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The New(dot)Comers

Men may have been swept away in the dotcom meltdown but women in Bangalore are swimming against the tide and riding the start-up wave

The New(dot)Comers
Satish Kumar
The New(dot)Comers
It was a wave that drew in some of the brightest minds on the Indian infotech horizon. Adrenaline-driven, fast-paced and with a high risk quotient, start-up fever affected a record number of Indian techies at the end of the '90s. But it was mostly men who rode that dizzying whirl of business plans, stratospheric valuations and caffeine-laden 24/7 workdays. Venture capitalists who tracked the best deals then say that of all the plans they whetted, less than one per cent came from women.

However as the frenzy abates in the wake of the dotcom meltdown, a fresh trend is emerging. In the past year, Bangalore, the entrepreneurial mecca, has seen the launch of a clutch of technology start-ups with women at the helm or as founder-members. They're staking out positions in the frontiers of technology, from bluetooth products to data management software, and in new-age businesses like electronic customer relationship management (e-crm). Those in their 20s are fired by unbridled optimism; those in their 30s have opted out of blue-chip corporates for the rough and tumble of start-up life. No quarters are asked, none proffered. Says Vijaya Verma, MD, Alopa Networks, a convergence technology provider: "The start-up world is gender agnostic. To succeed, you need the same factors: solid support system, competence and passion."

Verma's Alopa Networks was born when a team of 12 under her stewardship at Wipro Infotech moved out with an idea for cyber mail management or 'CyberManage'—their flagship product. The 14-month-old company has progressed from angel investment by Valley-based investor Prakash Bhalerao to first-round VC funding with offices in California and Bangalore. Verma now leads a team of 60 globally, the seniormost of whom walked out on lucrative esops at Wipro to sign up with her on the basis of just a 15-minute phone conversation.

Says Vijay Angadi, MD, icf Ventures: "Women can in reality be better entrepreneurs, for the three things a VC rates highest— ethics, team building and commitment—come naturally to women." Start-ups are built not on the strength of the founder alone but by the quality of a team she can build around the idea. The reason why Revathi Kasturi, president and founder-member, Tarang Software, says: "Each time I fail to inspire a person I've headhunted to join our team, I take it as a personal failure." Kasturi was chief executive of an sbu with a track record of 17 years at Wipro Infotech when she decided to chart into the unknown. Tarang, focused on mobile commerce solutions, took just three months from idea to first-round funding, with Kasturi and two co-promoters juggling work and round-the-clock business plan writing schedules.

The ability to balance risks and the resultant stress is a reason VCs are traditionally believed to balk at funding start-ups with women at the helm. The doubts run the usual gamut from 'can she put in 18-hour days' to 'does she have the mental and physical stamina?' "When we inked the deal with our investors," says Kasturi, "an industry consultant told me I was lucky, for VCs don't like women on the founder team." Begging to differ, Muneesh Chawla, senior vice-president, il&fs Venture, says: "Top-class venture investing is indifferent to gender; the most difficult thing for a VC is to say 'no' to a proposal from an entrepreneur who's invested dreams and effort in it. If that entrepreneur is a lady, gender has nothing to do with it, it's just the value of the business plan itself."

But it's the fear of failure with the odds stacked against them that grips most women. For even if the coming of the VC world has ensured that start-ups no longer begin in the family garage with one rickety table in the centre, the fortunes of others who make up the team do ride on the founder. Says Verma: "Everyone who pitched their lot in with me have homes and families to care for, that was enough to ensure countless sleepless nights." Yet, the confidence VC provides has spurred a whole lot of ambition. Says Meena Ganesh, director, customerasset.com: "When I quit Microsoft, I knew I wouldn't have to resort to bootstrapping my start-up." Also the ability to raise finance has meant that companies can scale up operations rapidly enough to make them commercially viable. Allowing these fledgling outfits to drive head count from 10 to 50 in a matter of months.

To deal with multiple responsibilities therefore is central to a woman's bid for entrepreneurial glory. With pressure coming in unanticipated ways, the ability to multi-task is crucial. Says Ganesh, who wrote her business plan while her four-month-old son napped during the day: "Women have to be responsible for home, family and work so there is need for a support system." For Kasturi and Verma this means leaning on their mothers who effectively run their homes and take charge of their children.

Ganesh sets apart portions of the day both in the morning and in the evening for her children and home. This might involve working at home or even getting back to work once the kids are in bed. Verma who spends at least six months of the year in short stretches in California, uses online messaging and voice mail to stay tuned to her 12-year-old daughter and husband. Says she: "If my mother ever fretted over late evenings at work, my then five-year-old kid would admonish her saying, 'maybe mamma is at a meeting or in a traffic jam'."

Says Shanti Mohan, chief operating officer and co-founder, Ionic Microsystems, which operates in the bluetooth product space: "Till our company had grown enough to hire a human resources person, I'd invite team members individually out for lunch every week, so that the channels of communication were kept open." There were unsaid prejudices she had to tide over as well as having to work at least 20 per cent harder to gain the respect of others around. But for Mohan who was one of just three girls in her engineering batch, swimming against the tide was a lesson learnt early. Says she: "In the technology world, a woman has to prove her technical knowledge and competence, she has to be the best at her job, no questions." Either that or risk being considered the weak link in the chain. At Ionic where Mohan and her co-founder moved from a software consulting model to product development after two years of operations, the cross-over period was a tough one. Says Mohan: "I had a partner who was very logical in his thought processes while I pushed hard for change and involved the rest of the team, so I believe it is good to have women and men complementing each other."

Professional respect is something these achievers have worked harder to acquire. Says Srividhya S., r&d director at Impulsesoft, a bluetooth product company: "When I made it to engineering college from a village school in rural Tamil Nadu, a classmate jeered me saying you girls are bookish. " Spurred by that remark, the girl who had never seen a computer till her first day at engineering, taught herself software programming and aced her batch to be hired by Texas Instruments as trainee engineer.Today, just four years out of graduate school, Srividhya spearheads wireless bluetooth product development at Impulsesoft, a company she co-founded with three other classmates and which has inked deals with Siemens AG, Panasonic and Acer. Says she: "Sure I have killer instinct, I hate to be second best, but I live life in a way that my epitaph will say: she was a nice person."

Archana Rai in Bangalore
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