forget that you are women, that's not even important. If you have a business idea that you can think can be big, go for it"
So come on, all you budding women entrepreneurs, start by not being conservative in your dreams or apologetic about your ambition. Believe in yourself - after all, aren't we told over and over again that's the best place to start...
(Natasha Jog is Senior Editor and Senior Anchor with NDTV.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.