Improving the ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship for women and men alike is one of the central goals of public policy. India improved its ranking from 16th in 2021 to 4th in 2023, among 51 countries surveyed by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). This ascent reflects a steady improvement in the country’s overall entrepreneurial environment. However, a gender gap in entrepreneurship persists, as entrepreneurship is tough and it’s tougher for women. Their constraints are amplified due to entrenched gender bias in social and economic systems, which has material consequences on their entrepreneurial journey.

Entrepreneurs need much more than money, they need customers, networks, peers, contacts and knowledge. Our recent research suggests that experienced mentors are often the best way to get almost all of these. However, the question is how many women entrepreneurs have access to such mentors? What has been their experience of seeking entrepreneurial mentorship and how does it accelerate their entrepreneurial journey?

In a recent study done by Women Entrepreneurship Platform (WEP) and Microsave Consulting, we find that only 25 per cent women entrepreneurs surveyed have access to entrepreneurial mentorship, majority (64 per cent) are not aware of any mentorship programmes for entrepreneurs. The concept of seeking formal mentorship support for business growth still remains an alien concept especially for women entrepreneurs in smaller towns and cities. In some Tier II cities, active local women’s industry associations are key to regular troubleshooting for women’s businesses and come closest to being institutional mentors.

Family-owned business

Family-based mentorship for women entrepreneurs plays a key role, especially among those who run an inherited family business. Twenty-four per cent women entrepreneurs mention friends and family or relatives with business experience as their mentors. Women who lead their family businesses mostly receive mentorship from male family members.

Family-owned businesses remain the dominant form of business organisation in India. More than 90 per cent of all listed firms in India are family-owned businesses, but only 12 per cent of them have second- or third-generation owners who are women. Discussions with female family business owners who are mentored by family revealed a variety of experiences, which are primarily determined by how supportive male members of the family are.

Others state that majority of them discover mentors through their peer networks and social media.

Women’s top expectation from mentor’s is to connect them with industry networks. It pays to have networks is no secret. Women traditionally have less social connections and networks outside their family circles. Access to networks also varies based on your pin code, income and education levels. An interesting research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his team finds that cross-class friendships are a significant key to upward mobility in America. It is no different in India, where access to networks outside your social circles can be instrumental in providing exposure, access and opportunities. Our experience from WEP also indicates that access to industry networks is a lifeline for an entrepreneurial journey, mentors bring access to diverse networks and opportunities apart from providing valuable psychosocial support and feedback.

Women with access to high quality mentors, shared its transformational impact on both business metrics and entrepreneurial ability. Seventy-two per cent of women entrepreneurs report an improved ability to understand risks and opportunities in their business. Sixty-seven per cent report enhanced confidence. In the context of entrepreneurship, it’s only with the explosive growth of the Indian start-up ecosystem that recognition has increased for mentorship as an effective entrepreneurship development tool. Despite this, access to quality, structured and formal mentorship for women entrepreneurs still remains a challenge.

Speeding up India’s journey to a $5 trillion economy will depend on how best we can support women’s entrepreneurial ambitions.

Anna is Senior Adviser, NITI Aayog, and Mission Director, Women Entrepreneurship Platform; Sonal is Global Lead, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion practice at Microsave Consulting