Aarati Krishnan

Book Review: Stories of women who won

Aarati Krishnan | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 06, 2016

Womentrepreneurs: Inspiring Stories of Success, Avinash Kirpal, Sage Publications.

Steering away from sympathy, the book presents realistic portraits of ten women entrepreneurs

Most writings and media portrayals of successful women tend to either deify them, or paint an unduly sympathetic picture of their struggles. Womentrepreneurs: Inspiring Stories of Success authored by Avinash Kirpal manages to steer clear of these pitfalls and gives a mostly factual account of 10 Indian women entrepreneurs who have succeeded in striking out on their own in diverse fields — from helming an HR consultancy, to running an NGO which helps women widowed by gun violence get back on their feet.

The very diversity of the stories chronicled here make this book an interesting read. While the book lacks the literary flourishes or the anecdotes that one finds in officially penned biographies, it does justice to its subjects by taking a systematic approach in covering four different aspects of every entrepreneur’s life.

Separate sections have been devoted in each of the 10 profiles to outlining the nature of the venture, its biggest successes, the background stories of the founders and the challenges they faced along the way. The stories are based mainly on personal interviews with the entrepreneurs.

Off the beaten track

The stories which I found to be truly moving are those about women who took up unconventional causes to make a difference to others less privileged. So there’s the story of Binalakshmi Nepram, a student of history and international studies, who after witnessing the brutal gunning down of a car mechanic at her native village, first helped his widow Rebika acquire a sewing machine to earn her livelihood and then went on to establish the Manipur Gun Survivor’s Network to help others like her. Not only has Binalakshmi helped scores of women victims obtain loans, medical and legal help to carry on with their lives, she has also built on this initiative to found India’s first civil society movement dedicated to disarmament.

The story of Lakshmi Krishnan who, through her Society of Protection of Women and Children (SPOWAC), has done yeoman work in helping young unmarried women who get pregnant with maternal care and medical help, and has helped dozens of abandoned children find good adoptive homes, brings a lump to the throat too.

Another inspiring story is that of feminist publisher Urvashi Bhutalia — founder of Zubaan which broke into the elitist world of book publishing in order to encourage women with no formal education or training to write books. Zubaan’s publishing successes include an English translation of the life of domestic helper Baby Halder, a book about the human body by 75 Rajasthani village women and an account of mass rape in the 1990s by five young Kashmiri women.

They are the result of the publisher pitching in actively to help disadvantaged women to acquire the necessary reading and writing skills so that they could tell their stories to the world at large.

Probably to underline that women can excel in the corporate world too, the book also profiles women who founded successful business ventures — Ritu Prasad — a restaurateur in competitive South Delhi, Saloni Malhotra — who founded a BPO exclusively for rural employees, Ayesha Grewal — a retailer who markets organic produce from remote hill areas. These stories are good reads too. But the quality of story-telling tends to be a little inconsistent here, with some of the quotes carrying a public relations spin.

Fund and talent

Two common challenges cited by all the women entrepreneurs profiled in this book relate to convincing bankers about funding their nascent ventures, and hiring talented people to work with them. To be sure, small enterprises run by men are also likely to face the same problems.

But several women in this book cite their difficulty in dealing with sceptical bankers (“What if you quit this to start a family?” seems to be the predictable question) when they initially scrounged for capital.

Most of these entrepreneurs seem to have solved the funding problem by using their own savings or borrowing from friends and family. But there’s a message from this for policymakers who would like to encourage more women to take up entrepreneurship. More than rolling out loans or products with concessional interest rates and the like, maybe gender sensitisation of bankers is what is needed to make such schemes work.

Most writings about successful women find it necessary to devote a section to how they managed ‘work-life balance’. This tendency is off-putting, as the underlying assumption seems to be that men can exclusively devote their attention to being ambitious corporate honchos, while women need to somehow work out a way, all by themselves, on how to juggle between family and career.

This book dutifully poses the work-life balance question to every woman entrepreneur too. The answers mostly revolve around supportive families or partners who ‘didn’t interfere’ in the business. In some cases, the entrepreneur made a choice to remain single because her career choices wouldn’t fit in with ‘family life’.

What these responses essentially reveal is that you shouldn’t look for a solution from others on what you can do to attain work-life balance while zealously pursuing a career. It’s largely a matter of being assertive and knowing where your own personal priorities lie.

This apart, it is hard to ignore that all the women profiled here come from rather privileged socio-economic backgrounds and had access to an excellent education, some even acquiring their undergraduate degrees abroad.

But can women without supportive families, who are first-generation literates, succeed in India’s entrepreneurial landscape today? If they can, those are stories one would really like to read and maybe that should be the subject of another book.

Meet the author: Avinash Kirpal graduated from the University of Oxford and worked at the Tata Administrative Service for 30 years. In the last 10 years he has been an advisor to programmes for development of MSMEs at the International Management Institute

Published on March 06, 2016

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