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Why women entrepreneurs are rare in India & what challenges they face

When Kalpana Saroj came to Mumbai in the early 1970s, the wide roads, big buildings and the crowds terrified her. “There was just one road in my village,” recalls Saroj of her village in Akola, Vidharbha. Uneducated and poor, Saroj, like many others, had made her way to what was then the city of dreams to make a living, armed with one skill: her ability as a seamstress.
She hadn’t anticipated one hurdle. “I had never seen men and women work together.” Daunted by the prospect of goofing up in front of men, Saroj backed out of the higher paying job of operating machinery at a hosiery unit. Instead, she chose the lower paying job of snipping threads in the same unit. Her salary: a fixed amount of Rs 7 a month and Rs 2 a day extra.

But Saroj did not give up. Once the men left the factory for the day, she would sit with a few sympathetic co-workers and practise operating the machinery. A month later, she got the machine operator’s job at a salary of Rs 250.

Today, Kalpana Saroj works out of Kamani Chambers in the Ballard Estate area of Mumbai, not too far from the headquarters of Larsen & Toubro and Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. She is now the chairperson of Kamani Tubes, once a giant in the Mumbai business circles, which had fallen into hard times. Since the acquisition in 2006, she has been working to turn the company around.

Saroj also owns a big stake in a sugar mill in Ahmednagar and dabbles in real estate business. She won’t talk about her net worth, but for somebody who was mortified at the thought of working with men in the same room, Saroj has come a long way. In a man’s world, that is.

A Man’s World

And, make no mistake. That is what the world of commerce is. Not just in India, but even in the developed world. The numbers bear it out (see State of Women-Owned Business on next page). In India, women entrepreneurs are a rarity. After all, how many Kiran Mazumdar-Shaws or Shahnaz Husains do we boast as a country? And how many of them do we have in male-dominated sectors like construction, real estate and manufacturing where the rough and tumble of running a business is up close and personal?

ET Magazine spoke to a handful of entrepreneurs who have done well for themselves in such businesses to understand what it is like to succeed in the world of commerce, where men have ruled for years.

Saroj says she got periodic reminders about her status as a woman. “I was once bidding for a piece of land in Nashik, when an upper caste politician heard about it. ‘How can a Dalit woman buy that land?’ he asked. You do get reminders about your jaat [caste] and the fact that you are an aurat [woman],” she says.

How did Saroj rise up if the world of male-driven commerce was so loaded against her? “I attempted suicide once because I had given up, but I survived. When I went back to my village, everybody who came to meet me was more concerned about what would have happened to my father’s [a police constable] reputation if I had succeeded in killing myself. Meri kisi ne poochi nahi [nobody even cared for me],” says Saroj. “I decided I would never give up after that,” she adds.

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