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Enabling Women Entrepreneurs to Level Up!

In this blog, Poornima Menon, former Program Manager at Unlock Impact, discusses the challenges that came with Level Up - a unique virtual accelerator programme for women-led, tech and tech-enabled startups in India.


women sitting at a conference
Level Up Celebration at Bengaluru as women entrepreneurs from Cohort 1 & 2 joined us to culminate the programme

Working on the issues of gender, women empowerment, and ultimately, women's entrepreneurship and the impact sector all happened by chance to me. It was never planned. My work as a Program Manager at a grassroots-level organisation working on gender and women empowerment left me with the zeal to explore the entrepreneurial space for women and work around the subject of gender barriers that exist for women to be able to be successful entrepreneurs. The learnings were immense and at the same time had left me curious and yearning for more. When I moved to a new city, Bangalore, I remember someone telling me how it is the startup hub of the country and how I should make use of the opportunity and explore impact entrepreneurship from an urban space.


So when I came across this exciting opportunity from Unlock Impact to be the Program Manager for an upcoming virtual accelerator programme - called Level Up, I was excited but was not sure what I was getting into. 


Background

According to the sixth economic census conducted by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, women make up only 13.76% of the total entrepreneurs in India.

The premise or the background of initiating or designing an accelerator programme for women entrepreneurs stemmed from some basic yet alarming statistics. If women entrepreneurs participated equally in the global economy, an additional USD 2.5 TN would be added to the global GDP. Women-led companies are known to focus on profit and impact on society and return 78 cents for every dollar of investment (vs 31 cents returns by male-run startups). Of 65 economies surveyed, more than half saw a rise in women’s entrepreneurship in 2021. Women also attest that it is harder to raise money. The fundraising landscape in India, while growing exponentially, remains skewed towards men – only 1.43% of the funding disbursed in 2020 went to female-only founded startups across 80 deals. Only four out of 100 unicorns in India (valued at USD 220 billion) are led by women. 


Women entrepreneurs face unique challenges along with the same set of challenges their male counterparts may encounter. These include a lack of support from family and friends, as well as the additional, often invisible, unpaid labor of caregiving and caretaking responsibilities that disproportionately fall on women, a burden that increased significantly during the pandemic.


Time to Level Up


women entrepreneurs in mumbai
Cohort members at the peer meetup in Mumbai

These challenges faced by women entrepreneurs gave rise to Level Up- a unique accelerator designed for women-led tech and tech-enabled startups in India. A collaboration of Google for Startups, 91Springboard along with Unlock Impact created a distinctive nationwide virtual accelerator that combined essential elements of business, technology, leadership, and investment readiness to help women entrepreneurs in India take their startups to the next level. Unlock Impact played a crucial role in designing the programme and as an implementing partner alongside 91Springboard. Some of the key highlights of the programme design included:


  • Level Up consisted of two cohorts. Each cohort was spread across 5 months and was designed to be virtual, overcoming geographical barriers and promoting accessibility for a larger number of women entrepreneurs in the country.

  • To promote an understanding of the startup ecosystem and successful business operations, virtual masterclasses led by industry experts were organised.

  • Additionally, the programme facilitated personalized mentoring sessions with industry mentors to refine leadership skills, business acumen, and investment readiness. 

  • Recognising Google tools as a reliable means to advance businesses, we incorporated expert-led masterclasses and mentoring sessions on utilizing these tools.

  • Acknowledging the difficulty women entrepreneurs encounter in building strong, trustworthy networks and connections, the programme incorporated both online and offline peer meetups in various cities. These meetups aimed to provide the necessary support for networking and relationship-building.



women talking on microphone
Panel discussion with women leaders in tech

The virtual framework of the Level Up programme played a pivotal role in its resounding success, drawing in over 500 applications from women-led startups over a year and culminating in a cohort of 260 startups. This overwhelming response shows the pressing need for interventions tailored to address the unique challenges faced by women entrepreneurs, indicating a strong demand for such programme in the entrepreneurial landscape.


The Results

The Level Up mentoring component was highly valuable, with around 50% of startups expressing strong satisfaction and 53% finding sessions met expectations. Almost 40% reported increased confidence in tackling entrepreneurial challenges, highlighting tangible value. Mentors, too, found it rewarding, with 92% feeling well-aligned with startups, 51% rating their experience as excellent, and 22 expressing interest in continuing post-program mentoring.



woman talking on stage
Poornima Menon, former Program Manager at Unlock Impact, addressing the cohort

My Experience

Being the Program Manager for Level Up and getting to work with these 260 amazing women entrepreneurs has been a rollercoaster of inspiration. When I hopped on board with Unlock Impact, the plan was straightforward: work with 500 women entrepreneurs building tech solutions in the next 10 months.  Exciting, right? Well, it was, but it also came with nerves, thinking about all the logistics and tasks that were waiting for me!


And yes, we did dive straight into it – sifting through applications, and selections, bringing mentors on board, and making sure they are matched with the right startups, ensuring smooth coordination all on a tight schedule to keep things rolling smoothly. It's been a real mix of challenges and wins, each step bringing us closer to the impact we set out to create.


Embarking on this journey has been pivotal for my professional growth. Coming from a background of hands-on experience in grassroots settings with various organizations, transitioning to the virtual realm posed a novel and anxious challenge. Navigating the intricacies of relationship management in this digital landscape, particularly in a role where people management is paramount, has been a profound learning curve for me. Adapting to a virtual program has not only broadened the program’s reach to a wider audience but has also addressed accessibility issues, particularly on gender dynamics.


Managing a diverse team has been another layer of complexity, especially with the unique structure involving an implementing partner collaborating with the primary stakeholder along with another major entity like Google for Startups, resulting in a lot of back and forth! Balancing the interests and expectations of different stakeholders and ensuring a harmonious rapport has proven to be an immense learning experience and takeaway. This intricate dance of collaboration has honed my skills in effective stakeholder engagement.


The challenge of ensuring seamless interactions in a virtual space, where we had to oversee a substantial number of mentors (100+) and guide two cohorts of 260 startups, demanded innovative solutions. One notable achievement has been the establishment of a streamlined system, assigning a single Point of Contact (PoC) for each, ensuring prompt attention to queries and maintaining constant engagement. This approach has not only addressed the challenges but has turned them into rewarding opportunities for personalised connection and knowledge exchange. This journey wasn't just about running a program; it was like conducting a symphony of connections, diverse stories, and engaging excellence.


Reflections on the Program

Reflecting on the months of the programme brings back a flood of memories, and one of the most inspiring moments for me was when some participants returned to share their gratitude. Hearing them express how the mentor matching had made a significant difference in their entrepreneurial journey was truly heartening. Now, why does this hit close? Well, besides the obvious success, it aligns perfectly with my passion for supporting women entrepreneurs. Connecting these startups with mentors wasn't just about ticking off tasks. It was about getting to the heart of the unique challenges faced by women entrepreneurs with resources and people they would not have access to otherwise– something I deeply care about, personally and professionally.


What stood out was how many mentioned they had never experienced such personalized support before, and this feedback was a powerful reaffirmation that our work was creating a meaningful impact. I felt their testimonials to not just be a pat on the back for all of us here at Unlock Impact; but it's a testament to the real, tangible difference we have been able to make through the Level Up program.


Looking back at the stories and numbers, it's clear: we have definitely planted seeds that are now blossoming into success stories. The impressive number of applications, active participation, and deep engagement tell us there's a real hunger for more programs tailored for women entrepreneurs. With ongoing support and inclusivity, I'm genuinely excited about the stories yet to unfold. It's not just a revolution; it's a journey I'm proud to have been a part of.


Also working so closely with women entrepreneurs has me in awe of their determination, resilience, and innovative spirit! It has left an unforgettable mark on me. I've been truly amazed at the passion and drive that these amazing women bring to every conversation. Every interaction with them has ignited in me a deep sense of hope and commitment to continue working in this space.



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