“The strength of any country lies in the might of its Women.” Anonymous

I realized the extent to which India is transforming only when I started getting out of the big cities and visited India’s small towns and villages. The experience was beyond anything I could have imagined and the learning was priceless!   It redefined how I saw technology and innovation and made me realize the power of true grit and resilience.  

The changes were not about the most advanced technology innovations that we all care so much about, but no less significant and no less disruptive.  They were about imbibing technology in day to day rural lives to improve livelihood.  Sounds deceptively simple,  but when you think within the context of the challenges of resources and legacy mindsets,  the problem seems unsurmountable.  It needs the highest level of creativity, innovation, commitment and resilience.  And, it needs people who care about the welfare of the community enough to go the many extra miles needed to make it happen.  Hence, it wasn’t at all a surprise to find that village after village many of the changes were being led by women.

The condition of women in rural India till very recently left a lot left to be desired. Struggling with lack of education, poor healthcare, early marriages, early child birth, violence, these women were dealing with challenges that a lot of us cannot even imagine.

What is changing in the last three years is the sustained focus of the government in reaching out to the women in all spheres of their life and an equal matching determination and change in women themselves - their outlook, attitude and willingness to no longer accept their so-called fate but to make their own brighter fate. As a wise old sarpanch told me “Women have to change to change the village. Agar hum nahin karenge, to aur kaun karega?”

I was very fortunate to meet many inspiring women and see firsthand the change they are driving.  Since I can’t share all the stories, here’s one that was tremendously special.  In a village in Telangana, the VLE – a young and bright woman – firmly believed that if you want to impact the community, you have to start with the women and ensure they see firsthand how technology can help improve their livelihood.  The moment they are able to connect that dot, the battle is half won.  Her story was amazing as it had touched the lives of thousands of women in the village.  

Most of the families in the village had recently opened bank accounts under the Modi Government’s flagship Jan Dhan Yojana initiative.  Since this was the first time their hard-earned money was being kept in an unknown place away from the trusted safety of their homes, the anxiety was high, especially in the women folk.

The VLE saw the problem as the opportunity. She reached out to the women and explained how they could use technology to go online and check their bank accounts and balances to ensure no misuse. Within days the CSC was filled with women of all ages wanting to learn how to access their bank accounts! 

And as the women started using the technology, it didn’t take them very long to realize the wealth of information available at their fingertips and very soon they were visiting the CSC to learn about government services, new recipes, etc. and also bringing the male members with them. The next step for them was to put the new knowledge to work and with the help of the VLE they learnt to how to sell their local pickles and products online, raising the income avenues for the whole family and village.

Then, I met some brave women from a village in Bihar, who despite not having any formal education, learnt digital literacy skills and started training other women and men to access important services impacting their livelihood.

A young woman in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, has trained over 2000 women to become digitally literate and therefore have a higher chance at financial independence. 

Nearly every village or town I visited had its own local hero to boast of.  These super heroes come from different states and cultures across all over India, but share one common trait i.e. the deep desire to become financially empowered to make lives better for their kids and families and pay it forward as much as they can. Another flagship scheme of the Modi government, the Mudra Yojana- in which 70% of the more than 7.5 crore people who have got collateral free loans are women – has also spurred this financial independence drive.

My key takeaways were very clear.

One, when a woman benefits from something, she is more prone to sharing the learning so that the entire community benefits. Two, when presented with an opportunity to improve the condition of the family, a woman will not step back. She will try and do everything in her power to fully leverage the opportunity and help others do so too.

Now, imagine this power, if applied to the whole country.Exactly why India must urgently figure out a way to empower women to participate in all aspects of development, thereby increasing their value- add.

The one segment where I feel this has to be done with utmost urgency is the startup ecosystem. The need of the hour is grounds up innovation to find solutions to the problems we face with respect to financial inclusion, affordable healthcare, skill development, smart agriculture etc. and the reason why the startup ecosystem is crucial to India’s success. We need the full participation of women in this segment to ensure the startups are at the forefront on driving innovation for India’s development.

In addition to the above, research* shows that startups with more female executives have a higher success-to-failure rate.

Yet, the Indian startup ecosystem remains largely male.

The road to change is not an easy one. According to the recently published ‘Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs’, India ranked 49th among 54 economies globally, comparatively low in ‘Women Business Ownership’ percentages. The report stated that while necessity and grit are often important to foster women entrepreneurship, strong supporting conditions are an imperative for ensuring a high business ownership by women.  I cannot agree more with that. Being a mentor to many women entrepreneurs, I can safely say that sheer determination and grit keeps them in the business, given the challenges faced daily.

The challenges are many, ranging from access to funds to market to the age old social pressures and gender biases.  However, none of them are good enough reasons for us as a nation to not change the current situation.

While the Government has taken a lot of steps to address some of these issues, I would strongly call for the development of a National Women's Entrepreneurship Policy as a high priority.  It should involve a multi-stakeholder approach addressing all key touch points from policy to finance to skill development to social challenges.

However, it is of utmost importance to see these problems from a woman’s world view.Most of the relevant policy making forums and committees in Government and Industry Policy Advocacy bodies today consist mostly of men.  While all of them are highly accomplished and committed to change, there is no denying that the decisions can tremendously benefit from the insights of women on what can help other women and bring about real change. To start with

I would love to see equal representation in the composition of the startup policy development forums and committees.

I full-heartedly agree with our Prime Minister when he says that women are one of the most valuable assets that India has.  What India must figure out urgently, is how to unleash their power.

*Dow Jones Women at the Wheel Study

(Debjani Ghosh has had an illustrious career with Intel spanning 21 years, and is now working towards growing tech-innovation and fostering equal opportunities. )

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