Over the last decade we have seen the potential of the internet and mobile phones to improve lives by providing greater opportunities and choices. Tech-led solutions are fostering meaningful lives in many ways — providing access to aspirational products and services; facilitating employment and productivity; promoting individual agency; and enabling responsive institutions for citizens.
As we gear up for a critical phase in India’s development journey, the imperatives of promoting inclusive and equitable growth are widely acknowledged. India’s trajectory for the next several decades will be crucially linked to the fortunes of the ‘Next Half Billion’ (NHB) — the 500 million Indians who either have or will come online for the first time via their mobile phones by end-2022.
They represent the bottom 60 per cent of India’s income distribution and have traditionally been underserved and excluded. Women constitute half of the NHB segment and are disproportionately disadvantaged — for them to participate fully in India’s growth journey, their specific needs and aspirations require attention.
There are two ways in which women today are interacting with technology. As consumers of tech, Indian women today can access much greater opportunities than before. And as builders of tech solutions, a new wave of women entrepreneurs is impacting millions of lives.
As consumers of tech, women from the NHB have benefitted from the opportunities created by the internet. An excellent example is Pratilipi, a content and storytelling platform, which counts women as the majority of its 20 million monthly users. Catering to self-published literature in 12 regional languages, it offers a unique platform to women from all walks of life to consume and create vernacular content.
Similarly, women constitute the majority of sellers and buyers on Meesho, a social commerce platform. It has almost nine million women entrepreneurs on its platform, helping many of them take meaningful towards greater financial independence1.
Companies like Pratilipi and Meesho are showing that it is possible to build successful tech businesses which focus on a large female customer base as a differentiator, while creating social impact at scale.
We are also seeing a new wave of female tech entrepreneurs. As India transforms, its entrepreneurs too are beginning to look rather different. The stereotypical persona of the tech entrepreneur — English-speaking, upper-middle class, educated at top schools, and male — no longer holds true. Today’s innovators epitomise the diversity and hustle of an aspirational India. An increasing number of them are women. These new female tech entrepreneurs are bold, confident and designing solutions for the many, not the few.
Animall, co-founded by Kirti Jangra and Neetu Yadav, is disrupting the cattle and dairy market through its peer-to-peer cattle trading platform. It has reached over eight million dairy farmers and empowered many of them by gaining access to quality cattle efficiently and quickly. Another example is iMerit Technologies, founded by Radha Basu, which has emerged as a pioneer in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence. iMerit’s 5,500-plus employees deliver computer vision and natural language processing services to industries like autonomous vehicles, medical AI and agri-tech. Over half of them are women, often from underserved regions.
Role of businesses
Yet this journey is only beginning — far too many women are still left behind. Women’s participation in the economy and society more broadly needs to significantly step up. How can businesses make this happen?
First, the internet needs to be more inclusive and safer for women. Bridging the digital divide in mobile and internet usage is only part of this. We must recognise that tech has also increased vulnerability to risks and harms. An emphasis on “responsible tech” is vital — nudging businesses, governments and users towards behaviours that promote user control, privacy and data security.
Special efforts are needed to tackle the misogyny and abuse that women are particularly vulnerable to on the internet.
Second, businesses must start looking at diversity, equity and inclusion as a “strategic lever”, rather than a “box to check”. Leveraging women power better in businesses and thinking more deeply about the unique needs of women customers can help businesses be differentiated and successful.
Third, we need more women in top business leadership. One reason for the low number of women at the top is that the pool of women at mid-levels has been small. Women also tend to have smaller networks and are more hesitant to “ask for a seat at the table”.
The role that women leaders play is critical — beyond being role models, they must actively support the growth of female colleagues. Equally important is changing attitudes towards working women by celebrating them in workplaces, media and popular culture.
Finally, funders must walk the talk. Globally, the choice of entrepreneurs that VC and PE firms fund reflect the diversity, or lack thereof, of investment teams themselves, since a significant part of the deal pipeline is generated through networks. Today, less than 10 per cent of PE/VC professionals in emerging markets like India are women. This must change.
As women become more confident, engaged, and active in leveraging technology, it will provide a meaningful momentum to India’s inclusive growth agenda.
The writer isManaging Partner, Omidyar Network India