Recently, I was speaking at a start-up event themed on food and beverages. The hall was filled with women, which was lovely to see. After my session, I was surrounded by a bunch of entrepreneurs, all excitedly talking about their start-up plans. I noticed a young woman who remained standing at the back, while looking at me. Later, as I walked towards my parked car, I saw the same woman standing in a corner and looking forlornly at me. I walked up to her and asked if she needed any help. Immediately her eyes welled up and she started sobbing. 

I felt embarrassed standing there beside the crying woman, but she fortunately pulled herself together and asked in Tamil if we could talk for a few minutes. Relieved, I accompanied her back to the event room, where coffee was being served, grabbed two cups, sat her down in a corner and asked what was the problem?

She was a chemical engineer from Hosur. She wanted to open a restaurant serving healthy dishes but had no idea how to get started. She visited start-up events in Bengaluru regularly to seek help from experienced people but found herself unable to approach anyone. I asked why and she explained that she had studied in a Tamil medium school and struggled to speak English. 

At events like these, most of the speakers are surrounded by confident young women speaking good English. Chennai was far away and expensive as she came from a middle-class background. Meanwhile, her parents were pressuring her to get a job and also get married. She was speaking to me only because I knew Tamil. She wanted to know if a woman like her from a small town, without the big-city confidence or strong command of English, had any chance of succeeding in building a non-tech business?

There were several issues at play here: woman entrepreneur, small town, lack of English, and non-tech start-up idea, and none of these could be solved over a cup of coffee. I told her that a small town girl with her background can definitely succeed in running a restaurant. She should work in a restaurant somewhere, maybe in Bengaluru, and learn the ropes of the business while, at the same time, acquiring English speaking skills and some confidence through online courses; after a couple of years, she could review the situation. 

She brightened up and promised to work on this and requested if I could talk to her parents and help postpone the wedding plans. I smiled at her, saying I could not do that; but her brother, who was working in the US as a software engineer after his MS and loved her a lot, was the best candidate for this. 

I haven’t heard back from her and hopefully her dreams are not being suffocated.

(The writer is a serial entrepreneur and best-selling author of the book ‘Failing to Succeed’; posts on X @vaitheek)