Breaking Away From Gender Role Expectations – WE at Headstart Feb 2017

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Passion. Energy. Intense dialogue These words defined the the WE session on the 19th of February 2017. The session began with a brief introduction by Preethi Guruswamy and Malavika Datar from Lean In Bangalore. Lean In Bangalore is part of the global Lean In network, an initiative committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals. The keynote address followed the Lean In introduction.

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Ishani Roy, the founder of Serein (An organisation that aims to make Indian workplaces more diverse and inclusive using a data-driven approach), began the interactive session by asking the attendees to introduce themselves. Ishani proceeded to introduce herself after the attendees introduced themselves. She studied Mathematics at Brown University before moving on to Aerospace Research at General Electric. At, GE there were only 3 women in a 90 member team, Ishani recalls. She cited a number of reasons why women drop off from the workforce, maternity being the predominant one. Some women do return. However, most of them who do return do not take up leadership roles.

With respect to startups, the numbers seem to be much better than before. 83% of funded startups are male only founders while the remaining have at least one female co-founder. Although this statistic does not scream equality, it’s evidence that more women are starting up than before.

Ishani mentioned that psychological barriers also have a role in keeping women out of the workforce. Unconscious biases on the part of employers and sometimes, the women applying, can be a huge barrier while hiring women. It’s essential for organisations and the women to be cognizant of such biases so that they don’t fall prey to them. Better organisational policies can help organisations become a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Although it’s very difficult to be completely free of archaic cultural conditioning, it is possible to get rid of the ones that one is aware of. Sticky floors and glass ceilings are one of the few things that an organisation can get rid of. Ishani’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs was to be bold and willing enough to carve out a space for themselves.

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Talk by Sahyujyah Shrinivas

Sahyujyah Shrinivas started up young. At the age of 22, she defied all social and cultural barriers around her and sought to do what she desired to do most. Sahyujyah Shrinivas comes from a very orthodox Indian family. “My parents used to lock me in the house while they used to go out”, she says. Sahyujyah is the founder of the online clothes rental startup, Liberent.

Sahyujyah said she spent a lot of time reading about entrepreneurship, however, nothing prepared her for it save for actually taking the leap. Her journey began two and a half years ago, she says she’s gained a lot in business, but more in her personal life.

She says that women tend to be less confident than their male counterparts and that they should begin by unlearning a lot of what they think is the truth and venture forth more confidently. “I looked at the confidence with which my brother pitched to investors; he spoke from a position of strength and self-confidence, which is what most women don’t do.”

Sahyujyah states that it’s important to feed one’s own ego. She urges people to constantly work on themselves and quotes Van Gogh “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

“You’re the sum total of the five people you interact with the most”, she says. She states that it’s important to find the right mentors. She says that having a friendly relationship with them helped her more than a student-disciple relationship.

She ended her talk with a quote by Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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The panel discussion followed the two talks. Moderating the panel discussion was Aarti Shyamsundar – Consultant, founder of Psymantics Consulting. The panel comprised Sangeeta Devni, founder of Startup Freak, and the bakery power-couple Divya Ramasami and Kingsley Jegan Joseph, founders of Bite Me Foods Pvt. Ltd.

The session was intimate and more conversational in nature. The panel began with a discussion around how gender role expectations work both ways and how they can either be opposing or reinforcing. “A man in a kitchen is okay, but a man in a cupcake company is something that a few people might not be used to. I wonder how many men out there couldn’t pursue their dreams due to these stereotypes”, says Kingsley.

Sangeeta spoke of how her story inspired her neighbours to encourage their daughters’ education. Born to a joint family in a rural area, Sangeeta was the first girl in her family to finish 10th grade. She says she owes it to her in-laws for being progressive and encouraging when it came to her starting up.

Divya and Kingsley provided a unique narrative as they are partners in both, their business and personal lives. She says that they complement each other’s skills and that it has come to a great advantage, especially when negotiating with vendors. 🙂 As a couple, one knows where the other comes from and this helps greatly when there are turbulent times. Divya echoes Sheryl Sandberg’s sentiments when it comes to career and life partners, “The biggest career choice you’ll make is finding a supportive life partner”, she says.

Focusing on the small wins, commitment to one’s goals, planning your actions, conscious decision making, and making sacrifices seemed to be themes that reverberated in the discussion.

The session ended with chai, biscuits, and networking. One could also overhear attendees making plans to have a chilled beer to pre-empt against the Monday blues.

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Written by Suhas Mallya